Coursera Review: The MOOC Experience

by Brian on November 23, 2014 in Autodidacticism,Genetics


Nearly three months ago I disappeared from public life. And the reason is Coursera.

One of my pet obsessions these days is the microbiome and when co-founder of American Gut, Rob Knight, announced that they were organizing a class on the microbiome I knew I had to be there.

It was to be hosted by massively open online course (MOOC) provider Coursera. This was the first I’d heard of Coursera. As I was poking around checking out their courses I noticed a physiology class… looked interesting, so I signed up. Then I noticed a genetics class… and a neuroscience class… and before I knew it I was signed up for all of these:

Jumping into the MOOC world with both feet, I also meandered over to Coursera’s main competitor edX and signed up for:

I will come back to edX and talk about how it compares to Coursera in a bit.

For now, suffice it to say that taking all 7 of these classes at the same time made me wonder if I had bitten off more than I could chew. But I persevered. Now nearly three months after I started I’ve finished four of these (one of them being the first part of Useful Genetics) and I’m just weeks away from finishing all of the others.

So what was taking a MOOC on Coursera like? Let me say that I was impressed. Very impressed.

I had so much to say, this review wound up being twice as long as I originally planned. By the end I think you’ll have a very good idea of how the Coursera platform compares to a traditional classroom education and what a Coursera course can and cannot do for your academic or professional career.

What exactly is Coursera and how does it work?

Basically Coursera provides online college courses that you can take for free. Yes, free.

One thing that immediately stands out is that these courses aren’t run by just any old state school or community college. The university roster includes big names like Stanford, Yale, Columbia, and Duke. In fact, Coursera was co-founded by Stanford Associate Professor Andrew Ng, and his own course, Machine Learning, is also available through the platform.

Courses typically provide you with 1-3 hours of lecture videos per week, and include two types of assignments: multiple-choice quizzes and peer review assignments. I’ll discuss peer review further in a separate section.

Message boards are provided for each class for students to ask questions and discuss course material. They’re kind of like office hours and study groups rolled into one. Community TAs are present to help answer questions. Often the community TAs are not actually affiliated with the university providing the course and are just students who did well on a previous run of the course. Not, of course, to diminish their capability as they are often academically accomplished in their own right. One of my course TAs describes herself as “a stay at home mom with PhD in biology.”

Instructor involvement in the message boards is highly variable. Some instructors answer questions directly and post regularly, and some are completely absent from the message boards.

Courses also typically have a final exam or final project. Most of the assignments are open book and untimed. Of the seven courses I was enrolled in, Introductory Human Physiology was the only course to have closed-book, timed exams.

If all goes well and you complete the course with a satisfactory grade, you may receive a free Statement of Accomplishment or a Verified Certificate if you have paid a small fee and enrolled in their Signature Track program. Financial Aid is also available for those who need it.

Complete a particular track of courses and a final project and you can also earn themed “Specializations” like Data Science.

If you achieve a high enough score on a course, you may also earn “with Distinction” status. Here is an example of a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction that I earned in Useful Genetics:


The Coursera Experience vs. the College Experience

1. Getting admission

Do you remember applying to college?

Studying all those “useless” words for SAT analogies, making sure you had taken the appropriate number of lab sciences, producing endless statements of purpose and letters of recommendation, and wondering if universities actually gave two hoots whether or not you completed your high school physical education requirement.

Getting in is tough. I had the good fortune of getting admitted to Stanford University, and I’ve often wondered if they would let me back in again if I were to apply to a graduate program. Just thinking about it gives me a headache. GRE tests, have I lived up to the level of success they expect from their graduates, who do I get letters of recommendation from about my academic potential now that I’ve been out of school for a decade, etc., etc.

On Coursera, however, none of this is a problem. In under 30 seconds you can register for a free account and sign-up for a Stanford produced course taught by an actual Stanford professor.

Phew! Of course Coursera is not going to issue me a Stanford degree, but there is one less hurdle towards pursuing continuing education.

2. Lectures vs. Videos

If you’ve seen the 1985 movie Real Genius, you might remember a scene where progressively fewer students show up to class. In each take a few more students are replaced by tape recorders. Until eventually in the final take, all of the students are replaced by recorders and even the professor is replaced by an audio recording.

