The Course of Coursera (?)

Do MOOC’s genuinely threaten higher education? There is this apocalyptic viewpoint, or this Sloan piece. These¬†argue that the educational darwinism introduced by MOOC’s, where the best teachers have infinite reach, will destroy the volume and diversity of ‘face-to-face’ education. And this action by Duneier gives pause because he taught a highly regarded course on Coursera before disengaging from the MOOC world.

As someone who’s taken more than a few Coursera courses for ‘edutainment’, I have an opinion .. but let’s take the Darwinism argument as plausible for the moment. Are MOOC’s really aiming at the same ‘customer base’ as traditional universities? The recent survey (and some of my ¬†screenshots thereof) conducted by Coursera provide a (albeit bounded to Coursera alone, but nevertheless 80k students in size) data point.

How Big can MOOC’s Get? If you’re in the education business, and worried that the already significant MOOC phenomenon can get substantially bigger – the poll below gives you cause for concern. Depending on how ‘sticky’ consumer-to-consumer recommendations are, your concern could be more or less.


Do people come to MOOC’s for certification? This one’s a bit of a puzzler. The feedback in the middle suggests that folk come to Coursera primary for learning, and not certification. The other two indicate that certification (and the ability to post certificates to LinkedIn) are a big factor. I believe the former answer to be a head fake caused by a question that made users choose between learning and certification, when they really want both.


Are MOOC’s a target for full-time students? Not so much. People are clearly serious about their learning, and have a strong desire for assisted learning (tutors etc), but their time investment suggests that Coursera is mostly used for ‘one course at a time’ style part-time learning. It is not obvious that Courserans go for deep courses that require 10+ hours of work per week, or a course schedule that is 20+ hours a week.


Will MOOC Learning Communities threaten Classrooms? No. Nyet. Nein. Nanka. MOOC’ers place a very low value on social learning or relationship building that comes in a classroom environment. The focus is squarely on fulfilling one’s own learning goals, with discussion boards as a tool. Several courses have tried to ‘gamify’ discussion boards by making participation a part of the grade. Does this make people more social and involved in the learning community (and therefore more classroom like)? Time will tell, but for now MOOC learning is a solitary endeavor.

CommunityNet-net, my take is that MOOC learners are not the ‘bread-and-butter’ customers of universities – full-time learners in the prime of their teens, with college degrees as the goal. One could see Coursera leading to ‘credit shaving’ where it replaces community colleges as a cheap means to get the ‘easy credits’ (say Physics 101).

However, universities with night school revenue, for-fee educational outreach programs, or executive education (sans boondoggles) have cause for concern. I can attest to being in the private sector warms to MOOC’s camp in terms of using Coursera as cheap and effective on-the-job training for my team. For schools that rely on these revenue streams, they are ripe for the taking.