Welcome to another Textbook Guru review in our series on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). We’ve already reviewed MOOCs as a whole, looked at class structure and reviewed two major players in the space, edX and Udacity. This week we’re taking a look at a clear leader in the MOOC space, Coursera.
Coursera was launched in April, 2012 by Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller of Stanford University and a year later has garnered 3.2 million users. The courses offered come from an impressive list of partners including Stanford, Princeton, Duke and the University of Pennsylvania which are among the current roster of 62 partner institutions. They are also one of the first MOOC platforms to offer courses (5 so far) that are approved for college credit by the American Council on Education. However it is still at the discretion of individual colleges whether or not to accept these credits earned through Coursera.
After a simple sign up process, the first thing I noticed that was different about Coursera is the variety of courses available. While other platforms are quickly expanding their course offerings, they are still largely offering computer science courses, however Coursera offers a total of 341 courses across 24 categories. Now, the grain of salt is that 5 of those categories containing 119 courses are all computer science related, but others range from law to music, film and education. So having already tasted a few science courses, I ventured into a Greek and Roman Mythology course offered through the University of Pennsylvania and taught by Associate Professor Peter Struck.
After settling on the course I wanted to try, I was dropped on the course description page which provides a very in depth look at the course including the instructor’s bio, course syllabus, workload estimation and a nice intro video from Struck. So I decide to take the course and go click the large ‘Sign up’ button but see that it’s right next to an even larger ‘Enroll in Signature Track’ button.
Signature Track is a clear sign of the future when it comes to the monetization of MOOCs. While others may develop different revenue models, Signature Track is an enrollment program that links your real identity to your course work on Coursera. First, facial recognition is used to compare your photo ID with a webcam photo of yourself to verify and link your real world identity to your Coursera account. Second, Coursera creates a profile of your typing pattern to verify that it is you who is actually completing course work. How do they do this? A short typing assessment during your Signature Track profile set up has you type the same sentence twice; from this Coursera measures the time between keystrokes and even how many milliseconds you hold down each key to create a benchmark for your typing style.
After verifying your identity, typing pattern and entering all the necessary personal information, you can use a credit card to pay the enrollment fee for Signature track. This allows you to enroll in the Signature Track version of any of the 37 courses currently involved in the program. Once enrolled in a Signature Track course, you may be asked to repeat the verification process (webcam photo and typing pattern test) after completing graded work as a ‘signature’ to verify that it was you who completed it.
However, after you’ve successfully passed a Signature Track course, you earn a Verified Certificate that is issued both by Coursera and the participating university. This does not count towards college credit unfortunately, and they note it does not make you a student of the issuing university, but it is a great addition to your résumé to show your mastery of a subject or skill. Employers can visit Coursera with a special identifying code provided by you to verify that your certifications.
Before you start sending out résumés though, you need to do the course work. Once enrolled, the homepage for each course, while not elegant, is very easy to navigate. A series of tabs on the left give you access to the class schedule, video lectures, quizzes, assignments and a discussion forum among others. On the right hand is the news stream with all the latest developments in the course.
The actual interface for the lectures is a bit different than edX or Udacity which string lecture videos, quizzes and discussion questions all through a single view that automatically takes you to the next task. Coursera is more of a build your own adventure because lecture videos are accessed individually and quizzes, assignments and discussions are also housed separately in their own tabs. This makes for a less streamlined and linear student experience, but small little check marks help you keep track of what you’ve completed already.
The actual lecture videos for this course feel very much like an actual college lecture. Struck stands in front of a green screen for his lectures which allows pertinent videos, images and text to be displayed next to him, very similar to a news broadcast.
The differences in how you access videos, quizzes and assignments I feel is negligible here, it’s the content that matters, and I feel Coursera is boasting some of the best and most robust courses available. The Signature Track feature is certainly taking MOOCs in the right direction and the same technique may eventually be used for redeemable course credits.
While it’s hard to predict just how MOOCs like Coursera and the traditional college credit system will merge, I imagine that a Signature Track like system will be used to vet student identities and charge them on a course by course basis for college credits. Other platforms may innovate other ways to monetize their courses, but it’s encouraging to see Coursera making progress in this aspect of the MOOC business while holding true to the goal of offering free courses for all.