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

5 [very good] Ed-Tech tools for Online Instruction

In my last post I wrote about how to choose the ‘right’ ed-tech tools for online instruction. I shared a 5-step Ed-Tech Integration Strategy developed to help educators select the best ed-tech tool from among the hundreds of tools available on the Web. With so many options of educational technology tools and applications that can enhance instruction, how do you choose the one that will be the best fit for your course? In this post I’ll  introduce five tools that we have implemented [or plan to] in several of our online courses at my workplace along with the strategy we used for the selection process.

To put this strategy into context and to see how it works, I’ll illustrate the 5-step review process using Google Hangout as the ed-tech application, which we are considering for one of our [100%] online credit courses. The course is a general education undergraduate course, English Literature. Class sizes for our online classes range from ten to thirty-five students, though the average class size for English Lit is usually about twelve students.

Ed-Tech Tool  #1: Google Hangouts for Seminar Discussion
Google Hangouts: I am enthusiastic about this application available through Google + (Google Hangouts requires a plug-in to work). I believe it has tremendous potential for the online learning environment and am eager to use it in our program.

While taking the course Introduction to Sociology through Coursera, I was exposed to Google Hangouts through the live weekly seminar discussions between the professor and six or seven students, which were recorded. The recordings were available following the discussion for the rest of the class to view. Even though the majority of students could not participate live, we benefited by viewing the guided discussions led by the course instructor which focused on the readings for the week. The live discussions were interactive, each student was able to engage in the discussion. [You can view a screen shot from a Google Hangout recorded discussion below. When a student is speaking, his or her image is on the screen, and the rest of the student images are below, when a student speaks the image switches to feature the speaker.]

The 5 Step Ed-Tech Strategy Applied
The questions which guide the 5-step integration strategy are highlighted in italics and bold [to view a visual representation of this model click here] below. Following each step is the thought process we went through when considering Google Hangouts for one of the learning activities in module #2 of the English Lit course – a discussion needed to support objectives around an assigned reading.

1. Consider: will this application/tool enhance, improve instruction or motivate learners? Yes – A Google Hangout will promote interaction and create dialogue about course content, in this case an assigned reading, amongst classmates and the course instructor. The instructor will be able to guide discussion and draw out important concepts and themes. Students will take turns participating in live discussion throughout the course – a maximum of 7 students per discussion. Session will be recorded for later viewing by those students not participating.

2. Review learning objectives for the lesson or module. One of the three objectives within this module is: ‘To identify and apply themes from a literary work from the Middle Ages [in this case Beowulf] to events and themes that exist within current culture’. The class discussion, led by the course instructor through Google Hangout will support part of this objective, a follow-up activity will be needed to support entire goal.

3. Identify the content student needs to learn – review, augment and/or update.
Students are required to read the poem Beowulf (either through the free e-book link provided, or via purchased textbook) prior to participating or watching the recorded discussion. To augment the reading, students are also required to listen to an audio clip of a reading from the poem to gain further appreciation of the literary work (to view the site where audio resource was sourced, click here.)  Students are required to review discussion questions prior to the live or recorded discussion.

4. Assess: will it [Google Hangout] encourage students to apply the content and learn the material, construct knowledge and/or promote critical thinking?  Yes – in two steps, 1) through the guided discussion led by course instructor and 2) after the discussion students will be required to post to a discussion forum a written response to one or more identified [by the course instructor] discussion questions. This serves two purposes – encourages  student to reflect on the discussion within context of course content, and to ‘describe’ what they learned, thus encouraging critical thinking.

5. Select and implement the best application. Create concise instructions of how-to use tool. We will be implementing Google Hangouts in our next session’s course, though we need to write specific instructions and provide how-to resources for students in order that they have the technical aspects mastered prior to participating. Creating concise instructions and offering tech support is often a neglected component when using ed-tech tools which can undermine the success of the learning.

Four More [really good] Ed-Tech Tools

2. Camtasia or Jing Screen Cast programs: Screen casts which record a screen image of a Word doc or Power Point file with a  highlight function and are accompanied by (user voice) audio recording – is an excellent tool for instructor’s to give feedback on individual or group assignments. One of my professors in grad school used this tool for giving feedback on all group assignments, using our group submission of a Word Doc, and highlighting points within it as he verbally gave feedback on key points.  One of our professors will be using this tool for graded essays in our English Composition Class next session, and another professor of a general ed Science class will be recording mini-lectures using power points slides for a part of the content delivery.

3. Khan Academy: I love Khan Academy for the concise, and specific topical lessons that can supplement a lesson beautifully. We currently use Khan videos in two of our courses, and student feedback is positive. In our United States Government course, we use a video that explains the United States Electoral system, and in our Critical Thinking and Problem Solving course to support several of the mathematical concepts required within the modules. These videos augment the lessons – a form of the content delivery.

