ladamic's blog research on information networks and non-researchy random musings


Coursera vs. the classroom

Filed under: CourseWare — ladamic @ 18:53

There are far more education-educated minds than mine contemplating this question, and doing so scientifically. While we’re waiting for their results, I’m just jotting down a few thoughts here based on my experiences as a student, as a professor, and as a Coursera instructor.

The only thing that is more exciting than teaching on Coursera, is taking classes on Coursera. It’s been over a decade since I took my last class. I did vaguely plan to sit in on classes at U. Michigan, with world-class faculty teaching so many subjects of interest. But I never found the time. With Coursera, at least there is the possibility that I could take such classes at any time. I think this is going to be for sure one of the main target audiences for Coursera: folks like me who have gone through lots of schooling, but there are a lot of new developments in their profession that are worth learning, or they found new subject areas of interest that they didn’t think to study back when they were at school.

For example, as an undergrad I wrote a dorky, inexcusable letter to the administration at Caltech to protest the proposed reduction in required physics coursework in favor of introducing a biology requirement. I cringe when I think I may have written something to the effect of ‘Everything can be derived from physics, so why bother with other subjects’. Though I did eventually dive into many subjects beyond physics with gusto, I never did take a biology class, not since 9th grade. What Coursera course am I signed up for now? Genetics. How wonderful to be able to go back and catch up.

I have been thinking about how my Coursera course stacks up against its offline version. I didn’t skimp on much material in the Coursera version, even though it is several weeks shorter. With no one to have a discussion with but the camera, the pace is quicker. If anything, I developed more interactive online demos and data sets to be able to better convey concepts to my invisible audience. These from my perspective worked especially well with the in-video quizzes. The lecture would pause, a quiz question would pop up, and students could play with a demo to derive the answer (technical browser glitches aside). Assignments presented challenges to me. It was difficult to transform them into a multiple choice or programmatically graded format. I couldn’t ask students to stick to the rule: “Don’t just put a number down, interpret it”. Online, a number had to be sufficient. Or the interpretation had to be one of a set of pre-prepared choices. But I did it. It may have worked. I’m not sure.

Then there was the course project. In the offline version this is a multi-step affair afforded by the longer semester format. The students propose the project, I give them feedback. They turn in a mid-project report, I give them feedback. They turn in the final report, I give them feedback and for some I give advice on how to turn it into a publication. On Coursera, the students just did the project, and then graded each others’ work. The grading rubric I constructed for the peer-evaluation was very detailed and left little room for elaborate feedback. At the same time I encouraged students to post their work to the forum. The feedback there was very, very useful. Sure, my feedback is more informed by the literature, and years of my own experience and experience seeing students do such projects. But the students’ feedback had many useful tips and rather creative suggestions. It wasn’t that much worse than what I could have provided. This peer-evaluation thing just might work!

There were other interesting advantages. Since all I needed for class was my laptop, I could take it with me to visit with various researchers in industry and record sessions about the use of course material in practice. Sure, you can have invited speakers in your regular classroom, and that beats a streamed video, but… this was quite practical. The Coursera course also very kindly received technical support and instructional guidance from the creators of the software packages I was using — something that likely would have happened for my small offline course, but where I think the size of the class didn’t hurt either.

The biggest difference between the Coursera and offline versions is in how tailored the course is to the participants. In the offline version I’ll introduce material or discuss in-class applications that the students ask about. And they ask a lot. We go through the same material much more slowly, and that’s because it’s not just me talking. It’s a conversation, about the readings, concepts, knowns and unknowns. There was a lot of interesting conversation in the Coursera forum, but the lectures were pre-recorded, inflexible, and besides, I felt that if I had gone off on a tangent that one student was asking about, it wouldn’t be fair to the other several thousand. In a class of 20-30 I wouldn’t think twice about going on a tangent. One could probably interpolate between the two with Google Hangouts that could accommodate a few select detours.

