This week, I’d like to focus on sources for free learning, starting with the “Big Three” providers who tend to get brought up in any news piece or discussion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): Coursera, EdX and Udacity.
All three grew out of the original Stanford University experiment in open learning that made news, set educators pondering, and exciting investors that the “Next Big Thing” had been found when hundreds of thousands of students (160,000 in one class alone!) participated in free courses offered through the university’s experiment in open online learning.
Today we’ll take a look at Coursera, the company founded by Stanford Professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. And it seems somewhat amazing that, less than eighteen months since its’ creation, Coursera now boasts close to 300 classes in dozens of disciplines created by many of the world’s most elite institutions.
Like the other companies that grew from the original Stanford experience, Coursera begin with a focus on computer science and technology courses but has been the quickest to branch out into other fields, including many humanities and social science subjects. These include three I’ve enrolled in as part of my Degree of Freedom Freshman year curriculum: Think Again: How to Reason and Argue (a logic course from Duke University), The Modern and Post Modern and Property and Law (both from Wesleyan).
Coursera’s expansion into these non-technical fields required them to develop tools that support not just lectures, community discussion and machine-scored multiple-choice testing (used to provide both homework, quizzes and graded exams), but also the technology behind peer-grading which allows professors teaching classes in philosophy and similar disciplines to ask students to submit essays and other seemingly subjective work products to demonstrate mastery of course materials.
I’ll have more to say about the methodology behind peer-grading in the weeks to come, but for now it’s important to point out that the technology needed to allow thousands of students to review and score the work of thousands of other students has been successfully implemented by Coursera.
While the company leaves it to partner institutions to develop the content of courses delivered via their platform (including allowing them to decide the length of the course, pre-requisites, required reading and criteria for passing or failing), there are some commonalities between all the Coursera “products” I’ve seen so far, including:
- Lectures broken into approximately 10-15 minute increments which can be watched online or downloaded for offline viewing
- Multiple-choice style assessments, either integrated into course videos (usually to confirm comprehension of what’s just been discussed) or provided as separate homework or graded quizzes
- When offered as separate exercises, question sets seem to be designed as either homework assignments that students can try multiple times (with some degree of randomness built into the system, meaning students will not get the exact same questions and answers each time), or graded quizzes that students can take once (although my Logic class offered several alternative exams, only counting your highest score towards a grade)
- Discussion areas that allow students to discuss the class, organize study groups or provide feedback to the course team regarding content-related or technical issues
While the common toolset behind Coursera offerings leads to some degree of standardization, content is still king in the online classroom which means that professors and institutions have been free to experiment within the framework allowed by the technology. This manifests itself in widely varying course lengths (from 4-6 weeks to 2-3+ months), video production quality (from home movies to polished productions) and demands on the student. In my short time taking Coursera classes, I’ve seen teachers extend deadlines for assignments, interact with students via Google hangouts, and even quit their own class (demonstrating that the MOOC experiment continues to be an unfolding story).
Brand name universities seem to be lining up behind either Coursera or the EdX (a partnership between Harvard and MIT which we’ll discuss tomorrow). And since Coursera is the scrappy, for-profit, Silicon Valley startup (vs. the non-profit EdX), one of the questions hovering over the company is how they expect to ever turn a profit by giving away their core product for free.
When Professor Koller was asked this question in a recent forum I attended (probably for the umpteenth time that day), she established that both the company and its funders understand the social mission of online learning and have the patience to figure out a long-term business model while they continue to expand their course offerings and user base without monetization of that base as their only goal.
And, to be fair, even non-profits like EdX are trying to figure out how online learning will fit within the traditional business models of major institutions like Harvard and MIT which (while also not-for-profit) control more capital than many small nations.
While all this is being worked out, Coursera seems to be on a roll adding more institutions, more course and more features to their platform (they recently announced partnerships with a number of overseas universities and introduced new courses in languages other than English). And, behind the scenes, the company is gathering millions of pieces of educational data which may ultimately be one of the most interesting products to come out of the entire MOOC experiment.