Friday, 14 June 2013

Coursera: The Biggest MOOC Operator, But Are They The Best?

This time I’ll take a look at the biggest to the MOOC players, Coursera. Spawned from the same Stanford pilot that resulted in the formation of Udacity, Coursera is a commercial educational undertaking. Courses are available free of charge to students but there is a paid-for option, Signature Track, which I’ll discuss a little later.

Coursera has the greatest number of courses listed of any of the MOOC operators, 386 at the time of writing, produced by a number of university partners. Most of the partners are US-based although there are a growing number of international contributors. As you might expect, almost all courses are taught in English but there are small numbers presented in Spanish, French, Chinese, German and Italian.

So what are the courses like? All courses follow a fairly standard pattern based around a series of video lectures. Courses are normally offered on a ‘synchronous’ basis, that is to say, all the students start at the same time and follow weekly lectures with assignments having set deadlines for submission. Courses run from between 5 and 12 weeks and have an estimated 4-12 hours per weeks study load.

A very small number of courses are run on a ‘self-paced’ basis where all resources are available immediately and students can dip in and out as they like. The only ones I've seen to date are a couple of older courses from Stanford but it may well be a route pursued by other providers for courses they no longer wish to fully support.

Students undertake a range of assignments which can include auto-graded quizzes, peer evaluations and course specific activities such as machine-graded software submissions. Many courses also include one or more examinations. Overall grading varies from course to course with different weights being applied to each element.

Quiz-style assessments are multiple choice, single word or numeric questions – pretty much as you’d expect given the state of assessment technology. The advantage is that they are marked instantly and feedback can be given on how answers are derived. Most of the quizzes I have seen offer more than one attempt. There are disadvantages to the format which are mainly around the relative inflexibility but they can still be very challenging.

Peer evaluation is used very commonly on Coursera, often being the largest part of the overall mark for a course. This method of assessment allows the review of material which is outside the scope of machine grading. Such assignments might include written work, such as essays, graphical products like graphs or pieces of artwork. I won’t go into my views on peer evaluation here but will return to the topic in a future post.

Peer evaluated work runs in three phases. The first step is to submit your own work, in most cases the submission phase is open for about a week. Once the submission period ends work is allocated to peers for assessment. In most cases each student who has submitted is allocated five pieces for review. If a student doesn't complete their quota of evaluations then they won’t receive their own mark. One thing to look out for is self-evaluation; a few courses make this compulsory with a 20% grade penalty for non-completion! The final stage is to receive your feedback.

Exams, where they are used, use the same mechanism as the quizzes. Exams are timed (although this is usually fairly generous, for example 24 hours from beginning) and most only allow a single attempt. As with quizzes, marks are available immediately. 

Certificates – Statements of Accomplishment – are provided to students who meet the criteria. Usually that means getting 70% overall (although that varies) with some courses also offering a ‘with Distinction’ grading for those achieving the top grades (eg over 90%). Coursera also offer the option to pay for a ‘verified’ certificate through their Signature Track scheme. I’ll come back to Signature Track in a later post.

Next time I’ll look at the user interface and course experience on Coursera.

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