Daily Archives: September 3, 2012

Comments on Coursera from E-Mail

I ended up in an E-Mail discussion with the folks in the University of Michigan School of Information mailing list and ended up writing this little essay on Coursera – it sounded pretty good so I decided to keep it. It is just kind of a thought piece.

July 23, 2012

There is way too much hype around Coursera and what it means, portends, and how a meteor will strike the earth and cause all of higher education to have a thin dusting of Iridium, etc etc. We need to factor *all* that out.

Coursera is a way for us to share a tiny tiny fraction of our niftiest on-campus courses and faculty members to an extremely wide audience, nearly all of whom will never get to Ann Arbor, let alone be enrolled in the University of Michigan. Sharing what we know and do with the world for the betterment of the world is what we do and who we are and for me as you well know it is doubly what I do and who I am. Hence my work with Sakai, Moodle, Open.Michigan, the open textbooks I write, appenginelearn.com, pythonlearn.com, and every other venue that I can share with the world the things that I do.

Coursera is a wonderful piece of technology that is tuned to allow me to share my material with 35,000 students around the world and it works amazingly well. Me teaching a Coursera course is my *research* in how we can better use technology to get reasonable education in the hands of underserved people. This is a problem that the world must solve in the next 20 years and working with Coursera is the most exciting thing I have done in my career because I can almost touch that seemingly impossible future with the help of Coursera. And there are a bunch of researchers here at SI and the School of Ed that are with me every step of the way in trying to understand this new form and help improve it and evolve it.

Coursera is six classes at UM – it is not a sea-change. It is a grand experiment and one that in my opinion we are duty-bound to participate in to fulfill our mission and if I were not involved, I would be in grave pain because I would know that the future was being explored and I was not part of it.

Now after all that hyperbole, there are some caveats. It is early days. At this point in time, there is no way to achieve the same rigor (there is that word again) in my Coursera course that I achieve in SI502. Even if I put every single lecture and assignment of SI502 into Coursera – it would not be the same as SI502 because of the lack of rigor. Everything in a Coursera course must be scalable and rigor is hard to scale – especially when folks are learning very emergent skills that are cognitively challenging – it is too easy to just quit and walk away. Coursera works well when students strive to gain the knowledge and they fiercely want the knowledge. But in a class like SI502, a large number of students (at least for the first 5-6 weeks) really might be happier without the knowledge in SI502 and if it were a Coursera course they would quietly drop out or game the system to get some weak but passing grade and get the certificate.

So it turns out that *not* putting too much value on the Coursera certificates is an essential founding notion of what it takes to make a scalable course scale. What students get out of these courses is best correlated to whatever they put in – and there is no good measure for that.

But even with all its limitations, Coursera is far better than anything that came before it in to solve the use case of “teach the world”. Folks will find lots of flaws and those flaws are indeed there – but the best way to fix those flaws is to jump in and life with the flaws and let the solutions come to us as we gain experience.