Editorial | The Coursera cliff
The suggestion of offering credit for online-only classes is premature
February 19, 2013, 12:28 am·
Look before you leap — it’s an aphorism many of us heard growing up, but apparently not one the American Council on Education has taken to heart.
Two weeks ago, ACE recommended that Penn should give course credit for mathematics and engineering professor Robert Ghrist’s calculus course offered on Coursera. Their suggestion also encapsulated four other courses at other universities. There is one (small) catch — while you can still take classes for free, if you want to earn credit, you have to pay $100 to $190.
Our concern is that ACE is trying to leave the nest too soon, so to speak.
Coursera was launched less than a year ago. While many in the education sector are optimistic about its potential, few can give you a definitive notion of where Coursera will go. We shouldn’t commit to such a major change when we’re still just attempting to figure out what we have now.
Furthermore, Coursera faces problems it has yet to address. Cheating is a pervasive issue with Coursera, which is somewhat unsurprising. Even putting homework aside, how well can a teacher monitor a webcam exam?
A system in which students have to go to a library near them or some place with some sort of proctor might address this problem, but whatever the solution, it should definitely be put in place before credit is offered for courses.
There is also a downside to online-only learning. Technology certainly is being infused into the classroom to a greater and greater extent. In some cases, the difference between Coursera and a class that has its lecture recordings posted on Blackboard isn’t so large — just ask the kid who never shows up to lecture, if you can find him.
But few, if any, teachers recommend using Blackboard like TiVo and missing out on the in-class learning experience, in which you can easily interact with the professor and your limited number of classmates. That’s the problem with offering credit for an online-only class.
Furthermore, if the number of courses does expand and anyone can take Penn courses for relatively cheap, as Penn and Coursera professor Al Filreis predicted, will one side of Penn essentially be competing with for-profit universities?
Coursera used to be — and still largely remains — education for the masses. Putting a monetary value on it takes away from its founding spirit.
But we’re not naive — this is capitalism. Coursera, as a business, needs a viable business model, and if its only product is free courses, it won’t turn a profit. Nonetheless, it still has to address problems that it faces, and universities should strongly consider placing limits on credit, if they decide to offer it at all.
To be clear, we’re not worried about online courses devaluing Penn degrees — businesses will still differentiate between diplomas earned at Penn and over the internet. We’re concerned we might be diving into the exclusively digital classroom too quickly and with too little oversight.