Some thoughts about Coursera

After completing Compilers and Automata courses on Coursera I am participating in yet another course: Writing in the Sciences. I guess the name is pretty self-explanatory but just to make it clear: the course is about writing scientific articles. This is something I definitely need as a scientist for my work. I never considered writing to be my strong skill so I look forward to completing this course. Writing in the sciences is lead by professor Kristin Sainani. It is a well-known fact that fun from learning depends not on the subject itself, but mostly on the lecturer’s ability to present information in enjoyable and interesting way. Professor Sainani’s lectures are a great example of that, in contrast to professor Ullman’s lectures on automata, which I personally found a bit dry.

That said, I guess I have a few reasons to complain about the course and Coursera as a whole. While lectures given by professor Sainani are interesting, it is sad that she practically does not participate in the forums. I know that it probably takes a lot of time to prepare the lectures, but still I’d expect the lecturer to spend an hour on the forums once every 5-6 days. While the forums are for the students to help each other with learning, there are some issues that must be resolved by course staff. A good example is a problem with downloading one of this week’s lectures. It was reported on Monday and after two days the problem remains unfixed despite numerous complaints on the forum (to make things worse, this lecture is about assignment that is due to the end of week). Another thing that makes participation in the course more difficult is publishing new material on Mondays. I have a lot of time on Sundays so I could easily watch new material on weekend and do the homework during the week. That’s how it was done in Compilers course. With videos released at the beginning of a week I have problems with finding time to watch them and even more problems with doing the homework. Again, there was request on the forums to release videos one day earlier, but no response from the course staff. I am also very sceptical about the grading methods. With compilers or automata it was easy to design tests. In Writing in the Sciences it is not that simple. During the weekly tests students are asked to rewrite some fragments of scientific articles, but this cannot be graded automatically. I personally find these tests difficult. I usually come up with answers that I consider great, but after comparing them to model answers I am mostly thinking “why didn’t I figure this out”. Oh well, I guess that’s what learning is all about. I also wonder how the upcoming peer-review will work out. The plan is to have students review each others homework assignment (a short review of a scientific paper). I’m afraid that this may be a failure. One unfavourable factor is the time needed to review five different papers. Another one is that people come from different cultural backgrounds, know English on a moderate level and, saying straight out, often seem to misinterpret intentions of the writer and the message he/she is trying to convey (I’m judging from the forums and not trying to offend anyone).

While not getting feedback from professor Sainani is a problem of one particular course, I noticed that a general problem of Coursera is lack of any kind of technical support. Sure there is an address to technical support, but I have never received any kind of reply despite reporting a couple of problems. I am aware that Course is dealing with over a million participants and it is impossible to respond to every mail, but it wouldn’t hurt them to send at least an automatic “we will look into your problem” response. Since I never got any response and I don’t see the reported problems fixed I feel as though my mails were being send to /dev/null.

Another reason to complain is Coursera’s lax approach to announced time schedules. I already learned that despite being announced, courses get delayed and even cancelled. I understand that a one week slip is possible, but how can it happen that a course is planned for early July and it hasn’t started yet? It seems that someone who planned the course didn’t take his job seriously.

With all that said I still think that Coursera is a revolutionary approach to education. All it needs is just a bit more work and a bit more involvement.

One Response to “Some thoughts about Coursera”

  1. Modre Oci says:

    She likely spent hundreds of relatively uncompensated hours making that class as an outreach activity so that you could have access to free education. And, in return, you complain that she isn’t giving you enough attention on the forums set up for student dialogue. I swear, no good deed goes unpunished. Nice! (PS I am not the Prof and have never even met her.)

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