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As Coursera Evolves, Colleges Stay On and Investors Buy In (chronicle.com)
132 points by jyosim4 on Aug 25, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 86 comments

I'm the instructor of an upcoming Coursera course [1]. A couple of observations from my point of view:

* I wish there were a way to fund online education through philanthropy/donations. Coursera being for-profit leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth. At a practical level, it complicates what images I can use in my lectures and qualify as fair use.

* After several years the site is far from being at a point where an instructor can log on and upload content. The interface is constantly changing, confusing, and buggy. My university has a dedicated team who help out instructors with putting their material online and even they are often confused about how to edit this or upload that.

Overall I'm glad that Coursera exists and is finding a revenue stream; my own undergraduate education would have been vastly different if I'd had access to the material that's available today.

[1] Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency technologies https://www.coursera.org/course/bitcointech

To address your first point, Edx.org is very similar to Coursera, but is a non-profit organization that releases all it's software as open source (https://open.edx.org/.) For your second point, EdX Studio (https://studio.edx.org/) is focused on being accessible and easy to use for instructors - we hear good things from course staff about usability compared to Coursera.

(I work for EdX.org as a developer)

Out of curiosity: Any news on the hosted version of edX (mooc.org).?Site went up quite a while ago, but I haven't heard any developments since.

Interesting observations and notes. Glad to see a little bit of background / context regarding the mechanics. Regarding my perspectives, I have a background teaching and an advanced degree in education course design.

Regarding point 1, my understanding of Fair Use within an Education environment is that an instructor using protected material in the context of a lecture or assignment is, by default, an instance of Fair Use. A lot of the pivot relates to the scope of the use - as in, photocopying an entire chapter or short-story is okay, but photocopying the entire book is not. With images, I think you're well in the clear. I can understand where you're coming from with your concern, I just don't believe it to be material.

My university has a dedicated team who help out instructors with putting their material online and even they are often confused about how to edit this or upload that.

This scenario strikes me as counter-intuitive from a savings perspective, because now there's two layers involved: Instructors and IT Support. Actually, it sounds like a terrible waste of overhead and expense the University is laying out. Will Coursera reimburse your institution for the burden, or is it so small compared to the revenue brought in through Coursera that the expense is immaterial?

I get a macabre laugh out of learning Coursera actually kind of sucks at its main value proposition of being a technology platform for education, in that it's not user friendly for actual educators. Yeah it's a 'disruption' platform, sure. Just seems to me like throwing a Basball into an Olympic Swimming Pool.

> This scenario strikes me as counter-intuitive from a savings perspective, because now there's two layers involved: Instructors and IT Support. Actually, it sounds like a terrible waste of overhead and expense the University is laying out. Will Coursera reimburse your institution for the burden, or is it so small compared to the revenue brought in through Coursera that the expense is immaterial?

If it's anything like my university was, the team he's referring to didn't exclusively support Coursera; their purpose is to provide faculty assistance with managing online content in general. Whether it's the university's internal Blackboard site or Coursera, they support whatever platforms the professors are using (assuming it's a university approved platform).

So the marginal expense of supporting Coursera is likely negligible, unless they've somehow managed to make a worse interface than Blackboard and it's particularly resource intensive to support.

It hasn't launched yet but you may be interested in checking out snowdrift: https://snowdrift.coop/.

I brought this thread up in #snowdrift on freenode and there was some interesting discussion around coursera's model and this critical talk by Eden Moglen: https://boingboing.net/2012/05/27/innovation-under-austerity.... There's a full transcript here: https://www.softwarefreedom.org/events/2012/freedom-to-conne.... I've mostly viewed coursera as a good thing even if it's a for-profit company, but I'm not as confident any more.

Have you looked at http://www.donorschoose.org/? From their site:

DonorsChoose.org makes it easy to help classrooms in need. Public school teachers post classroom project requests which range from pencils for poetry to microscopes for mitochondria.

I bet there's a way you could sneak in support for your Coursera teaching.

As for uploading content, that seems like a really tough and time consuming problem. Are you allowed to put together a wiki or webpage? I was doing some prep for an Operating Systems course and read this excellent blog post about why textbooks should be free [1]. In the post, the writer mentions that "perfect is the ultimate enemy of good", so he decided to write the initial draft of a textbook purely in plain text rather than properly format it with something like LaTeX. Getting the necessary content out there seems like a good first step for you and your team.

[1] http://from-a-to-remzi.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-case-for-fre...

