Is Coursera Taking Hundreds of Thousands of Students on a Shakedown Cruise?
It’s bedtime Sunday and my phone is buzzing to alert me to incoming messages. A lot of this is regular communication about the numerous MOOC courses I’m signed up for. Assignments are usually due at the end of the week and for new material goes live at 12 a.m. Mondays, so the automated announcements about scheduled items beginning or ending tend to arrive at this hour of the week.
The last few weeks, though, the phone rattles across the nightstand more than usual. Mixed in with the usual traffic is an increasing volume of panicky sounding dispatches from a professor in one particular course which seems to have been infested by tech gremlins and cascading miscommunications. Students have apparently been emailing her, anxious that particular features of the course — some of them tied to mandatory assignments — aren’t working properly. As with many of life’s tech/communication mishaps, there is a quality of un-reproducible fiasco to the back story (In this case, it seems a forum set up explicitly to discuss tech problems didn’t itself function properly and became a vector of bad information.)
So the professor is gamely trying to answer all those concerns. She begs our forbearance and forgiveness and reassures us we won’t be held responsible for events beyond our control. Due dates will be extended. The automated application of penalties on quizzes will be suspended. (This is a change in posture from last week when we were told we only get to play the tech problem card once.) The use of all caps, bold and underlining is on the increase. Sentences truncated, message-in-a-bottle style. Esprit de corps appealed to.
Many of you bore the repercussions of that mistake, AND of the totally coincidental bugs that swarmed at the same time, which made it even harder to deal with the fallout from my mistake so, for all of it, I apologize. . . . It truly is going to get smoother from here so hang in there.
And that’s just one night. In past weeks, she has confessed that she is “an army of one,” gave us her work email address and invited us to use the word EMERGENCY in the subject line if we need to.
I am in other courses where things are going swimmingly. But this example isn’t isolated. In one, the professor sends out a clarification that begins, “If you are having trouble understanding the ‘logic’ of the site it is not your fault.” Later on, the teaching assistants email to let us know “that we are working hard to answer and resolve all of your suggestions for the course and the Coursera platform. We expect your experiences and enjoyment of the course will only increase as the course continues.” A week later, a similar message with a long list of adjustments in policies and procedures to minimize the fallout from previous problems.
In another course, materials from outside the platform turned out to be available only in the country where they were hosted. Meanwhile, the professor uses bold A LOT to emphasize expectations that he communicated already. There is a pervasive tone of annoyance, which he has chosen to project at the students rather than at circumstances that might have produced the misunderstandings to begin with.
It seems to me that all is not going well with Coursera in the last few months. As one professor pointed out:
This first essay was a shakedown cruise for all of us — you, me, Coursera . . . . But bugs have been systematically exterminated and policies re: essay content, plagiarism, and grading have been forged so things WILL be smoother next time around. (Knock wood).
In case you don’t know the term, a shakedown cruise is naval lingo for a test run on new ships to make sure they are, well, ship shape:
Generally, shakedown cruises are performed before a ship enters service or after major changes such as a crew change, repair or overhaul. The shakedown cruise simulates working conditions for the vessel . . . to familiarize a crew with a new vessel and to ensure all of the ship’s systems are functional.
And that sounds like a good description of how some of the Coursera courses have been going in the last few months. The problem with this shakedown cruise, though, is that hundreds of thousands of students from around the world are along for the ride. We are part of the test while major changes are being made and the crew is familiarizing itself with the vessel, finding out whether or not all the systems are functional.
A fair observer would have to wonder if Coursera is ready to bring us along on this ride. I’m no expert on how to operationalize a product like this, but it seems to me they are trying to get big fast, and the dangers of that haven’t successfully been avoided. And I can understand that. I’d like this website to get big fast. Facebook succeeded by getting big fast, essentially making the whole community beta testers for every change. That’s a valid economic model. But people visiting websites aren’t usually committing to several hours of college-level work a week for 12 weeks.
There is a feel of a land grab in the MOOC community right now, and I wonder if Coursera is more concerned about how big a claim they can stake than with their capacity to mange the claim. For example, the last few months have brought a flurry of new additions to the Coursera catalog from several new institutions. And Signature Track, a significant experiment with their business model, is being pitched to paying customers for courses that have absolutely no track record.
Some of these courses are going public apparently even before they’ve been designed. One professor confessed she was basically recording lectures week-to-week a few days before they are due. How well designed can a course be in that situation? Of course, experienced teachers don’t have their whole semester scripted in advance, and I confess I sometimes go in front of my students without a fully rehearsed lesson plan. But there are only 20 of them, not tens of thousands, and I can look them in the eye for feedback, acknowledge raised hands and make adjustments on the wing. More important, I don’t do it with a new course, in a new environment and with unfamiliar technology in play.
One rule of thumb I often hear from a colleague is “Do new things, but don’t make everything new at once.” For most teachers, changing textbooks, re-conceiving one major assignment, switching from fewer lectures to more small group work, and having students publish work online would be radically disruptive to a given course. With MOOCs, everything down to the DNA of the course is new, live, and in front of massive audiences.
And the stuff I’m talking about here doesn’t even count the more high profile meltdowns like a professor abaonding ship midway through a course, apparently because expectations about the course hadn’t been completely resolved before it commenced. Or the courseware crashing so badly that a course was suspended last February.
After those incidents, Coursera founder Andre Ng said, “We’re all experimenting still with what makes sense for MOOCs . . . There will be missteps along the way.”
Missteps happen, sure. And there is tremendous value to students in the courses that have a more reasonable number of hiccups. But multiple apologetic emails broadcast to a readership of tens of thousands? It feels like Coursera is pushing some of the fleet out to sea before it’s ready. And, if so, why were the rest of us invited on board?