Coursera experiences glitches, growing pains


Self-discipline is one of many challenges to online learning




Despite the hype surrounding massive open online courses, some challenges remain for both students and educators.

This past February, a Coursera class entitled “Microeconomics for Managers” offered through the University of California at Irvine Extension program was canceled halfway through — it was supposed to last for 10 weeks. The professor, Richard McKenzie, cited “disagreements over how to best conduct this course” in a letter explaining the decision.

In another instance, a Georgia Institute of Technology course on Coursera taught by Fatimah Wirth titled “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application” was suspended after a week with students complaining about technical glitches and confusing instructions.

According to Penn research assistant Andrew Steinmetz, who is assisting Penn Integrates Knowledge professor Ezekiel Emanuel in his “Health Policy and the Affordable Care Act” course on Coursera, admits that certain challenges exist in an online course environment.

“An inherent problem with the construct [is the fact that] there are all of these people and only a few people overseeing the course logistics,“ Steinmetz said.

Another issue that comes up in the MOOC setting is the challenge inherent in dealing with the sheer size of these online classes.

According to Kelly Walsh, founder and writer at the website Emerging Ed Tech, student-teacher engagement is “much harder.”

Walsh added, “It’s just not really going to be possible if the teacher has 10,000 students in a MOOC to have any level of engagement with you.”

Moreover, in a MOOC setting, there is often no way for a professor who assigns an open-ended essay assignment to grade every essay, so many resort to peer assessments.

“There are issue with grading written responses when you have 30,000 people in a class,” Steinmetz said.

Another issue that educators encounter with the online learning platform is the low completion rates these courses have. According to Katy Jordan, a graduate student at the Open University — a distance learning and research school based in the United Kingdom — the average MOOC completion rate is 7.6 percent across the major learning platforms.

The highest completion rate Jordan has found so far is 19.2 percent for “Functional Programming Principles in Scala,” offered by Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne via Coursera.

“You’re not really making a commitment when you sign up like you would be when you go to a college and register and do all the things you need to do,” Walsh said. “Even though you do start this thing, if you don’t finish there’s no downside.”

Walsh also stresses that “one of the big challenges of online education in this form is the self-discipline it requires, that you have to be very disciplined about making the time to consume the content and do the work.”

Engineering junior and Student Committee on Undergraduate Education Chair Michelle Ho, who took a Penn Coursera course called “Fundamentals of Pharmacology” taught by professor Emma Meagher this summer, echoes this sentiment.

“In the beginning I would watch one lecture when it was released. Towards the middle of the course, I didn’t watch anything, and towards the end I would watch three in a row,” she said.

She also agrees that being self-motivated is more difficult in an online setting. “If the student doesn’t take the time to sit down and focus on the course, it’s really easy to get distracted. It’s on the computer so with two clicks you can suddenly end up on Facebook, and there goes two hours,” she said.

In the end, Walsh is hopeful about the future of MOOCs despite these difficulties. “I’ve been covering education and tech topics for about five years now, and, other than the iPad, I haven’t seen anything become so hot of a topic so fast.”

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