The Missed Opportunity of Coursera

Open Software Integrators is my current and measurably successful shot at running a company.  The first pursuit reached so-called ramen profitability, and provided me with just enough profit to keep me feasting on Ramen Noodles or, in my case, canned beans but no more than that.  The second incarnation of that company was somewhat more successful but really only as a side gig and was aborted when I took another job.  The third company I started wasn’t successful at all.  The fourth, Open Software Integrators, has been in business for 5 years and has had consecutive growth since 2009.  

Aside from some accounting and basic management courses I took way back when, I learned mainly on the job.   Naturally, when I ran across Coursera, I was pleased. I’ve taken the first part of “Grow to Greatness” from Darden School of Business and am taking the second part. I have “taken” a course on Business Strategy and am now taking one on Operations.  I haven’t at any point earned the much advertised ,“Certificate of Accomplishment”.  There are two reasons for this.  The first, is that I don’t really care about it.  The second, is that for some silly reason Coursera for the sake of tradition more than any other reason sticks to calendar delineated terms.

The terms don’t fit into my schedule.  I’d probably take the final test or submit the final project required for the Certificate of Accomplishment just out of curiosity to see how well I did if I could do it on my own time.  It isn’t that I don’t have time to complete the courses, I just don’t necessarily have time to complete the course when it happens to be scheduled.  

The upside of traditional, brick and mortar, teacher standing over the class instruction is that you can ask questions, work with the teacher if you have problems and generally interact.  There are few, in my opinion, upsides to online instruction that aren’t directly related to scheduling (aside from costs which isn’t generally a problem for me).  

For online instruction, theoretically the forums help replace the interaction.  Moreover, if you have enough people taking a course than generally the statistical field of common questions and misunderstandings are covered.  Except that they don’t.  I had a really novel question for my Grow to Greatness course.  It was the opposite of the first part of the course’s main point: growth has risks.  My question was “What are the risks of not growing?”  Posting in the forum got me a predictable response from someone who had just graduated and wanted to go into management consulting (without any actual management experience).  

However, I’m happy to forgo the benefits of actually physically showing up because of that great upside: scheduling.  There is no time in my week that isn’t work, kids or family that occurs regularly enough to schedule being in a physical classroom.  If there were, it would inevitably be broken up with a speaking engagement or other such thing.  I’m fine with the lower bandwidth, half duplex type of communication involved in Coursera’s brand of online learning for the practical benefits of being able to schedule it.

That said, Coursera still insists that a class start at a particular date and go on for a few weeks just like a physical class.  Theoretically ,that is so that people can interact with their classmates in the forums.  Theoretically that is so the professor can gather this feedback for further lectures or notes or whatever.  However, with some of the courses we’re talking hundreds thousands of people signing up.  If even 10% regularly posted the forums then they’d be flooded and even more useless.  

Instead, Coursera should abandon scheduled terms and have standing classes.  These classes would be available whenever you felt like attending.  You could submit your test or project whenever and the next time whomever was running it was signed up to be around they could grade it. The course could be regularly maintained and updated and in many cases detached from the single professor (indeed many of them indicate they are run by a team).  

There is some movement in this direction for specific courses such as Organization Analysis which allows you to view the materials when the course isn’t in session.  Yet at the same time they seem to think that by forcing me to stick my face in a webcam for the “Signature Track” that somehow that will accomplish something.  Who would bother to cheat for the somewhat worthless certificate of accomplishment?  I’m guessing they think this will give you a higher sense of investment.

The workaround for me is to sign up, download all the content, fail and then complete it when I get around to it.  I can’t possibly be the only one that does this.  That probably skews Coursera’s actual results showing a lower number of people who stay engaged and complete the class than is actually true.  It also eats up space on my Ultrabook’s 128G SSD drive.  In the end, Coursera’s love of injecting the traditional class’s constraint of the calendar is a missed opportunity for it and its students.



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