Coursera: if Carlsberg delivered online learning…


The banner on the Coursera homepage states in big letters “Take the World’s Best Courses, Online, For Free”.

Since it was launched with $16,000,000 of venture capital funding in April this year there has been a buzz around Coursera as a disruptive innovation in higher education. The pitch is simple: Coursera deliver free courses online by leading faculty at prestigious universities. Starting out of Stanford as a for-profit spin-off, it has already grown into a network of nearly 20 institutions with 121 courses in their programme. I was chatting about it with Professor Fleck, latterly Dean of the Open University Business School, a couple of months ago over a custard cream. Professor Fleck led the OUBS into the development of free online podcasts delivered through iTunes. The OU model of free education is to use these free resources to convert viewers into paying students, and very impressive it is too. The Coursera model seems to be different: the courses will lead to certification, with universities and Coursera taking fees for certificates etc… Since then the salience of Coursera has increased for me because they are expanding into online management education and, even more pertinently, University of Edinburgh has joined the network and will shortly be offering Coursera courses.

What is ostensibly a copy of the contract between Coursera and the University of Michigan is online. Assuming this document is genuine and not an elaborate hoax it makes for interesting reading. The document is forty pages of the usual boilerplate collaboration agreement legalese. What it does not specify in detail how the quality of learning will be assured ( it specifies a check for “reasonable technical quality standards [“Quality Standards”] relating to such issues as (i) video quality; (ii) audio quality; and (iii) correct formatting of assessments and other Content”. So at least the images should be the right way up….

Another intersting detail is that the many faceted monetization options allow sponsorship by commercial firms for placement without a requirement that the sponsorship is declared, which also seems to pose risks. (On the other hand I would be happy to lecture while drinking from a bottle of Lagavulin for a small consideration from Diageo, the world’s leading producer of quality Scotch.)

The agreement does imply an awareness that institutions would be wary of participating in a network which is seen to pose a reputation risk. In the governance section it is stated that it will require agreement of partners for a University outside its country’s top five in the Academic Ranking of World Universities to join the network. Interestingly Edinburgh is not in the UK’s top five (in the unlikely event that the  principal is reading this, may I say this is an egregious travesty as Manchester is notoriously over-rated….). But the point is that it is only the flexible governance rules about network membership and each institution’s exposure to reputation risk that act to maintain standards: there is no requirement for external overview of certification standards and assessment procedures.

The risk is that Coursera courses will gain a reputation for being oversold and educationally weak. The basis of courses is that they have no pre-requisites and limited course readings. On the courses I have seen  there is no contact between professors and class, even to the point of refusing to answer emails, and the assessment is based on a mix of multiple choice quizs and peer assessed essays. This is necessary as most of the courses appear to be running with over 50000 enrolled students. When I see them next I will ask my colleagues at Edinburgh developing Coursera courses whether they really believe that this constitutes a model for the “World’s Best Courses”, as promised on the Coursera website. It also seems ironic that our School of Education which delivers an excellent MSc in E-Learning, which supports learners intensively and teaches them of the importance of tutor support, is going to deliver a Coursera course on E-Learning and Digital  Cultures. If they really  think they can deliver the world’s best course to thousands of participants with minimal interaction and feedback, they should wonder why they waste so much money on tutoring their existing masters programme, and if they dont they are just misleading potential students and potentially damaging the university’s reputation.

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