While it was clearly meant as a humor, I think they were on to something. When I look at platforms like Coursera, I feel like I am looking at the future of education.

It might seem like the educational experience is greatly diminished by not being able to interact with the professor and other students in person, but I have not found this to be the case. In fact, I think the opposite is true–the format enables a higher degree of engagement.

Firstly, consider how a typical university lecture is structured. The professor gets up in front of the class and delivers a lecture. Some of the material you pick up and understand right away. Some of the points you don’t quite click with right away. You stop to ponder a point and before you know it a few minutes have passed and the lecture is on to another topic and you’ve already missed some of the salient points.

This goes on for about 50 minutes as you drift in and out of what the lecturer is saying, hoping that you’ve taken notes on the right things or that you’ll at least be able to find clarity in that week’s reading. Repeat 2-3 times per week.

Well, there’s not much difference between watching a talking head at a lecture hall and a talking head on a computer screen. Personally, I would rather just watch a video from home in the comfort of my pajamas.

Except that’s not quite the same is it. You can watch a video entirely on your own schedule. You can speed up playback or slow it down. You can pause, rewind, and rewatch it. Could you imagine raising your hand and asking a professor to stop talking for 5 minutes so you can adequately contemplate a point they just made?

Many professors have really embraced the format and produced a series of bite-sized 5-15 minute videos that just cover one topic at a time instead of the conventional 50 minute block. I find that smaller chunks make it much easier to learn the material. Also it’s easier to squeeze in a 10 minute video here and there throughout the day than it is to allocate 50 minute blocks.

You are also provided with subtitles, lecture transcripts, and the lecture slides. This drastically simplifies going back to a lecture to find a particular point because you can just do a quick search through the slides or the transcript to find the right part of the lecture.

All this makes for a huge, huge advantage to the video format. It’s so big, that if I were to take a traditional university course again I would record the lectures (with permission of course).

A traditional university lecture would also include time for questions either during the lecture or afterwards. This is where the Coursera message boards step in. You post on your schedule, and the class staff can respond on their schedule. At first I was concerned it might be difficult to clarify complicated concepts without being able to interact with someone in real time. But I’ve generally not found this to be the case. Community TAs and other students tend to be pretty on the ball in responding to inquiries. If a really difficult issue crops up, the TAs will usually flag it up to the instructor and get an answer.

3. Office Hours and Study Groups vs. Message Boards

Never in my years of formal schooling did I ever participate in a study group. It always felt too much like the blind leading the blind to me. And I can count on one finger the number of times I went to a professor’s office hours. I preferred to just figure things out on my own, and I didn’t care to have to jostle with other students during office hours and ask questions that potentially make me look stupid with a room full of others impatiently waiting their turn and a professor pressed for time to get to everyone.

The message board format actually eliminates much of the frustration and annoyance of getting course questions answered. As silly as it sounds, the fact that you don’t know any of these people and are essentially posting anonymously greatly reduces the anxiety about asking dumb questions and saying dumb things that we all know we’re not supposed to have (but all secretly do anyway).

A lot of the time you find that the same question that you have has already been asked and answered. Sometimes even discussed at length with links to scientific papers and other resources offered. These pre-made and often detailed answers offer a tremendous time savings.

4. Homework, tests, and difficulty

One major difference where Coursera courses are not just filmed versions of university courses is that the courses are all designed to be self-contained. Basically this means no textbooks and usually no outside of class reading required. When reading is required it’s typically provided without a fee. Sometimes recommended reading is offered, but the additional material is not tested on.

Also, manpower limitations and the necessity for automated grading of potentially thousands of students means that most assignments are multiple choice. Most universities have moved away from multiple choice tests because they don’t believe they offer the same degree of rigor as free answer tests.

To offer an oversimplified example, it’s generally considered that there is a major difference in asking this same question three different ways:

  • What is 4 x 4?
  • Is 4 x 4, a) 8 b) 16 c) 1 d) 44
  • Does 4 x 4=16?

With the free answer question you have to remember information and figure out how to apply it. With multiple choice or true/false questions you are given some guidance as to the correct answer, and in some cases all you have to do is recognize it among the choices. It’s a whole lot easier to just recognize something as being correct than it is to produce it from memory.

