Some thoughts on Coursera

For the last couple of months, we’ve been testing out Coursera. We’ve enrolled in courses like Greek and Roman Mythology, The Affordable Health Care Act, Introduction to Finance, History of the World Since 1300 and a few others. Here are some of our thoughts about the platform.

We love that Coursera is helping to “democratize” education by increasing access to education for those who can’t afford it or aren’t able to get into the Coursera partner schools. However, Coursera hasn’t yet solved one of the fundamental problems with traditional college education, which is that most college lectures are really hard to sit through.┬áIn order for Coursera to do more than simply increase access to education, it needs to address this problem. How can it do this?

To begin with, we need to think about why college lectures are, in fact, so difficult to sit through. We think there are two obvious reasons. The first is that they are too long. Most humans are incapable of staying focused on one thing for much longer than 15 or 20 minutes, especially when they’re being bombarded with emails and text messages. The second reason is that most college professors just aren’t great orators. There are, of course, some very talented professors who have a magical ability to captivate their students’ attention for long periods of time, but these people are few and far between.

So what can Coursera do to make its platform more engaging and thus, more effective? First of all, it should break up all the lectures into more manageable pieces. It seems to be doing this with some of its courses but it should do this consistently with all of its courses! This may, in some cases, require professors to change the structure of their lectures. Second, it should limit its course offerings to professors who are really good. The beauty of MOOCs is that they solve the scale problem — they allow you to give thousands of people access to one professor. Allowing every college professor onto the platform defeats the purpose. Based on our (granted somewhat limited) survey of the courses on the platform, we think Coursera can do slightly better job of filtering what professors/courses end up on the site.

All this being said, we do see some cool things happening on Coursera. For example, some courses are offering “certificates of completion.” This helps deal with the oft-discussed certification issue. We also saw some great interactive features in some of the lectures and some innovative ideas related to evaluation/grading.

We’re sure the folks at Coursera will continue to experiment and come up with more effective pedagogies than a video of the traditional college lecture. We’ll be keeping tabs on them.

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