Coursera and Online Education

I looked today at the Coursera list of upcoming courses. Coursera, from their own description, are a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. We envision a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions. Our technology enables the best professors to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students.”  They are the most prominent of a number of recent initiatives to make very high quality education available to large online audiences (see e.g. the recent Harvard-MIT edx initiative).

I post this for a couple of reasons:

Firstly, many of the 111 currently listed upcoming courses will be of interest to readers of this blog. There are several courses in Economics including: Game Theory, Microeconomics, Behavioural Economics (taught by Dan Ariely) and several others. They are all free and all taught by well-known Professors in the field. Some even provide certificates of completion, homework assignments, quizzes and exams.

The second reason for posting is to ask what this implies for traditional higher education. There is clearly one school of thought that says the game is up for on-campus education now that the technology for doing this online has come to the point where Coursera can make flexible courses available free for millions of people. And yet, there is no sense yet of a flight from traditional universities and models of delivering higher education. There are so many barriers between making great courses available online and creating full programmes that are validated, credible in terms of assessment and desirable for students in terms of providing a full experience of education, including being able to work with peers, build a network, receive in-person instruction and so on. None of these seem insurmountable so one scenario might be a fully online university environment.  Tyler Cowen summarises a discussion among a number of people who have been debating this issue in the US. He comes down on a viewpoint I share  (largely from intuition as we really dont have anyway of knowing yet) that hybrid models will begin to proliferate soon merging online instruction with on-campus instruction.

Addendum: Berkeley joins Edx. List of courses here.

51 replies on “Coursera and Online Education”

Online teaching can work very well—but doing it properly, with skilled consultants available to help students personally at any time, is not cheap, and doing it cheaply does not yield good results. Online education, when provided without such backup, is another and a nobler word for extorting tuition money for nothing. Adjunct and contingent faculty often do an amazing job. But faculty working without job security, without benefits, and without offices of their own necessarily have less time and fewer resources to devote to students than permanent faculty.

I posted this elsewhere recently:

I did one of the Coursera offerings (a Stanford led course) over the last while. It covered an area which I sometimes teach myself. I would have to say it was good. I may be being a little harsh in only saying good but that is my sense of it. I do think however that it would be very good for some people by virtue of its style of delivery suiting them well.

The materials although basic enough (e.g. online whiteboard scribblings a la Khan) were effective. The pedagogy was by and large effective although it was peppered with irritating MCQs. It didn’t cover much different stuff to what I would cover (by and large) but it did set a blistering pace. I think you would want to clear the decks in your personal life to stick with it. I am not sure how well it would work for students with 5 other similar modules on the go at the same time as would be normal. That said it was compressed into about half a semester so maybe a fairer comparison might be 2-3 additional modules which would still be tough.

The online forums were a bit busy and noisy. They might have been improved with a bit of division i.e. divide the entire cohort into smaller groups of a size which achieves a reasonable signal-to-noise ratio. This might fall out naturally if self-paced learning was permitted (a la Khan Academy) however the peer-marking militated against this.

As it stands a welcome offering in the world of HE. Not sure if it will suit enough people to become the mode of choice for the majority but will definitely (at the very least) have a significant part to play in the HE future. Of course further developments of the concept may amplify their reach and in time build up more significant impact. One to watch.

Ireland has just experienced the greatest bank and property crash in the history of mankind. Perhaps the School of Real Estate and Construction Economics, Dublin Institue of technology might like to offer their courses on property valuation to “Coursera and Online Education”.

Interesting thread.
Think blended learning is the mot du jour at the moment. You have to figure out what works best online. And remember that you are competing with the most efficient information assimilation process ever developed – the human eye scanning pages of text.

So what elements work best:
Podcasts?? – are they better than text and when??
Videos (these can fail terribly if not done right – has to be colour and depth to a video with reasonably high production standards.
Forums can work well but must be task focused
Practical skills – can be demonstrated on line very well but need real world back-up.