Some professors have gotten creative with the medium. Dr. Rosie Redfield, instructor for Useful Genetics (I highly, highly recommend this course if you have an interest in genetics), has created some seriously brain-busting questions for her tests. She uses a feature of the platform that allows you to select multiple options as being correct answers to a question. Since you can’t just rely on one and only one answer being the unambiguously correct answer to the problem, you are really forced to stare down your selections and wonder if you have chosen correctly or not.

Perhaps ironically, and despite the ostensibly easier testing format, one trend I noticed in my classes is that almost as soon as the class starts a forum thread post titled something like, “Difficulty of course justified?” appears. People complain that the course is too hard and blame the instructors for playing power games and trying to “trick” students with deliberately misleading test questions.

I’m not going to sugar coat it. The whining is pathetic. Some people would rather blame the course, the instructor, or anything else rather than taking personal responsibility for actually learning the material.

That said, this vocal minority is just that–a minority. Overall, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the level of maturity and intelligence displayed in the Coursera forums.

5. Peer Review

Peer review, how I loathe thee.

Sometimes a good writing assignment is just necessary for displaying and measuring grasp of course material. In a normal university course some unlucky teaching assistant(s) would be tasked with grading all the papers.

But how do you scale this to grade hundreds or thousands of papers?

Coursera uses a “peer review” system where the instructor provides a grading rubric and students evaluate each other. When I first heard about this I thought it would be a train wreck. Perhaps if all the “A” students were grading each other it would be fine. But what about the students who aren’t doing so well in the course? How can we trust them to grade papers accurately.

From the small sample size that I’ve seen, there is definitely an issue with inconsistent grading. This became extremely evident when one class started a thread inviting people to post their submissions for open community feedback. In my own peer review feedback, I noticed comments from graders who clearly did not understand the material or the grading rubric (and no, this was not just me having sour grapes about losing some points).

The peer review system creates challenges for both students and instructors. As a student you are no longer writing for a knowledgeable professor or TA, you have to construct an essay that can be understood and graded by a student who may have a poor grasp of the course material. The instructors don’t get off easy either, because they have to create assignments that can also be graded by students with a poor grasp of the course material.

Ultimately, I think this dumbs down the type of writing assessments that can be given.

But, perhaps this is not all bad. One of the greatest challenges of teaching is to figure out how to explain complex subject matter to the layman or novice. Peer review assignments really put you into the teacher’s role and force you to consider what kind of language is appropriate and how to incorporate new terminology into your explanations without losing your audience.

Are Coursera courses equivalent to university courses?

So does all this mean that Coursera courses are not as rigorous as university courses? Honestly, I don’t know how to answer that question.

Along my Coursera journey I’ve kept asking myself, “how does this peg to an on-campus university course?” I think this is a really important question that will ultimately shape how much credibility universities give these courses for decisions like whether to give university credit for them or accept them as satisfying prerequisites for graduate degree programs.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that I think the lack of outside reading requirements and generally shorter course length (typically 4-8 weeks on Coursera vs 11-15 weeks on campus) means that even if Coursera courses can match their on campus counterparts for difficulty, I can’t see most Coursera courses matching their on campus counterparts for breadth. Although greatly enhanced understanding of the lectures makes up for some (possibly a lot) of the increased understanding that would come from textbook reading.

Are Verified Certificates worth anything?

Ultimately, this is the million dollar question. Both figuratively and literally.

The Coursera business model depends on people paying for Verified Certificates. And in order for it to be worth it to students to pay for Verified Certificates, the certificates must somehow improve a student’s standing in the eyes of their university or employer.

The main charge against massively open online courses is that, “It’s very difficult to verify that a student learned anything in an MOOC.”

Do Verified Certificates provide that verification? Let’s take a look at how they work.

When you sign up for the Signature Track program you are asked to provide a typing sample, webcam photo, and picture of a government issued ID. Every time you submit a graded assignment or test, you have to resubmit a typing sample and webcam photo that matches your originals.

The idea presumably being that this procedure safeguards against cheating and proves that the you are actually the person doing the work.

But does it prevent cheating?

Well… not really. As I mentioned earlier, most assignments are untimed and can be completed and submitted at your leisure. You can save your work at any time before submission.

If you were dishonest, you could give your login credentials to anyone in the world to go in, fill out the answers, and save the work. Then all you would need to do is login to complete the submission along with your typing sample and photo. In other words, cheating is still really easy.

