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The Coursera Gift Horse?

On multiple occasions, a friend or family member not in the field of education has asked me for my opinion of Khan Academy. Maybe they saw Sal Khan on 60 Minutes or a teacher has introduced my friend or family member to KA.

My response usually goes something like this: “I have a few concerns about KA. First, I wish Sal Khan would tone down his rhetoric. He has created a huge set of open educational resources and made it available for free. For that, he should be commended. But, he has neither invented something particularly new, nor is he about to ‘revolutionize’ schooling as we know it. A little humility and recognition of those who have come before him in the field of both math education and educational technology would be nice. Second, I’m concerned that Sal Khan is “posing” as an “expert” in areas where he has little formal training. He’s moved on from math to other subject areas, and I don’t understand  why he’s given so much legitimacy. Finally, I know of quite a few math educators who I greatly respect who have serious concerns about the pedagogy of KA and also about some of the content. There may be good uses of KA (such as, perhaps, having kids watch videos looking for possible errors), but I would like to know more about the implications of KA for learning math before fully embracing KA.”

So, the last two concerns boil down to Khan’s credibility with respect to what Lee Shulman called pedagogical and content knowledge.

Yesterday, on Twitter, I wondered allowed if the criticism of Khan Academy would be muted if this was, say, Bertrand Russell instead of Sal Khan. In a larger sense, I was asking: “What if the world’s foremost experts were creating tutorials and sharing their content knowledge with everyone for free?

Well, guess what? They are. See e.g. Coursera, Udacity, edX, etc.

The criticisms of these so-called xMOOCs have been loud and clear (at least among those I interact with online). I have some of my own concerns about these companies, too. But, I have been thinking a lot lately about these MOOCs and framing them as open educational resources rather than just courses. Today, I began my foray into a Coursera course on Social Network Analysis (SNA). I’ve learned a decent amount about SNA, largely on my own, but the depth of my knowledge is pretty limited and there are gaps in my understanding of SNA. Now, I have an opportunity to learn more about SNA from Lada A. Adamic, an associate professor in the School of Information and the Center for the Study of Complex Systems at the University of Michigan. She’s a prominent expert in social network analysis employed by one of the great research universities in the United States; she is doing some really interesting work in the field. I get to take a course taught by her. For free. On a subject I’m really interested in. So, what’s the problem exactly?

We can quibble with the quality of the learning experience. I’m only a couple of videos in and I can already think of tweaks I’d make to the platform. And, maybe I’ll get tired of the didacticism after a while. But, for now, I’m pretty excited about this opportunity. I’m not going to fret about MOOCs destroying higher education as we know it. I’m not going to wring my hands about the loss of humanity from learning through a machine. I’m not going to look this gift horse in the mouth.

[Image credit: AJC1]

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12 Responses to “The Coursera Gift Horse?”

  1. I like your point about Khan and pedagogical content knowledge a lot, but I’m not sure how you can really argue that the professors on Coursera necessarily have that (oh sure, the content knowledge is there). Add technological PCK to the mix, and yikes.

  2. Jon Becker says:

    You’re right, Audrey, though I suspect in most cases these professors have given *some* thought to how teaching and learning happen. That is, they have, presumably. been teachers of this content before. That, along with the serious content knowledge, puts them WAY ahead of SA in my book.

    And, we could throw technological knowledge into the equation, but, well, let’s not get carried away here… :)

  3. Gary Stager says:

    The 800-pound gorilla in the room that nobody seems to want to talk about is how remuneration will occur in this online world of “studying” with the experts you choose. In other words, unless you have tenure at an elite filthy rich university, how does one generate a food pellet for teaching students all over the world?

    I’ve been teaching online since the mid-1990s and have yet to be in a serious discussion about how you can’t pay a professor differently for an online 1-credit course than an online 4-credit course, because the workload and contact with students is exactly the same.

    And who gets to use these platforms? I failed to qualify to share my “stuff” via iTubesU because I am either NOT at a school (potential Apple customer) or choose not to have my online “stuff” affiliated with a school.

    The promise of boundless access to online education will only be realized when the best trombone teacher in Toledo gets to teach alongside a Princeton Professor. I see know serious efforts to democratize access, compensation or status.

  4. Jon Becker says:

    Gary, I don’t pretend to understand anyone’s “business model” here. I don’t know if the professors who’ve agreed to teach these courses are being compensated by their home (elite filthy rich) universities, but I suspect they must be, either with a stipend or with a course release of some kind. And, maybe these universities that have partnered with Coursera have bought into the “freemium” model. That is, they think that giving this stuff away is good marketing for them. I have no clue, just guessing.

    You know I’d love to learn alongside you. Heck, I’m contemplating using scarce university PD funds to get to CMK this year. But, while you’re not employed by one of the Coursera partner universities, and you can’t get your stuff on iTunesU, there *are* avenues for you to pursue; see e.g. P2PU, Skillshare, etc. Look what Howard Rheingold is doing here:

    I know lots of educators I’d send to Stager U. :)

  5. Steve Carson says:

    My suspicion is that many of these schools are involved to demonstrate they have an online strategy in the wake of the big splash MOOCs have made. I would guess that many underestimate the effort required to produce the courses. There’s not cost to join Coursera, but there’s no penalty to leave, and I am guessing many will rather than continue to support these courses with no clear business model.

