Friday, 5 July 2013

Coursera: The User Experience

I talked in very broad terms last time about Coursera. This time I want to look at how the user interacts with the platform and how well the various features of Coursera courses work. The advantage to course providers of using a platform like Coursera is that much of the technical work has been done and is (by this point) working meaning that the academics can focus on what they do best; teaching. The disadvantage can be that sometimes the fit between a course and the platform is not perfect - but that's something I'll come back to in a future  post.

So. let's take a look at a typical course. Once registered and logged in you will arrive in the main landing page. Here's one I am studying a the moment:

To the right you will see upcoming assignments and newly posted lectures. To the left you can see the main navigation strip which gives you links to all the sections of the course. The parts which you will probably visit most regularly will be the video lectures, which are the core of most courses, the forums and the assignments. In most cases there are both quizzes and peer assessments which will each have their own button. On this course, unusually, there is only peer assessment which, for some reason, the course providers have chosen to call Peer Responses - which was almost guaranteed to cause confusion when the first assessment came around.

The naming and arrangement of the navigation button is one of the most irritating features of Coursera. Clearly, the course providers are given free rein in naming the buttons and choosing the order in which they appear. What this means is that those who are taking more than one course will spend far too long looking blankly at the navigation bar wondering where, say, the Discussion Forum button has gone. Here are a few I took at random from current and past courses:

Sorry for the large images today. As you can, hopefully, see, there is very little in common between these courses - take a quick scan across and see how long it takes to spot the Discussion Forum link on each course. Now, I'm certain each course designer is sure that their layout best suits the material but perhaps this is an area where Coursera could reasonably lay down some stricter design rules.

Among the useful buttons there are also some which seem pretty much unused. There is always a Join a Meetup link although I've never heard of anyone actually doing so - I guess that Coursera has some arrangement with Meetup. There is usually a link to a Course Wiki although this feature is both rough around the edges and underused. The Wiki is still in beta, it often asks for a separate login (which requires the same credentials as the main site) and really does seem to be an afterthought bolted on to the structure. There is little evidence that the wikis are widely used. With a few honourable exceptions, most content on the wikis appears to have been posted by staff - not quite the point of a wiki.

The one thing you won't see anywhere is a Progress button because, for some reason, Coursera is convinced that nobody is interested in how they are doing points-wise. This means that working out your current percentage requires a tortuous collection of points from peer assignments, quizzes and exams. These then need to be weighted in line with the individual course policy - except that is often not given in detail (e.g, "the quizzes will account for about a third of the marks")  or, in some cases, not stated at all! For Coursera courses, the first thing I do when starting is to make up a simple spreadsheet to calculate my running total. I will then know when I've done enough to pass and also be able to calculate whether a 'Distinction' is still within reach.

Discussion Forums are undoubtedly one of Coursera's strengths (as is also the case with edX). Due to the very high numbers of students looking at the same material at the same time support is rarely more than a few minutes away. If you have a problem a post will normally see a quick response. There is, of course, some petty bickering, points scoring and randomly bad behaviour from the online equivalent of schoolyard bullies (and often with the same level of maturity) but overall it can be a major asset for those with the time and inclination to participate. Although it may not replace a night in a student union bar, it is undoubtedly more productive in addressing problems with understanding!

Take care when posting on the forums, particularly on a busy thread, as the default setting is to subscribe you for email updates. This can mean that, after posting on a couple of topics, you come home to find hundreds (literally) of email updates filling your inbox. This is exactly the opposite of where the default setting does not subscribe you where, given the quiet boards there, it would be sensible to do so.

Next time I'll look at one or two courses in more detail and see how they work.

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