Bridging a new kind of divide with free online courses
December 17, 2012By Elizabeth Fiedler
At the intersection of education and technology sits Coursera, an online education experiment. The classes from high-powered universities are free, but do not offer college credit. For one New York student, taking classes from the University of Pennsylvania has changed his life.
Inside a University of Pennsylvania office, Dan Bergmann shared insights into Greek and Roman mythology with his professor. Dan Bergmann's parents were also there — he needs their help to communicate. Dan has a severe form of Autism and to communicate he types letter by letter on an iPad. Then his dad Michael Bergmann then reads the letters one by one, building them into words and sentences.
"You're a wonderful lecturer t-h-e the r-e-a-d...the readings w-e-r-e were s-o so c-o-h-e-r-e-n-t the readings were so coherent," the elder Bergmann read aloud from the iPad.
The process is slow and pain-staking but for Dan it's his communication line to the world. "The first thing I noticed about the Autism is that it diminishes when I connect ideas," he typed. "The way Virgil adapts Homer's Underworld actually made me healthier. Isn't that strange?"
While the teen types, his eyes scan the room. His dad says, watch closely and you can tell out of the corner of Dan's eye he's looking at the keypad.
Professor Peter Struck, who taught Dan's online mythology class, nods while Dan types and Michael reads. With a little encouragement from his father, Dan keeps going and tells Professor Struck he feels less confined by Autism by engaging his brain this way.
Dan's dad, Michael, says his son benefited immensely from Professor Struck's mythology class and from another Penn professor's Coursera poetry course. But, he says it wasn't simple for Dan to be a student.
"He would spell out on the letter board his thoughts about what he wanted to say and then I would copy that and email it to his computer and put them on the screen and then he would point to things or he would say, 'Put this before that,' or 'change this to that.' So he actually had his first experience of editing and arranging his thoughts," said the elder Bergmann.
Dan says the online education has changed his life. "[I'm] much less isolated, much more confident that I can really learn," he tapped out.
Dan's mom Meredith says she's extremely proud. "Everytime he has an enormous challenge — and this certainly was — he grows and he becomes as he said, much more confident, far more composed," she said. "What in the world of therapy is called organized, really in command of himself."
Professor Struck says Dan proves that Coursera students come from all backgrounds. He says he gets notes from small islands in the Pacific, and from students in Zimbabwe and Belarus who all want to make sure they get their books on time and turn their quizzes in before the deadline. "They are taking the same course that Dan took and Dan's experience — I have not heard of a similar one from the thousands that are out there but there could well be others in the same position that he's in," said Struck.
Michael Bergamnn says by working so hard keeping up with the Coursera classes, Dan's reading has improved tremendously.
"I don't know if they have any one doing this but I think one of the best jobs on the planet right now is to be in charge of the Coursera office of unintended positive consequences."
Dan Bergmann says he now thinks academic study will always be part of his life.