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.

~ by marksalen on March 27, 2012.

21 Responses to “Dear Coursera and Udacity! Don’t congratulate yourself too much”

  1. Have you tried any of those classes? It’s amazing. Have you find anything with better value(overall quality/price) to call this a failure?

    • I took Andrew Ng’s Machine Learning and it was great. I have certainly sat in a couple of great courses at Berkeley that were better in terms of content but I think having a video recording helps students a great deal (actually many of the courses are video taped and you can watch them on Berkeley or CITRIS channels) the courses were free for me and for many grad students as the tuition is covered by fellowships.

    • Yes, I tried a “Fantasy” course on a Coursera platform lead by a University of Michigan professor. It was what changed my mind so utterly and so completely. I compiled an 85 page document, single spaced, consistently ONLY from postings made by students in the class. Then I “observed” other courses, made contact with student, all with the same feed back. There is a good reason their retention rates are one in six or seven. But the real shame is that with a wee bit of TLC from well organized help desks and the retention rates would show a dramatic improvement. The content was fine, it was the lack of responses, poor web site design, awful FAQ, all the good stuff that good on line providers have been doing for 15 years or more.

  2. Mark, since you haven’t done a very good job of playing the devil’s advocate with yourself, I wanted to point out that a lot of good has come from a single stream of content, with many people looking at the same material at the same time. Consider, for example:
    – Google Hangouts and groups organized by students
    – Online Office hours organized by instructors
    – The course forums are relevant as everyone is tackling the same material.
    – There is a lot to be said about human psychology and motivation. Presence of deadlines makes you more likely to meet them, and lowers the chances of you falling behind forever and never catching up.

    Many people going over the same material at the same time produces more excitement and increases engagement.

    The overall experience in the classes is slightly rough around the edges, but people are figuring it out. The current iteration is just the first step in our gradient descent. (Or arguably the second, and I’d list MIT’s OCW or Khan’s videos as first). That’s why people are excited — it’s not about the current objective value, but about the fact that someone with muscle, will and reputation is actually working out the next iteration of the descent.

    • Hi Andrej,

      Since you were involved with Udacity I’d like to propose a slightly different solution for the problem that you mentioned. Who knows you guys might be able to work it in the system 🙂

      I do agree that working in groups is helpful but it does not necessarily mean that everybody needs to start and end at the same time. People have been forming study groups to read different books for many years and it does not mean that everyone in the world should start the book on the same day. A study group needs two to five people and more than that is usually hard to organize.

      The good thing about Udacity is that topics are broken into weeks and individual lectures so you guys can just show the name of the people who are doing say “logistic regression” and these people can work together. There might be another group who is doing SVM and they can hangout and work together too. Professors can drop in the hangouts to help them once in a while. If people in a group really like each other they can continue together with the same pace (given 7 weeks of lecture you need at least 8 people to make sure one group can be formed and I am sure you have more people in the system 🙂

      I am not saying what Udacity is doing is not helpful for countless number of students. I am just trying to give an idea to make it better (and more awesome). For many it is the only way to learn so kudos to you all.

    • Andre, this is all true and all wonderful. What I object to is the “handle” that comes with those universities that Coursera has signed up. Why? Because the come with what i call a “Rolex Stamp” of approval…degrades the “real” Rolex, and doesn’t come within a long country mile of what a really, really good MOOC could do and can do. If you think as I do that one of the great pillars of a civilized society is the University, that inside of the University are the Crown Jewels of knowleged and knowledge sharing, that there is a twin responsibility from the Provost — to share widely and to protect the brand by ensuring first class learning outcomes on the campus (to include supplementing on line and campus). But if we degrade the University in the process of sharing knowledge, what kind of slippery slope is that? Don’t get me wrong, I think well delivered MOOCs directly from the University– not througha for profit provider like Coursera, but through an “Academic” platform (Western Gov. Association model?) would yield enormous benefit to the campus. There is a huge amount of good that could flow back to the University; but if it is filtered by inadequate means, then it could all go south.

  3. It’s a little harsh to call Udacity a failure. I do wish there were more flexibility in the homework deadlines, but as someone who’s attempted more times than I can count to try and learn Python, Udacity’s CS 101 is the only approach that actually stuck. And I credit the classroom-like structure for that. I’m a little ashamed that it took extrinsic motivation to get me to stick with learning Python, but maybe that’s just how it is when you’re an academic type (as I am).

