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Coursera is phasing out free certificates (courserajunkie.wordpress.com)
205 points by joegreen on May 31, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 124 comments

While what the OP mentioned is True , what i really think is that the real value of MOOCs is not in the certificate (it not that much important especially from MOOC providers) but the opportunity that it creates for people to gain knowledge , and personally speaking , MOOCs have changed my life , i live in 3rd world country where the quality of education is worse than you can imagine, but thanks to Coursera, Edx and Udacity , i managed to learn so many things , so what we should focus on , is that the opportunity it provides for people around the world to learn new things and change their lives in one way or another is the true factor that should be considered in the MOOC revolution .

This is a really great observation. For many people they have been raised that it doesn't count unless you get the certificate. That has elements of truth to it in the job market, you need an independent third party to say that you have learned the material. However, for just as many people it has really about accelerating their ability to be effective by rapidly absorbing the knowledge and learning of people that have come before, which then allows them to push forward with that learning already in place. And that does change lives, and villages.

Coursera has increasingly pushed non-participation in a course's verified certificate process as a signifier of lower status as a student. Originally, certificates were a mark of academic performance and the business model was more akin to a dual license open-source project where the non-paying community was just the non-paying community; the verified certificate was solely a value added proposition based on the value of verification. The change has been that certificates have shifted toward a mark of consumer status.

There has been a trend toward attaching stigma to taking the courses for free. Removing the certificates from free tracks is an obvious part of it.

Private Universities and diploma mills have attractive business models for some organizations and operators.

IMHO this is what distinguishes exceptional software engineers. They're not just trying to get a job, do well in their classes or otherwise satisfy external ideals. They just want to experience their own excellence as an end in itself. In the job market pretension is extremely effective. You can likely make a better living by optimizing appearances and neglecting actuality. If you're not able to evaluate a person's abilities you desperately need an independent third party. Notably, this doesn't imply that it's an effective pedagogical practice.

A person simply intent on becoming more than yesterday has no one to fool. Their capacity for self-evaluation is preserved. They can enter into an autodidactic loop that isn't utterly bound on I/O. I suspect this is much more effective than traditional education, albeit much less convergent and measurable.


Once someone learns something -- they can put it into practice (or not if they were just learning for fun).

It makes sense that in the future, rather than a certificate, examples of putting learning into practice would become more important. It is certainly easy to show proof of practice already with smartphones, cheaper computers and great publishing tools.

portfolio trumps certificate :)

In some fields you just can't experiment at home (often because the capital expenditure is too high), think some chemistry, some rocket design, some metallurgy etc. You need to get a job to build your portfolio, and you need a piece of paper to get the first job.

This is true, but only to the extent that we're looking at the current state of moocs - which don't offer access to those kinds of equipment.

When we start seeing that happen, we're back to the focus on ability to show work, experiments behind them, and the ability to describe the work in great detail to a potential employer in order to get the job.

also , for new college grad jobs in chemistry, rocket design, metalurgy -- these can most certainly be done at home, or civilian grade facilities. See also Amateur Rocket Society and the kinds of things they're up to http://www.space-rockets.com/arsa.html

I have some very strong doubts that a MOOC will ever be able to offer the laboratory experience that you'd get at a traditional university (I'm not talking entry level). To do a lot of the EE work I've done in the past, you really need to know what you're doing, and a lot of the equipment, like a good vector network analyzer, is both incredibly cost prohibitive (new ones can reach a quarter of a million), and really take some expert knowledge to operate effectively (i.e. someone should be there with you to ensure the you don't break the machine). MOOCs may be good for CS, and they may be good for teaching entry level knowledge, because of the way the accumulation of very expensive equipment and experience/intelligence surrounding the field, at least for the immediate engineering fields I've been exposed to. I think it's still far better (if not the only decent way) to have a faculty mentor present and have a lot more close cooperation (as atleast I did when I was in university) when learning a lot of the specialist EE knowledge I got back when I was in school. I doubt you'll ever see MOOCs progress much in this regard, nor would I want to hire an engineer who did not have some level of hands on design and lab experience described above.

Also to deflect a potential counterpoint: most of the very expensive equipment will probably never be any cheaper because it isn't built in enough quantities, and for things like good RF equipment, everything needs to be carefully spec'd and machined, and the manufacturing is very time and resource intensive (you're getting your money's worth on a good spectrum analyzer or network analyzer, typically).

To do a lot of the EE work I've done in the past, you really need to know what you're doing, and a lot of the equipment, like a good vector network analyzer, is both incredibly cost prohibitive (new ones can reach a quarter of a million

I have less than $10K in my HP8510C, thanks to eBay, but I'm also lucky that I'm not into organic chemistry or something else that would get me added to the no-fly list as soon as I tried to equip my lab.

In some states like Texas, the brave, patriotic drug warriors have successfully outlawed common glassware. After all, why would you want an Erlenmeyer flask or a reflux condenser if you're not cooking meth? Eventually, I'm sure it will occur to them that I could use my VNA to optimize the radar cross-section of a homebrew drone to evade the air defenses at the White House, and that'll be the end of that hobby.

hmm - yes I have the similar doubts about programming at the advanced "building something very complicated level" with a analogous experience in my current project with machine learning and cloud infrastructure.

