Better Than a Textbook?

As I’ve been talking with faculty here on campus about the Coursera initiative, I’ve discovered that I can often turn skeptics of this experiment in online education into potential supporters with a single question.

When many faculty look at the Coursera model, with its lecture videos, robo- and peer-graded assignments, and discussion forums, they see something that looks little like the college courses they’re used to teaching, online or on-campus. How can students learn when their instructors can’t possibly give them individualized, qualitative feedback on their work? How can critical thinking be developed when writing assignments and class discussions are replaced with automatically graded quizzes and chaotic discussion forums? And what happens to the important social aspects of learning when one’s learning “community” consists of tens of thousands of strangers?

These are important questions, and I’m glad I have colleagues helping me try to answer them. But my initial response to these concerns is to respond with a question of my own: Instead of comparing a Coursera course to a traditional college class, what if we compare it to a textbook? This is the question that often pivots discussions of Coursera from skepticism to curiosity.

A Coursera course “delivers” well organized and explained content, just like a textbook. A Coursera course goes beyond a print textbook to provide multimedia content, automatically graded assessments, and a discussion forum where students can ask and answer questions about the content. And if we think of Coursera as a textbook on steroids instead of a replacement for a college course, then we don’t have to worry so much about the “rigor” of Coursera courses or about “counting” them for college credit. If we think of a Coursera course as a textbook with bonus features, how might we use such a resource in our teaching?

When Stanford professor and Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller visited Vanderbilt earlier this month, she argued that a Coursera course is certainly better than nothing at all, which is what millions of people around the world have in terms of access to higher education. She also made the argument that a Coursera course is better than a textbook, noting the elements I mentioned above. She even went as far as to point out a few aspects of a Coursera course that might make it more effective than a traditionally taught large lecture course. Such courses don’t allow students to rewind lectures or watch them at 1.5 speed or read their subtitles. And the traditional lecture class doesn’t encourage the kind of intentional peer-to-peer interaction that Coursera does.

Is the Coursera model better at fostering learning and encouraging useful interaction than the traditional college lecture? How does a Coursera course stack up against a really great college lecturer course? I don’t think we have answers to these questions yet, but they are certainly interesting ones to ask. The doodle seen here, which I drew during one of Koller’s on-campus talks, may not be accurate, but it’s worth considering.

How would you answer these questions? Do you find it more useful to think of a Coursera courser as a textbook with bonus features or as a substitute for a college course?

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