Free online education can help to brand universities, provide support to teachers and perhaps even save the world. In June this year, Technical University of Denmark (DTU) will be taking another step into the future of e-learning. Course Manager at DTU Systems Biology, Hanne Jarmer is one of the driving forces behind the project.

It all started back in the summer of 2012, when a 20-minute video landed in Hanne Jarmer’s e-mail in-box. The video showed a professor from Stanford University talking about the importance of spreading knowledge and making education available to everyone. The professor’s words had a profound effect on Hanne Jarmer.

“It really got my blood pumping. I went straight to their website, and I felt like a kid in a sweet shop”, says Hanne.

The Stanford professor’s ideas have been realised in the form of the teaching portal Coursera.org and this summer, DTU will be publishing its first course on the website – largely on account of the legwork done by Hanne Jarmer. The appearance of DTU in this international forum is sure to prove a benefit both to knowledge-hungry people all over the world and to the university itself. The staff at LearningLab, DTU’s knowledge centre for pedagogy and forms of teaching, is delighted with the initiative.

“A lot of really good ideas stem from people out in the different departments. So it is great when someone like Hanne Jarmer goes the extra mile for her idea. When they do, we are happy to help realise the idea”, explains Lise Stenbæk, e-learning consultant at LearningLab.

Knowledge sharing it the same as branding Coursera is first and foremost intended to be a philanthropic project designed to make education available to as many people as possible. Billions of people in developing countries never even get close to a university, and only grossly unfair, but also a terrible waste of intelligence. There are also positive side effects for the universities that participate in the initiative.

“Contributing to this project is, of course, great for DTU’s social conscience, and the university gets something in return as well. When people all over the world can log onto Coursera and see how fantastic our teachers are, it is sure to benefit our organisation as a whole”, explains Hanne Jarmer, who is convinced that the Coursera courses will encourage students to travel to Denmark to complete at least part of their education at DTU. It is a theory she shares with several other Coursera universities, and with Lise Stenbæk from LearningLab. “On the Coursera site, we are interacting with universities such as Stanford and Princeton, which are members of the global elite. Simply being seen n in their company will boost DTU’s brand in and of itself”, she says.

The teacher is a superstar

The first course that DTU will be running on Coursera is entitled Computational Molecular Evolution. Here, over a period of ten weeks, Professor Anders Gorm Pedersen from DTU Systems Biology will explain how and why evolution works, and will be presenting examples of how computer power can assist biologists in building up an overview of the development of the species. At the moment, Anders Gorm Pederen is working hard on preparing his course, but as Hanne Jarmer explains, he will have to be prepared for a lot more than that…

“A fan culture has grown up around some of the teachers on Coursera, and many of them receive ‘I love you’ letters and the like from their students. So Anders had better prepare for life as a superstar”, she says with a smile.

Hanne Jarmer hopes that Coursera will inspire the academic staff at DTU to try new approaches. “I’m convinced that Coursera is a step towards making it even more interesting and prestigious to be a good teacher. And I am just as sure that our incredibly skilled researchers and teachers will quickly identify the potential – for themselves, for DTU and for the rest of the knowledge-hungry world”, she concludes.

The first DTU course on Coursera will be launched on 24 June. More than 2,000 students have already signed up. The next four courses have not yet been finalised, so Hanne Jarmer would be keen to hear from any teachers interested in the project.