Totally agree about having a person present -- but moocs don't preclude that - see "inverted classroom" concepts.

back to complicated high-end equipment :

* there are people who have electron microscopes of their own - http://hackedgadgets.com/2013/01/01/garage-scanning-electron... .

* usb protocol analyzers used to be 20k (if I remember correctly how much catc's were) ...and now they are available for < $100 or can be made with open source parts.

Its hard to imagine ahead of time, but many exotic things come down in price and complexity when smart people come along and imagine a need for them in their garages or similar lower-end-than-original setting.

fun discussion!

In chemistry rather for legal reasons.

> portfolio trumps certificate :)

Not on my home country. If you don't have the certificate good luck going through HR.

good point. I've also lived in non-US countries and saw that.

So question for you is - in your country is the need for the certificate increasing or decreasing?

Increasing, it doesn't make sense to decrease, given our society.

As I said, without papers certifying the knowledge one has, the application will just be tossed into the garbage can.

The only way to workaround that, like every southern country in Europe, is if you know someone that knows someone....

Also for any IT related job, applicants are expected to have at least a 3 year duration degree, with preference given to those with a 5 year duration one.

I would love to see numbers on innovation, compensation, and quality of life of developers in the USA versus Europe. I have my suspicions on how it'd turn out, but a full exploration would be fascinating.

howe do you think it would turn out?

I suspect (based on nothing more concrete than heresay) that European developers have less stress, American developers make more money, European developers have better health care and fringe benefits, and American developers are more prone to trying something insane just to see if it works.

I took a Modern History class on coursera[0] how would I show proof of it? I also took one in macro economics, which also seems somewhat hard to show :)

Some subjects are inherently less practical and/or difficult to produce evidence for.

[0] which was among the best of more than a dozen classes I've taken across a few MOOCs, highly recommended! https://www.coursera.org/course/modernworld

Okay, good, so lets play this out a bit.

You're claiming these courses, and you also claim you did well and learned something.


Scenario 1 you're interviewing for a job:

Interviewer has knowledge and experience in the area of question.

They ask you "tell me about XYZ - you have taken courses on the subject? <looks at your resume>".

Your answer is:

  * "blah blah blah blah blah ..lots of juicy details about the cool stuff you learned." 
  * "blah blah blah, where you learned it from" 
  * "blah blah what you did in the course" 
  * "yada yada, here's an essay I wrote, citing sources".
  * "foo bar baz I got a article published in a magazine or did a talk at XYZ"
  * "I built this thing for XYZ ..check out these pictures"
Your answer is not:

  * "Here's my credential in XYZ"
Scenario 2 you're hanging at a local meetup for XYZ, you know, "doing the networking"

Someone says "FOO in XYZ subject is cool"

You say: "No doubt! I took a course on on XYZ on coursera. I did a whole section on FOO, it was sweet"

You do not say : "here's my credential"

Scenario 4 you're on a date

You do not say : "here's my credential(s)"[1]

Scenario 5 you're hanging with your significant other, having a intellectual discussion (I guess the date in #4 went well)

You do not say : "blah blah blah - I have credential(s) - yada yada, I'm right"[2]

[1] whatever credential(s) is a euphemism for -- you can never lead with this on a date :) :) :).

[2] this never works

Scenario 6 you're interviewing for a job and personnel manager has hardly any knowledge about the topic (very usual).

Personnel manager: "You claim that you have knowledge in [topic]. What do you have to prove this kind of knowledge?

Me: "I attended course in [provider] and completed it successfully with distinction. Here's the certificate..."

Scenario 7 - again job interview

Personnel manager: "You claim that you very actively continue to educate yourself. What can you offer to prove you claim?"

Me: "Here's a list of certificates that I earned on Coursera for the last year alone. These show my individual initiative in self-improvement in quite a range of skills that could be important for the job."

Alternate answer: "The increasingly difficult and diverse projects I have completed drew on all of the new knowledge I was gaining, and speak for themselves."

The personnel manager (again: they usually have few knowledge about the topic) is usually not able to assess whether these projects were really difficult or just smoke and mirrors.

On the other hand, checking the certificates is easy...

And this is what's wrong with employment, and why so many unqualified people get in.

Look, I say this as a teacher who offers degree classes, and as a student earning a certificate that says I can teach...

You can earn certificates without learning a damn thing.

is the "personel manager" you describe really the state of hiring? As a company it seems you would miss a lot of talent by filtering this way.

First: This kind of personal manager a hate object in German programming and engineering circles in about the same way the pointy-haired boss does in US ones.

I openly can't answer this question for reasons that are off topic here. But I have good reasons to believe that the stories are often true: If you just look at job advertisements you'll very often see very contradictory job requirements that by simple logic and knowledge of, say, programming can hardly be satisfied and simply make no sense for the job. No, say, programmer with the faintest knowledge about his job would write such a job advertisement. On the other hand, if you know the typical hire process, where often the personal manager has a say...

ok got it - thanks for additional context.

fair enough.