So – elearning and such like are definitely here to stay but they will form part of rather than replace existing courses. I think that there is an export opportunity here though, for Universities and Irish training bodies to start producing online elements for incorporation into other courses in other countries. But academia is a messy world full of failed capitalists

Well if it overcomes the timetabling problem which is experienced in most 3rd level institutions then it could be a good thing.

Apparently in some faculties there are full time secrtaries employed to redo timetables on a weekly basis, so that the professor is free to attend the commitments in his personal life for the following week.

The contributors to this blog could do some excellent stuff on this system. Wouldn’t, at current state of technology, disrupt what’s happening in the system. But would be really cool to do set on Economics with special reference to current Irish and European systems.

I think Caplan has it spot on (click through from Tyler’s post). 3rd level is a lot about signalling and sorting – and it’s very good at it. As it stands these type of courses have no ‘CV’ value. There is no cohort of 17 year olds filling in CAO forms who would seriously consider this type of education as a substitute for going to UCD or TCD. And they are right.

@John Cowan

Its a very good point.

However, it is certainly a decent idea for those who are a little later on in life and are more focused on their actual, tangible skillset rather than wanting to experience such and such or namedrop a famous Uni on their CV.

I would agree this is a very interesting trend.

This is segregating research from the undergrad experience and (what is sometimes laughably referred to as) teaching.

It is often the case that the ‘university experience’ is largely about fellow students and reading texts / attempting problem solving, combined with the atmosphere and architecture, and much less about lecturers and tutors.

It isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine really bright students soaking up their university’s atmosphere, sharing the collation of lecture notes with college mates so the exam topics are covered while simultaneously seeking out better or more interesting lectures or coursework on the net.

Its very different for research.

Some really good researchers are also rather mediocre ‘teachers’, or worse.

When I studied biology for the leaving certificate the syllabus was two books and a few black and white illustrations. The course for economics was me deciding to sit higher level economics and study the subject myself. Now it is simply amazing the level of sophistication and clarity that can be accessed on line from models of DNA sequencing to DNA replication. Why Mr. Venter will go to great pains to explain things to anyone who is prepared to listen.There is stuff available on line that one could not, in thousand years of attending lectures access, and if you think that you have not “quite got” something you can cross reference and look at alternative video’s, lecture notes, seminars pod casts, modeling etc.

Truly, education is changing before our eyes and if anyone thinks they will be able to hide out in some university giving the same old lectures year in year out tweaked here and there, forget it, because you are living in cloud cuckoo land. I could do courses cheaper in China through English with accommodation thrown in but why will people even bother when they can sit in their own homes, rooms, flats etc and only meet up with friends to discuss topics of interest for social reasons.

A common exam where “students” turn up, pay and fee and sit exams will soon sort out the men from the boys and see who knows what. Granted the accreditation issues and degree awarding geometry will have to be worked out but it will be worked out. Just as a flight simulator is a fairly good indicator of skill and carrying out medical procedures on simulators is a good indication of ability so too with these internet based courses. A building is only a building most of the courses of the future will be extramural. Maybe the university will become command and control but that remains to be seen and the landscape can and will change very fast. Just look at what cloud computing is starting to do, it too will have a huge impact on the area of education.

Oh dear! I have so many experiences of various kinds of third-level teaching its very hard to know where to start. Now some of the commentary so far is ‘on target’ but some is illjudged waffle.

Teaching – that is the successful instruction of one human by another is a tad difficult. Especially if the development of a set of motor skills are part of the tuition. Simulators are fine Robert, but there is no substitute for the real thingie – like none! Even something as simple as burette (it has a single tap). Now if you move up the scale to an engine!

Electronic-based tuition is very useful – as an adjunct. Start and finish there and you will be OK. And bye-the-bye it takes about 8 semesters to produce a competent teacher and a few more to produce someone who can teach a particular subject. Thats an awful lot of semesters. An awful lot of reading and writing and an awful lot of personal intellectual effort.

Recently I encountered a postgrad who presented some difficulties in reading and comprehending parts of a journal paper. Had a First from one of our top colleges and did a Masters in a prestigious London emporium. Would have been interesting to see a sample of their written work. (Caution: One swallow and all!). Not the worse case I have come across. Just the most recent.

