Constructive criticism of Coursera

Well it’s taken me over 3 and a half years, but I’ve finally completed another mooc.

I use the term completed loosely, because while I consumed all the content, I didn’t submit any of the assignments. In other words, I completed the course as far as my personal learning needs are concerned, while still feeding the naysayers’ MOOCs-are-a-failure-because-their-completion-rate-is-low argument.

The mooc in question was e-Learning Ecologies: Innovative Approaches to Teaching and Learning for the Digital Age by the University of Illinois on the Coursera platform. I found the Australian accents of the instructors a pleasant surprise, and the quality of the content top-notch.

The course revolved around 7 affordances of e-learning “ecologies”, with 2 presented each week. I have put the word ecologies in inverted commas because I would have used the term “pedagogies” instead. Nonetheless, while most e-learning professionals would be familiar with (or at least aware of) each of the affordances, I found it worthwhile to review them in turn, which also provoked deep tangential thinking.

Speaking of tangents, one of the instructors supplemented his presentations with interesting vignettes about his educational heroes from history, which I found both informative and engaging.

Despite my overall satisfaction with this course, however, I experienced yet again a couple of perennial bugbears. Accordingly I offer the following points of constructive criticism to Coursera.

Distressed Lego businessman

1. Lack of instructor interaction

I am sensitive to the “massive” in mooc, and appreciate the fact that the instructors can’t possibly respond to every contribution in the social forum.

However, I found their total lack of participation really quite odd, especially in the early days when I seemed to be the only one posting anything.

Given the subject matter of this course, it’s also ironic!

2. Obscure pricing

It may be widely known among enthusiasts that moocs are free, but this fact is not widely known among the general population.

I’ve lost count of the number of times my colleagues have contacted me to double- and triple-check that the Coursera courses which I have curated for them are indeed free. Either the price (i.e. $0 or “FREE”) is not mentioned, or the effectively meaningless “Audit” is used in its place.

Coursera’s push towards paid courses – which, by the way, are not moocs – only serves to muddy the waters.

I don’t know if it’s due to Coursera’s genesis in Higher Education or for some other reason, but it’s evident they do not understand their prospective customers in the corporate sector.

9 thoughts on “Constructive criticism of Coursera

  1. Hi Ryan,
    I am a massification naysayer but not due to the poor completion rates.
    My first two points:
    1. A major impediment to learning is teaching (and lectures)
    2. The primary reason for the existence of universities has very little to do about education and everything to do about making money and giving the faculty a place to do what they really want to do: i.e. research. (I promise you I’m not wearing a tinfoil hat)

    I’ve finished two MOOCs and attempted a few others. Massification in education, in its current form, is a complete nonsense. My first experience of massification was 12 years of school followed by university. Way back in the day I got a distinction statistics, I did a MOOC on this topic around the time Coursera came into existence. About a year later on the job I had to do regression analysis and use other statistical methods on a large set of workforce data. I had absolutely no idea what to do but I worked it out, no one taught it to me, I had to learn it.

    What I learned at school, university and the MOOC was how to temporarily memorise something and take a test. I, along with many others, was totally unprepared for the workforce. Putting bad education online doesn’t make it good.
    I’m very much a proponent of learn by doing. I think an effective MOOC and learning experience would cater for the following:

    1. You have a goal
    2. You try to do it
    3. You ask for advice from a mentor when you need it
    4. You make mistakes and then rectify

    It’s one on one. It’s how it happened when we lived in caves. In fact, I’d go and say this is what school should look like. With today’s technology this is almost doable. As it stands, access to a mentor is a challenge. Perhaps you can look to pull in experts around the world to be involved. In the coming decade I think the role of a mentor could be filled by an artificial intelligent algorithm (AI is massively massively overhyped but I shall not digress).
    I think education from a systemic perspective is stuck in the factory model of education from the industrial revolution to the great detriment of society and particularly kids.
    Feel free to disagree with some or all this. Everyone living in the same thought bubble is pernicious. The L&D space needs viewpoint diversity.

  2. “Everyone living in the same thought bubble is pernicious” – Amen to that.

