On Our Radar – The Dog Ate My Homework

On Our Radar features HEQCO staff and guest bloggers offering their unique perspectives on trends, new ideas, and hot-button issues in higher education. The opinions are those of the authors.
I would describe myself as a good student, one who always completes assignments on time and  asks far too many questions (much to the dismay of my fellow students). But, I do have a confession. For my first online course through Coursera, I failed to turn in one of the assignments on time. Unfortunately, the unrelenting nature of the Internet renders real-life excuses for not finishing homework unacceptable.  So, although I read all of the course materials for the Health Policy and Affordable Care Act course, watched the lectures, and completed the assignments, I did not officially complete the course. That is fine. My feelings are not hurt. My pride still remains at the same level. But, before you get the wrong idea that I am about to embark on a sob story, I think that my negligence is worth discussing and presents a few key lessons from my overall Coursera experience.
1. Motivation is key.
Even the most motivated and diligent students/lifelong learners occasionally fall victim to laziness. Life simply happens and forces you to put a pause on other commitments. In the context of Coursera in its present form, it is particularly difficult to stay motivated when there is no fear of repercussion; no personal contact with the instructor; and no intrinsic reward upon course completion, except for a Certificate of Completion. If a student fails to watch the lectures or fails to complete the assignments, oh well. You are simply another anonymous viewer among hundreds of thousands worldwide. That style of teaching may work for some, but it is important to keep in mind that MOOCs, like the ones offered on Coursera, may not fit every student’s optimal learning environment.
2. Quality varies considerably across courses.
Over these past few months, I also dabbled in a few other Coursera courses, such as Social Network Theory and Introduction to Finance, and  quality varied considerably. The Health Policy and Affordable Care Act course that I have been blogging about for HEQCO, for example, would be at the lower end of the spectrum. Although the class material was interesting and politically relevant due to the US Supreme Court case on the Affordable Care Act, it was very apparent that the course videos were a condensed version of the live video recording from the actual course at the University of Pennsylvania;  there were clear breaks in the video where it was spliced for a shorter Coursera version. And the audio quality was mediocre at best.  But in other courses, it was evident that the instructor designed and created all of the course content, including the videos, specifically for a global audience. The audio was clear and the lectures were continuous.
Some of the gaffes can be attributed to tech challenges, such as in one course (ultimately cancelled) where a required discussion group went south because the Google spreadsheet that the group needed to access was not equipped to handle the volume of students registered for the course. Another significant challenge is that of academic integrity. The nature of the written assignments in my course and others makes it fairly easy to plagiarize material without serious repercussions. Students are required to consent to an “Academic Integrity” pledge; however, that says absolutely nothing about whether students actually uphold that pledge.
OK, I acknowledge that Coursera is a new project but quality gaps between the good, the bad and the ugly must be addressed before we can take seriously the notion of awarding credits for Coursera courses.
3. Have fun.
This lesson is the most important of all. If we seriously consider the notion that Coursera and other MOOC platforms are game-changers for higher education, then we collectively need to have fun in the process and help address the slew of challenges that face the world of MOOCs. Would I try more courses? Absolutely yes and you should join me.  As part of a worldwide higher education experiment, I say embrace the experiment, buckle up and enjoy the bumpy ride.
-Lauren Hudak, Research Analyst

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