UCD has a thriving Mathematics Support Centre – its constantly at standing room only. I wonder why? 😎

Videos of Prof. Schiller’s lectures on Finance available for free from Harvard are brilliant. Anybody with an interest in the area should watch them.

@ Brian Woods Snr

What time was it when I wrote that 1:42 am? Should have been in bed, had a wicked stressful day yesterday! I think though there is some home truths in there somewhere!

@ RB: All is forgiven! Yes on the ‘truths’ bit.

Reform of 3rd level ed sector (or should that be re-structuring) is virtually impossible. Too many vested folk. Anyway, I believe the question needs to be; “What sort of grad do we actually need?” and “What should be the nature of 3rd level education provision?”. We need to abolish the distinction between ‘full-time’ and ‘part-time’. Need to distinguish between cognitive skill and motor skill; test and grade separately. Economic situation is in deep do-do. Folk with a very different style of education will be needed. Corkscrew thinkers not Mono-railers.

The development of printing had a profound effect on access to and provision of university level education. Maybe the development of 3D digital will do something similar – widen access especially. But again the whole issue sits on the foundation of Primary Education. Fail there and you are up s**t creek. Second level is perched directly over primary, and tertiary is perched on secondary. What grades would you give our Primary and Secondary levels?

Its interesting – in a depressing sort of way to ‘question’ employers about the calibre of grad they would wish for. Most just want someone who is punctual, reliable, honest and can read, ‘rite and do ‘rithmitic.

I have taken several of these courses and have found them exceptional. The MIT lectures and materials are also very good. Also interesting is moves by the UK to make public funded research available freely. Question is, what are our institutions doing? Are we being left behind?

Another great aspect of online courses is that it will give school students a good taster as to what university life can be about. Thus making the transition possibly easier.

For those wanting tasters of what their degree subject itself would be like, it is also useful. Something I could have done with, since with the benefit of hindsight I picked the wrong degree.

@Rory McGonagle,
I too I picked the wrong degree; I suspect we are not alone.
I think our whole education system needs a radical rethink. We are stuck in the 1950s and the world has moved on. I have three children under 9 years of age, one of which had a school report indicating his handwriting was not up to scratch. Given that he is going to interact with an electronic device when he is of a productive age (i.e. 5 years time), is that going to be an issue? He may not be able to spell, hell I can’t spell, my computer does that for me! There seems to be absolutely no focus on the real competencies of abstract thinking, problem solving, and the ability to navigate large data universes. These are things that the next generation are absolutely going to need.

I am of the opinion that very young children today will rarely ever read a physical book in their lifetimes. Handwriting is something they might use for shopping notes but even that’s a stretch.

And they will enter a school system which at no point teaches them to type! I appreciate that this skill may well be redundant in my lifetime but for the time being it’s remarkably useful. I never fail to be astonished at the slow pace of my colleagues who spend a good 70% of their days in front of a PC screen.


I agree with you for once. Online teaching, particularly if delivered by Irish academics, would be second rate. Of course it would be a step up from the quality of traditional teaching in Irish universities which is third or fourth rate.

” There seems to be absolutely no focus on the real competencies of abstract thinking, problem solving, and the ability to navigate large data universes. These are things that the next generation are absolutely going to need.”

Try teaching abstract thinking! Its fierce difficult – really! You will have little collegial or admin support and a great deal of hassle from your students. Please do not go there – especially if the nature of the exams encourage and promote rote learning.

I mentioned about the tiering of education. Our primary is dreadful, our secondary worse. So what hope for 3rd? Not much.

Being a skilled reader is THE key skill in learning. You can, with some modest material resources and dedicated teachers teach the majority of young children to read (with good fluency) by age 5. I know of one Montessori school where all their 5 year olds have reading abilities well above their age. Some of the pupils also display extraordinary maths skills and ALL love math and ‘science’. So what happens in ‘big’ school then? Curiosity is butchered and stuffed into a mincer. Hamburgerized thinkers emerge.

There is NO substitute for a physical book. None. So please be careful about the promotion of ‘electronic’ stuff. It is indeed a useful adjunct – but – “terms and conditions apply”.