I haven't had many of those myself - but that may be a selection bias due to not having accumulated credentials. Have to admit, no body has ever asked me to prove I went to university but they have consistently asked for the types of answers I describe in scenario #1 above.

In the case of the hiring I do, our "personal managers" are code surfacing resumes based on their content and then a lightweight screening before they come to me. That screening might include a check to verify experience or references. Then I never ask for credential -- only discussion and proof of work (again - maybe a bias of me and those like me).

Completely agree. I switched out of the finance/accounting industry to be a software developer because I fell in love with coding. I would not have been able to learn the skills to make that switch (while already working full time) without MOOCs and other awesome online resources to guide me along the way.

MOOCs help us reach the goal that any motivated, bright individual can learn the skills necessary to reach their potential. Obviously we're still far away from that - but free online courses are certainly one step in the right direction.

How did learning new things change your life?

Although that it's not important how MOOCs changed my life , but i will tell you how , i was raised in a poor family (like really poor) , i got my first computer when i was 16 years old , and saw the internet for the first time when i was 18 years old , i always had hunger for knowledge and learning new things but never could go further than reading some old books from the high school library , when i first got the internet access it was just the beginning of the MOOCs and i was amazed by the opportunity it gives , given that i always loved computers and the "magic" behind it , i started my first MOOC at that time which was CS50 by David Malan in HarvardX (Edx) , and never stopped MOOCing from the the three platforms , now thanks to MOOCs and of course practicing on my free time i am a 20 years old full stack developer, i am still a junior developer ,but i gained enough money to change the situation of my family from worse to the better, while most of my peers still studying in our system (I am studying too and graduating this year from electrical engineering) , the real difference is between our education system and the MOOCs , i have to emphasize that there is no way to compare the quality , and of course the price (which is free) , i really encourage everyone to never stop learning from MOOCs because knowledge and new skills can create a completely change a life .

Similar to my experience. My parents always had high levels of debt and lived close to the breadline. I remember once there was a bit fear of home repossession. They managed to get my a second-hand PC from a friend when I was ten. Had 4gb HDD and Win ME. Cannot remember the other specs. They ran a cable to my room so we could share internet access.

Unrestricted, undisturbed internet access has had a net positive effect on my life. I learned to program using the internet, I was able to learn other subjects at my own pace in which ever order. My test scores jumped from low-end in the class to up there with the highest. This continued through high school and came out with above average grades. I suspect I would have done better if I'd have recognised and sought treatment for attention deficit disorder.

Learning new things changed my life very much for the better. That is why I continue to do so fifteen years later.

That's really awesome to hear! I work on the Stanford edX team, but we don't see a lot of feedback from our off-campus users (even though there are lots of them). It's great to know that MOOCs are actually helping people out. In case anyone hasn't heard of our site (it's a little smaller than the more well known ones), we run a public edX instance at lagunita.stanford.edu and maintain forks of the edX repositories at github.com/StanfordOnline.

Kiloreux and others who have benefited in similar ways, PLEASE email your stories to Coursera, edX, MIT OCW, or any other sites whose MOOCs have helped you. Sometimes, they are sitting in a meeting room discussing whether to discontinue some free aspect of the service, and your story will be enough to convince them to keep it going a little longer.

You might feel insignificant off in some far corner of the world, but when the creators hear your voice, they REALLY care what you think.

Great story.

My first MOOC was also David Malan's CS50x on edX; what an incredible teacher! He brings such a unique enthusiasm and joy to the study of Computer Science. In case you're reading this, thank you Professor Malan!

First, congratulations!.

Second, while MOOCs are MOOCs are great, they don't fit every type of person.Are people in your country organizing to give the support needed to make MOOC a good fit for everyone ?

I think you're missing one thing though. Recognition makes it possible for more people, which otherwise wouldn't or couldn't, to have that same experience.

What's the point of asking, if learning the answer won't change yours? :)

By acquiring knowledge and skills that can be used to get a job or at least an internship, start a business and expand your expertise beyond what is possible locally. Just a guess.

is this a serious question?

Yes. He says it changed his life. I just wanted to know how.

In my experience over about a dozen completed courses and many more with less attentive participation, Certificate policies vary from course to course. Some of it is due to policies of the sponsoring institution, some is due to the business transaction between the institution or the instructor and Coursera. There's a whole host of branding issues that come with putting Blub State University on a course description. And good old BSU has a team of administrative staff that have nothing else to do than worry about BSU's brand.

That said, the Coursera Android App has become consistently worse. It wants to run at startup and once entered, never release the camera even after the app is stopped. To get rid of the camera-in-use toast, the app has to be uninstalled or the device rebooted. I came to the conclusion that unfortunately Coursera is headed down the road to finding the optimum between suck and income as a business model. Basically, it's given up on platform growth via innovation and is optimizing for Venture Capital fund liquidation timelines.