4. Google Docs: An excellent collaborative tool that allows real time collaboration between students using documents  (Word, Excel or Power Point). In one of our courses we require a group project be submitted where all members contribute. We encourage use of group discussion board within our LMS and Google Docs. The challenge is that Google Docs is outside our current LMS making it difficult for instructor to monitor and evaluate. However, of the collaborative tools I have worked with, Google Docs is superior.

5. Course Development Planner: For Course Instructors and Designers
I was introduced to this tool by one of my readers. It was developed at Utah State University, and is a free tool for course instructors and/or course designers featuring a user-friendly design in a worksheet format through Adobe Reader. The format makes it easy to plan and organize a course. It is an ‘open source’ tool, so if you do use it I’m sure the developers would appreciate your feedback. Download the tool and watch the intro video from the You Tube site, click here.

How to choose the best ed-tech tools for Online Instruction, Online Learning Insights, Blog
Google +, Google Hangouts Learn More
Google + Hangouts Plug-in

Peer Grading in Online Classes: Does it Work?

Is student grading good enough to use? A loaded question – and though it is context-dependent, the answer is yes. Yesterday I peer-graded six student midterm exams in the Introduction to Sociology course I’m taking through Coursera, along with 30,000 other enrolled students. In this learning environment, also known as a MOOC, peer grading is the only option, though it did motivate me to research its effectiveness and applicability to online courses for credit (the context for this post). Intrigued, I could see the potential in light of the online program at my workplace, not only from a time-saving standpoint for the instructor, but also for the potential in enhancing the student learning experience.

Enhanced Learning
I see the value of peer grading for what the student gets out of it, more than for the time it saves the instructor. I experienced this value first hand as mentioned above. The exam in question consisted of two short answer questions each requiring 250 words, and an essay response requiring 750 words. Though tedious [90 minutes of my undivided attention], I was far more familiar with the course concepts after the exercise, it was well worth the time.

Several of my classmates reported the same phenomenon via the discussion board – the deeper learning experienced while grading their peers. Below are snippets from select posts on the discussion board from the Coursera Introduction to Sociology course:

“…I actually enjoyed the peer review part mostly because of looking at different answers, giving me more perspective from an group of people all from different cultures. Not only that, but I felt I was able to be unbiased while grading my own work ….” Greg

I’ve learned a lot through the peer assessment, and even though maybe the scores will not be perfect, everybody who goes through that process will have now a better and more complete understanding of the first half of the course.” Horacio

For what it’s worth, one of the essays I corrected didn’t seem too good on first reading but when I checked it against the rubric, lo and behold, most of what was required was there.” Ron

“In my experience as an educator for over 25 years, it’s often the case that we think our grades should be higher than they are. ….the rubric was great, very thorough and complete…” Kendall

How accurate is peer grading? Another interesting question, and it depends upon the perspective. The viewpoint that most educators are familiar with, is where the instructor’s grade is the benchmark – his or her grading is the standard for measuring accuracy.

This is the method used in a research study by two biology professors at the University of Washington which determined that on a per-question basis, students were more generous in grading, actually 25% more, “0.27 points—roughly a quarter point on each 2-point question”. However, despite the differing grades, authors support peer grading and suggest further research be done to examine its value and the role peer grading can play in enhancing student learning. (Freeman & Parks, 2010).

How can student grading be effective within an online environment? Effectiveness depends upon the thoroughness and specificity of the rubric. A grading tool that guides the student through assessment of short answer and essay questions is critical. Below is an example from the research study mentioned earlier [a biology course was used for the  study]. There may be five or six of these questions for each point within a given question.

Sample answer: If the two species mate on different fruits,
then no gene flow occurs and they are reproductively isolated.


  • Full credit (2 pts.): Clear articulation of logic that mating on different fruits reduces or eliminates gene flow—a Prerequisite for speciation to occur.
  •  Partial credit (1 pt.): Missing or muddy logic with respect to connection between location of mating and gene flow, or no explanation of why reductions in gene flow are Important.
  • No credit (0 pts.): both components required for full credit missing; no answer; or answer is unintelligible.  (Freeman & Parks, 2012)

To begin peer grading in an online course consider the following:

  • Create your own rubric that provides standards for each point the question is worth. For instance if a given questions is worth 6 points, 6 statements will need to be developed, similar to the one above.
  • Create detailed instructions for students that clearly outline how peer grading will work.
  • Set-up the process so that students grade a minimum of 3 peers’ assignments/exams and self-grade his or her own.
  • Average the peer scores and include the student’s self-graded assignment.

Though creating a peer review exercise is time consuming at the outset, rewards are tremendous.  First, for the potential time saved by the course instructor in grading, and second, [perhaps the most important] is the value that peer grading provides for the student.

Freeman, S. & Parks, C. How accurate is peer grading (2010). CBE—Life Sciences Education. Vol. 9, 482–488.

Peer Review, Peer Grading, JaZahn
UCLA’s Calibrated Peer Review, Eric Mazur.  This is a software program/platform that can handle and support peer grading for large classes and/or institutions that plan to implement peer grading in several classes.