Experience/Review: Coursera

We’ve wading into new territory this semester. We’re hardly alone. With over 75,000 learners from around the globe and spanning many decades, my younger son is exploring connections in world history. My older is finishing a science fiction and fantasy literature course while starting a class in beginning Python programming. We’ve sampled just a touch of what this mode of learning offers. At this writing, Coursera lists 198 MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), ranging from neuroscience to economics to physics. The preponderance of courses are in mathematics, computers, and science, with a smattering of business and liberal arts offerings making up the rest. All are free and, as the name suggests, all have massive attendance.

Unlike many previous free offerings from universities, these aren’t self-paced, self- evaluated classes. These run at the pace of a college course, albeit generally shorter. Coursera’s offerings run from three to twelve weeks in length with start times scattered throughout the calendar, so just about any time during the year, a class is beginning. While the format differs somewhat for each course, the basic set-up is the same. About two hours of lectures are released weekly, each broken up into shorter segments. Sometimes, an informal quiz falls at the end of the lecture, allowing the learner to check on his or her knowledge. Assessments vary, with objective quizzes dotting the schedules of some and peer-graded papers dominating in others. Some even have final exams.  All have deadlines.

I love that last part.

There is the potential for an interactive experience in Coursera. There are discussion forums for each class, with separate lists for a variety of topics. In part, these are designed to foster conversation about the material or address questions students have. My older has participated a bit, and while I’ve had my younger son check in on them, he has no interest in participating. Meet-up groups are also listed, with people gathering live in small communities to discuss class material. We’ve not explored this option yet, keeping discussion at home for now. These courses would be fine material for a group of homeschoolers to explore together, possibly meeting to discuss assignments or the lectures. If the courses we’ve experienced are any indication, there would be no need to add more material to what’s offered. These are time-intensive offerings — full courses unto themselves, but a live setting for discussion would make the experience richer.

Make no mistake. These courses are not geared toward the under-18 audience. While that’s not likely to matter for most of the classes, my older son’s Fantasy and Science Fiction literature class had numerous (appropriate) references to sex and sexual symbolism. As a previous English major, I wasn’t surprised by these. As a mom, I took them as a learning opportunity about literary analysis. My son survived, although he stuck to choosing essay topics about other literary elements. I’d have been less sanguine about my younger son, 11 years, had he been in the course, but between the reading list and the nature of literary analysis courses, I knew better than to enroll him.  The history course he’s taken has made brief references to the spread of sexually transmitted infections by sailors leaving the Americas and to rape within the context of historical events, both appropriate to the topic at hand. Again, my approach has been to use these times to inform and discuss.  History is full of difficult topics, and I expected some challenges; these topics have been manageable for our household, but some families may want to stick to more technical courses that have less likelihood of wandering into these territories.

The experiences of firm deadlines and peer review are perhaps the two most likely to challenge the homeschooling student. While my sons have had a moderate amount of exposure to deadlines for other online classes and real-life classes, they’ve little experience with the perils of missing a deadline, which, for the courses we’ve experienced so far, can mean receiving a zero for an assignment. I’m grateful for this reality check, and as most of us homeschooling parents know, having that reality come from outside of us makes it all the more, well, real. So far, both boys are on target with these dates, and we’ve taken to artificially advancing the time and date due to avoid last-minute rushes or the inevitable technology crash occurring at the wrong moment. My older son has translated this well to his university courses, and I can see healthy habits beginning.

Kids in school today generally have a fair amount of experience with peer review, an experience I was largely spared as a child. Coursera’s version, at least in our experience so far, relies on a rubric (a scale of 1 to 3, in our experience) with accompanying comments from the student readers. For one class, if you did not submit your reviews, you received no grade on your writing, thus impacting your final grade. My older son found these doing reviews and grading difficult initially. With no experience writing literary analysis, he had little to on which to base his judgement of others work. Initially, we worked together. But in a few weeks, he took on the task himself, seeking me out if there was a theme in an essay that didn’t make sense to him (often due to lack of his experience and knowledge, not due to a fellow student’s lack of clarity). His grades each week were an average of the responses of four readers, thus blunting the most optimistic and pessimistic reviewers while still allowing him to see what everyone’s ratings and comments.

Reviewing the work of others, he found, strengthened his own writing. He saw that grammatical errors and poorly proofread work were laborious to read. I’d told him that for years, but it all became obvious when reading four other essays a week for ten weeks. He learned economy of words, since he had only 320 words with which to express himself. As a sometimes wordy writer, this was invaluable. Both through the process of reviewing others and being reviewed, he found his writing improve. We were both delighted.