One aspect that hasnt been touched on here is funding.
The American Uni’s doing this, can do so from the funding they recieve/ possess/ invest. This comes from people who pay for on site education.
Take these people away and then who pays for it…

Funding isn’t that big an issue. The University of Washington, for example, expects to break even on its involvement with Coursera by charging for courses that carry credit. Stanford got into it on a shoestring, with VC support.

The free version is not a substitute for credit-carrying courses from the institution providing them. It’s competing mainly for people who don’t need credit because they are undating existing qualifications, or cannot afford credit-carrying tuition. The continuing education operations of lower tier colleges may get it in the neck, but the high tier institutions operating on Coursera will still have no shortage of applicants for their on-site product.

Off-topic warning:

For those not compelled to use their villa in Tuscany this week because of the cheap flights available due to the longer Irish summer holidays than in the UK, Spanish 10 year bonds now at a new high of 7.25%.

“I am of the opinion that very young children today will rarely ever read a physical book in their lifetimes”

If you read a story to a 4 year old from a book this evening the chances are that the 4 year old will read the book immediately afterwards ..

Will the courses lead to credentials that employers and especially the government will accept? The vast majority of students take courses either to go with the flow of their peers or because they imagine a high paying career at the end of the rainbow.

Given the recent assassinations of Iranian scientists is it a good idea for top students to reveal themselves to the ‘Cloud’.

What if the wrong universities start attracting students? For example Chinese, Russian or Irish universities.

@ Seafóid: Thank you!

Young children experience what is known as a ‘Reading Explosion’. They will devour every book they can get their hands on and that they are capable of reading. If they miss this event through ‘bad’ teaching – they never recover. But the “Tá sé Mahogany Gaspipes” who control our primary system would not be capable of appreciating the utter wonder and total concentration of a young child who realises they can ‘read’ on their own. If you saw what passes for ‘math’ at our primary you would cringe.

Isn’t the model of distance learning with some campus experience and a rigorous assessment already long in existence with the Open University? Surely it would be relatively straightforward to expand such a model? The OU in the UK uses university campuses out of term to run parts of courses where students get together with tutors and do hands on work in the labs, for instance. Doesn’t seem a big leap to do this across international boundaries. Harvard partnering with local campus in Nigeria or Laos for example.

I have found some of the free web courses very useful in revising my own university teaching. I’m wondering if this dimension is often underestimated. These courses are not easy to pigeon hole. In short, people interested in continuing education and current university instructors are perhaps exploiting this resource. Which is a good thing.

@ grumpy

This is segregating research from the undergrad experience and (what is sometimes laughably referred to as) teaching.

It is often the case that the ‘university experience’ is largely about fellow students and reading texts / attempting problem solving, combined with the atmosphere and architecture, and much less about lecturers and tutors.

It would be good for the universities to come forward with some innovative ideas in these straitened times rather than just waving the begging bowl for more public funds.

The hybrid model should present opportunities.

I depressed Liam last year when I referred to my own experience at UCC: Most lecturers were bores who had no passion for their subjects and an economics lecturer told me that he had given up on the subject years before.

I wasn’t very impressed with the standard of secondary teaching either.

A teacher of French, who was clearly unfit for a classroom, started pulling the hair of a young lad from a farm near Innishannon, who had difficulty pronouncing the verb ‘choisir.’

It has a starting sound like the ‘shh’ sound in Mandarin (that distinguishes it from for example Cantonese).

Like any unchanging routine, teachers inevitably get bored and where there is little if any accountability, there maybe no countervailing antidote.

Children and young people can easily sense when teachers are going through the motions.

The web is a great education resource but cheating is a problem.

The Daily Telegraph reported last year that survey of more than 80 universities revealed that academic misconduct is soaring at institutions across the UK.

More than 17,000 incidents of cheating were recorded by universities in the 2009-10 academic year – up at least 50% in four years.

But the true figure is far higher because many were only able to provide details of the most serious cases and let lecturers deal with less serious offences.