  6. Ya-Yin Ko says:

    It’s funny, I just left a comment on another blog referencing the WSJ article “In Defense of the Living, Breathing Professor” which you link to at the end of your post. The author goes on about the Coursera peer assessments, but his defense seems to be against a straw man. I don’t actually think there are a lot of people out there claiming that the current design of peer assessments in Coursera eradicates the value of “thoughtful evaluation and detailed response” from a professor. Coursera itself makes a couple of lofty claims but the students know very well that it’s no substitute. Some stomp off the courses with frustration while others, out of interest or ambition, stick around and make the most out of it.

    The platform and pedagogy could certainly use lots of improvement but in the meantime, I’m in a course that I would never have otherwise taken and picking up some new knowledge relevant to my professional life. I too don’t see the harm in regarding them as OERs (although whether they are truly “open” is up for debate and another conversation…). The course I’m in has pretty decent lecture videos because the professor’s a naturally engaging speaker, but there are videos from other courses that I couldn’t watch past the 10-second mark. In the end I choose what works for me (I’m also participating in a cMOOC). The bad courses are being and will be called out in forums, blogs, and such.

  7. Scott McLeod says:

    1. Coursera and its ilk are not replacements for the professor that’s highly engaged on a regular basis with her students. This is not a replacement for upper-level seminars. It’s a replacement for the lecture or basic course in which there is little to no interaction except for the occasional question in class or the possibility of a visit during ‘office hours.’

    2. I’m in the SNA class too, Jon, and also am finishing up the Coursera class on gamification. I don’t care about the certificate of completion or the assessment component. I’m just in both courses to learn something. And, so far, I’ve learned a lot from the Gamification course. Is it as good as having a small, intimate learning experience around gamification? Nope. Am I still grateful for what is offered because it’s giving me a basic foundation from which I can go further if I wish? Yep. I liken it to watching videos that someone might make available on his blog. I can watch them, learn from them, interact with others in the comment area, and maybe ask a question that will get answered by the blogger and/or the community. Is there great value in that learning experience? Yes, absolutely, as judged by the near-evangelical proselytization by many of us about our ‘PLNs.’

    3. Here’s a potential monetization scheme for a university MOOC (assuming a traditional online/on-campus class would be 20 to 50 students):

    a. 100,000 (or 40,000) students sign up for the course
    b. 10,000 students finish the course
    c. 500 students take a proctored final exam at a local testing site (
    d1. 200 students do well enough that they decide to pay the university tuition (full or reduced price, graduate or professional development) for the credits after-the-fact
    d2. Another university accepts the course instead of one of its own and there’s some money exchanged between the universities via a pre-arranged agreement for the students that do this
    d3. Some students’ initial course experience with the university is so good that they end up applying to/enrolling at the institution (not that most of the Coursera institutions need more applicants!)

    I don’t know if this is exactly right but you can see some ways that it might work. Plus the Coursera university leverages its brand and visibility (look, see what we can do!), possibly in other arenas such as workforce training, corporate training, new government-funded ventures, etc.

    Just a few thoughts this Wednesday morning…

  8. Scott McLeod says:

    I’ll add a d4. How many Introduction to Macroeconomics or Introduction to Accounting lecture courses do we need nationwide? Arguably not more than a few. We can hypothesize arrangements in which universities, instead of hiring local faculty, instead contract out delivery of introductory courses to larger and/or more prestigious institutions. They pay those universities some fee per student and also pay some local person to be on call for questions, tutoring, etc., all of which will still cost less than the salary/benefits of a local professor.

  9. [...] couple links via Stephen Downes.  First, “The Coursera Gift Horse,” from Jonathan Becker’s blog “Educational Insanity.”  Basically, he’s [...]

  10. Thanks Scott for numbers

    1.- My feasibility study says
    If you have 10,000 students for 10 semester all paying $ 10 per course
    then you are done . Go and do it.

    2.- But can you attract 10,000 students for 10 consecutive semester.
    No if are not global and if you are the best in the world like MIT Harvard

    Think twice.

    Coursera is losing some money at this point too. I do not understand their hopes .

  11. Terry Smith says:

    Scott – I came here to read your Reggio Emillia comments, then went on to the MOOC writing. My experiences are similar – I took a Gamification MOOC course from Penn State and enjoyed the exploration of the MOOC model as well as the information I gained, and interacting in the forums – something I was interested in. I just started another one on instructional design from Georgia Tech. Terry

  12. Shennen Dean says:

    Dr. B,

    I’ve decided to follow an interest in Artificial Intelligence and become a backyard researcher. As part of that adventure, I have used courses from Lydia, MIT (edX), and Coursea. Today, my mind was a little blown by what I experienced with Andrew Ng’s Machine Learning course. As I was watching the video, Dr. Ng setup the video such that it would stop, ask me a question which I could respond to by using radio buttons, and then gave me immediate feedback.

    In comparison to MIT’s passive videos of lectures, this seems like a huge step forward. Although Dr. Ng isn’t directly evaluating me, he can collect data of my responses and with that, what’s to keep that response from being responded to by algorithms pointing my learning in the right direction?
    This kind of interaction and evaluation seems like the threshold from good to great, to use a Richmond slogan.

    I’m sure you’re at least aware of this meeting:

    Christensen is right. Online education will disrupt traditional education. In fact, it already has at least made it apparent that professors are not teacher; they have a lot of training ahead of them if they are going to be useful as teachers. I’m sure you’re aware of this even among your own peers.

    As to economics, that’s really a matter for capitalists, not educators. Knowledge of the Good has the inherent responsibility of sharing the Good. As technology advances, I believe that the classroom will become irrelevant. Instead of funding schools for professors to speak at you, we will fund labs for learning.

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