> * I wish there were a way to fund online education through philanthropy/donations. Coursera being for-profit leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth. At a practical level, it complicates what images I can use in my lectures and qualify as fair use.

There are ways to do this. The problem is that they don't readily scale. Self-funding systems scale much better than systems that require ever-increasing amounts of external funding.

That's a bit hand-wavy. Can you elaborate why you claim this?

It's a matter of requirements for external resources. If a system needs constant infusions of external money, its ability to grow will be determined by its ability to bring in such external money. This is how non-profits tend to work and why they dedicate such attention to fundraising.

Systems that generate what they need to grow don't have the same constraints. If money is what your business needs to grow and it generates a significant yearly profit, then your business can meet its own needs to enable growth.

Is that clearer? Some sorts of systems, when functioning correctly, will tend to be self-perpetuating. Others will, as an artifact of structure, require endless external resourcing.

OK. Find me an example of a system that doesn't require external resources :)

It's not about that. It's about not needing continual fresh infusions. This is why GE, which doesn't need to raise money every six months, is more likely to be around in ten years than any given startup trying to raise a B round.

Yes, that clarifies your point a lot. Thank you.

There are ways for the developers to earn the donations asked. Edx is an example of the other one. I live off of mooc courses I learn everything from there, and that's coming from a current college student.

hi @randomwalker, I enrolled to that course a few hours ago! I hope that the course is not too bad because of the limitations you mentioned above.

> The company has created a series of courses that add up to mini-degrees that students can earn quickly, and pay a small fee to certify that they successfully completed them. “It’s mostly people in their 20s and 30s who are interested in learning more skills and making themselves prepared for better jobs,” said Mr. Levin.

Has anyone else noticed that since this recent pivot, the quality of Coursera's classes have declined?

I recently tried a course hosted on Coursera from an Ivy League school, as part of a business "specialization" that consists of 4 classes at $90 each. The class was 4 weeks long and was taught by 3 different professors. The only material provided was a series of video lectures (10-20 5-minute lectures per professor) and a smattering of blog posts and news articles for optional reading.

There was some discussion in the forums that the lectures seemed to jump around, and didn't cover all the material represented in the final exam. Some previous students were guessing that the gaps in instruction were because the course used to be 9 weeks long before they started charging for it.

I enjoyed the class but didn't feel like I got my money's worth. In the end I decided I could get more value by just buying and reading books on business development on my own.

I've only taken a couple courses from one of these mini-degrees. I did feel like the quality was iffy, but I don't feel like I've seen enough to make a call on whether the problem was the instructor or the mini-degree.

The main problem was that the course was unfocused and rushed. It felt like the instructor was trying to touch on every single thing a person might learn over the course of a graduate level course. But since the class was shorter both in terms of number of weeks and time students could be expected to spend on any one week, it just resulted in a lot of very shallow treatment of an immense number of topics. Some lectures were barely more than a recitation of paper titles.

Agreed. The courses seem to lack depth. And the video-only method of instruction makes it feel like an infomercial. It's a shame, because the Coursera platform has a lot of potential. Andrew Ng's machine learning course was as good as a real university course.

To be fair, the specialization I was on included a final project which could have been cool.

Yeah, the video-only thing is problematic. But I think they're stuck there. If you're having a hard time convincing students to pay $50 for the class, can you really ask them to buy a $200 textbook?

I think the "only" part isn't referring so much to the exclusion of a textbook as the exclusion of projects and exercises. Videos and textbooks are both too passive. The biggest issue with MOOCs in 2015 is the relative lack of active engagement with the material through checked exercises and with teachers, tutors, mentors, and peers through one-on-one engagement (whether in person or via phone or chat) rather than one-to-many forums. Both issues are more expensive to solve, but I'm disappointed that Coursera hasn't used their paid courses to attack them. I suspect that the price of those courses isn't high enough to justify it.

I think that while we've added a couple educational tiers above reading books and articles on one's own, we're still missing one or more between paid MOOCs and "real" higher education.

I think the passivity of videos and lack of exercises is just half the problem. The other half is that there is no human supervision of each student. There is no feeling of accountability to a professor. In real life you compare with your colleagues and are evaluated by a teacher. That tends to make all this activity much more involved.

I think the problem can be solved by organizing study groups and paying for a tutor to see you through your online learning career. Regular meet-ups in real life with a person, to check the state of your studies and discuss strategies and future courses to take up would be better than just creating a free account and starting to learn on your own.