MOOC's are a model that can live off of exhaust fumes (in the words of Spolsky) but turning them into part of the people tracking infrastructure is simply more consistent with conventional wisdom and ten year investment fund timelines.

[edit:] On the 50% for a certificate comment, that's what Jeff Ullman does for his Finite Automata course and for me, it was non-trivial and required a lot of learning. There have been other courses where 90% and distinction was far easier.

nice touch with the blub reference :)

(thinking to myself: how can put blub state on my linkedin profile)

more seriously though, to your points about Coursera and VC liquidation timelines: We need coursera like moocs that are "B-Corps" or similar http://sos.oregon.gov/business/Pages/benefit-company.aspx .

I made some comments along similar lines in the comment section of this post : http://continuations.com/post/119930478310/going-past-capita... - ironically a VC's blog, but don't prejudge - he's also a philosopher of sorts and has some good ides.

Honestly, if someone's resume tells me they took (say) the Coursera Natural Language Processing course, never in a million years would it occur to me to ask to see the certificate, any more than I'd ask to see their transcript to verify that they took specific classes in college.

And vice versa, I have lots of Coursera courses on my resume, no one has ever asked to see my certificates either.

Nobody asked to see my git account or any coursera/edx credentials either when I was hired. I did a week long interview that started with a phone call to briefly test my knowledge followed by the typical whiteboard interview, followed by work tests. However I don't live in some of these countries like India or Philippines where verifiable credentials seem to be imperative to even getting the phone call.

Putting Coursera on a resume had never occurred to me.

Do you use it to bolster other experience and education? Or would you be comfortable applying for a position where your only relevant experience was from Coursera?

I have no non-Coursera CS training, so I use it as the "CS training" part of my resume. (I also have relevant work experience and a math degree.)

I would be comfortable hiring someone entry-level most of whose relevant experience was from Coursera, assuming they convinced me they would be a good hire.

If you are a quick learner, IMO you should feel comfortable applying for any job you think you can get hired for, even if it's a stretch based on your experience.

Same. Even if they did, just take a screenshot of the "Course Records" screen that proves you took the class and the grade. Besides, you can still download the Statement of Accomplishment.

In a sense, I agree: if the course is relevant to the work, the normal interview process will naturally identify people who don't know the relevant material.

But then, what about when you have far more applicants than time to interview them, and the question of course/degree completion really matters? Do you bring in everyone claiming to have a Stanford degree?

People in other comments are saying the certificates are pointless, or useless, or never needed. In contrast to their claims, recently when applying for a job I was asked for proof that I really do have a PhD. I have no idea where the certificate is, and pointed out in an email that certificates can, these days, easily be faked. To provide a certificate merely gives them grounds later, if they find I don't have a PhD after all, to claim that I actively misled them.

Instead I referred them to the British Library thesis lookup service[0] and pointed out that there's no way I could fake that. It was accepted (much to my relief!) but others may not have that option.

So sometimes some sort of documentary evidence of a qualification is going to be necessary.

[0] http://ethos.bl.uk

For the proof of your PhD, doesn't an official transcript mailed from your school suffice?

I've been at my job for the past 7 yrs, but has hiring changed so much in this time that most jobs DON'T ask for academic transcripts anymore?

That then means contacting my school and getting them to sort out a transcript, which means involving a third party. Easier just to point them at a URL. Done.

It's not the case that all credentials are worthless -- but it is the case that a Coursersa "statement of accomplishment" is. If you take a Coursera course, it should be for the interest of learning something, not for the credentials, because nobody will ever care about those credentials.

(I suspect the point of what they're doing here is to make it so people will care about them -- if you can't get the credentials for free, it makes them rarer and therefore more valuable maybe eventually.)

When people are saying the certificate is worthless they mean that when applying for a job, employers do not care if you have completed a mooc or not. A Mooc's value doesn't come from the fact that you finish the course, it comes from the fact that you've learned something new from great teachers. With the knowledge from that mooc you should then do something which you can then show to whomever.

"Free MOOC certificates for most platforms? Forget about it" would be a more accurate title.

Nevertheless, the post content is quite accurate. I was immensely disappointed with Coursera's decision to remove free statement of accomplishment certificates.

On the bright side, It seems that edX won't be implementing a policy change. The reason is quite simple: coursera is a for-profit and edx is a non-profit.

The largest and most popular MOOC platforms are nearly universally for-profit orgs: Udacity, Iversity, Coursera, Futurelearn. Same with programming education platforms: Codecademy, Codeschool, Treehouse, Lynda, Pluralsight.

Putting it in UN terms: This is a reason for grave concern.

Platforms like Treehouse and Codeschool have superior learning UX and require monthly payment of $25-50. While this is certainly not much, the majority users of worldwide internet users won't be able to afford this price tag.

Dangers to public benefit will become more pronounced as soon as M&A commence and online education will become an oligopoly. Pluralsight has already acquired Codeschool for $x0 MM.

As Gibson's quote goes: "The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed."

