Inside the Coursera Hype Machine
Coursera announced that things were looking better last winter when the American Council on Education, which represents college and university presidents, said it would recommend that colleges grant credit for the successful completion of five Coursera offerings. But as The Wall Street Journal pointed out, “Whether schools follow that suggestion remains unclear. Even the three institutions whose instructors teach those online courses [Duke, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Irvine] don’t plan to award credit” to their students who complete the MOOCs. A handful of other schools have agreed to award credit as recommended by ACE, but it’s not for regular students enrolled in degree programs; it’s for a pilot program “evaluating the applicability” of ACE’s credit recommendations for “adult learners” taking MOOCs.
There’s one other problem for Coursera and the other MOOCs trying to make money: 90 percent of the people who enroll in courses do not complete them. Watching video lectures on your laptop at home alone doesn’t seem to work for the overwhelming majority of people who try.
To find out how Coursera works, I recently signed up for a course in my own field, history. The course was on the Holocaust and taught by UC Santa Cruz professors Peter Kenez and Murray Baumgarten. The lecture topics and reading assignments were outstanding, but it turns out that this course, like other Coursera offerings, is nothing like the “world-class education” promised in the company’s mission statement. Coursera co-CEO Koller says they can do better than “the default form of college classes—a professor standing in front of her students, lecturing for an hour.” But the lectures on the Holocaust were nothing more than video of the lecturers standing in front of a class and lecturing for an hour. There was no attempt to intercut the lecturing with visual material, film clips, illustrations, interviews or anything else, and the audio quality was often pretty bad. To young eyes familiar with action movies, fast-paced TV shows and video games, this looks practically Paleolithic. And although the UC Santa Cruz name and seal appeared on every page of the course website, there was no way for Coursera students to ask questions of the two Santa Cruz professors. Instead, students were encouraged to ask each other, in the online “forums.” Then the students voted on the best answer. If you don’t think that’s a good way to learn, you don’t belong in a Coursera course.
At the end of the first week of class, the forum had 313 posts discussing the lectures—out of 11,000 students enrolled. The first lectures were on “Witnessing,” and the 313 posts were responding to a query from the course coordinator, “What does witnessing mean?” In the most popular answer, a student said that when he read about the Holocaust, “I suffer, I cry, I become anguished”—and thus the writers are “making us also witnesses.” The lecture in question, however, was about something quite different: “the problem of representation” for witnesses and “the limits of language and knowledge” in trying to explain their experience. Not a single one of the posts mentioned those issues.
The next three lectures had a total of only forty-two posts, all on the same issue: the poor audio quality. The next-biggest thread consisted of people complaining that the quizzes about the videos didn’t recognize correct answers. The course coordinator replied, “The trick to getting the computer to recognize your answer as ‘correct’ is to recycle the same terminology you hear in the lecture video.” Students then protested that they were not “parrots.”
The course also had writing assignments. The topic of the first paper was uninspired: “write a brief (500–700 words) response about any of the video lectures you have encountered so far. Rather than just telling what your opinion is…make a critical statement that reflects on the themes, phrases and ideas presented in each video.” The students are supposed to read and grade one another’s papers, using criteria provided by Coursera. Peer grading provokes the most complaints from students in MOOCs.
I asked one of the two lecturers, Peter Kenez, about working with Coursera on this course. It turns out Coursera had nothing to do with the design, structure or look of it. The video was shot not by Coursera but by UC Santa Cruz, and not for Coursera but rather two years earlier, before Coursera was created, when the course was offered on campus. “The film already existed,” Kenez said, “so we didn’t have to do anything. They hired our TA to put together the material at their website; we had nothing to do with that.” He said he had never looked at the Coursera video. As for the forums, the writing assignments, the student questions and student problems, “I have nothing to do with any of the online activity,” Kenez told me. “I haven’t even checked in. I have nothing to do with the evaluations.”
And he didn’t get paid. He did it, he said, because “it cost me nothing. And whatever the students get out of it, I am all for it.” Finally I asked Kenez why UC Santa Cruz went with Coursera instead of one of the nonprofits or iTunes U. “Somebody on campus, the head of the computer science department, knew the Coursera people, and suggested that they approach us,” he said. “That’s how it happened.”
(Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan, offers a better Coursera course with “The Modern and the Postmodern”—intellectual history and theory from Kant and Rousseau to Judith Butler and Slavoj Žižek. The video alternated between two cameras on the lecturer and included some beautiful illustrations. Roth’s style is also more conversational and directed at the video audience. He sent his own weekly e-mail to enrolled students and initiated some forum threads himself. But the discussions in the forums for that course included fewer than 100 students, out of the 13,000 enrolled.)
Coursera knows its investors want to see progress toward making money. CEO Koller offered them some hope in May, telling The Wall Street Journal that “our verified certificate program, which we launched in January, is actually doing pretty well. We’ve had well over 10,000 people opting into this. We have made close to $500,000 in a few months.” That program gives students a certificate stating that Coursera has verified the identity of the person completing the course work. But it’s highly unlikely that colleges and universities will give credit toward degrees for them. Indeed, the text of the certificate states explicitly that it’s a noncredit course.
The basic problem with the verified certificates, indeed with all MOOCs, was acknowledged by “some college administrators” in the Journal in a surprisingly blunt statement: “it’s difficult to verify that students learned anything in MOOCs.” The best way for schools to do that is to employ their own assistants or adjuncts to grade papers and exams for online students. But then it’s not a MOOC anymore: it’s not open, and it’s not massive. If all that a school needs is online lectures, it doesn’t need Coursera, since iTunes U and YouTube already offer thousands of lectures.
Other moneymaking possibilities are described in Coursera’s contract with the University of Michigan, obtained by The Chronicle of Higher Education under a Public Records Act request. That contract includes a section titled “Possible Company Monetization Strategies”; one of them is to run banner ads on course webpages. The best bet for making a profit—outlined in a new Coursera contract with the University of Kentucky, also obtained by the Chronicle—would be for Coursera to get paid not by students seeking “certificates of completion” but rather by schools offering their courses: for a $3,000 flat fee, plus $25 per student for the first 500 students, $15 for the next 500, and so on. Material that students could get for free on the Internet would be sold to them by their college, in exchange for credit toward a degree. You might call that a rip-off, but it could be the business model for higher education in the future.
Of course, there are plenty of forces beyond Coursera pressing colleges and universities to save money by replacing faculty members with video lectures. But the pressures become considerably more intense when powerful people look forward to making big profits. As it becomes clear that Coursera will not be the next Amazon, we will be closer to having a rational discussion about the best ways to help students at nonelite schools fulfill requirements for graduation—and maybe even learn something along the way.
Editor's Note: This piece originally stated that neither iTunes U nor YouTube offer anything like the Coursera system, "in which a particular course starts on a specific date, with video lectures uploaded every week." This sentence has been corrected to reflect that the iTunes U iPad app offers some "in-session" classes with a specific start date.
Also in this week’s issue, David L. Kirp asks if massive open online courses are the utopia of affordable higher ed—or just the latest fad, in “Tech Mania Goes to College.”