While we’ve only sampled a bit of what Coursera has to offer, I can say I’m impressed by the quality of the lectures, the intentionality of the assignments, and the organization of the courses themselves. Like a live course, some professors will appeal to some learners more than others. Some classes will be more demanding than others. Some assignments are clearer than others. Overall, there is plenty here for homeschoolers working at the high school level and beyond to appreciate. There is plenty to challenge young, bright learners who either aren’t ready for the college classroom (my younger son) or want a more convenient  affordable way to access college-level content.

Here are a few additional considerations for those considering Coursera for the homeschooled student:

  • Read course descriptions carefully. Some classes are clearly for beginners while others, despite benign titles, are designed for those with far more experience.
  • Pay attention to the time requirement mentioned and the syllabus (if available) before signing up. Sure, gifted learners may require less time to master material, but the hours of lecture, readings, and assignments add up.
  • Consider having your child just sit in for the lectures if that’s more appropriate for your learner. No one comes after you if you don’t do the work, and for some students, just the lectures may be what they’re after. The work however, is what differentiates these classes from Teaching Company classes.
  • Be prepared to support the younger learner, especially at the start of a class. For the child newer to online learning at a rapid pace, organizational assistance may be in order. For peer review work, some advising and supervision initially can ensure that the critique heading out is respectful and useful to the reader.

MOOCs are part of the future of higher education. Udacity and edX also offer similar experiences with a focus on math, computers, and the sciences. More opportunities for university-level learning for no or minimal cost can benefit a range of learners, including the homeschooled student ready for higher-level studies. While I’d not want all my children’s content to come through the internet, it’s a fine way to bring high-quality content home.


4 thoughts on “Experience/Review: Coursera

  1. I discovered your blog this week and have been really enjoying the various posts– and re-invigorated by them. Thank you!
    My son has been doing Udacity’s elementary Physics, as well as a course on using Python. Absolutely mind-bombing to my old brain that stuff like this is freely available. Salutations indeed!
    Have you considered Coursera’s Genetics and Evolution? If so, in your opinion would it too much work for someone of your younger son’s age?
    In gratitude and admiration,

    • It depends on your son. In my experience, interest in the subject matter makes far more work possible. If you’re unsure, I’d go ahead and sign up. At that point, you can see the syllabus to see if there is more information there. My younger son will gladly tackle any class about history — it is his passion. He’s a strong writer, and he’s enthused about the essays required (six 750 word essays). He’d definitely NOT be ready for the evolution course. He’s not as strong in science, and his interest is minimal. It can’t hurt to try it!

      Thanks for your kind words about my blog. I’m always pleased to hear when my writing and experience are helpful to someone else.

  2. Reblogged this on MOOC Madness and commented:
    Here’s a useful and detailed introduction to Coursera moocs from a homeschooling mom incorporating courses in her “home curricula.” No higher ed business models, politics of disruptive change and academic labor, credit discussions, battling theories of pedagogy or other territorial pissing matches. Just a well described analysis and how to example. US college students are not the only users, not by a long shot. I’ve also come across references to K-12 teachers using them for Professional Development and hope to learn (and share) more about that.

  3. L,

    Excellent review – essentially mirrors our recent experience with a University of Arizona Astronomy course by Chris Impey.

    A couple of other observations/suggestions –

    My daughter’s first exposure to Coursera was last summer, age 9, while she was still enrolled in public school. I challenged her to learn something interesting over the summer, and she chose a (different) Astronomy course. Signed up as an observer only, she logged on at her own pace, and had no assignments. This one was completely her choice, with no pressure. I then had her select another course (Newtonian Physics). She was less motivated on this course, as I had steered her toward it, so I ended up having to sit through the lectures with her, to keep her on track. This did have the advantage of allowing me to assess the content, which was actually very well done, and well presented. However, about halfway through she lost interest, and we stopped. (Given her age, I shouldn’t have been surprised). By only monitoring the courses (and not doing any assignments), this allowed me to figure out if the format and content were appropriate.

    Armed with this knowledge, and with our daughter now being homeschooled, I once again challenged her to participate in a Coursera course, but this time for a certificate, which required her to do the assignments. This time she chose another Astronomy course (Impey). I absolutely agree with your comments about the deadlines. In my daughter’s case (now 10), she initially struggled (and I had to help her quite extensively). However, as the course progressed, she started taking more responsibility for keeping notes and doing more research.Her initial written assignments were painful, but her attitude and quality of answers improved as the course progressed. The requirements imposed by the deadlines have proven to be vital for ensuring her engagement in the class.

    I have noted that my daughter seems to be more engaged in a live (online) environment, which is lacking with Coursera. I therefore believe that, for us, Coursera will be useful for when we want a deep dive into more complex subject matter. In the meantime (as a result of following your other comments and reviews), we intend exploring G3 online, as that seems to offer the live online environment we are looking for.

    Many thanks for this blog. It is most helpful.


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