Thoughts on Coursera and Online Courses

I recently completed my first online course (or “MOOC“) on Coursera. It was an interesting experience and wanted to share some thoughts here.

I decided to take an online course for several reasons. Firstly the topic, Astrobiology, was fun and I thought the short course might make an interesting alternative to watching BBC documentaries and US TV box sets. I certainly wasn’t disappointed as the course content was accessible and well-presented. As a biology graduate I found much of the content was fairly entry-level, but it was nevertheless a good refresher in a number of areas. The mix of biology, astronomy, chemistry and geology was really interesting. The course was very well attended, with around 40,000 registrants and 16,000 active students.

The second reason I wanted to try a course was because MOOCs are so popular at the moment. I was curious how well an online course would work, in terms of both content delivery and the social aspects of learning. Many courses are longer and are more rigorously marked and assessed, but the short Astrobiology course looked like it would still offer some useful insights into online learning.

Clearly some of my experiences will be specific to the particular course and Coursera, but I think some of the comments below will generalise to other platforms.

Firstly, the positives:

  • The course material was clear and well presented
  • The course tutors appeared to be engaged and actively participated in discussions
  • The ability to download the video lectures, allowing me to (re)view content whilst travelling was really appreciated. Flexibility around consuming course content seems like an essential feature to me. While the online experience will undoubtedly be richer, I’m guessing that many people are doing these courses in spare time around other activities. With this in mind, video content needs to be available in easily downloadable chunks.
  • The Coursera site itself was on the whole well constructed. It was easy to navigate to the content, tests and the discussions. The service offered timely notifications that new content and assessments had been published
  • Although I didn’t use it myself, the site offered good integration with services like Meetup, allowing students to start their own local groups. This seemed like a good feature, particularly for longer running courses.

However there were a number of areas in which I thought things could be greatly improved:

  • The online discussion forums very quickly became unmanageable. With so many people contributing, across many different threads, it’s hard to separate the signal from the noise. The community had some interesting extremes: people associated with the early NASA programme, through to alien contact and conspiracy theory nut-cases. While those particular extremes are peculiar to this course, I expect other courses may experience similar challenges
  • Related to the above point, the ability to post anonymously in forums lead to trolling on a number of occasions. I’m sensitive to privacy, but perhaps pseudonyms may be better than anonymity?
  • The discussions are divorced from the content, e.g. I can’t comment directly on a video I have to create a new thread for it in a discussion group. I wanted to see something more sophisticated, maybe SoundCloud style annotations on the videos or per-video discussion threads.
  • No integration with wider social networks: there were discussions also happening on twitter, G+ and Facebook. Maybe its better to just integrate those, rather than offer a separate discussion forum?
  • Students consumed content at different rates which meant that some discussions contained “spoilers” for material I hadn’t yet watched. This is largely a side-effect of the discussions happening independently from the content.
  • Coursera offered a course wiki but this seemed useless
  • It wasn’t clear to me during the course what would happen to the discussions after the course ended. Would they be wiped out, preserved, or would later students build on what was there already? Now that it’s finished it looks each course is instanced and discussions are preserved as an archive. I’m not sure what the right option is there. Starting with a clean slate seems like a good default, but can particularly useful discussions be highlighted in later courses? Seems like the course discussions would be an interesting thing to mine for links and topics, especially for lecturers

There are some interesting challenges with designing this kind of product. Unlike almost every other social application the communities for these courses don’t ramp up over time: they arrive en masse at a particular date and then more or less evaporate over night.

As a member of that community this makes it very hard to identify which people in the community are worth listening too and who to ignore: all of a sudden I’m surrounded by 16000 people all talking at once. When things ramp up more slowly, I can build out my social network more easily. Coursera doesn’t have any notion of study groups.

I expect the lecturers must have similar challenges as very quickly they’re faced with a lot of material that they might have to potentially read, review and respond to. This must present challenges when engaging with each new intake.

While a traditional discussion forum might provide the basic infrastructure for enabling the necessary basic communication, MOOC platforms need to have more nuanced social features — for both students and lecturers — to support the community. Features that are sensitive to the sudden growth of the community. I found myself wanting to find out things like:

  • Who is posting on which topics and how frequently?
  • Which commentators are getting up-voted (or down-voted) the most?
  • Which community members are at the same stage in the course as me?
  • Which community members have something to offer on a particular topic, e.g. because of their specific background?
  • What links are people sharing in discussions? Perhaps filtered by users.
  • What courses are my fellow students undertaking next? Are there shared journeys?
  • Is there anyone watching this material at the same time?

Answering all of these requires more than just mining discussions but it feels like some useful metrics could be nevertheless. For example, one common use of the forums was to share additional material, e.g. recent news reports, scientific papers, you tube videos, etc. That kind of content could either be collected in other ways, e.g. via a shared reading list, or as a list that is automatically surfaced from discussions. I ended up sifting through the forums and creating a reading list on readlists, as well as a YouTube playlist just to see whether others would find them useful (they did).

All of these challenges we can see playing out in wider social media, but with a MOOC they’re often compressed into relatively short time spans.

(Perhaps inevitably) I also kept thinking that much of the process of creating, delivering and consuming the content could be improved with better linking and annotation tools. Indeed, do we even need specialised MOOC platforms at all? Why not just place all of the content on services like YouTube, ReadLists, etc. Isn’t the web our learning infrastructure?

Well I think there is a role for these platforms. The role in certification — these people have taken this course — is clearly going to become more important, for example.

However I think their real value is in marking out a space within which the learning experience takes place: these people are taking this content during this period. The community needs a focal point, even if its short-lived.

If everything was just on the web, with no real definition to the course, then that completely dissolves the community experience. By concentrating the community into time-boxed, instanced courses, it creates focus that can enrich the experience. The challenge is balancing unwieldy MOOC “flashmobs” against a more diffused internet community.

One thought on “Thoughts on Coursera and Online Courses

  1. Steve says:

    I’ve just completed a Coursera course on music production. It was mostly basic stuff, but just what I needed. Apparently 50k signed up, but I don’t know how many completed it. I didn’t use the forum much, but discussed it with some friends on G+

    Just started another on musical improvisation. This should be more of a challenge for me. I’ll probably do some other courses in future on other topics that interest me.

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