Saturday, July 20, 2013

Review: Coursera

                This summer I signed up for three MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) through Coursera. Mostly this was because those of us who work in higher education keep hearing that the MOOC’s are our competition, so I was sizing it up. The courses I signed up for, though, were courses I was very interested in. So how did they go?
                First, a little bit about Coursera. Coursera is probably the best-known of the large MOOC-offering companies, and there seemed to be hundreds of courses for me to choose from. There were basically three ways to “take” a course: I could just hang out and do what I wanted; listen to as many lectures, do as many assignments, etc. This would be free. Or, I could attempt to earn a “certificate.” The certificate option requires the student to complete certain specific requirements which differed from class to class. I chose this option because I tend to be an achiever. For both of the courses I completed, I did receive the certificate, in spite of five weeks of travel during the time I was taking them. The third option is something called “Signature Track.” I didn’t investigate this one too much, but I think it involves getting something more like real college credit, but it involves some kind of cost.
                OK, the classes. I’ll start with the last one. I signed up for a course called History of Rock Part II. Once it started, I realized that the lecturer was (sorry) really boring. He basically just named the members of different rock bands. They couldn’t actually play any music during the class time/lectures because of the copyright issues. I did go to youtube and play some of the songs he mentioned, but that didn’t seem to add much, since the professor just (again) named songs rather than doing any in-depth analysis of them. I listened to the first three lectures and decided to cut my losses at that point.
                So now on to the two classes I liked and completed. First, a little about the mechanics of Coursera. The lectures are all on video. One of my classmates in the first course mentioned software he had developed for use with the lectures called It plays the lecture on the left side of the screen and allows you to take notes on the right side of the screen and coordinates the notes with the lectures. I got addicted to this software and used it for every lecture in both courses. It was a godsend.
                The courses are primarily built around these lectures. In order to get the certificate, both courses required me to take weekly quizzes over lecture and reading material and earn a certain score (80% in one class; 60% in another). Both classes also required written assignments. One required one 3-5 page paper, and the other required 6 2-3 page papers. In both classes, the assignments were scored by 5 other students in the class (and I would have to score 5 other students for each assignment). As you can see here, the requirements varied fairly widely, as did the amount of time spent on lectures and outside reading.
                The first course I took was on Greek and Roman Mythology, taught by Professor Peter Struck from the University of Pennsylvania. It was a 10 week course that required us to completely read the Odyssey, Hesiod’s Theogony, three tragedies, and about half of the Aeneid. There were usually about ten lectures per week, each 12-20 minutes long. Professor Struck was a great lecturer, and the course was definitely college level (my paper was on the Freudian implications of the Bacchae). I loved this class, took the lectures with me on a cruise, and thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing—and learned a lot!
                The second course, which will finish up next week, is an 8-week course called Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets. This class is no less fascinating than the mythology course, but it’s less “serious.” I don’t mean that it’s on a lower level educationally, but it has less serious reading and fewer lectures. On the other hand, it makes better use of the online format, I think. It has other videos besides the lectures: demonstrations of archaeological techniques and conversations with field archaeologists. This class has assignments every week, but they are shorter and more fun than the mythology assignment. The class is taught by Professor Susan Alcock of Brown University and many guest helpers. This class only has one or two lectures per week, but it always features several demonstration videos. Each week also has four interviews with archaeologists working in Abydos, Egypt, Montserrat, Petra, and the Mayan site of El Zotz. The assignments are the best part of this class. We’ve had a chance to do archaeological speculating from Google Earth, create online 3D models of artifacts, and analyze our own garbage.

                I loved these courses and intend to continue to take Coursera courses whenever I have time. I didn’t do much on the forums, which were optional in both classes, but they appeared to be active. They do take a good amount of time if you want to get the certificate. I would estimate that I spent 3-4 hours per week on each one, more if you count the reading for the mythology class. I don’t know that they are threats to my "real job" yet, though. They seem to serve a different purpose. They were also much easier than a standard college course, so I don’t know that I would take it too seriously if someone came to me wanting to receive “real” college credit for one of these courses. I did learn a lot and have fun in both of them, though, and I’m appreciative to Coursera for making this kind of learning available! Both courses: 5/5*

1 comment:

  1. Great review. Thanks for being a faculty guinea pig. :-)