Coursera online training

Hi, as a frequent viewer of TED talks on the web I recently came across Coursera, an organisation that exists to make university courses available online at no charge. I was pretty surprised at the idea. The TED talk is here if you are interested.

Being curious, I went and looked, and it's quite extraordinary. Courses, essentially subject modules I guess, are run by lecturers using short videos, quizzes, and eventually tests. The list of institutions acting as providers is impressive too. From the University of Edinburgh to Princeton, and Stanford, there are 17 involved.

I signed up for a course to see how it works, and the delivery method is actually surprisingly good. We are about to have a peer-graded assignment, and we'll see how that goes.

They have 116 courses on the books at the time of writing, and I'll be fascinated to see how this evolves and hopefully grows. I'll let you know what I find out.

Starts today, so very timely. Sounds fun, have enrolled. Many thanks. I do think that Coursera is the most amazing resource.

The course is run by Dan Ariely, and his field is Behavioural Economics. It's full of intriguing research into things like cheating (a little is fine, a lot isn't, and it's pretty much uniform by country), into what makes us spend more or less money, into whether people are more likely to offer assistance for a fee or for free etc etc. Intriguing and entertaining.

Thanks, Ian. The 'irrational behaviour' sounds right up my street - or maybe I should be tutoring it!


Some of them I really enjoyed and spent a lot of time doing the coursework as well as watching the lectures and reading the associated articles and so on. Others I abandoned because they didnt interest me in the end, or because they just got too difficult for me to follow given the time I had available.

I never had any issues watching lectures, and there were some minor niggles with the Coursera platform.

My favourite so far, and its just starting again, was A Beginner's Guide To Irrational Behaviour.

Hi Ian, how did you get on? I tried to join 2 last year but our internet connection was so flakey it proved impossible.

So I enrolled in several of their courses to see what they are like. Only one of mine is actually in progress at the moment, with others going to start soon.

We have had our first written assessment to submit, followed by a peer grading process that is in progress right now, and which has been interesting in many ways. Not only has it been useful to see what other people have done to answer the same question, but it has also shown that some people are content to cut & paste Wikipedia articles direct into their responses! Sad, strange, but there we are.

The course leader also shared some stats with us for this course:

Enrolled: 42935
Watched at least one lecture: 22651
Took Quiz 1: 11402
Submitted the Peer-Graded Assignment: 5808

Interesting how the numbers are dropping off, but I think that's more a reflection of how people are rather than the course itself. Also, one should remember that the courses are free, so in a way there's less incentive to stay than if you had invested some hard cash.

Sounds good then. If they are not offering faux degrees that alone is a good start. Diversity is good as well, even OU are quite limited in the range of degrees in truth but that was down to the downright meanness of the government funding when it started up. Making education accessible is always good, many of us who were privileged enough to go high up the ladder there have fought with those who feel they were born to it to the exclusion of others for long. I personally hope it thrives and expands. Best of luck nonetheless.

Brian, yes, not exactly training, that was my poor wording. I believe that their goal is to make education available to people who don't have access for whatever reason, and to use the latest techniques and technologies to do so. For the moment these aren't degrees - I don't know whether that might change - so there aren't necessarily problems to the same extent with validation, and neither do you get course credits from the institutions involved. I guess you would get some sort of acknowledgement that you had done the module and of the mark achieved, but this will absolutely be based on trust that you are who you say you are, and it was you giving the answers. So that's worth what it's worth, I guess.

As for the universities taking part that is certainly genuine. You can find information on their web sites, such as here for Edinburgh, where they also helpfully outline the differences between these courses and "proper" online prostgrad stuff that they (Edinburgh) do.

So it's absolutely horses for courses, literally in fact since Edinburgh even offers Equine Nutrition through Coursera! If you find a subject that interests you then it could be an excellent way to study it in more of a structured way than you might otherwise do. Sure, lots of caveats, but I'm impressed with the delivery so far.

The peer grading will be fun, but you are given guidelines for the grading and for the first exercise it won't be hard. I agree completely that it's a strange idea for me, but I'll see. As for the quizzes, they simply test and reinforce a little the knowledge that you should have gained in the materials that you have just viewed. They also have points in the videos where it stops and asks you a multi-guess question on what you have just seen. Quite nice techniques for helping to reinforce quickly the points you have just learned, and it also helps to make sure you watch rather than simply half-listening in the background.

No issues with wasting money on this either. I see that Edinburgh Uni will levy a small fee at the end for your certificate of whatever, but otherwise it's free. Since things that seem too good to be true usually are, I remain curious about this.

Ian, these courses have been talked about for many years and as technology has improved it is becoming more and more feasible. One of my academic societies supports the idea. There are two obstacles. The first is the problem caused by those who advertise a degree with no study, a BA next week, an MBA in two weeks or a PhD next month (one says without a thesis even). They have undermined the credibility of online courses of any kind. To complete any degree involves being taught, writing essays, papers, doing exams and so on, although some universities vary within countries even. Certainly, and I have taught on several, MA, MSc and a lot of other Master degrees are sausage machine jobs, sad to say. One year with scarce a moment to actually learn much. I think the universities offering MPhils have so far avoided this, but they too seem to be on the slippery slopes. No doctorate can be taught. There may be a pre-fieldwork/laboratory/libraries/etc year but the actual research year(s) are part of the degree and writing a supervised thesis takes a year at least. I have written two, the first took roughly a year and the second which was actually for a DPhil took nearly two years (I did not make the grade and received a second PhD, poouf).

Subject modules, OK that is now the norm, quizzes are a strange notion though and I cannot see how they would work, tests are flexible but if they are marked/assessed and by more than one examiner, then by all standards they are exams or contribute to a complete exam. Peer graded assignments, American idea, is not popular this side of the pond. Normally marking/grading can only be done by those at least a degree higher than the graduand. It will be interesting to see your feedback. I am not saying it does not work, nor am I sceptical but back to where I began with this point and the perception of degrees outside of a campus of any kind, even the OU has one after all and everybody who does one of their degrees finds themself there at some time or other. PhDs are campus based even, although the research year is off site.

Reason two is tricky. Validation of degrees. Here in Europe we have the EQF (European Qualification Network) and all qualifications from roughly speaking a completed apprenticeship upward are valid across countries. So that whatever X says here in France, a UK degree is valid in France, end of argument. A printout of the EQF regulations and page that shows which countries have ratified ends any debates there. However, degrees offered by partner universities that include non-European ones (USA for instance) are hard to validate anywhere now. US degrees in themselves are difficult to validate anywhere in Europe as of a handful of years and also their degrees are not always validated from one state to another. So that more than one provider makes it tricky. Even an English and Scots university have different values attached to degrees given that historically their degree system has always finished at MA/MSc level after a four year study that includes BA/BSc/BEcons or whatever compared to Engalnd and Wales with three years to Bachelor degrees. It will be interesting to see the pros and cons of validation and whether they will also ever be accepted. back to point one, the organisations offering degrees with no study, etc have put a couple of nails in the coffin of what you are describing for some academic bodies anyway.

Also Ian, do not refer to the courses as 'training', universities offer degrees by study. Whilst some offer instruction in practical areas such as in engineering and the sciences, the onus is on the student to learn and be academically examined on their knowledge rather than skills. If the courses say they are training you then worry, it is non-academic language.

Give it a whirl, do not get tricked into investing too much money though. Bottom line is that even real universities are out to make money, but anybody who appears to be bona fide is doing that with nothing back at the end. Find out, if possible, about the list of 'providers' and whether they really are involved because I could put up an ad on the Internet claiming to be the sole representative of the University of Mars and who could disprove it too easily?