If this massive disparity in access to knowledge persists we will find ourselves in the world predicted by cyberpunk authors.

Are we able to change this?

I honestly don't understand this. The article talks about revolutionizing the world of education and yet expects the online courses to give out certifications, like classical schools do. The free online courses exist so that you have free access to education, not that you have a piece of something that you can show to people. That might be an added benefit, and I see nothing wrong with strict requirements and charging money for it, but the primary purpose is the education, not the certificate.

While that is correct from a purely educational point of view, it's unfortunately not currently true from a social point of view.

There are expectations of certification in many industries, and the assumption is often made that without a certificate, you do not have the knowledge. In the IT world, this isn't really a thing, but outside it, it often is.

It's therefore completely reasonable to expect a 'replacement for classical schooling' to also provide similar certifications. Because that's what you need from a social point of view.

Yes, but frankly, does anyone ever accept MOOC certificates? All the employers I have met usually skip the MOOC part of my resume entirely.

That'd probably depend on the industry. But even if they didn't, the way to solve that would be by increasing the reputation of MOOC certifications, not by doing away with them entirely.

You might have the impression that they skipped it. I, in opposite, claim that it showed the employer that you are very willing to upgrade your education on your own.

But that, again, has nothing to do with the final certificate.

No, the certificate certifies that you indeed invested time to upgrade your education on your own to the employer.

Did an employer ever ask you to show them your university degree after you mentioned that you attended an university on your resume? I'm asking because it never happened to me and I don't think it's a common practice. Just mentioning that you have done some online courses on your resume and being able to talk about them seems enough to me. If the course is relevant to the job you are applying to, I expect the interviewer to be able to verify that you indeed took the course in a quick conversation.

> Did an employer ever ask you to show them your university degree after you mentioned that you attended an university on your resume?Did an employer ever ask you to show them your university degree after you mentioned that you attended an university on your resume?

I live in Germany, so I can just answer this question for Germany and Austria (in the latter country the situation is even a little bit more expressed). But handing in a copy (often even a witnessed copy) of your university degree is nearly always required when making an application even to get an interview.

It's common in regulated industries. In medicine for example, during the credentialing process you have to have your transcripts, degrees, etc. sent in from the original institution.

There are a lot of different models for distance learning. Self-paced study is one of them. A more structured classroom type environment is another. The value for me was that Coursera provided the latter and the support of a cohort of students with their more traditional approach of timelines with fixed milestones on a fixed calendar.

When I started, the verified certificate was offered. It didn't really offer value compared to the unverified certificate. Coursera has done the easy thing. Instead of adding value to the verified certificate, Coursera removed value from the alternative. Instead of adding awesomeness, it added suck. That's its prerogative as a business and more or less the trend on the internet and in education. Adding value to the world is hard work.

On the one hand, I agree. On the other... well, an inability to add more value to a verified certificate is pretty much one of the fundamental problems that Coursera (and other MOOCs) has struggled with. A certificate that you've completed a MOOC (together with some weak identity verification) just doesn't have pretty much any value to most people.

Maybe if you've got no other credentials, they're better than nothing--especially if they indicate a systematic attempt to educate yourself in a relevant area. Or maybe to satisfy some sort of continuing education requirement.

But MOOCs haven't really gone much of anywhere as businesses precisely because their value is correctly largely seen as more akin to self-paced study with books and video than a college class. This isn't only because of the lack of value attached to their credentials, verified or otherwise, but it's one of the reasons.

> That might be an added benefit, and I see nothing wrong with strict requirements and charging money for it, but the primary purpose is the education, not the certificate.

This seems to be a very US-centric mentality. In Germany's mentality it's rather different: Universities are (mostly) free, but about anybody will want to see a certificate for about anything that you claim to have accomplished. So if you can't show some kind of certificate, then you won't believed to have any knowledge in it.

Some (older) Germans love to joke that some people mostly do further education while in job only to have lots of certificates to show. ;-)

That seems like an absolutely terrible attitude. "Oh, you can clearly demonstrate knowledge in this area? Well, that's too bad, because you don't have a certificate reaffirming what we can easily tell by interviewing you."

Nearly all personnel managers don't have the knowledge to examine whether the candidate has a solid knowledge in an area or not. So in my opinion it makes a lot of sense to rather trust in institutions (in particular universities) that have.

Yes, as long as the institution is reputable this is a pretty good heuristic. Of course, determining how reputable an institution is can be a problem in its own right if there are tons of institutions offering seemingly identical certification.

> Of course, determining how reputable an institution is can be a problem in its own right if there are tons of institutions offering seemingly identical certification.

First: Compare the time you need to check an institution vs. the time you need for assessing a job candidate (in particular the former only has to be done one time, the latter for each candidate).

Second: Nearly all universities in Germany (in terms of quality of education) can be considered as rather equal. On the other hand: If you have a graduation certificate from a university in a country, where this is not the case, you will, indeed, be doubted, if it's not from a internally renowned university. Similar things hold for the German academic scholarship programs (there are only seven or so big ones in Germany and you know which focus they have on the candidates).