“I depressed Liam last year when I referred to my own experience at UCC: Most lecturers were bores who had no passion for their subjects and an economics lecturer told me that he had given up on the subject years before.”
yes, and that anecdote from decades ago has what relevance to now? I met a banker in 1985 who told me he had a a prudent way of allocating loans. I met a preiest in 1990 who deplored child abuse. I met a journalist in 1995 with a strong research and ethical ethos. Etc etc.

Tell me Michael – have you been in an irish (or other) university recently? say, in the last 5 years? Talked to staff, or students, or admin? Looked at what they DO not what you think, or thought, they do? Or do you rest on your anecdoctal experience of decades ago as a universal truth across all time and all areas?

Cue torrent of bitter abuse from MH…..

@ AlbertPrior

Well Mr Whiney, your reaction appears typical from an individual who has a racket to protect.

So who are you and where do you work?

Anything to say about grumpy’s comments; any positive point to make?

Like Bishop Moriarity of Kerry, I do not believe in the concept of infallability.

How dare any citizen who has had children who have been recently or are currently in the educational system, have an opinion.

So rather than be a coward making egregious attacks, have the balls to say who you are.

On another thread, you had the cheek to even question my right under my own name to express an opinion.

“awaaf” mentioned the Khan Academy. Quite incredible range of material on that website. More aimed at high-school and the early stages of college degrees. A big issue in Economics (and most likely many other disciplines) is the variability in people’s mathematical skills coming into college. Khan looks like one potential way of dealing with this somewhat.

The reference to the Open University is a good one. I took philosophy courses from there after graduating and the model of provision is well worked out. What feels different here is that institutions previously seen as reserved for a very small number of people are opening up. Another difference is the sense of the potential for a massive shift in the supply of education in a short space of time.

The Harvard Distance learning model below is also worth thinking about in this discussion. “You can earn an Extension School degree through a combination of online and on-campus courses. Although we do not offer degrees solely online, our programs accept a limited number of online credits.”

“I depressed Liam last year when I referred to my own experience at UCC: Most lecturers were bores who had no passion for their subjects and an economics lecturer told me that he had given up on the subject years before.”

I enjoy Michael H’s input around here a lot, and have to say this beef between himself and AlbertPrior could become quite entertaining..but this comment seems pretty of base, coming from someone who’s been through the third level education system in the last decade. I honestly can’t think of any lecturer who would fit that description, it never occurred to me that teaching was a chore to them in between research. I must say, in this case, I think you are bringing your prejudices with you from the US (Where I’m pretty sure it’s not true either)…..

The HEA have released a consultation document on funding of higher education. Online and alternative modes of provision should be factored into the debate that will ensue around this.

Liam . One looks forward to seeing the useful practical nuanced comments and suggestions from Mr Enigan and others……

Could we take this thread back a bit.
Is there any economic potential for Irish Universities in elearning?
What models might work?
What obstacles exist?
I know the opportunities – English speaking Europeans with a history of involvement in third world education.
Could we link foreign aid money to this…?
Interested to hear

@eureka – see below for an example

“Hibernia College is Ireland’s only government-accredited elearning college. We specialise in postgraduate, undergraduate and continuing professional development (CPD) programmes for students and professionals across the globe.”

Looking at the coursera list of courses, a few ideas in the Irish context come to mind:

1. Should we think about students being able to take these type of courses eventually for credit? How should these options be aligned with the Bologna process in Irish universities?

2. Which Irish university courses should be made available on the platform? Already, universities outside of the US such as Toronto and Edinburgh have made courses available.

3. If more centralisation is going to occur on graduate programmes (e.g. national disciplinary PhD programmes), how could the development of these platforms and active use of them facilitate this, in particular getting over logistical issues in provision of national graduate programmes beyond the PhD level?

4. A key question is whether we will reach a stage where certain, in particular generic modules, might be better delivered fully online rather than actually developed by each institution. For example, could we reach a stage where undergraduate calculus courses might simply be outsourced from the web? This is frequently represented as being a potential crisis for universities but it could be a good opportunity to rellocate staff time to a variety of other activities. A model where practically all lectures are provided online and student/staff interaction is structured around problem solving and mentoring is something that could be great. See e.g. Eric Mazur.

