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Coursera is NOT “learn at your own pace” (yet)

6 October 2012 2 Comments

A few friends of mine had mentioned that Coursera would be offering a MOOC (massive open online course) on “Functional Programming Principles in Scala” taught by Martin Odersky, the creator of the Scala programming language. That sounded like a cool opportunity, and it would also give me a chance to check out what MOOCs and Coursera were all about.

I went to the home page for the course, and right away I was surprised to see “Next session: Sep 18th 2012 (7 weeks long)”. I was under the impression that Coursera’s MOOCs were designed to let students learn at their own pace. Perhaps I got this idea from Coursera’s website:

Classes offered on Coursera are designed to help you master the material. When you take one of our classes, you will watch lectures taught by world-class professors, learn at your own pace, test your knowledge, and reinforce concepts through interactive exercises.

I browsed through the Coursera catalog and saw that the overwhelming majority of courses were offered only on fixed schedules. I only saw one course, Computer Science 101, that had a “self-study” option. Did I misinterpret Coursera’s claim? Did they really mean “When you take one of our classes [i.e. CS 101], you will…learn at your own pace”?

There are obvious consequences to offering a MOOC on a fixed time table. It immediately limits the number of people who can start the course “on-time”. The video lectures and assignments are released weekly, not all at once, so it’s impossible to work ahead. All of the assignments are due on a fixed time table as well, which makes it easy to fall behind if you’re not getting the material (and how does that constraint promote mastery?). The message board for the course has many threads from students about signing up late, how to get credit for assignments past due, dropping the class due to being completely lost, dropping the class due to time constraints, and when the course might be offered again.

For a platform that is supposed to be revolutionary, these shortcomings and complaints are painfully familiar because they’re exactly the same problems that limit traditional university courses. And I think the source of these problems is clear: Coursera hasn’t let go of the traditional course schedule. Coursera isn’t taking “learn at your own pace” seriously, but it will have to eventually. I’m sure there’s some segment of the population that enjoys a traditionally scheduled class (the same people who like watching TV shows at their regular broadcast times?), but I think there are a lot more people who would prefer opportunities to learn that adapt to them instead of the other way around.

I actually enrolled in one more computer science course on Coursera that looked interesting but shall remain nameless. I dropped the class because I thought the lectures and quizzes were absolutely terrible (it reminded me of the worst classes I took in college). Then I went over to Udacity to see if they had a course that covered similar material, and lo and behold I saw this:

All of our courses are open, which means you can sign up any time and complete the course at your own pace without problem set or exam deadlines.

Ah, but is it true? I hope so. I also hope Coursera will make the necessary changes to provide a real “learn at your own pace” experience. It should take them exactly seven weeks…starting…NOW!


  • Sid said:

    Too true. I have signed up for and dropped so many Coursera courses because I have a family and a job and eventually have a week where I can’t give the course attention. All the previous work at that point is down the drain. I totally agree about the “terrible” lectures and quizzes. Coursera clearly does not vet the quality of its courses, instructors or materials. Andrew Ng’s original ML course was wonderful, though a bit too easy. However, many of the recent courses lack the pedagogical polish of his course. Many courses seem to be written by novice professors or old school cats unfamiliar with the required technology. I have ceased taking Coursera seriously.

  • Amanda said:

    It would be nice if they used the correspondence type of model, but with videos/online textbooks or offline (that don’t cost an arm and a leg) etc. They could use phone, email when when students need help

    I think too many are trying to turn online courses into traditional brick and mortar schools.