> Yes, as long as the institution is reputable this is a pretty good heuristic.

Third: This is why you preferably get certificates from reputable institutions (for Coursera, the fact that Stanford offered courses there gave some initial credibility; the same holds for edX - MIT).

Fourth: The fact that I got certificates on Coursera from not-so-renowned universities, too, doesn't make them worthless. They'd only be doubted to show deep knowledge in the topic of the course. They still show that I'm willing to upgrade my education on my one (something that employers, of course, love to see).

> in particular the former only has to be done one time

It may have to be done with less frequency, but you probably still want to evaluate them periodically to make sure standards haven't slipped.

Otherwise I agree with you on all points.

No, it isn't a good heuristic. How many Oxford graduates actually remember everything they were taught? How many cheated their way through the hard parts?

The only solution is to evaluate a candidate directly. Where or how they learned what they know is at best a mechanism to filter resumes but that itself is a bit naive since you could get candidates from famous universities that don't know anything useful.

> How many Oxford graduates actually remember everything they were taught?

Nobody remembers absolutely everything from any course of study. However, graduating with good marks from a university like Oxford shows that an individual is capable of succeeding in a rigorous environment.

> How many cheated their way through the hard parts?

Most likely more than zero, and this is something you have to take into account when addressing the reputability of an institution. Oxford in particular does have issues with cheating, but most of the discovered cases seem to come from their business school, so even different programs from the same university might have different reputability.

> The only solution is to evaluate a candidate directly

That's obviously false. That is one solution, and clearly the one you prefer, but it is not always (or even often) practical.

What you have here is a broken hiring and personnel process.

Even if they can, testing that is costly. So en entity providing proxy measuring of actual knowledge - the acquisition of the certificate - is valuable, and rational. There are shortcomings, obviously, in each measure or simplified model of every reality. For example old certificates lose informative value. That's why, for example, language certificated such as TOEFL are only valid for some time. There are other certificates, though, that probably have an expiration date for business purposes (e.g. GMAT is valid for 5 years, but it basically measures general IQ and analytic capabilities, which shouldn't change a lot in five years, IMHO).

We have the same mentality here in Slovakia, but that is not the point. I guess there are multiple ways to look at these online courses, but if they are in any way revolutionizing education, it is not reasonable to expect work just like traditional universities. I really don't see the need for them to promote the kind of mentality where people "do" the courses just to get a certificate at the end.

The shame for me is that I occasionally used the "with distinction" grading to push myself where I might otherwise think I've done a "good enough" job understanding the content. It really helped push me over the line when taking the "Mathematical Biostats Boot Camp" series, which I enjoyed. https://www.coursera.org/course/biostats

It's silly, I know, but free certificates were the gamification of learning, and I'll miss that particular aspect of the game.

> It's silly, I know, but free certificates were the gamification of learning, and I'll miss that particular aspect of the game.

Absolutely. Even if I'm the only person in the world who even knows I took the class, grades and deadlines, and (to a lesser extent) certificates are part of the added value of an online class, compared to self study.

Certificates lose their meaning if they are doled out willy-nilly. Hence, Coursera has to implement (or at least try to) some sophisticated verification technology. This stuff doesn't come cheap; who's going to pay for it?

Me, personally, I don't care about certificates. I want the knowledge; and that is still free. Methinks the OP is making a big deal about a piece of paper.

>sophisticated verification technology

Haha. Coursera's verification technology is a joke and prevents only the worst cases of cheating.

>Me, personally, I don't care about certificates

What's fine for you is fine for others, right?

Haha. Coursera's verification technology is a joke and prevents only the worst cases of cheating.

It really is terrible. It can't recognize me, so I stopped caring about verification.

Does this really demonstrate Coursera "giving up on the dream [of eliminating barriers to education]?"

IMO, the important thing about MOOCs has never been accreditation (show me an employer who actually cares about potential candidates' MOOC certifications, anyway), but simply making university-level courses available without the overhead of actually attending school. And in that regard, nothing's changed.

part of what makes a course "university level" is the assessment, though. there is way more to a course than just sitting in on the lectures - you do the projects and the homework and that is where the real learning happens. courseras assessment story is weak for projects and homework, so those areas of their classes are ridiculously watered down from what is offered at a university, to scale.


Or maybe it's just not a German-centric argument.

Latin countries are the same.

Y'know, back when I actually read the legalese, I feared some day Coursera would take their ball home and nobody would be allowed to play anymore:


Granted, my fears at the time were about the materials vanishing, not the diplomas, but I still fear that the entire thing will some day become completely closed up.

It isn't an unreasonable fear. The interesting thing though is that the university system (actually all post secondary education) has a vested interest in having this sort of moat.

