Coursera Never Ceases to Amaze Me – Community Teaching Assistants And a Few Other Things

I am now teaching my Internet History, Technology, and Security course on Coursera for the third time. You might think that by the third time I teach a course online it would become routine. But that is not the case.

I love being part of watching the Coursera software and culture growing and improving under our feet. The engineers, course operations, and support folks at Coursera are a pure joy to work with. They come up with new ideas and put them into production so quickly – it amazes me. When I heave a new idea about how something should work and propose it in the partners forum, over half the time – they already implemented my idea and I had not discovered it yet. Other times they take my idea – add to it and then often in less than a month there is a new feature. Only rarely do I want something and not get what I want – usually the reason is security – which I fully understand – but I want to always get my way – since I am so spoiled.

Two weeks ago I spent a week at Coursera HQ working on the code for a feature that I hope will soon be released. I worked with Brennan, Nick and Michele (the new intern). I learned a little about SCALA and by the end of the week I “sort-of” get this new-fangled functional programming movement. I hope the see that feature soon – I will likely go back to SFO when it is done to celebrate because it means a lot to me personally.

In terms of culture, I could not be more excited about the Community Teaching Assistant (CTA) program as led by Norian Caporale-Berkowitz. CTAs are selected from the outstanding students from previous courses who have both mastered the material solidly and shown a natural inclination to teach their fellow students. They volunteer to be in the next session of the class and help in creating the culture of the next round and to be close to the next round of the students and help them through the materials in the course.

What is especially cool is that we have a special forum for the CTAs and Teaching staff for the course where we discuss and solve problems and they help make sure that things are brought to my attention quickly that are important. I still am in the class discussions and do most of the content creation for the class – but I also have a group that can review my new materials before I release them and catch problems. I spend about an equal amount of time in the course forums and TA forum.

What is most exciting to me is how much it feels like face-to-face teaching like I do at the University of Michigan. We have a team of people trying to make the learning experience as good as it can be for everyone. I depend on my teaching assistants and they depend on me. I make stuff and they help me form the stuff of the course and then help the students understand the stuff.

This feels very scalable and fits my model of teach the teacher. I so badly want to see my class material reused and remixed by teachers around the world at other schools, community colleges, and high schools – but I don’t want to completely lose touch with the teachers in those classes and even the students in those classes. I am imagining a situation where a class like my Python class is literally being taught at hundreds of places at the same time to many thousands of students – and we have a set of forums that allow the whole community of teachers to be able to share ideas and help and support each other.

Of course software will need tweaking and we will need to invent new cultural and interpersonal models as we scale things up – but it feels really wonderful. I have this sneaking suspicion that we are slowly re-inventing the Open University model but with less focus on waterfall design of course materials, allowance for translation and remixing, and reduced focus on instructional design. What we will adopt is the lead faculty / mentor model – but with more permeable boundaries and more agile content.

It is a great time to be watching new roads being laid down at the frontier of all of this. Many will say – that there is nothing new here. The statement that there is nothing new in Coursera/Udacity/edX/NovoEd style classes is trivially correct but completely wrong.

The technology we use is far better than anything that came before – but more importantly we are creating multi-layer, cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary, and fresh human structures that have *never* been part of online education. These new efforts like Coursera/Udacity/edX/NovoEd are breaking new ground in the increasingly important connection between humans, information, and technology in the quest to educate and learn. Nothing that came before is even close in simultaneously exploring all three dimensions this new space. I only wish more people could experience the joy I feel when teaching in Coursera.

And who knows where this will lead, with edX now open source….