    Thanks for your excellent comment, Ben. I think I agree with much of it, disagree with some.

    1. A major impediment to learning is teaching (and lectures) – I agree with this if that is all that is offered. My previous blog posts Let’s get rid of the instructors! and The learnification of education document my thoughts on this.

    2. The primary reason for the existence of universities has very little to do about education and everything to do about making money – Preaching to the converted. The university business model is founded on processing as many students as possible (hence their infatuation with overseas students), but the sting in the tail of this commercial paradigm is that it re-casts students as customers who demand a return on the service they paid for. Doh.

    What I distill from your comment is that effective learning is blended. Considering MOOCs, I agree that doing one won’t make anyone an expert practitioner in the given subject. However, if the content is integrated into a broader instructional design involving social interaction and on-the-job practice, then I think the MOOC becomes an important dimension of the overall experience.

  3. Thanks for your response, Ryan.

    “However, if the content is integrated into a broader instructional design involving social interaction and on-the-job practice, then I think the MOOC becomes an important dimension of the overall experience.”

    I think if someone asked me that around the beginning of last year I definitely would have shared your view. I took on a project that worked with quite a number of universities and schools. Seeing this close up gave me my first dose of disillusionment. I also had a few work trips around Asia where I crossed paths with a cognitive scientist of note and learning theorists from around the world. They delivered the second dose in a big way.

    Your point around the social interaction and on-the-job practice has a lot of merit in principle. The most impactful social interaction is the one with the mentor/expert (who knows how to actually be a mentor). You can throw your question out to the masses and hope you get something of use. Typing this I’m reminded of a quote I read the other day, it goes a long something like this: “Hearing a succession of mediocre singers does not add up to a single outstanding performance”.

    To the second part, on-the-job practice, the merit lays when you can engineer this. I have not found a MOOC that has a high level of fidelity to a work context. This is key. Back to my example in the first post, after I learned statistics for workforce data I was asked to do some for marketing, I had no idea how to apply my knowledge in that domain so once again I started pretty close from scratch.

    I’m keen to see how the MOOC thing will play out. Then again given how stuffed the education system is I don’t think I’d be surprised if it’s similarly appalling in 20 years time.

    A cheery note to go out on :)

  4. Oh, why would you prefer to use “pedagogies” instead of “ecologies”?
    Ecology is something far more general, knowledge of which should be applicable also when it comes to adult learning (my line of work), not only kids (whose education is the subject of pedagogy). Was the course essentially impeded in this way?

  5. Thanks for asking, Nikos. It’s just a minor observation of mine; the choice of terminology didn’t impede the course.

    While “pedagogy” in its strictest sense refers to the teaching of children, I use it in its broadest sense to refer to the teaching of anyone.

    In this particular case I suggest this term over “ecology” because to me, ecology refers to the technologies and their interactions with the other agents in the system (teacher, learners, other technologies). But the course wasn’t *really* about that. Instead, it focused on the 7 affordances of modern technology, representing more accurately (imho) the subtitle of the course: Innovative Approaches to Teaching and Learning for the Digital Age.

    Semantics, semantics ;)

  6. Another great post Ryan. I will be running a MOOC in April with the team from the MOOC Factory and will be ensuring there is plenty of facilitator interaction. It will be free. Also, its running for 48 hours so a short time to consume the content (no assignments!!).

  7. I am glad you wrote about this Ryan. Funnily enough at beginning of 2017, yes it already seems to be February, I wanted to learn new things via moocs. Coursera seemed one of popular ones to use with an app especially useful while on trains etc. Unfortunately it was very disappointing as not only I didn’t learn anything but also left with confusion around their pricing; (un)ease of navigation; not enjoying waiting to unlock content; etc. I am still interested in suggestions on other easy to use app based mooc options.

  8. It’s such a shame because of all the Coursera moocs I’ve tried, the quality of the content has been outstanding. It seems that everything else around the content is user unfriendly and company centric, as if the business were run by IT geeks.

    I’m not familiar with other mooc apps, but I see edX has one ;)

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