Every time one of these new “MOOCish” sites pops up I do my best to play around with the tool before being too hypercritical. Last year when AI Class was all the rage I signed up and managed to make it an entire week I think. The problem there of course was that learning about artificial intelligence was way beyond the scope of what I was both interested in and probably capable of in just a few short weeks. That’s not to say there weren’t other problems with their tool like downtime, low engagement, and lack of community, but ultimately I think my disinterest for the subject played a larger role in “dropping out”.

Coursera has received a lot of buzz lately because several institutions of signed on to offer courses in it and they’re trying to expand beyond the geeky computer science topics with a high barrier to entry. After browsing the list and talking to Jim who was interested in playing with it we decided to go with Internet History, Technology, and Security which is being taught right now by Chuck Severance aka “Dr. Chuck”. Unfortunately it appears I’ve started to drop off and with the start of the semester I can see the writing on the wall of where this is going. So I wanted to reflect a bit on my experience so far and what I’m feeling.

The Tool

First let’s talk about Coursera as a platform. The very first impression I got (and I think many will) is that this is very much akin to Blackboard, Moodle, or any other learning management system. I don’t say that in a bad way, just remarking that the design of the site has to have been intentional. Perhaps it’s to make current or former students and faculty feel comfortable in there (“Oh, this is just like when I was in school.”). Perhaps it’s a lack of imagination to think differently about the structure of the content (though I doubt this is the case).

Another aspect of the tool is the video player, which you get to know quite well as most of the content is delivered via video. The player is not bad. They’ve made it HTML5 compliant and added an option to speed up or slow down the video on the fly which is nice. I rarely had problems with it loading. However I did very much wish it would have remembered the state of where I was in a video. The player also delivers quiz type questions during the video that you have to answer to continue (Dr. Chuck didn’t actually grade these, they were just for your own personal learning/understanding). I found these quite jarring and pretty annoying. In some cases the question came immediately after someone said the answer and I felt like they were testing to see if I had a pulse or not. Given these did not “count” towards anything I would have liked the option to disable them or move them all to the end of the video.

The discussion forums are completely uninspired. It’s as if someone said “We’ve got to add something to give a sense of community.” and they decided since it already looked like an LMS that a forum made sense. Although community is really what I desired, I did not go there because a forum is about as uninteresting as it gets.

Peer assessment was another tool we used in the course. It allows you to submit a paper and then after the submission deadline there’s a period where you grade other student’s work against a rubric and leave comments. The tool is an interesting idea that falls apart when you consider how many people (like me) were in the midst of dropping off completely. I did my paper and submitted it, but I was supposed to grade 5 other papers (!) presumably to make up for those that wouldn’t do the grading at all. I only made time to grade 1 and meanwhile I never received any feedback on my own paper.

One last thing on the tool is that I wished for better notifications. I got emails on some things from Dr. Chuck but nothing from Coursera about deadlines or reminders. No notifications on anything. This is one thing I think Canvas does really well, you can get Twitter or Facebook notifications, email notifications, all defined by you the student. If I’m to stay engaged I need to know what’s happening, I need that nudge.

The Content

I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about the content because I imagine every class is different and a lot depends on the instructor. For what it’s worth I thought Dr. Chuck did an excellent job curating source video for us to watch and even when he was lecturing it was well produced. I have heard criticism from others that the same is not true for other courses.

For much of the course I felt like a bystander. Here I was watching a set of videos chosen by my professor. I may or may not have a quiz at the end of the week to gauge my learning. The videos were interesting, but I left feeling like I hadn’t participated. This stands in stark contrast to ds106 where I constantly felt that pull to create and interact alongside the other participants. I can’t tell you the name of a single other person that was in this course and it started with over 40,000. I think that’s a shame and something they could improve on.

I’ll close by saying I also take responsibility all on my own for dropping out, withdrawing, failing, whatever you want to call it. Participation in anything takes a commitment of time and dedication and there were plenty of times I briefly thought “I should log in and do that work.” and did not. I can’t say for certain if it was because of the length of the videos, or the fact that “the work” was just watching videos instead of reading or interacting. I simply didn’t want to spend my time watching videos on a site to receive a virtual certificate saying I had completed the work.

I hope Coursera continues to improve on their platform and offer better ways for instructors to engage their students as well as better ways for the students themselves to interact with each other. I believe tools like Coursera can be very powerful for developing countries where access to learning on this level is a privilege and they should be commended for trying to tackle these hard problems. I’ll continue to watch this space and who knows what tool I’ll be using to fail my next class!