Continuing Education at Coursera

Some people might still not know about Coursera, a new enterprise designed to bring high quality, college level education to the masses at no charge. At least that is their stated goal. It is Coursera.org, not .com so I am not going to worry too much about any “for profit” motivations at this time. They do need an income stream and they are working on ways they can bring in revenues while providing a free service, I wish them luck on that. For now all the courses are free, there are no hidden costs, no texts you have to buy, all you need is a high speed internet connection and enough hours in the week to do the work and you can take their classes.
But you would be justified to ask if you should. If you are looking for a few credit hours to complete a degree, no, don’t bother. Even the institutions that offer the classes do not give credit towards a degree program for them. It is an option they talk about for the future but not now. Their first step toward that, and toward a revenue stream, is called their Signature Track. You pay a fee when the class begins, they somehow verify that it is you taking the class and doing the work, when the class is over, if you earn a certificate of completion you get one that says “Verified”. You still can’t get credit toward a degree and I have no idea how they can be sure it is you doing the work but I am not an expert on technology.
So, the question of should you take the classes is still open. If you are not at all worried about earning credit towards a degree, if you simply want to learn about the subject should you take the class? I am currently taking my 12th Coursera class and I have to say that it depends. The one class that I signed up for in hopes of making myself more employable, Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application from the Georgia Institute of Technology disintegrated the first week and was closed. Given the subject it was a well publicized scandal in online education circles and, if I understand correctly, the professor in charge left the university.
Most of the classes I have taken were very good, some excellent. Duke University’s Think Again: How to Reason and Argue taught jointly by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Ram Neta, has justly become one of the most popular offerings on Coursera. Brown University’s Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets taught by Dr. Sue Alcock is a Stanford’s Introduction to Mathematical Thinking taught by Dr. Keith Devlin is a brilliant offering that is intended as a step from high school math to college mathematics. Although I took two years of advanced mathematics (calculus) in high school that was almost 40 years ago so I signed up thinking this would be a refresher. I was rustier than I thought, (here are a few face saving excuses) I over committed my time, I traveled during the last weeks of the course and only managed a final grade of 30.1%. These classes are serious and if you want to learn you have to put in the effort.
One concern I have with Coursera’s offerings is that there is sometimes little indication of the class level in the descriptions. Brick and mortar schools will number their offerings, 100, 200, 300, 400, and so on to indicate classes aimed at freshman, sophomores, juniors, seniors and on to graduate students. I finished earning my BA in history in 2011 so I would have been disappointed taking an introductory level history class. Someone never exposed to college history might have been overwhelmed with University of Maryland’s Woman in the Civil Rights Movement. Anyone would enjoy University of Rochester’s History of Rock and Roll (Parts 1 and 2), it was remarkably fun and informative. Both Woman in Civil Rights and Rock and Roll could have easily been 3 or 400 level classes in a brick and mortar setting if they had a heavier writing component.
I can’t say that all the classes I took seemed worth the effort. A four week class on modern, computerized map making seemed like a two hour seminar could have covered the same ground. Social Psychology seemed to me to be a celebration of unethical research, the professor admitted the research was unethical while celebrating its importance. I dropped them both after deciding they were of no use to me. That is one advantage free classes have, you lose nothing but your time if you drop one.
So, if you have a few hours a week to spare go to Coursera.com and see if there are any classes that interest you. The most it will cost you is some of your time. One I would suggest is the University of Edinburgh’s E-Learning and Digital Cultures that starts November 4. When you signup they will suggest that you open a twitter account and start a blog. Which is why I am rebooting this long dormant blog.

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1 Comment

Filed under Education

One response to “Continuing Education at Coursera

  1. Very fair comments- and really well researched blog!
    I have only taken a few – one on Logic I dropped: exercises where you are either right or wrong, and can self-correct: but no explanation why that is the right answer.
    Just finished an excellent one on Kirkegaard – the time put in by the tutor was very impressive, and a little humbling.
    A course on Andy Warhol? Why not.
    Time-commitment is the issue – so easy to over-commit and end up confused and at a loss.
    Once again, great blog!

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