Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Coursera thoughts

Enrolled in a few courses and the method of presentations differ:
  1. Professor stands in front of a screen and projects slides with some notes made using a tablet PC which then gets thrown onto the screen
  2. Khan academy type approach with “real time” writing/slides with highlights as the professor goes through the points
  3. Slides with a background voice and occasional face time.

I’m a little undecided whether this is the way of the future. Method 1 is the most boring. It reminds me of being in class and doesn’t really leverage technology to the fullest. Perhaps its because this is the method most professors are used to. Similarly for method 3.

The Khan academy approach is the most engaging though probably the hardest to produce especially if the slides cover a difficult topic. I tend to drift off less in this approach.

The major problem I have with Coursera is when watching the videos I can’t ‘flip’ through the slides without rewinding the video. I almost need two computer screens or print out the slides. The split screen doesn’t work too well on my monitor.

The discussion forums are - well - discussion forums. There is a lot of noise to filter through though I’ve found it interesting and useful to look through them. I would like to participate more but time constraints preclude that.

The reason I am signed up for so many courses is that I am afraid the course won’t be offered again. Why not automatically re-offer the course? I am also worried that all the course materials will go off the server once the course is completed. Coursera isn’t very clear on the policies regarding course material - except to say it varies by professor. The main problem seems to be people downloading the videos and reposting them on YouTube and I can see why they wouldn’t want that. In which case they should just make the material available.

For instance I can’t really see what a course is like unless I enroll and if the material doesn’t look too interesting the I un-enroll. But what if a course is over and I would like to look at the materials? I presume I would have to do the same but would the material be available? I probably wouldn’t get a certificate but that isn’t my main concern.

Which brings me to another point: I was surprised to see the intensity in getting that certificate. Is there really a value to the certificate in a labor market? I’m in an academic bubble so I don’t really know. But because of the desire to get a certificate it is not unexpected to find that there are concerns about cheating and plagiarism.

In short, it is unclear what Coursera is really about - is it a substitute for college classes? I don’t think so. If anything it might be used to leverage some classes especially intro level classes. For instance, if I were a professor I might want to license with Coursera to have some courses made available - not because I’m too lazy to teach - but I can use it to double down on the intensity of the class.

One of my professors used to have us do the reading before class. The incentive was that the beginning of every class was a quiz that counted toward the grade on that reading. The quiz served as feedback as to what material was confusing or unclear - something that he wanted to know early on. I would substitute the background reading with Coursera videos.

One course that I am in is Scott Page’s Model Thinking. This is turning out to be a general overview/survey type course. Instead of doing Netlogo demos in class I would use Scott’s videos as pre-class assignment and spend class time actually doing Netlogo programming.

Is Coursera going anywhere? Yes and no. I am intensely grateful for these opportunities to learn something new and Coursera is the way to go. The quizzes and exams force me to go down a road and the certificate is an incentive, I’ll admit that. After all MIT’s OCW has been around for years and every year I say I’ll try it out but never did. Do I think that it will replace college level courses? Not entirely. It may cut down time to finish if some the courses can be substitute for intro level classes.

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