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Coursera: The Latest Education Hero?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

In the post-apocalyptic world of the Mad Max movies, one ragged individual (played by Mel Gibson) sets out to save what’s left of the world from the forces of ignorance and barbarism. In Beyond Thunderdome (Miller & Ogilvie, 1985), Max, sometimes called the "Road Warrior," saves a bunch of naïve and innocent children from the corrupt clutches of Auntie (Tina Turner), the matriarch of the last "civilized" community. Coursera, the latest in a long stream of educational Road Warriors, recently appeared in the post-apocalyptic landscape of American Education (Henn, 18 April, 2012). Is this Silicon Valley startup and brainchild of two Stanford University professors, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, the hero that will finally save higher education, or just another transient passing through the barren landscape?


We Don’t Need Another Hero – Tina Turner

The Coursera Difference

Previous heroic massive open online course (MOOC) efforts such as Khan Academy, MITx, and Udacity have been limited by their inability to embrace a full range of the types of courses offered on a traditional campus; these startups are primarily limiting their course offerings to math, science, and computer science, or similar fields that rely heavily on these, such as economics. Coursera is attempting to bridge that gap by offering classes from four major universities; Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan, in more than three dozen subjects  (Henn, 18 April, 2012). Here is a sample of the Coursera offerings:

  • Economics, Finance, and Business
     

    • Gamification (Penn)
    • Health Policy and the Affordable Care Act (Penn) (also listed under Healthcare, Medicine, and Biology)
    • Game Theory (Stanford) (also listed under Computer Science)
    • Introduction to Finance (UMich)
    • Model Thinking (UMich) (Also listed under Society, Networks, and Information)
  • Mathematics and Statistics
     

    • Introduction to Analytic Combinatorics (I and II) (Princeton)
    • Introduction to Logic (Stanford)
    • Calculus: Single Variable (Penn)
    • Cryptography (Stanford) (also listed under Computer Science)
    • Automata (Stanford)
    • Statistics One (Princeton)
    • Machine Learning (Stanford) (also listed under Computer Science)
    • Probabilistic Graphical Models (Stanford) (also listed under Computer Science)
  • Healthcare, Medicine, and Biology
     

    • Introduction to Genome Science (Penn)
    • Cardiac Arrest, Hypothermia, and Resuscitation Science (Penn)
    • Vaccines (Penn)
    • Fundamentals of Pharmacology (Penn)
    • Basic Behavioral Neurology (Penn)
  • Society, Networks, and Information
     

    • Social Network Analysis (UMich)
    • Introduction to Sociology (Princeton) (also listed under Humanities and Social Sciences)
    • Internet History, technology, and Security (UMich)
    • Networked Life (Penn) (also listed under Computer Science)
    • Securing Digital Democracy (UMich) (also listed under Computer Science)
  • Computer Science
     

    • Algorithms I & II (Princeton)
    • Computer Science 101 (Stanford)
    • Computer Vision: The Fundamentals (Berkeley)
    • Natural language Processing (Stanford)
    • Compilers (Stanford)
    • Computer Architecture (Princeton)
    • Software Engineering for SaaS (Berkeley)
    • Computer Vision: From 3D Reconstruction to Virtual Recognition (Stanford/UMich)
  • Humanities and Social Sciences
     

    • Greek and Roman Mythology (Penn)
    • Listening to World Music (Penn)
    • Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World (UMich)
    • A History of the World Since 1300 (Princeton)
    • Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (Penn)

While the hype for the site states that it offers courses from three dozen fields, this would seem to be an exaggeration except in the loosest possible interpretation, as Coursera barely offers more than three dozen classes at this time.  What is also interesting to note is that, while social sciences and the humanities are represented, they actually make up a very small portion of the courses available. It would seem that the idea that made Coursera so appealing at first glance ultimately is a bit hyperbolic.

Automating the Humanities?
One of the more ambitions course offerings from Coursera is Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, offered by Al Filreis from the University of Pennsylvania. In this video he discusses his model for teaching this course to a massive online audience:

In one way, this course breaks the mold of the usual online model that is emerging with Udacity, MITX, and even the other Coursera offerings. Rather than use the screencasting model popularized by the Khan Academy, which essentially shows a digital whiteboard and/or a talking head video of the instructor, or a straightforward recorded lecture, this class will rely on filmed discussions of collaborative close readings of the poems being examined. These discussions will take place between the professor and a group of students participating in the residential course. Online students will participate in the discussions by using a system like YELP, which allows other users to judge online comments and filters the most valued to the top of the discussion based on their social appeal.

This fairly novel approach, if coupled with some screencast examples of poetry analysis, could prove very effective as a basis for developing general knowledge and a basic appreciation for the poetic form.  What it is not, however, is a class that will engage its participants in any sort of production (synthesis) of new knowledge or spawn any real creativity or innovation. As with so many heroic endeavors, hubris may be the factor that ultimately dooms Coursera to failure as well.

Where Heroes of Education Fail
It is still early on in the Age of free online education or MOOCs– very early in the case of Coursera – but the general concept by MIT, Khan Academy, Udacity, etc. seems to be to create high quality course offerings which provide basic skills and knowledge about the subject matter. Even in the most advanced classes, there is only a surface-level knowledge imparting at work. Students certainly can learn the information, but will this model of online education actually help students to "know" the material?

There is a difference between having information and being able to use that information both within the primary context and across a broad landscape of possibilities for application (Marquis, 19 Aug., 2012). True learning will only happen for students if they are given the opportunity to apply their learning and are pushed to see the connections between what they learn and other areas.

We live in a connected world where the boundaries between subjects are rapidly disintegrating, and being able to leverage information in order to create new knowledge is the most important skill that students can cultivate through their education. I fear that, as good as the content is, and as altruistic as the intentions are, initiatives like Coursera, because of their reliance on automation and canned curriculums, cannot help students to gain those most important of skills. This is not saying that it is not possible, or that there is no place for projects like Coursera, but rather that, until the model changes to help students become innovators, the value is limited.

In the end of Beyond Thunderdome, Mad Max delivers the children he has rescued into a new society where there is hope that they can grow and mature in order to bring the world back from the brink of destruction. Unfortunately, we are not quite there with this new breed of education heroes.

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