Charles Severance

Charles Severance is a clinical associate professor at UMSI.

By Charles Severance

This summer it was my great pleasure to teach a free, online non-credit course, “Internet History, Technology, and Security” to students around the world using Coursera, a platform created by two Stanford professors for large-scale online courses.

Over 49,000 students registered for the class, over 16,000 attended the first week’s lecture, and over 4,900 students earned a certificate at the end of the 10-week course. It would take 32 years of teaching our SI 502 foundations course on networked computing to interact with that many students.

The course was based on several weeks of SI 502 material that focused on how the network was built over time and how it functions today, which I expanded into a 10-week course. I chose this material because it is fun, engaging, and well-suited for a video format. But more importantly, I wanted to create a course about technology that would be accessible to learners of all levels and all languages around the world. I also wanted a course that showcased the School of Information’s core competency of “connecting people, information, and technology in more valuable ways.”

We began by looking at the code-breaking efforts during World War II in the United States and the UK, particularly at Bletchley Park where the first electronic computers were developed to crack Axis enemy encryptions. The course continued through the post-war period up to the present day, featuring interviews of many innovators ranging from Robert Calliau, the co-inventor of the World Wide Web, to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.

Once we had viewed the Internet through a historical lens, we went back and took another look at the Internet through a more technical lens, examining how packets work, the link layer, internetwork layer (IP), the transport layer (TCP), and the application layer.

To me, this was far more than just another course. It represented what it means to be part of the School of Information at the University of Michigan. I wanted to make all of the technical material accessible to learners of all levels. Students from all over the world translated the lectures and videos into over 30 languages. The course was designed to be accessible to non-English speakers as well as those with slow or unreliable network connections. For example, I adjusted the final exam schedule because some students only had electrical power for eight hours within a 24-hour period.

Another exciting aspect of the course was that the students formed a self-organized social learning community. With over 10,000 students active throughout most of the course, there was no way I could help each individual student with a technical issue or trouble understanding the materials. The students were amazingly helpful to each other. They formed study groups and some even took the initiative to produce supporting course materials and reading lists. Because of so much proactive student involvement, my workload was surprisingly low given the number of students.

One concern in online courses is that students often feel isolated from the instructor and each other. To counter this, I experimented with holding “office hours” in various cities I visited in late summer and early fall. I held office hours in New York City, Los Angeles, Wilmington NC, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Memphis, Washington DC, and Seattle. I have more office hours coming up this fall in Seoul, Barcelona, Denver, and Amsterdam.

Between 2-15 students showed up in a local coffee shop for these informal sessions, and we talked about the class and how it could be improved. The students thought it was cool to meet their online instructor and felt I was being generous to give my time. But I actually held the office hours because I wanted to meet my students in person. It helped me maintain my own motivation to know that my students were real, not just numbers and data inside a computer. From these interactions, I believe I learned how to teach the course better.

Students who completed the course with a passing score receive an online certificate of achievement from Coursera. Students can print out the certificate or link it in their resumes. I decided to go a step farther and offer to sign their certificates if they would send them to me at the School of Information with a self-addressed stamped envelope. (I’ve warned the dean’s office they might be receiving 4,900 extra pieces of mail over the next few months.) Like everything in the course, for me this is just another experiment in how far we can expand the boundaries of this new form of interacting and connecting in the context of teaching the world.

I posted a summary lecture on YouTube that includes reflections on the course as well as a presentation of the student demographics and retention statistics. On my blog, I’ve shared an interactive map of the geographic distribution of the students.

If you found this interesting, the course will be offered again soon and all are welcome to sign up and join us online. I hope to see you on the net.