Considering Coursera

There has been quite a lot of press lately about incredibly large, free, online courses.  The platforms I’m most familiar with are Coursera, edX and Udacity, and of these Coursera is the only one with courses that I am interested in at the moment.  So, being the curious one that I am, I signed up for one.  Actually, I signed up for several courses, though, there will be more on that later.

The first Coursera course I’ll experience, Health Policy and the Affordable Care Act, appealed to me for a few reasons:

  1. It starts June 25th (read: I can try it out sooner than a fall course).
  2. It’s only 8 weeks long (read: short, good for a trial run at this online course thing).
  3. It’s on a topic that I think is critically important to all Americans.
  4. I know shockingly little about health policy.

This course seems like a good fit to test the whole thing out.  And, if it goes well, I think it will be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.  I love so much about “school” (though that’s not to say that there isn’t a lot that I think should change about the traditional K-12 or K-16 model) that I am overwhelmingly giddy at the prospect of free, accessible lifelong learning opportunities.

I’m skeptical about some aspects of this type of online learning – namely, assessment.  But, I’m skeptical about assessment of learning in general.  What a difficult thing to do properly!  I heard a fantastic talk by Cathy Davidson at HASTAC 2011 on the future of learning in a digital age.  At one point, she talked about the origin of the “bubble test,” which was a story that really struck me.  It was invented in 1914 by Frederick J Kelly who was trying to find a solution to the teacher shortage problem of the time.  As it turns out, student populations were burgeoning and teachers were sucked up by the war, either by fighting it or filling other societal positions left by soldiers.  Well, he wrote up a doctoral dissertation that paid homage to Henry Ford’s assembly line system, and voila:  the multiple choice (fill-in-the-bubble) test.  Ultimately, this test gains wide acceptance and is even adopted by the SATs.  Kelly is horrified, for over time he realized the value of integrated knowledge, complexity of thought, etc. and he understands that this test is not designed to assess higher level thinking.  Kelly was even fired for attempting to return to using essays to develop and assess understanding!  But I digress… Anyway, it’s absolutely worth a listen. As you can see, assessing learning is a big enough topic on its own, that I shall leave it for now and return to it later.

One New York Times article on the topic brought up an interesting potential implication of these “MOOCs” (massively open online courses):

“Projects like this can impact lives around the world, for the next billion students from China and India,” said George Siemens, a MOOC pioneer who teaches at Athabasca University, a publicly supported online Canadian university. “But if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits course.”

Alright, so I agree with Dr. Siemens (who by the way has two great blogs – here and here) in this sense:  colleges and universities both in the U.S. and abroad should be considering the changing nature of access to courses as they undergo strategic planning efforts.  This is the “I would be looking over my shoulder” bit.  But, I don’t agree with “very nervously.”  I think these types of courses, offered free online, have the potential to allow IHEs (institutions of higher education) to revamp their broad survey and introductory lecture courses like calculus, physics, statistics, etc., and have in-class time devoted to problem sets and one-on-one discussion.  This is really just a version of the ‘flipped classroom’ but it could be incorporated more formally into the curriculum.  It would be really interesting to see what happens if some IHE decided to say, “Hey.  Everyone taking Calculus I should sign up for Coursera, sign up for this course, watch the lectures, and then come to class where we’ll be doing problem sets in groups.”

I’ll write more about my reflections on the courses I take as they happen.  So, let the journey begin!

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