Regina Saphier: How NOT to “deliver” an online course via Coursera

Regina Saphier: How NOT to “deliver” an online course via Coursera

A couple of new courses started just now on Coursera. I had a look at five and have things to say about two of them, again, one bad, one good… This time they are not from the same US university (the University of Pennsylvania), rather one from Europe, and one from Canada.

I did not love the fragmented presentation of the material and the four dark videos for a start (ok, the second was not so dark, and the fifth was appropriate for a conversation starter) in the new Coursera class: E-Learning and Digital Cultures from the University of Edinburgh. The material for the second week started with advertisements (those are also supposed to make you think about the digital world and its future… but actually, I am able to look up relevant videos on youtube, no need for a class for that… so give me more and speak to me, instead of just listing some reading materials after the videos)… I am a digital optimist, and I advocate online learning and digital literacy. I have taken Coursera classes in the past, and I admired the well structured and well prepared video lectures in Gamification. The materials were all coherently incorporated into the video lectures (the right course production approach in my opinion for a diverse international audience learning independently… you need the right structure and the right content). I could not find that sort of appropriate online structure and content in the EDC class. I used to criticize the Networked Life professor for not being as good, interesting and well prepared as the Gamification professor from the same school, but now I have to say, he at least took the time, went to the video recording sessions and produced the Networked Life lecture series. He had the discipline, the dedication, he did care to record the videos and edit the content.

While I admire the enthusiasm of the very early adopters in the #EDCMOOC facebook group (no clue how those people discovered the group last year), I feel that there is now a core group of “old members” (somewhere below 200 people)… those people already bonded in a way for several weeks (good for them), and there is the rest of us, thousands of people (the number I predicted for this course on facebook), right at the beginning: feeling like we are somehow already late on the first day of the course. This is not exactly the best management decision for a new course. We should have been notified about this group last year if this was planned to be the main facebook group for this course.

It is also problematic that I have been waiting for many Coursera classes for months and 5 have started at the same time. Why not introduce courses weekly? Semesters and trimesters should be irrelevant in the Coursera context. But also, if I am not interested in doing 5 courses in two months, I can do that with these courses: either just view the videos or wait for the next time when a course is offered (possibly even a better, more mature version of it…). Oh, and a key question: who needs final exams, when you can test understanding weekly while people are learning. And for example what is a perfect score on a final exam, what does it mean, when another student with no exam goes ahead and creates something that was not even part of the exam, but shows real mastery of the course? Learning is not about exams. Exams are about Ivory Tower maintenance, about gate keeping… and Coursera is against Ivory Towers in education… I passed so many exams during my life, but I am convinced, all of them were meaningless and only caused stress. We know from research and from experience, that different people have different learning styles, so testing should also come in different forms. I never went to school for passing exams. I went for learning and for understanding (the social element was not really why I attended school… I should have been home schooled because there were so many jerks and aggressive, ignorant idiots in my schools in Hungary… students and teachers equally… I hated school between my firs year and high school graduation because bullying was a daily experience… I was an intelligent and tall girl, it was assumed that I am able to protect myself, and I did, but the emotional pain of a highly sensitive person and the frustration of the undetected dyslexia together were enormously draining… furthermore, I was never a party girl… and campus life is mostly about things that I do not care about). I much rather write an essay about my learning experiences on my own… that is meaningful to me. Essays that require complex critical thinking are the way to go in my case.

Back to the latest courses. The one course that I was looking forward to the most, has the least attractive structure (the EDC class). It is terribly impersonal. Ironic, given the fact that it is about E-Learning and Digital Cultures, supposedly produced by “experts” in the field.

In another new class I already mastered over two hours of video material (among them some truly upsetting historical events and case studies of mistreatment of people… so, not an easy topic) with no confusion, narrated by a kind and intelligent female professor, Charmaine Williams facing me from time to time during the presentations, and I especially like that she recorded the videos in different spaces, even outdoors… A motivated and real human being talking to me about his or her topic is important to me, even if I just casually clicked to enroll in that class.

This did not happen in the EDC class. While several people are listed as responsible for the EDC class, not one professor showed up for the first week and not even for the second… Not even the teaching assistant… For those of you who are new to Coursera courses: this is not a normal approach to a Coursera course by the producers of the EDC class, believe me. It feels like the course was planned but never really produced. I see that there are G+ hangouts planned, and there is the facebook group, and twitter chat, but those should be additional options, beyond video lectures. Not all of the participants are my kind, using all of the platforms easily, including blogging, that helps me have a voice online. Some are really new to the digital learning experience, and those people find it hard to stay in the EDC class. If you wanted to imagine this scenario in a real classroom, you would see hundreds of puzzled people sitting in class watching videos and holding handouts for weeks with no professor showing up… We know about the insider group in the other room, some of us know what is going on, but most people are just waiting for something to happen. And for several weeks all you get is two G+ hangouts that you can probably watch via youtube. From a users perspective, the E-Learning and Digital Cultures course almost feels like a course in: How not to “deliver” an online course via Coursera.

I am still observing the other three courses. I am going to be back with more later as soon as I formed an opinion regarding those new courses. And there are even more courses opening during the coming months …

Update from 03 February 2013:

It is really ironic that the so called experts of online education, e-learning and digital cultures appear to be the most clueless about the Coursera teaching and learning experience (tools, structure and content).

I got this e-mail below from the “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application” team via Coursera. Basically that particular production team decided to suspend their course for improvement. I actually think that in this phase of Coursera this is the right approach when you notice that your best efforts did not perfectly result in what you initially wished for and you are rethinking it to make it better in the Coursera context with tens of thousands of people after you have been faced with the realities of your own new Coursera course. This online education team had the ability to recognize that what works in smaller and more structured institutional context, does not work in the Coursera context (note: in fact this should have been recognized sooner, actually).

