Saturday, 30 January 2016

A Review of Coursera's New Platform

Now you may be thinking that I'm a bit late as Coursera's 'new' platform actually came on stream over a year ago but there are a few reasons for posting now: the old platform is to be completely phased out by the end of March, there were still changes being made throughout 2015, I wanted to complete a few courses myself and, finally, I haven't actually posted on this blog for over a year!

The platform changes will be most striking to students who are familiar with the older system but there are also some changes announced in recent weeks and months which will impact all students. I'll try to separate the changes in the interface from policy changes as far as possible.

So today I will look at the user interface, existing students will notice a complete change in look and feel. The old platform was effective but not terribly 'slick'; it did the job but wouldn't win any prizes for graphics design. Here's a shot of an old-style course:



The course was navigated using the strip on the left to access lectures, quizzes, peer assessments and forums. It was quite easy to use (once you knew what you needed to do) although the options could vary a lot as instructors were free to move and rename options. The big problem was that the system did not really integrate different learning resources; videos were pretty much stand alone and, in many courses, were the only resources. Where instructors wanted to include readings or even instructions various workarounds had to be used, such as having weekly 'course pages' which linked to the resources.

The old platform didn't work very well with self-paced courses which, as I predicted a long time ago, were set to become a bigger feature of Coursera and so we move on to the new (or current) platform; it certainly looks more professional:



It also integrates all learning elements into a single sequence so that students are guided, in this example, from the syllabus to an introductory video then on to pages describing the required resources and so on to further videos etc. This is far more structured than previously while still allowing the student to dip in at random if they prefer.

There are, however, some features that just don't work as well in the new platform. Downloaded videos, for example, don't have an identifying file name--they are all just 'index.mp4'. Now for the majority who simply stream the lectures this won't make any difference but there are a sizeable minority who don't have access to fast enough broadband and will need to download. There are also many who choose to archive courses locally as they go (remember there is no guarantee that courses will continue to be available in the future). For either group the lack of useful file names means an extra bit of pointless work which is made worse by the tendency to have more and more, shorter and shorter videos.

Discussion forums were always one of the most important features of Coursera. They have sometimes been a little rowdy but never dull and you could almost always get a near immediate response from a fellow student. For some reason, discussion forums seem to have been sidelined by Coursera in the new platform. some courses have even abandoned them altogether. This seems very odd.

In terms of overall operation there have been changes in grading and in peer assessments. Grading has been simplified. In the past, in order to pass students needed to reach an overall target score which was made up of different elements such as quizzes, exams and peer assessments each of which could have a different weighting. This reflected the way that conventional university courses grade. Since Coursera always lacked a progress page (in contrast to edX) it was up to students to work out for themselves whether they were passing a course. The new platform simplifies this tremendously: to pass a course you must pass every element. This is actually more rigorous than the old system which allowed students to fail individual assessments but still pass. Now it could be possible for one student to score 90% overall but fail (because you didn't pass one assessment) while another student passes with 60% (by meeting the minimum pass level on every assessment). However, in practice there is really little reason for a student to fail an assessment as most (in fact all that I've seen so far) allow unlimited resubmissions.

Peer assessments have changed a bit, I guess in order to fit the self-paced model better. In terms of operation, the main change is in the movement away from phases to a continuous model. No longer are there separate periods for submission and assessment; as soon as you have submitted your work you can go on to assess others. The biggest change, however, is one of principle: the process is no longer anonymous. Now I find this strange as anonymity in assessments is generally regarded as a 'good thing'. Previously students knew neither the identities of the those they were assessing nor of those who assessed them now both of these pieces of information are available.

There has also been a big shift in how courses are scheduled. Formerly, Coursera followed a model largely based on that of traditional colleges. Courses opened on a particular date, assessments and exams had definite ('hard') deadlines and the courses closed at the end until they were repeated (if, indeed, they ever were). The big advantage of this system was that as the whole group of students ('cohort' in educational jargon) were at about the same point they could offer each other more support and the instructors could respond to queries without potentially impinging on still-open assessments. The disadvantage for students was that they had to fit themselves around the timetables and could easily miss the start of a course which might not be presented again for a long time. The disadvantage for course providers was that material they had spent time and money preparing was, essentially, lying idle between presentations.

From 2014 Coursera began a shift towards self-paced courses. Indeed, all the courses initially offered on the new platform were self-paced. After running with this for some time and, apparently, considering offering all courses as self-paced they decided that there were too many students finding it difficult to motivate themselves without deadlines and that support was lacking in forums. The decision was made to introduce scheduled courses on the new platform but in a modified form: Although there were start and end dates and assessment deadlines, assessments would actually remain open right through the course. This meant that most of the advantages of cohort-based courses (which Coursera now calls 'session-based') would return while students had much more flexibility within the course structure. Pure self-paced courses still remain and probably make up the majority of the catalogue. Even these courses suggest deadlines for assessments but these deadlines can be ignored or even turned off. Sadly, self-paced courses often seem to give an impression of being preserved in aspic--unchanging and unsupported by instructors--and can give a rather sterile experience.

So how do I feel about the changed platform? My first impression was not very positive; it seemed that presentation was being put ahead of usability, however, after working through a few courses I can see some of the stronger points, such as the better integration of mixed media. I think that for many of us the change in platform is too intimately linked with other, less welcome, developments in Coursera (which I'll address in another post) which colour our impressions. This is very similar to the situation over at the Saylor Academy where their move to a new platform also coincided with a major  restructuring. The new Coursera platform has the potential to deliver more structured courses and to handle better a mix of lectures and readings. The reasons why it may fail to fully deliver are part of another story which I'll come back to later.

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