Thousands Enroll in UCSF Online Health Courses

Partnership with Coursera Attracts Global Audience to Health and Science Curriculum

By Kevin Eisenmann

In what is being called a grand experiment in higher education, UCSF and other top universities are offering free, online classes through the website Coursera. More than 48,000 people have enrolled in UCSF’s three classes since the University announced them on July 19.

“There has never been a more important time for students to learn about health and science, but many don’t have access to high-level classes,” said Joseph Castro, PhD, vice chancellor of Student Academic Affairs. “At the same time, UCSF offers world-class courses in those areas, but we enroll fewer than 3,000 students per year. As a public university committed to reaching underserved populations throughout the world, it makes perfect sense on many levels to offer our classes online.”

The three online classes will begin in January 2013, starting with “Clinical Problem Solving,” “Contraception: Choices, Culture and Consequences,” and “Nutrition for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.” Two of the courses, contraception and nutrition, are UCSF School of Nursing courses and represent the first courses from a school of nursing in the country to be offered online for free.  

Over time, UCSF’s online offerings are expected to grow in breadth and volume, according to Castro, who, in partnership with Karen Butter, University Librarian and Assistant Vice Chancellor, spearheaded efforts to make courses available online. Students participating in the online courses will not earn credit, although the University is determining whether a certificate of achievement will be awarded to students who fulfill the requirements. Online education students come from any number of geographic and educational backgrounds, ranging from a nurse in Uganda to a high school advanced placement student in Fresno.

The move is UCSF’s first foray into the world of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and places the University in a select group of schools conducting an education experiment spearheaded by online education company Coursera. The company recently announced that it partnered with 19 universities, including UCSF, to offer more than 120 courses. The news garnered significant media coverage, including an article in the The New York Times, which called it a “seismic shift” in online learning.

“There’s no question that we’re in the very early stages of online learning,” said Catherine Lucey, MD, vice dean for education at the UCSF School of Medicine and instructor for the online course Clinical Decision Making. “Our job is to figure out what works, what doesn’t, and match the methods to the mastery.”

Coursera currently is funded by a combination of venture capital investors and university sponsors (UCSF is not a financial investor), but the company plans to develop a revenue model with the goal of implementation in early 2013. As part of their contractual agreement, UCSF and other partner universities will contribute to those discussions.  According to Castro, ideas that have been suggested include corporate-sponsored courses, charging students for credits, and serving as a job search portal.

UCSF’s interest in online education is threefold, according to Castro. First, it enables the University to educate a wider audience, a significant expansion of its mission of “advancing health worldwide™.” Second, it continually challenges faculty and students, encouraging them to revisit curriculum and participate in discussions with online students who may have wildly different health and science backgrounds than their own.

Finally, offering online courses gives UCSF the opportunity to study teaching in a virtual environment. Critics of online learning argue that the cultural experiences of higher education — discussions with classmates in hallways and appointments with professors, for example — cannot be replaced by algorithms and faceless discussion boards. Yet in this world of Google and Facebook, people are turning first to the Internet for information. Just this month, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced it was seeking proposals for the creation of MOOCs to serve as remedial or general education courses. The foundation said it hopes to encourage high-quality MOOC’s that could improve college completion rates.

    It would take more than a lifetime for me to reach that many students in a traditional classroom.”

-Katie Clark, MPH, RD, CDE, UCSF School of Nursing instructor of the free, online UCSF class “Nutrition for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention”

Online education is also seen by UCSF as supplementing the quality of education for campus-based students. Teachers presenting online can learn how to personalize medical education based on real-time feedback and take better advantage of the varying backgrounds, skill levels, and interests of a UCSF student. Lucey envisions a day where the facts and rote procedures can be taught online beforehand, giving faculty and students a chance to create new knowledge together in the actual classroom or lab.

“As educators, we should be excited to be taking advantage of this opportunity,” said Lucey. “And with proper investment on behalf of the institution and faculty time, we can begin to develop a more comprehensive vision for UCSF in the online education world.”




Online education is just one way UCSF is using technology to teach students. Click through the slideshow below to see how tech is transforming the world of medical education.