A timed test would make this procedure a little more difficult to coordinate with your pinch hitter, but it still doesn’t eliminate this scenario. Also, I think making all graded assignments timed assignments would detract from one of the strongest benefits of the platform–being able to do coursework on your own schedule.

One other difficulty is interpreting the grading. A typical passing score is 60-70%. Earning “with Distinction” is typically 80%. Needless to say, colleges don’t grade that way. If you are a graduate program and receive a bunch of Verified Certificates or even raw scores from MOOCs, what do you do with them? Do you even consider them at all?

What if you are an employer? Let’s say you are a hiring manager at 23andMe. You typically list a PhD in a biology related field as a job requirement. But given the sheer amount of data processing you need done, might you also accept someone who has completed a Coursera Data Scientist specialization?

Relatedly, would this person’s application make it past your HR person who knows nothing about Coursera and pre-screens candidates based on a rubric?

These are difficult questions to answer, but the answers will determine whether MOOCs offered by platforms like Coursera are fads or the future.

In the short term, I think the most you can hope for is that displaying MOOC achievements is a strong indicator of interest and motivation.

For some time I have personally been interested in applying to a biology PhD program, but I lack some of the prerequisite coursework. Can classes completed through Coursera help me cover the gaps and gain admission to a program? I don’t know, but if I keep going down this road I’m going to find out.

I think taking some real world proctored exams like the GRE Biology subject test would probably be a good adjunct. And real world proctored exams could be one way for MOOC providers to have their course achievements taken more seriously in general. Of course, given the logistical challenges of real world proctored exams all over the world, I wouldn’t count on that happening anytime soon.

And finally, let us remember that Coursera is a startup. If it fails to make a profit and closes up shop, there is a non-negligible risk that all the coursework you paid for will go up in a puff of internet smoke. With all the financial and university backing they have, I’m sure they will do their best to stay the course. But every business ultimately has to answer to the balance sheet one way or another.

Coursera vs. edX

The story wouldn’t be complete without a little West Coast, East Coast competition. Currently, Coursera’s largest competitor is Harvard and MIT-backed edX.

For the most part, the edX platform offers the same thing–online classes supported by message boards.

However, there are a few notable differences that put “wins” in both platforms’ columns.

Coursera wins:

  • More user friendly interface. By comparison I found edX very cumbersome to navigate.
  • Larger course selection (at the time of this writing).
  • Appropriately timed in-video questions.
  • More active message boards (poor message board setup is edX’s Achilles’ heel).

edX wins:

  • Higher video production values. Most of the Coursera courses I participated in were basically a webcam video of the lecturer superimposed on a slide presentation. I haven’t checked out as many edX courses, but the ones I have seen all looked to have very professional looking video shoots.
  • A “Progress” page that shows your current grade in the course on an easy to read bar graph.
  • More archived courses that you can take at any time (and not just when a current run is offered).
  • Classes often more closely parallel their university counterparts.

All things considered, if the same class were being offered both on Coursera and edX I would prefer to take it via Coursera just because I find the website more user friendly and easier to navigate.

That said, most of the time this decision doesn’t need to be made. Except for very basic introductory courses like Calculus, there is a considerable difference in the course offerings between the two. For all the Coursera classes I mentioned taking above, not a single one of them has an exact correlate on edX. And of the courses on edX I found interesting, not a single one had an exact correlate on Coursera.

The bottom line

I couldn’t recommend Coursera more. The video course and message board support format works very well. I also have to give a big thanks to all the instructors who have essentially donated their time to produce these courses on top of their regular teaching responsibilities (and often it seems for no additional pay).

Massively open online courses like this that scale well and bring the best teachers from the top universities to the masses have the potential to revolutionize education. The challenge, however, will be for these courses to gain mainstream acceptance and prove the value of paying for a Verified Certificate towards furthering one’s academic or professional career.

Of course in the meantime, you can still enjoy the courses for free without paying for a Verified Certificate if you’re taking them out of purely personal interest.

When it comes to Coursera vs. edX or future competitors, the question isn’t so much which platform is better (I give Coursera the slight nudge in this regard) but which one offers the course you want to take. The course offerings are so different that if you continue investing time in MOOCs I think you will wind up using both services for mutually exclusive course offerings.


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