MOOCs could be complemented by in-person educational coaching. That would reduce the dropout rate and make it seem more "real". MOOCs don't need more teachers, they need more coaches - people with experience in the psychology of learning.

We're in violent agreement, and I meant to allude to the things you spelled out more clearly. I'm disappointed that Coursera hasn't (yet?) started using their treasure chest to push this sort of thing, but maybe that just means it's a market opportunity for someone else.

At Tuva (tuvalabs.com), we are creating an environment to learn foundational statistics and data analysis concepts and skills that go well beyond just video instruction. To get a feel for experience, check out a 30 sec demo here: https://vimeo.com/137256993

That looks nice, but people want problems to solve - gradual problems, that have a nice gradient of increasing difficulty, and are sufficient in number, until they can bring up the student to a feeling of mastery over the field.

I was looking for such a set of problems to gradually learn functional programming by exercises but all I could find was a video course that also had a set of 10-20 mini-problems to solve as it progressed. That was by far too shallow for this learning task. And to think that FP is the love child of Hacker News, with tons of posts in the last few years, yet, there is no comprehensive resource of exercises.

What about project Euler and the like?

Fair point. I just don't think they've found product-market fit yet. Before, they were giving too little value to the schools, and now they're giving too little to the students.

Maybe if they switched to selling textbooks and bundle the video course with the textbook. I would never go out and buy a $200 textbook to something I have no foundation in, but if I'm getting a video course with it, maybe.

I think I did some classes of the data science nanodegree (forgive me for not remembering the exact name) and I found the quality to be on par with other courses.

But having taken a dozen of them on coursera, I feel there isn't really a standard that is declining, it's just that some classes are fantastic, some not very much so, and it has been like this since the beginning.

I often noticed that some books are phenomenal, and don't really have a mooc, but should definetly have something.

I wonder if there's a place for a site that:

1. Gathers recommendations the best book on a given subject + some set of practice material

2. Helps to forum study groups or classes, gives them forum/hangouts,etc,offer some structure, etc

3. Enables P2P grading by students

Basically ,helps as much as it's possibly can for students to form great classes around great books.

What do you guys think ?

I prefer for something like this before paying for online classes: a curriculum to learn on my own, a peer group for feedback, and a mentor for guidance.

The problem is there are many things I want to learn and I may be willing to invest 40 hours in one week to get the required knowledge instead of having to wait 3 hours * 8 weeks.

I think it's a neat idea. This thread has got me thinking too. Email me at p2peducationideahn@gmail.com if you want to brainstorm.

Honestly, I think that's the best way to learn. A lot of great programmers/entrepreneurs end up taking an autodidactic approach to learning whatever they need to learn to become successful. I always use Sean Parker as an example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sean_Parker

I don't buy into the belief that the only way to learn something is by taking a course or getting a degree. I can buy the same programming book or the same physiology textbook used in a course and read it on my own. The only problem is that, unless you really do something outstanding to prove that you know the material, its not something you can put on an application/resume.

"The only problem is that, unless you really do something outstanding to prove that you know the material, its not something you can put on an application/resume."

Which is why the Education industry is really the Accreditation industry.

It depends on what you're learning.

I wouldn't want to waste my time on a class that just teaches you how to use Hadoop. On the other hand, there are some topics that I'd have a much harder time believing can be treated well outside a classroom setting. Classes that deal with softer skills such as project management strategy or research design really seem to benefit quite a bit from the group learning environment. You could certainly learn them other ways, but probably more slowly. If you're trying to build a career there's an opportunity cost there.

It is okay for CS classes, but not for chemistry...

I think a difficulty with this approach is that a textbook often contains more information than you actually need. In that regard a class is better because you have more guidance. The best way is possibly to look through the syllabi of classes at various top universities to get an idea of what is important.

Also, a textbook doesn't have everything you need, and knowledge and technology change; there's no substitute for a human with expertise.

We launched yesterday reviews for modern day credentials like Specializations and Nanodegrees to tackle this problem. Sorta like 'Credentialing the credentials'. It can be found here:


It still early but this might help potential students get a sense of quality of the credential before hand.

Meant as constructive criticism: the page is really blue... kinda an eyestrain -- have you considered going for more readability-friendly colors?

edit: just saw the other comment -- yeah, same dealie

OT, but let me mention this: the contrast of white on blue on this page is so strong it made me close it.