As I was teaching the Coursera course I regularly received email from students about specific projects they were working on, asking for my advice. I don’t think I answered a single one. I was overwhelmed by work. But I also felt that any one of those emails would take 15-20+ minutes of my time, while I looked up the relevant literature, reviewed it, and composed my thoughts.  And I hate to say it, but my thinking was: this is free course, the students are not entitled to this much of my time individually. In contrast, at UofM students are always welcome to come talk to me during office hours and I would usually answer by email as well. It’s my job, a part of my job I usually enjoy.

Another rather big difference is in the attrition rate. I may have lost up to 1/3 of the registered students in the first week of my offline class, but it was stable thereafter. On Coursera, only 40% watched the first video, I lost many more from there on out. If I had “attended” Coursera instead of Caltech, would I have stuck with it, made it through, or would I have signed up for courses full of good intentions only to abandon them?

In many ways my college-self would have been a suitable student for Coursera. I never spoke up in class (to my students: do as I say, not as I did!). I got a pair of glasses just so that I could have better than 20/20 vision and sit in the very back of the lecture hall. I didn’t understand much of the lectures either (which were usually derivations written on the blackboard). I couldn’t write notes and listen carefully enough at the same time. I learned outside of class, by re-reading the notes and reading the textbook. I especially learned by doing the assignments. I took advantage of office hours and research opportunities. But in short, if the lectures had been recorded rather than live, it wouldn’t have made much difference to me.

But I don’t think I could have graduated without a campus. I’m a procrastinator. I took 6 classes every quarter (except the last one, when I dropped 3D photography in favor of working on my ditch-day stack). Because I knew that I wouldn’t start assignments early, I made sure I had 1 assignment to work on per night (often late into the night). It kept me busy and it kept me happy, and if I got totally stuck, I’d walk down the hall to compare notes with others working on the same assignment. Any flexibility, however, and I would unhappily procrastinate. The summer after freshman year I decided to work on the hundreds (?) of math problems needed to pass out of Math 2B (which would allow me to take Applied Math 95 sophomore year, and ultimately Kip Thorne’s general relativity senior year, which in the end I didn’t do, but anyway…). That was a miserable summer. When I wasn’t working on Math 2B I was miserable because I felt guilty, when I was working on Math 2B I was miserable and lonely. By comparison Ama95 was entertaining and I enjoyed the camaraderie of going through it with fellow students. Perhaps I would have found the same camaraderie if I had taken Math 2B through Coursera and participated on the forum, or joined a Facebook group. I don’t know. In any case, I loved my time at Caltech. Some people left it embittered. Not me though, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

But back to Coursera. It’s really promising. It needs some work (my SNA course most of all!), but it’s mind-boggling to be able to learn about anything! Anything! What a wonderful time to be human. Now I better get back to my Duolingo Spanish lessons :).



  1. I found your Coursera class to be extremely useful! Thanks for putting all the effort into creating it!

    Post-SNA certificate I now feel the need to search for “giant components” everywhere!

    Comment by Richard Lee — 2012/11/30 @ 19:15

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I really enjoyed and learned at your course. I’ve been wanting to learn about nets for a long long time 🙂

    Comment by Maru — 2012/11/30 @ 19:48

  3. One of the biggest advantages Coursera courses is the ability to listen to the lectures multiple times. Also it is an advantage to speed them up.

    I thought your course was great. I had to drop out fairly early because of work demands, but if you offer it again I certainly intend to take it. I have taken other Coursera courses and I think yours was one of the best.

    Comment by Rees — 2012/11/30 @ 21:25

  4. Thanks for the SNA course… have you got in mind a second edition ?

    Comment by alpoza — 2012/11/30 @ 22:04

  5. Incredible time attending your course in Coursera! I feel the same way than Richard: now I see networks everywhere.

    For me, the big difference, the disruptive points were:

    1. The interviews with top real-world practitioners. Maybe in USA is not so difficult to convince people like that to be a speaker in a classroom, but in Spain college life is almost a bubble, completely apart from professional world. There is a whole range of reasons for this, not easy to tackle, by the way.

    2. The hangouts. A hangout with you is probably a more interactive and empathic experience than any interaction a college student can have with most of her teachers here in Spain. Can you believe it?

