MOOC my AaaS – my Coursera experience

Posted under: From the Blog 20th of November, 2012

With all the talk of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s), I thought I should actually try one. What follows is the story of my experience and highly subjective opinion.

One of my clients mentioned Coursera as a kind of high end benchmark, and I was interested in genomics due to my work for another client. So I enrolled in Experimental Genome Science, delivered by Perelman School of Medicine Uni of Pennsylvania, see

I waited quite a while (6 Jul to 15 Oct) for the tuition to begin. While I guessed this was for academic scale convenience, the wait really wasn’t handled very well. Committing to a tuition period is hard when you don’t know when it is. Still it was free I thought so I waited.

Then all of a sudden it was on. I got a lengthy welcome email describing the course goal, prerequisites, delivery and assessment. Fairly standard and intense weekly regime of lectures, readings, assignments and short tests. Except assignments were to be peer-graded, with grading work counted to assessment. Neat use of student labor but not sure about the andragogy. May be the only way to deal with the M in MOOC. Not so free when it means 5-10 hours of my time. Quality started to matter again.

The online lecture I worked through was basic talking head with PPT and annotation, no threat to any decent lecture capture and delivery system. The lecture was a good quality recording and well delivered over the internet.

The lecturer’s laid back style would have been fine in a small class, but on a small screen it came across as lacking  enthusiasm or passion for the material. The lecture content had low production values, e.g. no use of animation, sounds, minimal slide colour – pretty boring in fact. I had to stand up while watching, and just about slap myself to stay awake.

The lecture had useful multi-choice tests embedded several times, just to make sure you were paying attention. This would be mandatory if all content is that mundane.

So in general the lecture delivery technology was pretty good but where is the academic content quality control? It all stands or falls on the academics – nothing new.

This was no real threat to face to face in small classes, or to animated lecturers in large classes.

The readings were all supplied – convenient but pretty standard I guess. They were lengthy and not all focused on the subject – more of a sheep dip than well targeted material. Again free – depending on how you value your time.

Social aspects of the blog were good – announced myself as Australian, got two nods by other Aussies. This could work well if the cohort were active but again fairly standard. The academics gave no sign of being actively involved.

I was tossing up whether to withdraw due to the late start pushing the tuition period into planned holidays around Xmas and New Year. Then I got an email making withdrawal an easy decision:

“Experimental Genome Science Course Staff                        Oct 25

Several of you have noticed a problem with Assignment 2. We are pulling the assignment for the time being, and we will repost it (with a week allowed for completion) once the issue is resolved. 
Sorry for the inconvenience.”

I withdrew from Coursera at this point. And then I was dead meat to them – no email contact, no evaluation request, not a peep from them ever since. And yes I have checked my junk mail filter. Blogging my exit to the student cohort seemed too sour and I didn’t go there.

I would have been happy to make this feedback to them – I took notes as I went so I could give feedback. But no contact or apparent interest in why I left – maybe another problem dealing with the M.

So you get this post instead. Please comment on my or  your own experience using MOOCs.

I know a lot of you are trying to fathom MOOC impact on university strategy. MOOC comes up as often as cloud did last year.  We could borrow cloud jargon and call it Academics as a Service – gives the right sense of state and issue I think. Provided you’ll permit me the acronym AaaS.

I wouldn’t be too concerned about wholesale leakage from fee payers to MOOCs, until MOOCs start building quality into their AaaS. The M seems to present fundamental difficulties to key points of quality academic engagement. But who knows, someone might be cracking it. Please feel free to show me anyone.

I’d be target marketing MOOC weaknesses, like tuition period uncertainty, academic disengagement, academic content, and overall quality of the student’s academic experience. And fixing mine. MOOCs are only free if you don’t value your time.

My final comment would be to remember a VC who said to me once – “you know Neil, that’s what I love about the internet, it puts all of our idiosyncrasies out there for everyone to see”. You see, he did care about quality.

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