Supriya Sarnikar, associate professor in the Economics and Management Department at Westfield State University, enrolled in several MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offered through Coursera for several reasons: personal enrichment, to learn of any pedagogical ...
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Supriya Sarnikar, associate professor in the Economics and Management Department at Westfield State University, enrolled in several MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offered through Coursera for several reasons: personal enrichment, to learn of any pedagogical or technological innovations these courses offered, and to better understand the students' experiences in online courses. “I was curious about the Coursera platform and wanted to learn whether it offered any features that were different from or better than learning management systems that are commonly used on most campuses.” In an email interview with Online Classroom, Sarnikar shared her reflections of the Coursera experience.
OC: How did your experience compare to your expectations?
Sarnikar: I expected to receive a good introduction with leads for further reading in the disciplines with which I was unfamiliar. All courses met this expectation.
I did not expect courses to be pedagogically innovative and universally accessible to students with different learning styles/preferences. These expectations turned out to be true. Most courses were online versions of chalk-and-talk. Even a course that was supposed to teach instructors how to design effective online courses failed to follow its own design principles and was cancelled. This is not to say that instructors of Coursera courses are somehow inept, but that the challenge of adapting existing pedagogical practices to the online platform is one that seems to trip up even the most seasoned and resource-rich academic institutions.
I had hoped the Coursera platform would offer some features that would be technologically innovative since it is a brainchild of two computer science professors. I was both favorably impressed and disappointed in this respect. I will begin with the good features of the platform.
Of course, all these features can be offered through common learning management systems and are not particularly innovative. But what struck me was that these were standardized through all courses. Whenever video lectures were available, they were available in different formats.
In terms of offering technologically innovative tools for instruction, Coursera disappoints utterly. The platform possibly has better backend features, which allow for massive data collection that could be helpful for research on student learning. But in terms of what it offers to students, it lacks imagination. The technological tools offered for incorporating interaction in the courses are the same unimaginative threaded discussion forums as are available in any low-end technological solution. The use of discussion forums to incorporate collaborative learning is even more inefficient in such large classes than it is in smaller classes. Most courses did not use discussion forums as an integrated part of the learning structure, but used them as an additional tool for students to interact as they please. Instructors who wanted to incorporate more deliberate interaction most often turned to other publicly available collaborative tools, such as Google Hangouts, which come with their own limitations.
OC: What did you like about these courses?
OC: What did you dislike about these courses?
OC: Did you participate in discussions? If so, did you find them valuable?
Sarnikar: I did not find discussions to be valuable. Very few courses tried to use focused discussions in a structured manner. But even in these, there was a lot of irrelevant or uninformed chatter that made it time consuming to separate the wheat from the chaff. Discussions are generally effective in small online classes if they are focused and properly designed by the instructor. But perhaps because Coursera discussions are not graded, one did not see the same amount of quality discourse even in the few instances where the instructors tried to focus the discussions. Whatever quality there was often got lost in the incessant noisy chatter.
OC: Would you take another course in this format?
Sarnikar: If “this format” means existing chalk-and-talk-style online courses, the answer is yes. But only if (1) the courses remain free of additional monetary cost, (2) peer evaluations and discussions do not become the major form of assessments, and (3) the purpose of taking the courses is personal enrichment rather than career advancement.
OC: What lessons did you learn that you will apply to the online courses you teach?