May 2, 2017

Experiencing MOOCs – A glimpse into Coursera at Stanford University

MOOCs have been discussed for quite some time now and scholarly opinions on the topic vary from pessimism and traditionally performed resistance to new (educational) technologies to sheer enthusiasm. While looking for a MOOC-example to examine, I stumbled across diverse free online courses. That is why I will briefly outline some of my subjective impressions before shortly discussing the lecture “Innovation in Education: MOOCs, Scalability, and Pedagogy” of Andrew Ng, one of the cofounders of Coursera, adjunct professor and director of the Stanford AI lab. 

MOOCs are a relatively new development and they adopt and incorporate characteristics and values of today´s societies. One of my impressions is that the designs of the websites, the titles of the lectures, the lecturers themselves, shortly the whole way of presentation and promotion, appeared to be colorful and somehow young and hip. So, at a first glance, for me, it seemed to be a quite “entertaining” way of learning. This is not to judge, but still changes the presentation of knowledge, creates specific images of modern education and the hip, metropolitan, open student. It produces a world of 24/7 accessibility with no regard to time and space. Furthermore, looking for open online courses triggered a typical internet-dynamic of randomly surfing and infinitely clicking on interesting lectures. I felt a bit as if I was shopping lectures online and it was interesting to feel how one´s one curiosity and “taste” in specific topics got visible. Moreover, the freedom of choice enabled by MOOCs, the promise of gaining new knowledge quickly, freely and without moving away from the couch, is attractive. Nevertheless, I think there are very different users of MOOCs with quite diverse motivations. Regarding my short-time-glimpse into MOOCs, of course it is something different to use free open lectures out of curiosity for pursuing individual interests then registering for and going through with the learning process. From an outside-standpoint it is therefore not possible to evaluate the structure of the courses and the quality of knowledge provided. So in my perspective, there certainly are prejudices against MOOCs for that reason alone that they seem to embody an image of a quick-, hip-, funny-, modern knowledge-transfer. But, on the other hand, who says higher education should be a grey, dusty process of studying methods? And who says there cannot be a coexistence of new and old educational structures, learning strategies, systems, technologies and scientific identities? 

Andrew Ng, cofounder of Coursera 

In a Stanford lecture about Coursera, one of the biggest MOOCs worldwide, Andrew Ng discusses the platform as a tool for bringing education to everyone. He talks about advantages of specific features and promotes the creativity and diversity instructors have in creating and teaching their courses. One main argument is not only that the educational videos have gotten better and better over time, but that the medium of film enables students to have a more “efficient” use of their time. The videos make it possible to fast-forward, rewind, to stop and, most importantly, to repeat and replay the content. Instant replays make it possible for students to immediately check if they are understanding the material correctly. Moreover, many lectures contain interactive elements like video quizzes. Some instructors even choose the form of a video game as the format of their courses. 
A further topic addressed was Coursera´s work on new grading techniques. Since one professor (+ teaching assistants) are not able to grade up to 100 000 students, evaluation depicts a challenge. This is why Coursera employs techniques like auto-grading-technology or peer-grading.
Personally, it was interesting to observe how a specific mission of MOOCs, namely - reaching as many people as possible, got presented. The size of the courses was praised and stated as making more sense of community possible. Further, effectiveness played a significant role in the video and categories like “great teaching” were used. What I personally liked was that the speaker conceded that there are types of knowledge that cannot be taught online, and that education is not only about consuming content. Another nice argument was that MOOCs could enable working professionals to stay informed, learn more, or get back in the educational system. Problems Coursera and MOOCs more generally are facing were also addressed, for example the problem of translating content and how to motivate students to complete online courses. The latter is currently achieved by implementing payment for certificates and specific reward structures in assignments. The grand narrative behind the video is to outline the mission and potential of Coursera as enabling a better world through technology, improving lives and establishing equal opportunities, “a shot at the middle class”, for everyone through accessibility to education.
So to wrap it up, it was interesting to see how much thought goes into these new educational technologies and how the developers try to examine the “best ways” for students to learn productively. Nevertheless, even though I am curious about the implications MOOCs carry for the wider scientific enterprise, I am remaining skeptical. 

Source:; accessed 02.05.2017


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  2. In my opinion, according to your description of the video, the cofounder of Coursera is pointing out the weak points and the advantages of the platform/idea of MOOCs quite nicely. I guess that you can say that he might be diverging the attention from the flaws too much... But, still, I'm still asking myself, why are you actually remaining skeptical?

  3. Maybe you are still skeptical, because moocs seem rather as a benefit for amateurs (at least to us), lay people or student beginners? As for serious researchers and already well established scholars, it might seem to little of material they can work with and it often does not go into depth of the knowledge of the specific field.

  4. Very interesting! You write: "A further topic addressed was Coursera´s work on new grading techniques. Since one professor (+ teaching assistants) are not able to grade up to 100 000 students, evaluation depicts a challenge. This is why Coursera employs techniques like auto-grading-technology or peer-grading. " This is a very important topic, when it comes to validation of online training / distant learning. It is not entirely new, has also been employed in terms of computer-supported grading for lecturers with massive audiences, but that would mean courses also have to be designed for such a performance measurement.

    Peer grading in highly diverse and distributed audiences also present several challenges, but are nevertheless a very interesting form of validation of knowledge, which also requires preparation and guidelines, in the best case scenario, peer grading procedures are part of the course itself.