First Impressions of Coursera

I signed up for the Coursera course on cryptography earlier this summer. The course is from Stanford University and taught by computer science professor Dan Boneh. Between work and vacation, I’ve only just recently had the chance to test out the course. With Coursera in the news for adding 12 more universities to its stable, I thought I would share a few initial impressions here on the blog.

First, a bit about the components of the course. It’s a six week course aimed at advanced undergrads or grad students, so it moves pretty fast.

  • For each week, there are a set of video lectures, each featuring PowerPoint slides, Professor Boneh’s audio narration, and some “digital ink” annotations by Prof. Boneh. Most videos are between 12 and 25 minutes in length.
  • Each week also features a problem set consisting of a mix of multiple-choice and free-text questions. The questions are computer-graded, so the free-text questions have well-defined answers (like a particular number or a message that must be deciphered).  Each problem set has a deadline, and if you turn in your problem set after its deadline, you only get half credit.
  • The course has active discussion boards, with sections for general discussion, discussion about the video lectures, and discussion about the problem sets. There’s also a board devoted to helping students set up study groups. More on that below.
  • There will be a final exam at the end of the course. I haven’t seen it yet, naturally, but I’m assuming it will be a longer version of the problem sets, that is, a lengthy quiz featuring the same kind of computer-graded questions.

A few things struck me as I tested out the course:

  • For this course, one can watch the video lectures without enrolling by clicking on “Preview” on the course home page. This could come in handy for me, since I’m teaching a first-year writing seminar on cryptography this fall. I can see asking my students to watch selected videos before particular class sessions. It looks like the “Preview” option isn’t available for all Coursera courses. I’m guessing it’s up to the instructor to allow previews. Although it’s pretty easy to enroll in a course in order to gain access to those video lectures, this small hurdle makes Coursera courses as less open than they could be.
  • Posts in the discussion boards can be voted up or down so that more popular / interesting / important posts bubble to the top. Also, posts by the course instructor are flagged, making it easy to find them. These are both helpful features that, at this point, should be standard in course management systems.
  • As for the study groups that appear to be forming, they come in three varieties. Some are language-based, so that students who speak a particular language other than English have a place to discuss the course. Others are medium-based, so that students who would prefer to collaborate using, say, Facebook or Skype can get together. And others are location-based, so that students in, say, London who want to meet at a pub each week to talk about the course can do so. I’ve heard of ad hoc, location-based, study groups associated with other massively open online courses (MOOCs), like this one in Mongolia that formed around a MITx course. It hadn’t occurred to me that there would be a need for online language-based groups and interests in online medium-based groups.

Have you participated in a MOOC from Coursera or another provider? What were your impressions?

Image: “Pipes,” Alex Luyckx, Flickr (CC)

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