5. These courses will shift supply of education but might also have a very big effect on demand for education. Someone who takes an online module may then be more likely to want full programmes. In general, both supply and potential demand shifts open a potential for a lot more activity across the life-span.

6. If we believe that higher education is genuinely a way of building human capital rather than screen or create a status good then this is a very exciting development. It would be good to debate a lot more how this could be exploited by countries outside the US. Effectively, the US is producing a potentially massive externality by providing all of this information.

Michael Henigan : you still haven’t answered the (fairly pointed to be sure) question of A Prior on your recent involvement with third level.

Flip Teaching : where the bulk of students take material en mass and then meet staff for problem solving : or “lecture” and “tutorial” ?
In that instance the online element becomes merely asychnronised teaching and learning no? Where videos and quality multimedia replace static notes.

I recall Worchester Polytechnic Institute using Instructional Video in the early 1980s. So what is new? WWW delivery? As the man said; “Shameless recycle old ideas”.

It takes an awfully long time – like hours and hours of patience, practice, team effort, imagination, inventivness and God knows what else, to make meaningful ‘off-site’ instructional material. Its not costless either.

Just take a Chill Pill on this one. There is indeed a niche to be filled, but not the one you may believe and I doubt it would enroll any that are not already willing – and able (forgot this, have we?) – to participate. AND there MUST be a reward!

If you want to understand the nature of any system of instruction – just study the nature of the examinations that may be at the end of it. That will tell you exactly how students will approach their learning of the subject matter – that is, how they will interact with, and use the course info. How this trueism escapes so many is a bit of a puzzle.

As I advise; take a Chill Pill and read some Instructional Technique (Ivor Davies). There is lots of stuff on Instructional Video but it tends to be wonkish and wafflish. Can you outperform Prof Brian Cox?

Brian Woods
Ig your not outperforming brian cox then you are a failure and a waste. Only world class activity is permitted now. Else The Sage of Kuala Lumpur will smite you. And complain about the IDA. And the lack of jobs. All in one comment. With Bold Letters. And a quote.

@AP: MH-ff happens to be someone I pay attention to. I do not understand everything he writes but I expect that is because we have different experiences and interests.

My comment about Prof Cox is exactly what promoters of ‘off-site’ instruction need to address. Its a tad hard to read all this re-heated stuff knowing that the ‘educational landscape’ is littered with the rusting debris of previous attempts – all of which were very well-meaning and promoted by very enthusiastic fellows (there were no gals!). Well, there is one, Shelia Tobias but who has heard of her? Unfortunately she does have a very firm grasp of reality – which is why she is virtually unknown.

As I mentioned above. The most popular site of instruction in UCD is the Maths Support Centre piloted by Nuala Curley. In the advent of examinations its packed every available hour (maths of all shades; stats; economics; finance; chemisty; physics – you name it they are all there – for that personal touch!). Now I wonder why? Actually I know the answer. And yes, the tutors do direct attention to some U-tube stuff and if you fish around you will get enlightnment. But there is NO substitute for that well written text (like very well written) with meticulous examples clearly and systematically explained (the realy good texts have realy good explanations).

You will learn little from someone ‘talking’ to you about it. You learn through a meaningful intellectual engagement with the subject matter – and it does take some time for the stuff to ‘sink in’. Humans learn in a holistic manner not in a linear, additive fashion – which is what many third-level programmes of instruction actually are. Heaps of info without structure. Find me a third-level lecturer who knows what a Concept Map is and and can make one for their subject. Then you have my attention.

Why focus on university education? Consider a potential Coursera program for professional exam, something like the Royal Statistical Society Exams (click my name to go to page).

Consider the example of a health science graduate who, after a few years of working in their chosen field, finds that their statistical knowledge needs to be improved?

Going back to college to do a masters might be a good idea for some, but for many others, it is just not an option. Also – All that is really needed is a self paced CPD study program that gives you something to work towards.

@kevin o’brien; yes, fully agree on that point.

Also have a lot of regard for the RSS courses.

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