The same should be done with the E-Learning and Digital Cultures class in my humble opinion. I already had a feeling that the EDC class was offered as a draft because that team suspected that what they usually do might not work on Coursera and so only the basic content was provided on a “wait and see” basis and the real EDC class will start with the later, second iteration.

Here is the e-mail from the Online Education course team (even their complete Coursera course page is now offline, so it is gone from my course list):

Dear Regina Saphier,

We want all students to have the highest quality learning experience. For this reason, we are temporarily suspending the “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application” course in order to make improvements. We apologize for any inconvenience that this may cause. We will inform you when the course will be reoffered.



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5 Responses to “Regina Saphier: How NOT to “deliver” an online course via Coursera”
  1. Sarah Siegel says:

    You are so lucid and helpful to me. Purposely, I did not read your blog till after Week 1, as I wanted to experience the EDC MOOC, my first, without the sort of scaffolding I expected you would probably provide, whether intentionally or not. So interesting to hear your take on EDC, since you have a basis for comparison, having experienced others. From my perspective, I’m finding a rhythm and didn’t have pre-set expectations.

    Could the content so far be at a deeper level? (I’ve gotten through only Week 1 so far.) Definitely. But the MOOC concept is informative in any case. At the Google Hangout earlier today, the professors declared that the level of the course was an Intro. course for undergrads. Not sure it’s even at that level, but at least it gave me some reassurance; I was accustomed to TC grad-level content and needed a reality-check.

    So far, you and Thomas Friedman have been the most encouraging, which I talk about in this blog post:

    • Regina says:

      I am glad you are enjoying the MOOC. It is a tremendously important phenomenon. I am critical of the EDC class, because it is not serving the enrolled range of international people. At the same time, lots of professors are afraid that in the future professors will become obsolete, yet the EDC course is provided with no professor week by week. This I find particularly unprofessional and lazy on their part. If I want to watch youtube videos regarding digital culture, I do not need a Coursera MOOC, really. In MOOC the “C” stands for “Course”, in Coursera the point is that the best minds speak to you and walk you through the ideas they think are important for you to understand. I want online courses with a human face, regularly. Not everyone needs that, true, but with no human intervention, it is a very impersonal experience, and does not feel like a narrated learning story, that I enjoy. The Gamification course was also an intro to the topic, but with a human face. It felt personal. Professor Werbach was talking to us, to me, to the learner. He incorporated interviews, reading links, “are you paying attention” test questions and the like into his lectures that were broken into smaller bits for people with short attention-spans. When I registered for the Gamification course I did not start out wanting to complete it, but I did with passion! With the EDC class I wanted to complete it when I registered, I noticed this intention deep down, but it was gone after I reviewed the material and the structure. Perhaps it is just me. I most definitely have no intention to tell anyone to not take and not complete the course, because as I always keep saying, we all have a different learning style and preference. Still, I am curious how many people will actually complete this EDC course… the Gamification course had a well planned motivational backbone and a very high completion rate. I am not so sure about the EDC and its completion rate… on the other hand, it is a much easier material (the EDC), so this low expectation might result in more completion… (Or might not…) I like personal challenge, that is gradually introduced, and that resulted in me completing the Gamification course, even during a rather stressful period in my personal life. I see no actual challenge in EDC. Perhaps its just me…

  2. Sarah Siegel says:

    Regina, today, since I have the day off for the U.S. holiday of President’s Day, I’m wishing I could create my digital artifact for the course. By now, this EDC MOOC might be a distant memory for you, but that’s the final assignment, i.e., I don’t know if you decided to stop participating due to its minimal stimulation for you, but I opted to keep with it.

    From my perspective, which was of one who wanted to experience a MOOC for the first time and who needed to see and participate in all of its elements, I’m having a positive, if not life-altering, experience. I watched all the vids., read all of the articles and attended both Google hangouts and one of the live, participant-driven Twitter chats two weekends ago and am getting what I need out of this MOOC. That is, I’m seeing what it’s like to learn with thousands of people, the positive and negative aspects of that, and I’ve also learned something new in reading about transhumanism.

    Still, I find your ongoing commentary in the Coursera Blog so far more compelling than my actual experience. It is because of my respect for your brain and experience that I will continue to champion the concept and see how we can apply it in a corporate environment, and I’ll do so with a bit more confidence, since I’m experiencing first-hand what is good and not good to do with a MOOC.

    Now, if only I could become creative on command and delve into creating my artifact. If you do create one, please share it with me when it’s ready and I’ll do the same. Thanks for the continuing exchange on this cool learning phenomenon.

    • Regina says:

      Indeed I did not feel that the EDCMOOC was for me. You wanted something out of this experience (a first for you), and if you did get something, that is good. I still wish you would experience a Coursera class at the standard of the Gamification class (or even higher) too, because in Gamification we had actual instructional and motivational design and you were given skills that you can use as a professional (both in gamification as a new profession and in online education as a profession by a role model professor) and that structured learning was enriched by the community learning experience. It had more layers, and it was more challenging. I want you to expect more of the MOOC and the Coursera experience. It is supposed to be more, not only a juxtaposition of things.

      I did not create a digital artifact for the EDCMOOC, and yet I have been creating digital artifacts every day for many years on social media platforms. I want you to have more confidence in yourself and believe that it does not take much effort on your part to create digital artifacts all over the web or within the corporate environment. Create a summary blog post on your blog explaining what the EDCMOOC class was about and record a short video about your first Coursera experience or about the definition of transhumanism. You can also use Prezi instead of video editing. Prezi is a Hungarian presentation tool that is regularly used by TED (the Sapling Foundation invested in Prezi years ago). Of course you can opt for something else, but it feels like you are not thinking of the obvious. 🙂

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