Dear Coursera and Udacity! Don’t congratulate yourself too much
So a couple of smart professors from Stanford have started two separate startups and have put their courses on the web and the world is going nuts. Everyone is talking about them and they are busy congratulating themselves on this amazing accomplishment. Every major paper is writing about how these professors are revolutionizing education and how amazing these wesbites are (see Wired or NY times articles). Do not get me wrong, the work that Udacity and Coursera are doing are way more superior to MIT’s course dump (OCW) but is it really what we were all envisioning for online education? I mean come on! We did all that research on distance learning, collaborative whiteboards, online labs and we ended up with these low quality Khaan Academy videos? are you kidding me? We have a whole freaking academic community specifically around engineering education, they even publish scientific journals!
I have a lot of respect for the professor who started this, Sebastian Thrun, whose wonderful book on probabilistic robotics was my bible for a long time, but here is what I think they are doing wrong.
Both classrooms (udacity and Coursera) are too similar to regular classroms.
Just like a classroom, the course starts on specific dates and goes on for 7 weeks. Students need to stick to deadlines, do quizzes, submit homeworks, and finish on time. There is no flexibility, there is no customization, you will take the same course as the next guy over the internet with a completely different background. What if I want to learn a topic in a year instead of 7 weeks? What if I want to learn it in 10 years? For example I was busy last week and was catching up on my emails today, one of the emails was from Coursera announcing that their algorithms course was going live last week, when I went to sign up today it told me that I cannot enroll now! My question is: why? seriously why cannot I start whenever I want and finish whenever I want? This is the same thing that I hated about my old fashion offline university!
In fact Professor Thrun has published his vision for online education as a university that has the follwoing elements:
…Nine essential components of a university education: admissions, lectures, peer interaction, professor interaction, problem-solving, assignments, exams, deadlines, and certification.
Are you kidding me? I know a system that was around way before the web and had the same elements, its name is “College”. So all you have done is taking the same lectures and making a video out of them and it has become the revolution in education that we were all dreaming about?
This is what I think: People are taking these courses because for many it is the only way to learn about interesting topics like robotics or machine learning. Take a video of a Stanford professor talking about a hot topic and people will eat that up. That does not necessarily mean that we have unlocked the power of online education. I also doubt it will give any value to a Stanford student who can sit in the real classroom.
To me this is aiming low, it is giving up on our dreams, it really is a failure.