Of course 'subjects' is only one of many things you learn by going off to college, but as a new 'tradesman' class of job emerges in technology it is struggling with its own accreditation and evaluation crisis. In my youth I was a mason part time and I was required to join the union (although as I was just starting and doing odd jobs it really was more of temporary membership rather than entering as an apprentice with the goal of making masonry my profession). What struck me was how very much the masonry union was, in large part, a educational facility which dedicated a big chunk of its resources to both training new recruits, and ensuring the skills of existing members. And as software has gone from being something just a few people understood or worked on, to something every nerdy secondary school child can do the basics of, I realized that perhaps one way to solve both the 'tuition debt' and employee shortage is to just create a coders union. Something you can walk into at 15 if you want and start apprenticing, and structured so that once you were a master in good standing you could be relied upon by any employer to tackle what ever coding task they threw at you.

The conditions are ripe for this transformation of the software industry, but it is going to be painful for the entrenched players.

Well that's what happens when you are trying to do charity AND make money - it doesn't make sense. Either it is free, or it is for profit. You have to choose which.

Khan Academy is free. MIT Courses on youtube are free.

These websites that want you to sign up, only be able to view courses at certain times, etc etc. Please, just give me youtube links and pdf/slides and have a forum for discussion.

This is not hard, youtube is free, pdf/slides are very cheap to host, as is a forum.

Why does Coursera even exist, what's the differentiating factor?

edX is a nonprofit, and they also charge for certificates.


There are labor costs involved in grading assignments and "making sure that you're the one taking the class".

There are two tiers of certification at edx. The unverified certificate is free.

Learning is more than watching videos. Coursera, edX and other providers provide automatic graded exercises, discussion forums, peer-grading assessments, etc.

I don't see the problem here. The important part, the actual knowledge being communicated by the class is still being given for free.

For now.

Yeah it is free for now, there are no guarantees about the future (death and taxes excepted and then I am not even sure about death), but why would you make that comment? The MOOCs don't owe you anything, they are providing the equivalent of a university degree for no cost, so why so negative?

I think there are conflicting incentives, and we've seen how these things tend to play out. It's really the universities and the professors teaching the classes who are providing the courses, and they need to be careful that they don't inadvertently put all this material into a walled garden under the assumption that they're giving it away to the world.

So far, there's no wall. There's just a gardener that can sell you a certificate that you indeed visited the garden, but you can still visit it anytime whether you pay or not.

And then all of the universities submitting courses to coursera would stop...

One thing I'd add is another comparison to edX. edX is a non-profit, while Coursera is for-profit.

Considering that point, I view the "bait-and-switch" slightly differently, but I agree more transparency is necessary.

I seem to remember that my certificate for Functional Programming with Scala had a shareable link code, whereas now it is only available to me. It's not anything I ever wanted to show someone, but it's slightly alarming from a company trust perspective that they would retroactively change the value of the free certificate.

I don't see the problem with charging for providing a valuable service. If Coursera is valuable then of course the people who contribute their time to making it so deserve to profit from their efforts. If it isn't valuable, then why does it matter what they charge?

I totally agree with what you're saying. However, I'd like to point out that the initial intention with MOOCs was to lower barriers to entry for low income learners around the world. Adding a fee to certificates may have increased barriers to entry in jobs that require certificates now. This, too, may prove to be a trend for increasing charges in MOOCs ... who knows maybe in a few years you'll be paying a massive sum of money to take a course course.

> "trend for increasing charges in MOOCs"


The change is not in charging for value, it's in removing the value from the alternative. It's got some equivalence to a company with dual licensing open source software crippling the community edition in order to sell more of the commercial edition.

I work for one of the large MOOC providers. We "sell" "certificates" as a means to enable us to keep on providing education for free for those who would otherwise not have access to it. Certificate sales enable us to function (e.g. pay for staff and infrastructure) and work with our university partners in putting on courses for free.

Every day we get email from learners complaining that we charge for certification. Everyday we also get email from learners thanking us for providing free education. It's a tough balance.

I accept that Coursera wants to earn money. But if paid, verified certificates can't fulfill this wish to Coursera (others on this discussion page already have argued, why it is not that easy to offer additional value for verified certificates), why doesn't Coursera try a completely different way to earn money:

It is often discussed on HN that there is a lack of qualified, say, programmers, data science experts etc. The "typical graduate" of Coursera courses is an ideal candidate to fulfill this role: Why doesn't Coursera instead let employers pay for access to their user database so that they can find high-potential candidates for their open jobs (a little bit similar to Stack Overflow Careers, but with a different focus). Why don't startups that look for underestimated, say, Python programmers search the Coursera database for good graduates of some Python programming course on Coursera. I can imagine that there could be money to be made if the often argued shortage of qualified programmers etc. is true.

MOOCs ultimately face the same problem that the old Chinese Imperial Exam had that (albeit circuitously) led to the holocaust of the Taiping Rebellion of 1850. You cannot create a true meritocracy for a number of reasons, gatekeeping being one of the biggest ones.


I am very happy to pay to get a certificate for a course that I actually get an opportunity (i.e. time) to finish. With a full-time job, a family, and side projects, it is generally hard for me to predict during sign-up if I'll be able to give enough time for course completion. It is also clear that if I do spent enough time on a course, the monetary value of my time spent and knowledge gained is much more than the cost of the certificate (I am based in the US). Additionally, while I care for the knowledge as the main thing, I do feel "why not" for the certificate too.

