Coursera: Promise and Potential in Unexpected Places

I’ve held back from giving an evaluation Coursera preferring to wait until I completed an entire course, which I did recently, Introduction to Sociology, which closed on July 20th.  This course had 40,000 students enrolled which is consistent with enrollment for a MOOC, though the number of students completing both exams I’m sure was far lower. If you are not familiar with Coursera, Coursera is a joint effort to offer free undergraduate level courses, which are Open, Online, and Massive, a.k.a. MOOCs, by Princeton, University of Michigan, Stanford, and University of Pennsylvania. Recently Coursera, received additional funding and signed on several more university partners including a selection of foreign schools, the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, the University of Toronto, and a technical university in Switzerland.

In this post I’ll outline why I think Coursera has promise and potential, but not necessarily as a ‘fix’ for Higher Ed, but more for the promise it holds to meet other educational needs, other gaps that have yet to be addressed [or discussed for that matter]. And though Coursera has the right formula for bringing online education to the masses – with its sophisticated and user-friendly platform that could morph into a fix for Higher Ed, I think the potential goes further. Though perhaps radical given the perceived current crisis at hand in Higher Ed, why not explore how MOOCs can meet educational needs at a different level?

Four Potentials and Promises
I propose that Coursera can meet educational needs in four areas, for 1) education for cultural awareness and integration, 2) college preparation and exploration for high school students, 3) education for motivated and lifelong learners [not for credit], and 4) skill/education upgrade for adults seeking a career change, with a credential option. I’ll explore the first two in depth here, and save the remaining two for a later post.

Summary of Coursera Experience
Before I explore the suggestions proposed, I’ll give a snippet of my overall experience with the Sociology course with Professor Duneier. Coursera provided an intellectually challenging and rich learning experience. I learned about key concepts of sociology and applied them to my current work and personal projects. Not only did the course enrich my perception of education [my line of work], but more importantly provided another dimension to my learning experience – an appreciation for the topic, which I gained from my classmates living outside of the United States. I was able to view the Sociological concepts from a diverse point of view.

1) The Potential for Cultural Awareness Education
MOOCs have attracted International students in great numbers – thousands of students from outside North America signing up for courses in all disciplines. In the course, Introduction to Sociology, the International students appeared to outnumber the US students by 4:1, though an estimate, it is consistent with other reports. One report from Inside Higher Ed, indicated that 74% of students enrolled in Coursera are from outside of the US. Think of the potential – students interacting from all over the globe, discussing concepts through discussion forums, forming online study groups, communicating through social media platforms, and my favorite, speaking and hearing others viewpoints through seminar discussions using Google Hangouts, a live web conferencing tool available free through Google +. I wrote about my experience using Google Hangouts in this course in a previous post, click here to read more.

In Introduction to Sociology, each week Professor Duneier facilitated an hour-long discussion with six or seven selected students (logistically it was not possible to involve all students). Students were from all around the world, India, Iran, Congo, United States, Georgia, Siberia, Singapore to name a few. The live discussions guided by the professor focused on the readings for the given week, and were recorded for later viewing for the rest of the class. These discussions highlighted the differences and similarities in how people from various cultures think about, and view concepts and events. Granted this particular class delved into issues affecting societies, however the potential is still great for students within other courses to appreciate similarities, and the differences by engaging in discussion and even hearing [via the recorded session] other viewpoints that are shaped by culture. The common ground is the course – which becomes the vehicle for bridging discussion, forming connections and encouraging dialogue. The potential for a Coursera-type platform is great, as our economies become one global economy, what better way to break down the cultural barriers?

2) The Promise for High School Students
A serious problem [in North America at least], is the lack of growth in the number of high-school students pursuing post secondary education [or completing it once they begin] – not having an idea of what they want to study or career path they want to pursue after high school is part of the problem. What if students were exposed to subjects and college level study before choosing a study path, while in grade eleven or twelve? What better way to explore and view what courses of study are available and even exist than by viewing top-notch courses taught by leading educators – courses such as Interactive Programming in Python, or Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society, just two of many available through Coursera? These are not Advanced Placement type of courses, which typically are not always open and available to all students, involve a full-year commitment and have requirements for entry.

My prediction is that high school students, [granted not all] when exposed to Coursera will be intrigued by at least one of the subjects available through the broad and deep course offerings – students will encounter subject areas they never heard of before, and I have no doubt will find one or more of interest. When my two teenagers viewed Coursera, my daughter a senior, interested in Biology, [but not sure], signed up for the Introduction to Genome Science and my son, Game Theory. One of the barriers I believe for students – is not knowing what they can study, not having awareness of the areas of study and career paths available, including the fact that a 4-year college degree isn’t the one and only option. Though my kids may not complete these courses in their entirety, I do feel it will be a worthwhile experience.

With Coursera there are no barriers for students, they can sign up for a course without having to submit transcripts, previous test scores, without having a parent or counselor saying ‘NO you can’t take that you don’t have the grades’ or ‘you don’t have this prerequisite’ etc. Yes, the courses may be challenging and even too difficult for these students, but they can figure this out on their own. These students will gain exposure to an area they knew nothing about. Even if students only watch the video lectures, complete one of the readings, and/or even fail to pass or complete the course, the student benefits, learns and engages in an enriching experience.

What’s Next?
As I’ve shared, I think Coursera is tremendous potential to meet  educational needs at many levels, levels that go beyond revamping the Higher Ed model as we know it, even in areas we have yet to explore. Breaking down barriers will be necessary to move education forward, to meet educational needs in unique ways. We need to bring down barriers to change, barriers to technological innovations and be open to new ways of learning for a global world. In my next post I’ll share more insights into the Coursera experience.

Other Reading:
MOOCs from Here, by Dean Dad, Inside Higher Ed
Who Takes MOOCs?, Steven Kolowich, Inside Higher Ed
Once upon a course in Princeton: My Coursera Experience, David Agogo

7 thoughts on “Coursera: Promise and Potential in Unexpected Places

  1. Reblogged this on Archaeology, Museums & Outreach and commented:
    Here is a very interesting post by Debbie Morrison on a class that she recently completed. As well, she provides insightful comments about MOOCs in general. Her MOOC assessment is one of the few blogs out there that is based in actual experience of completing a class as opposed to just talking about the concept.


  2. Thank you very much for a fantastic post. I am currently working my way to completing my first coursera course and likewise wanted to hold off on a detailed assessment until completed. As you note, the power and potential of coursera appears less as a “fix” for higher education but in other areas. I had not thought of the high school student angle, but that certainly makes a great deal of sense.

    I too was quite impressed with the number of coursera participants outside the U.S. Coursera seems a potential poster child of globalization. For example, in the class I am enrolled – World Music – the discussion of the political implications around apartheid in South African of Paul Simon’s Graceland were discussed not from the perspective of just U Penn where the course originated, but with a worldwide audience, including South Africans with first hand knowledge/experience.

    While coursera as currently manifest will not likely be the fix for higher education, some iteration of the method likely will be involved in the fix down the road. I remain disappointed that so many academicians remain wrapped in their Luddite security that this is all just somehow a fad.

    Great post – look forward to the next one.


    1. Hi Robert! So good to hear from a fellow Coursera classmate! Sounds like World Music is another course which generates much discussion and involvement from students around the world. I agree with you, that there is much resistance to advancement within Higher Education. I hope you enjoy your World Music Course, and I look forward to reading your assessment of the course once it is complete. Thank you Robert for reading and for your comment. Debbie 🙂


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