    There’s something to be said about providing a structure with which people are familiar. Something totally off-the-reservation radical might be more of what you are looking for, but it would be too unfamiliar for a lot of others to stick with.

  4. I agree with you 100%. I took a course at one of them and was so frustrated that there is no flexibility with timing. l also wish That there was a way to work offline so that I can study white commuting. They really have modelled It on sitting behind a desk at school-

    l compare It to java passion and would rather pay and have complete control of The experience the way you have described it.

  5. Hi Mark:

    I’m assisting with the production of a documentary on the role digital media will play in re-inventing the university for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in Toronto, Canada, and am looking to speak with students enrolled in a course with Udacity, Coursera or MITx about how they think online education compares with traditional classroom learning.

    I’d like to speak with you about your experience if you’re interested.

    If so, please reply to this message or contact me via email:

    Thanks very much!

    Ashley Walters

  6. Mark, It’s not a failure, it’s just the first iteration (actually, the second), and we are all starting with a WYSIWOSG approach (What You See Is What Our Students Get). There are good reasons for starting there. Check out for the rationale.

    • Great Initiative, I can´t wait to start the course! It is only the firsts steps towards something bigger.

  7. […] to Coursera and Udacity, here is a post critiquing on the issues, and consider them as “failures”. Here the response from […]

  8. If that is the only problem you can propose, then calling it a failure is like calling a nice warm biscuit as garbage just because the maker put only 18 gram of chocolate chips instead of 20 gram.

  9. Q: What is the difference between Coursera/Udacity etc and a good textbook?
    A1. textbooks are not cool anymore.
    A2. A textbook is indexed and has fully random access, you don’t have to listen to a talking head reading it out to you word for word.
    A3. A textbook has more information.
    A4. Textbooks cost money.

  10. Was thinking about your & my discussion about this again. One positive we can almost certainly congratulate especially the Coursera founders on is that our web apps will, because of them, all have a much better A.I. than will otherwise be the case.

    Perhaps “a small deal” ridding us of some “inconvenience” but hey, it’s more valuable than delivering pizzas, lecturing Stanford ugrads, or exploiting tax loopholes for multinational corporations.

  11. You are spot on, Mark. In 1969 I was in the Army Reserve and had to attend clerk/typist school in Fort Dix. The entire training course was programmed, self-paced. Most of us who were college grads were easily able to finish the 8-week course in a couple of days. That was over 40 years ago! So what you are suggesting is hardly a new idea.

    The training universe has long had an interest in increasing the productivity of learning because wasting learners’ time costs employers money. Academia though profits from wasting students’ time and money, lately driving them and their families into disastrous burdens of debt to acquire diplomas that increasingly fail to deliver the promised economic benefit.

    I have written a lot about this dilemma and what to do about it over a span of decades:

  12. […] posted the following a piece that is near and dear to my own thinking. I encourage readers here to visit Mark Alen’s blog, but have chose to quote his entire piece as […]

  13. Mark, I totally, completely agree. What you have not voiced, which I believe deserves the loudest megaphone ever invented, is that badly constructed MOOCs devalue the credentials earned by those who jump through all the hoops to earn that credential. If you buy a Rolex watch, for $10,000 one of the “bargains” you make is that Rolex doesn’t allow the Coursera’s of the world to put something that, sort of, maybe, kinda, looks like a Rolex, has the name Rolex stamped on it and gives it away free. Now the kid paying full prices, says what a chump I am, why don’t I get the free Rolex, dress up my resume so employers will think I actually went to Duke or Stanford or Yale and hire me….or at least interview me because look at all the courses I took from these elite schools!!!

    I do believe MOOCs are THE game changer of the 21st century. I also believe Coursera is a dressed up 21st century Diploma Mill – out to build enrollment, get a ton of “Rolex” licenses, fool the public with a big Facebook offering, make a killing and that is that. Who cares about student outcome when your eye is on the billion dollar prize of an IPO with the Next Big Thing – free college education rubber stamped Stanford, Cal, etc. etc. etc. What chumps the provosts of those universities are! Destroy their brand image….for what? John Hibbs skipper AT bfranklin DOT edu or visit please AT oregonhibbs DOT com

  14. This posting is leaving out many facts as free education, great community effects and all the endless additional stuff that many courses have (like additional interviews). Of course this makes arguing easier. Live education is complex and great. But MOOCS are as well and make a wonderful supplement.

  15. 100% exactly spot on!
    I share EXACTLY this frustration!

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