If you want to see a well done business class, check out these classes from the University of Michigan (disclaimer-my wife was involved in the creation): https://www.coursera.org/specialization/valuation/45

I personally don't like that Coursera dropped free certificates of accomplishments for many courses. While this might not be such a problem in the US, I (living in Germany) see this as a serious problem in countries as Germany, Austria or Brazil, where it is essential that you have some certificate to prove that you really took the course.

What I'm particularly angry about is that in former days you could get a free certificate of accomplishment for the courses from the Data Science specification

> https://www.coursera.org/specialization/jhudatascience/

A few weeks ago Coursera changed the policy even for these existing courses. That's why I completely lost any trust that I had in Coursera and will actively avoid taking courses from Coursera (and instead look what edX has to offer).

Do employers look at certificates at all?

My current employer is requiring everyone to get Security+ certifications because our clients are starting to require that.

edit: oh, certificate vs certification. I don't know of anyone who cares about the Coursera certificates, but it seems certifications are still in vogue.

As I review resumes, it's just another data point, along with degree, previous jobs, etc. They aren't required, or even preferred. But, they do display an interest in learning and progressing professionally, which is always good.

Shameless plug: MOOCs presented in a course catalog format http://www.coursebuffet.com

Looks nice! One suggestion - can you add whether subtitles are available for the courses listed? This info is crucial to people like me who are hard of hearing and also for non-native English speakers.

Thanks for this! It's really hard to browse/search for MOOCs.

That said, looking at your site now it does seem to have a problem with courses being listed as "always available". A couple of examples:

[1] https://www.coursebuffet.com/course/1081/202-Logic:-Language... [2] https://www.coursebuffet.com/course/1253/270-Digital-Systems

Thanks for letting us know. We are working on a new way of updating courses dates/course status.

Would love to see courses from https://www.kadenze.com/ listed on there. (Full disclosure, I'm one of their engineers)

Seems Interesting. My friends will like this.

Two anecdotes on this front: First, I'm currently pursuing a master's degree because doing MOOCs left me hungry for more.

Second, a whole lot of the questions in the end-of-class survey for the most recent MOOC I completed where things like, "My opinion of [University] has improved since taking this course," and, "I am considering applying at [University]."

I like Coursera, but I've been waiting on a class to happen for the past two years and they keep rescheduling it. I really wish they'd address it by either canceling the listing or actually making it happen.

The class is Dan Boneh's Crypto 2 course.

I can testify to the quality of this course. I completed both Crypto 1 and Crypto 2. Both were very well presented.

Could you post the Crypto 2 course materials somewhere online?

Wait what?

I did't think crypto 2 had ever run?

I took the first round of crypto 1 and have been waiting for 2 ever since!

He probably went to Stanford and took it in person.

Ah, that would be the way to ensure you get to take it :)

Yeah. I've been waiting well over a year for Crypto 2. Never heard of it ever being run.

I'm waiting for that course as well, the first was excellent but I would like to finish it.

Do people typically put qualifications from a Coursera class on a resume? The credibility of a college education in the professional world can't be replaced as easily.

I've taken a few Machine Learning / Big Data courses using MOOCs and done enough homework such that I get a certificate. But I'd never put it on a resume because that would imply mastery of the subject, and no MOOC is as sufficient in coverage as a normal college curriculum.

I took the MOOCs mostly for context in areas where online tutorials are terrible; at the least, it'll help lead to some sweet blog posts. :)

If I were you I'd put it on a resume. Just be honest that you a MOOC course at Stanford etc.. When I'm looking at that resume I wouldn't necessarily think this is a guy who can lead a Machine Learning team. But it does tell some things I'm very interested in as an interviewer.

1. It shows the resume owner is a self-motivated autodidact which I think are some the most important skills a developer can possess.

2. It gives a great talking point for the interview. One of the ways an interviewer can gauge an individuals intelligence and communication skills is how well they can describe what they learned in a class.

> The credibility of a college education in the professional world can't be replaced as easily.

I think it depends on the industry. In software development I stopped even looking at the education of the person applying because I've never found any meaningful correlation between schooling and the capabilities of a developer. In fact at times I found a reverse correlation where the higher the degree the less able they were to code so I try to not even look at all to prevent as much bias as possible in either direction.

> But I'd never put it on a resume because that would imply mastery of the subject

Would it though? I think it at least demonstrates interest and a sufficient level of involvement to finish the course. I wouldn't assume it implied mastery, but I wouldn't assume that for college degrees either (even if they are better than MOOCs at present).

Completing these courses takes quite a lot of self discipline, an attribute I would have though most employers would be looking for.

