Get to class on-line

Chrystal Chan discovers the allure of e-learning and the draw of NTU's first fully online classes on open learning platform Coursera

Picture this. You're reviewing your class material when you realise you are unsure about what your professor is talking about so you decide to post a question online. In no time at all, you get responses to your question from your classmates... in Africa and the Netherlands. Welcome to the new age of online learning.

This is a reality for more than 18,400 students worldwide, all of whom have started on NTU's first-ever Coursera course, Beauty, Form and Function: An Exploration of Symmetry, conducted entirely online since 17 February. Students "log on to class" via the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform will see a video of the professor conducting a lesson in one of NTU's specially-built interactive classrooms, in this case, Prof Tim White from NTU's School of Materials Science & Engineering.

"Contrary to popular belief, virtual classes are quite personalised. I can see my students via webcam, whereas in a typical lecture you can't see the guys at the back," says Prof White.

"Personally, I really love the idea that we're going to be teaching people in Africa and the Bahamas. I think that's really fun," he adds.

More than 38,400 students worldwide have registered for NTU's first two MOOCs. The second course, Introduction to Forensic Science, starting in May, has over 20,000 sign-ups and is still accepting applicants.

"I've actually been wanting to take the forensic science module as I think it's quite interesting, but I've heard that it is quite content heavy, so that has been putting me off from taking it together with my regular modules. But now that it is available online, I might consider signing up for it," says graduating mechanical engineering student Karl Tay.

All classes offered on Coursera are free. Those who opt for the Signature Track will received a "verified certificate" jointly issued by Coursera and NTU for US$29. The Signature Track uses a "verified certification" process that includes keystroke identification to check that you're really taking the class. Matriculated NTU students can take the course on the Signature Track for free.

Current and prospective NTU students who take the courses can earn credits that count towards their NTU degree. Since each course is worth three Academic Units (AUs) and takes about eight weeks to complete, it is a boon for those planning to finish their degree programme in a shorter time. Prospective NTU students, for example, would be able to clear at least one module before they even begin their freshman year.

"I really like the idea that you can go to class at home or anywhere, because it saves travelling time. I'd like to try it out since I can offset my AUs as well," says Natalie Teow, a second-year Chinese major.

Three more courses taught by top professors are in the pipeline – Chinese philosophy, e-commerce and technology, and natural hazards.

"We're hoping to plough back the knowledge we gain from conducting online classes into our mainstream courses to make them even better. Under a five-year plan, we will roll out even more online courses, so it's quite exciting," says Prof Kam Chan Hin, Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education.