Intel for elearning and education innovation.

MOOC Smackdown: Coursera vs. AFT

By on May 13, 2013
Blended Learning, Continuing Education, Cost of Education, Domestic, Faculty, Gamification, International, K-12, MOOCs, Personalized Learning, Required, Startups, Teachers, Universities & Colleges, Venture Capital

Daphne Koller Dawn Endico via Compfight

By Paul Glader, Managing Editor

PALO ALTO, Calif. — During a panel session about massive open online courses (MOOCs) at the Education Writer’s Association annual meeting at Stanford University here, Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller tangled with AFT representative Bob Samuels several times, demonstrating the battle lines in the MOOC landscape.

Faculty are increasingly wary of the disruptive trend of free, open-source online courses, particularly the trend of colleges offering credit to students who take such classes. Such an unbundling of the traditional college and degree model jeopardizes the positions of university professors.

“It’s not the best use of resources to have a lecturer walk into a lecture hall and tell the same jokes and give the same lecture,” Koller said in her opening remarks. “How do we offer a great online experience for Stanford students that can subsititute for the lecture so we have more time to talk in class?”

Samuels countered that MOOCs have been “a giant distraction” from key issues in America such as how to fund higher education. He said many people with good intentions are involved with MOOCs but suggested that the MOOC mania is doing some disservice to higher ed. “There is a reinforcing of a stereotype that the quality of lectures has gone down. I think that is the minority of classes,” he said. “It’s part of the larger culture of bashing teachers in our culture.”

Koller interjected that a great lecturer still provides the best educational experience. But she didn’t think great lectures and great lecturers are always the norm, even at her home institution of Stanford.  “I think there is a very large number of classes that can benefit from technology,” she said. “I don’t think technology is a distraction. I think it provides us with a fundamental change like the printing press did.”

She rattled off major advancements in medicine such as orthoscopic surgery and antibiotics and then asked, “What are the big developments in education in the last few centuries? Chalkboards? Erasable white boards? We have an opportunity here to use technology wisely and carefully, not to substitute for teachers.”

Other panelists from the American Council on Education (ACE) and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) talked about the potential for MOOCs to be part of unbundling education and non-traditional credit options for working adults. The panelists generally agreed that institutions (not state governments) should have discretion to decide if colleges can and should grant credit for MOOC courses. But Koller noted that, at the same time, “we have a crisis in California where students sometimes wait 18 months to get into an algebra course.” She said institutions should think outside the box and should not “have an allergic reaction to a course just because it’s online.”

When the discussion touched on why so many people drop out of MOOC courses, Koller said people take MOOCs for different reasons than they enroll in a college class. If someone drops out of a college class, it is a loss of resources. “For MOOCs, they take it to explore. It’s like checking a book out from the library,” she said. It’s not a big deal if people don’t finish. In fact, she thinks it is a good thing that high school students can try out a MOOC on a topic and see if it interests them and then drop it if they don’t like it and take something else. “The benefit of MOOCs is you can have risk-free exploration.”

She says there are different populations of MOOC takers. While 90% of Courserians drop out of a course they sign up for, she thinks Coursera will improve that ratio with better gamification and other developments in the courses. Of the 3.4 million registered users on Coursera, roughly 15% say they have firm intentions to complete the course. Nearly 30% would like to finish a course. But half the people who enroll in a course don’t even show up on the first day.

Samuels said one issue his union is concerned about is that faculty members normally own the intellectual property related to their course. But with some MOOCs, the university owns the IP of the MOOC. “What does this mean to the ability of faculty to maintain control of their courses, IP and future jobs?” he asked. “We find this highly problematic.” 

Koller rolled her eyes at times as Samuels was speaking, waiting for her chance to retort and did so with a libertarian response on the issue of IP. “I believe in individual freedom and it is a faculty’s member’s choice to have the broader access to hundreds of thousands of people,” she said.

She said Coursera has different arrangements with different faculty and different institutions. “We don’t care if it’s the university or faculty member who retains IP rights to the course,” she said. “We don’t take those rights. We just have the legal rights to hose it for a certain period of time.”

Koller said Coursera isn’t intentionally marketing to high school students. But high school students are showing up en masse to Coursera courses “as students in the wild.” She thinks Coursera could be a curriculum expansion method for some districts or schools or teachers. “There is a lot of potential here.”

Koller says roughly 30% of Coursera students are inside the US. Meanwhile, 40% come from the developing world in places such as Tanzania, Vietnam and Bangladesh.  “For these people, the opportunities are limited,” she said. India, for example, would have to build 1,500 higher education institutions to meet national goals on education. Existing campuses are packed. There are few ways to teach educators rapidly enough to meet goals as well. “That’s why I think these technologies are the only way to bring students in the developing world into the 21st Century.” 

Some critics, however, suggest Koller’s talk on such “saving the world” themes is in conflict with Coursera’s funding from Venture Capitalists who, ultimately, want a pay off from their investment.  

She says Coursera is actively working to improve proctoring, prevent cheating and support mechanisms for peer interactions. She says institutions using MOOCs have the best opportunity to offer support to students.

Samuels noted that MOOCs are not helping the situation in higher ed where roughly 75% of faculty do not have tenure compared to a few years ago when 75% of faculty did have tenure.

We asked Koller about the phenomenon of MeetUp groups for Courserians and whether those are succeeding, or whether she has other ideas for future community-building for MOOC students. We noted that we observed MeetUp groups of Courserians in Berlin losing steam, meeting less frequently if at all.

She said it is not surprising that Meetup groups are disappearing, matching the attrition rate for MOOCs. But “there is a sense of community emerging,” she said. She told a story about a woman in Ohio named Sharon Watkins who helped 10 low-income women enroll in a Coursera class from the University of Virginia on entrepreneurship. She said 80% completed the course and 6 of the women passed the Darden level exam on the course and received a certificate for completion.

“This is a highlight of their life to have a statement of of accomplishment from U. Va,” she said. “That kind of facilitated model will have a higher level of completion.”

Koller said Coursera has little or no interest in educating 7-year-olds to read and other K12 education other than providing continuing education for teachers.

Samuels’ closing statement gave a backhanded compliment to Koller and Coursera. “Daphne is doing great work, especially the international work,” he said. “But I think it is taking away from our real problems in higher ed. We are spending a lot of time talking about MOOCs when there are other issues that are more fundamental.” Koller smiled and rolled her eyes a bit. The battle lines are drawn.


Tips & Pitches


Latest WA Features

Domestic, Education Quality, For-Profit, Friend, Fraud, or Fishy, K-12, Legislation, Opinion, Personalized Learning, Regulatory, Required, Universities & Colleges - Apr 29, 2014 - 0 Comments

Michael Horn: NCAA March Madness Followed By April Blunder In Online Learning

More In For-Profit

Blended Learning, Domestic, Education Quality, Gamification, K-12, Open Source Education, Required, Startups, Technology - May 22, 2015 - 0 Comments

iCivics: Video Games as Middle School Social Studies Curriculum

More In Technology

Domestic, Education Quality, For-Profit, Friend, Fraud, or Fishy, K-12, Legislation, Opinion, Personalized Learning, Regulatory, Required, Universities & Colleges - Apr 29, 2014 - 0 Comments

Michael Horn: NCAA March Madness Followed By April Blunder In Online Learning

More In Friend, Fraud, or Fishy