    Anyway: thanks a lot, Lada! Will you teach any other course, shortly… or not? 😉

    Comment by Angel Galván — 2012/11/30 @ 23:02

  6. If what you say is true, then I hope that Coursera in some small way might nudge universities in Spain to incorporate guest lectures and other types of interactions. It may be just a matter of an untapped resource. You say that it’s not easy to tackle, but why not just experiment by sending a few invitations?
    The thought has crossed my mind to teach another course at some point, but SNA still needs some work and will keep me busy for the next little while.
    And, Angel, thanks for helping SNA be more interactive!

    Comment by ladamic — 2012/12/01 @ 12:55

  7. Lada

    Thank you for the course. I took the course mainly as a chance to take an online course because the role of online courses is going to be a tension for universities moving forward. Your take on the role of an online course as an instructor is fascinating. Many pele talk about how the teaching that they do is rewarding. Did you find it to be rewarding? From a networked perspective I would guess no?

    Thanks Eric Brewe

    Comment by Eric Brewe — 2012/12/01 @ 13:05

  8. I took the course but dropped it because it was strain to do at the necessary speed. If the course had the same content presented over a longer time my guess is not as many people would drop.

    Comment by Mark Senn — 2012/12/01 @ 13:15

  9. I actually took the genetics (Bi 112) course at Caltech and skipped several prerequisites to do so. (Well, I took the theoretical one but didn’t stick around for the experimental sequel the next term.) On the first day of class, the main lecturers — Bruce Hay and Paul Sternberg — asked everybody to say what their major was, and “applied mathematics” sure stick out like a sore thumb compared to everybody else. I had to work harder on that course than most of the other courses because of all the catching up I needed and I complained massively during the term (i.e., nothing’s changed). I took it in anticipation of ultimately working on some projects in mathematical biology, and I have now been doing that quite a lot in a lot of different areas—none of which are genetics. 🙂 It was really worth it, though. Even though I haven’t (yet!) published a paper in that topic, I bet it’s helped me in my collaborations with biologists just from having taken an intense course taught from a ‘biological perspective’.

    Comment by Mason — 2012/12/01 @ 19:01

  10. Is your Caltech ditch-day stack described anywhere? If not, would you consider writing a post describing it some day?

    Comment by Eric — 2012/12/03 @ 02:39

  11. It’s really interesting to get that perspective from the other side of the screen. I came across Coursera by luck and had an interest in SNA. Your preview sounded interesting and so I signed up. Having been outside the classroom for a l-o-n-g time I wasn’t sure what to expect and managed to do many things wrong (time management was particularly grim and I didn’t fully read all the details on course requirements until I needed them. Big mistake, but my admiration for people who hold jobs and do classes in their free time went up a lot).

    The course delivery was good, but you are right that there seemed little interplay and the opportunity to explore a question was necessarily limited. I have to admit to being disappointed that you didn’t reply to any notes but can see that the time commitment could have been overwhelming. Not sure about the commercial aspect (UoM students pay) which I hadn’t considered. Guess it makes sense, but a bit of a shame as your course necessarily stimulated a lot of questions.

    The Coursera course was great and I got a lot from it. I also have the lectures to refer back to as I proceed. If you revise it and re-present it I may well do it all over again to reinforce the topics and themes you exposed me to. I am also encouraged to do more Coursera classes (have one in January) but will need to pace myself as they do take more time than advertised.

    Thank you for running it.

    Comment by Neil Kirby — 2012/12/03 @ 02:59

  12. Lada, I signed up for your Coursera course because it is very interesting. I didn’t watch any videos (… yet). If I cared less about the SNA course, I would have watched the videos and done no work. As it is, I’m saving it for a deep dive in the future. I also saw other potential benefits for being in the 60% majority. First, I thought I might be more likely to have archival access to the materials (which are not always available unless you sign up). I did pop in to look at the list of videos available. And I wanted to vote: yes, this is the kind of course I’m excited about. I suspect there are many other “interesting” cases among the 60% who didn’t watch a single video. Consider the 60% majority, or at least some of us, as marketing/recruiting for a future iteration or, if you never offer it again, for a future time when I can go through the archive on my own (sometimes my life prefers “at my own pace courses” and, fortunately, I have the discipline for that).

    Comment by CJ Fearnley — 2012/12/05 @ 16:48

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