Absolutely put it on a resume.

If, on the off-chance, your interviewer is into MOOCs, this is a plus.

If not, there's also an off-chance they're curious 'what is this'?

And if not, then educate then on it. Done on personal time because of personal/professional interest.

No downside to MOOCs there. Perhaps that is the ace in the pack - that they should, by existence, become required (hence a ranking-up in push for certification by Coursera recently).

I would list it under my "Hobbies, Interests, Activities" section if I had taken it recently. It might be a good topic of light conversation during the interview.

Depends on how strong the rest of your resume is. If you're solid otherwise, it's an "other interests" at the end.

If you're in an emerging economy and didn't go to your country's No. 1 Famous University, then you need some way of telling people in a hurry not to discard your application, because you might actually be good. MOOC completion may be one of your better shots.

In what way is a MOOC less sufficient in coverage than a normal college course?

For that matter how about taking individual MS CS courses like cryptography?

It is maybe off-topic but few days ago I was lamenting to myself that I'd hoped Coursera would stop sending spam or do a proper setting where I can definitively opt-out from all their emails (and I'm not speaking about emails for an enrolled course). This is really bad I think, especially from an organization with such a noble cause.

Definitely had to google what a MOOC was: Massive open online course.

Even though this isn't the same thing at all, this reminded me of a course I had in college where instead of attending in-person and in-class meetings, we all had to create Second Life avatars and meet online.

The professor was doing research on the subject and I quickly found the online meetings for 'educational computing' (Microsoft Office class) to be pretty useless. Luckily this was long enough ago when it was possible to not have a good enough video card for such an activity and I was allowed to not attend those meetings anymore.

I completed 23 courses on Coursera and I love the platform. But I don't buy the notion that Coursera is becoming the lead generator for the traditional universities. I would never trade in my learning experience with one where I have to be physically present in a classroom to learn. And by and large most universities are still organized around the classroom experience. Until that changes, I don't think I'll be applying for a traditional college degree.

Which University dropped out of Coursera, out of curiosity?

UC Berkeley had a few classes on Coursera early on but transitioned to Edx shortly after.


UBC (University of British Columbia) did.

Rice University, for instance, reports that it is getting more applicants — and higher-quality applicants — for its computer-science masters’ degree after offering a CS course on Coursera, he said.

This is a completely personal, liberal arts-educated perspective and anecdote, but going to Rice University for a Computer Science degree is akin to going to MIT for an English Literature degree. Prestigious school, sure. Is it the field for which it's known to be at the top? Uhhh, nope.

A bit harsh. You might want to check your perception. According to U.S. News and World Report its graduate school ranks #20.


Yeah a bit harsh but with reasons. When I look over that list I see UT Austin up at #9 in a tie. I've known for years that the UT Austin program was worthwhile, because it is. I'll stand by the assertion that Rice isn't known as a hotbed of tech, but it is a very fine institution with, I'm sure, excellent metrics in the U.S. News & World Report scoring system...mostly because it's expensive, small, and extremely picky with its applicants.

Agreed, and this is coming from a UT Austin grad. Hook 'Em!

Actually, this may be exactly the point of the quoted text: people don't know Rice for their CS department, but a high quality course could change this view.

Also, Chomsky is a professor in MIT, so I would give a shot in their linguistic courses.

Right, I mean I get that idea, but coming back to the bigger concept at play with Coursera, the one that kicks off the article regarding "Will this help a student/graduate in the job market?" I have a bit of skepticism.

In fairness I do know Chomsky's work and his prestige in the field. Personally as an artist and student of language, and as a working professional who employed an English degree for my income year after year in business environments, I am not a fan. At all. I'll just leave it at that.

I feel like when I get time I should learn deep learning and agent-embodied AGI stuff, business and management stuff.

I just can't see how taking online courses, especially for money, is a cost- and time- effective way to do that.

I think I need to actually build an agent-based deep learning system and run multiple businesses to actually learn those skills. How-tos and background, reading, exercises etc. for all of those things is available online for free for filling in gaps between trying things out.

> The new investment ... would extend the company’s “runway” to try new experiments.

Is it just me, or is a plane on a runway a scary analogy for investment?

If being higher off the ground is better in this analogy, you're far better off building a structure than flying a plane because that plane will only stay aloft as long as it has fuel.

A better analogy would need a self-sustaining stage, to reflect a profitable business model with reduced need for external investment.

I can't believe this. Where is digital education headed to?

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