However, I do mind getting a certificate showing say a score of 51% when my score is 51% (instead of say 97%) just because I was unable to find time to finish. Does anyone else feel this way? Is my concern real? Assuming so, I would like to pay to get the certificate after I finish the course, not when I start it.

All of these MOOCs lack true verification of knowledge. Ultimately I think that the certification test should be done in person, at a cost to the person taking the test, since they are the ones who benefit most from the legitimacy of the certificate.

Also the signed certificate should include a clear photo of the person who took the test.

Who cares?

I don't think it matters in the slightest whether you got a certificate or not. These online courses provide a tremendous value by letting people learn. They are especially valuable for expanding your knowledge later on in life, when you already work.

As an employer, I don't care about certificates of any kind. I care about the person I'm hiring — and it isn't difficult for me to get a feel for his/her knowledge in a particular area.

I have take a lot of Coursera courses, and I guess this news is a bit of a downer, but not too much. For me, SOA is more of a memorabilia peace than any value, though I admit it is convenient to have an externally visible list of courses. But if any employer ever cared, I could just print out the profile page listing them anyway :)

OTOH, they have to make money somehow, and the fact that I still can learn so much without paying anything is plain awesome.

Thank you all for the discussion. I am on the support team at Coursera and wanted to share the official response we posted on the Coursera Junkie blog below.


Hi Kathryn and readers,

My name is Hannah, and I’m on the support team here at Coursera. We’re glad that you raised this concern, and we sincerely apologize for any confusion around our policies.

We are fully committed to our mission of providing universal access to the world's best education. As such, we continue to offer free and open access to all courses. We also offer learners the option to earn Verified Certificates, which provide official recognition from Coursera and the partner institution offering the course and formally showcases their achievements. Our robust financial aid program offers full support to learners who can demonstrate that the registration fee for a Verified Certificate is beyond their financial means.

Coursera's free certificates, also called Statements of Accomplishment, were designed before we made Verified Certificates available. Over time, we noticed confusion regarding the relative significance of the free certificate and the Verified Certificate. The latter is an official document, while the former is an unofficial, unverified memento of the course. We chose to phase out Statements of Accomplishment in order to better distinguish the official status of the Verified Certificate.

Last November, we published a blog post (http://blog.coursera.org/post/102036391812/verified-certific...) explaining the value of Verified Certificates and describing how most courses would no longer provide Statements of Accomplishment. Still, some older courses continue to offer Statements of Accomplishment, including the Child Psychology course you’ve referenced above. Understandably, that inconsistency has proven somewhat confusing.

We do our best to communicate changes clearly and will strive to be more transparent in our communication around such changes moving forward. If you have any further questions about Coursera’s certificates, I encourage you to visit this page in our learner help center: https://learner.coursera.help/hc/en-us/articles/201212139-Ce....

Interesting article (and responses) on Coursera's actions, but am I the only one who objects to the clickbait title? This has nothing at all to do with the loss of free MOOCs, even with respect to Coursera itself.

I'm quite surprised there isn't a general "sigh of relief" that this is happening...

HN is a tech news community, where many if not most of you who are working have tech salaries that can easily pay for the new Coursera pricing...

everyone knows the tech industry is volatile in the way that every few months, a new technology comes out that sends IT professionals scrambling to learn it in order to, not stay ahead of the pack, but just to keep up with the pack.

the enormous amount of free tech/programming/CS theory/knowledge from Coursera and others have created more competition in terms of tech jobs.

By principle, all members of our society deserves access to quality education, especially in the STEM areas. But let's face it -- this is good news for existing professionals in IT...for the most part ;-)

I prefer edX, it's more open in general.

    “The Statements of Accomplishment (free) and Verified
    Certificates (signature track) will be provided to all
    those who achieve 50% or higher grade, and will be released 
    within 1-2 weeks after the final submission deadline closes. 
    Everyone will be notified by email when they are ready. You
    will be able to download the certificate from your course
    records after they are released.”
50% as a passing grade?

Usually the grading scale is the same as is used in the iteration of the college class that the MOOC is based off of.

You might be right, although a 50% grade to pass The Clinical Psychology of Children and Young People still seems a little on the low side to me.

According to the excerpt you included, yes it is.

Do we really need coursera? Most universities are uploading their lectures into youtube anyway.

Well a lot of coursera courses come with :

- a community where you can discuss courses like in a real class

- exercises,source,... that are often reviewed by real teachers or peer-review which absolutely invaluable at least for me . I learned a whole lot because of this.

So it's way more than a youtube channel with a bunch of videos. Course are shot specifically for coursera.

Depends on your preferred learning model. If you can learn by just absorbing the narrative lectures, fine, but not everybody prefers it. For some, like myself, a degree of structure and interactivity provided by Coursera, helps a lot.

You have my support.

PS: MOOCs(massive, online ordered courses)

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