Coursera Review Part 1: A Massive Open Online Course Platform

Coursera is part of the movement to make a free, high quality education available to everyone in the world. They are a platform for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), which take the curriculum and materials from existing University courses and scales them to reach tens of thousands of students at once. Started in Fall 2011 by Stanford University, Coursera now partners with over 60 universities and offers hundreds of courses in subjects such as Business, Medicine, Art, Engineering, Computer Science, and more.

I actually sat down to write a review on the Coursera platform several months ago, only to find that the interface and site design had literally changed over night. Much like other recent MOOC platforms such as edX, they are continually working on the technical challenges of handling thousands of students at once without diminishing the quality of the material. This results in constant improvements and iterations to the site design, especially since it is so new.

Where Coursera differs from edX, is that Coursera is a for profit company with an aim to developing premium content and services to support the site.

This review is based on several classes I took during the Summer/Fall of 2012. Similar to my MITx review, we will take a look at Corsera by examining the platform, the content delivery model, and how their philosophies effect the overall MOOC experience.

Coursera Introduction: The bugbears in the room...

Coursera carries the same mission statement as many other MOOC platforms. They want to make a top quality education widely available, by leveraging lectures and course material from the best teachers in the world. But there are two main differences between Coursera and its edX counterpart worth pointing out.

The first is that Coursera already has a much larger catalog of courses, including subjects like Literature and Humanities which often require written assignments.

The second issue is the fact that Coursera is a for-profit platform unlike the not for profit edX.

In 500 words or less...

To the first point, Coursera offers a number of courses from the fields of Art, Humanities, Literature, and Social Science. So the problem this poses is how to grade essays when you have a class size of thousands of students.

From the courses I have had experience with, this is often handled using a peer review system. The way this works is that in order to get a grade for an assignment, in addition to writing an essay you must also grade the essays of several of your peers. In most cases the grading is based on a simple scale (ex: from 0 to 5), and the course provides you with a basic guideline of what is required of an essay to deserve each rating. Peer reviewers are also asked to give optional feedback about the good and bad points of the essay as well. The final grade you receive is based on some adjusted average of your peer's reviews, and possibly a self assessment as well.

This type of crowd sourcing is actually quite efficient considering the scale of the class size. Most students address the peer review fairly, and when they do provide feedback often make it constructive. We've also seen this type of crowed sourcing work well on the forums, in which students often step into the roles of Teaching Assistant's to help other students in the course with their problems. Collaborative participation is turning out to be one of the most valuable boons that MOOC's have to offer, and while it is not a perfect solution for grading, it has proven to be effective in a number of different courses.

As an alternative to this, MIT has recently announced work on machine learning, essay grading software. After the teacher and TA's grade the first hundred papers or so, the software will eventually be able to pick up on the pattern's required for certain grades. The software can even potentially give feedback to the students such as whether the student was on topic or not. While this method also has its limitations, it could still be an extremely valuable tool when dealing with class sizes of this scale.

For Profit

The second issue is the nature of being a 'for profit' company. Coursera seems to be examining several possible avenues of monetization; such as premium services like personal teaching assistance or proctored exams. One of the examples of this is the inclusion of 'Signature tracks'.

While a student may still freely sign up for any course, there are some courses which offer the option to pay (40-70$) for a service called 'Signature track'. Using this service, Coursera will verify a students identity using photo ID and a 'biometric profile' made up from their unique typing signature. Upon completion of the course, students would receive a private link that they can give to employers that proved they completed all of the course work on their own.

By contrast, edX certificates already offer a link to verify that a student did take the course and did not just Photoshop a certificate. Although edX currently does not take any measures to ensure that the student who signed up for the account is the one completing all of the graded course work.

Another example of the contrast between the two, is that edX gives students Certificates for completing a course, while Coursera hands out 'Statements of Accomplishments'. The appearance of the Coursera Statement is much more informal then the edX certificates. In fact coursera makes a point to list the following at the bottom of all their free course certificates:


*Where X is the University that offered the course. All Coursera Universities seem required to use this statement.

The larger issue

This is actually a division of philosophy amongst many of the Universities, even within the individual courses offered at both edX and Coursera.

Several of the courses appear to have intentionally watered down grading requirements. In one extreme example there was an edX course which only required a grade of at least 50% to pass, which could be obtained without even attempting the final project. There was no distinction between the people who completed the final project and those who stopped half way through the class.

Behavior like this derives from the argument of schools who are afraid of making themselves obsolete. What point would there be in paying campus tuition, if you can get a pristine education online for free? How could Universities afford to exist, and pay the cost of professor salaries and teaching resources that allowed them to create and host the content for the MOOC's in the first place?

The counter to this, is the educational model and philosophy from places like Khan academy; Open education is not an issue of making teachers obsolete, its about changing how we do teaching in the class room. Have the lectures online and shift classroom time to lab and working with individual students. In the case of Universities, this could put more emphasis on research and real world experience to produce a portfolio on campus.

It is a philosophy that acknowledges and promotes mastery of a topic, rather then teaching to a test or relying on the exclusivity of credentials.

There is still very much a place for both free open education and an on campus University experience. But first Universities are going to have to play out this debate; and consequently the platforms are going to endure some growing pains before things get settled.

Student Hub

With those points out of the way, lets take a look at the actual interface of the Coursera web site.

The first page you are greeted with is your portal to all of the courses you have enrolled. Active courses will show up at the top of the list, allowing you quick access to the most relevant material. Meanwhile completed courses, or courses which have not started yet, float to the bottom of the list where you can view the class archives or gain access to your statement of accomplishments.

For the most part class archives for old courses are always available, even after new sessions of the course have started. I have had some issues with courses that are no longer offered at Coursera however. They occasionally will not show up right away in your list of completed courses, and some of the archives are no longer available.

Coursera Home Page

When searching for new courses, you are greeted with a chronologically stacked list of courses ordered by their starting date; starting with courses that began two weeks ago to allow for late signups. Each course list it's name, starting date, duration, university, and professor; and can be clicked on to get a short bio and mini syllabus for the course. As you scroll down, the page will automatically load new courses until you eventually see everything they have to offer. You can even reorder the list to show the courses most recently added to their catalog.

As they now offer hundreds of courses though, you can further refine your search using a number of options. Check-boxes on the left hand side allow you to filter by subject, university, spoken language, or even by courses which offer the signature track service. Or you could simply do a key word search for the course or professor you are looking for.


Coursera Course Listings

This is one of the web site features which had changed overnight while I was first writing this review. While I originally had some issue with the old system, the improvements they have made work really well and are easy to use.

Not to be understated, is the sheer amount of courses they already have available. There are 24 new classes starting this month alone. They have even started offering courses based in languages other then English. The sheer diversity in the number and type of subjects they have available is what really makes Coursera stand out right now.

Part 2: Content Delivery

Students are free to enroll in as many courses as they wish; and it is left with them to manage the course loads or requirements of each course. Once the time comes to start the enrolled class, students can then enter the home room which acts as the hub for all of the course content and interactions.

In part two of my review I'll cover the home room interface, how content delivery mechanics like the lecture videos and assignments work, and how grading and student interaction is handled.

One thought on “Coursera Review Part 1: A Massive Open Online Course Platform

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *