Coursera and Udacity are NOT Open Courseware

Baywatch The MOOC

For a guy who says he doesn’t blog about MOOC’s much, 2 in a week might be a record. But there is something about this Exporting Education article that really bugs me. It is the way that the article implies that Coursera and Udacity are the same as Open Courseware and they clearly are not.

At the heart of the difference is the way the content is licensed in the different courses. OCW courses use open licenses, meaning the content can be modified. Courses from Coursera and Udacity are not openly licensed; they cannot be modified for local contexts. In the context of the article, this is a vitally important distinction to make since the article states that:

MOOCs are being welcomed as a free resource and adapted to local contexts

Well, not if they are Coursera or Udacity courses since most of the content is copyright by those corporations (unless the participating institution negotiates to releases their Coursera MOOC material intentionally with open licenses, like, I believe, UBC has with their Coursera offerings).

This is the fundamental problem many in the open movement have with Coursera and Udacity – they are not open resources. But yet they are getting connected by association to the open resource movement. And this is wrong. Not only does it undermine the many years of hard work done by open education advocates to make sure educational resources are openly licensed resources, it is a vitally important pedagogical difference, especially when examined through the lens of this article.

The article makes the point that, MOOC’s as they are being implemented and used in developing countries have the potential to reduce local capacities and lead to the Americanization of education in the developing world. The MacDonald’s version of higher ed. Or, as the author puts it with a better metaphor, the “Baywatch” of learning.

It’s easy to imagine a future in which the educational equivalent of reruns of Baywatch—a limited menu of glossy American fare—comes to dominate the cultural landscape in developing countries around the world, making it more difficult for cash-starved universities in those countries to pursue scholarship relevant to local contexts

One of the ways to keep this from happening is by making sure the courses are openly licensed so that they can be legally adapted to a local context. If developing worlds end up relying on corporations like Coursera and Udacity who tightly control courses using copyright as their enforcement hammer, then developing worlds will end up with a corporate one size fits all educational model. Education outsourced to America. Whereas if those developing countries are free to take and modify courses & educational resources to fit their local context – like they are with OCW materials – then they will have a distributed, highly contextual model of education that better fits their community.

Coursera vs OCW are fundamentally different in this regard. Open Courseware material empowers educators whereas Coursera material creates dependency. Or a market, depending on how cynical your perspective is.

Photo: Baywatch The MOOC is released by me under a CC-BY-NC-SA license. It is a modified version of the following images:


Big Money

Big money pull a million strings
Big money hold the prize
Big money weave a mighty web
Big money draw the flies

Catching up on weekend news and see that Coursera has landed $20 million more in VC funding. $20 million dollars. That’s bigger than the entire annual operating grant (pdf) Royal Roads University (my previous institution) gets from our provincial government.

Coursera has raised to $63 million dollars in funding. $63 million that it will have to pay back someday. And I wonder how long it will be before Coursera joins Udacity in the pivot game? Could Alan’s Pivot MOOC mashup (used under CC-BY license) be prescient?

Pivot MOOC

Big money make a million dreams
Big money spin big deals
Big money make a mighty head
Big money spin big wheels

I don’t write about MOOC’s much. There are many others who are much smarter writing better  analysis on all this MOOC stuff than I ever could.  It’s like the drunk frat boy trying to talk hockey with Ron McLean. But just in case it hasn’t been blindingly obvious what the end game is for Udacity and Coursera, then let’s be perfectly clear. It is profit. These are corporations who exist to make money for shareholders and investors.

I know. Never let it be said that I don’t state the obvious. This is the limit of my MOOC analysis. Sharp, isn’t it? But I think it needs to be reiterated to remove any doubt for causal MOOC viewers who believe the “save the world” rhetoric.

Of course, this is not new. That has been the game plan from the get go. But whenever something like a pivot happens, or a new round of funding gets shoveled in, it’s important that we stop and remind ourselves of the fact that this is for-profit education that is, in many cases, being built on the backs of a public system. Last year at OpenEd 2012 in Vancouver I remember hearing Athabasca University’s Terry Anderson talk about this rush by public institutions to partner with the shiny new kid on the block Coursera. He made the statement “I don’t know if they quite realize who they have gotten into bed with.”

I was happy Udacity “pivoted” because it is one of those moments that makes the end game even more clear. These are not educators hoping to improve the world, or even improve the lives of their students. Let’s drop the altruistic pretension and do goody good bullshit about making higher education accessible and free for the poor yearning masses. It has always been the ickiest part of the Coursera/Udacity MOOC model. It is about profit.

The Udacity pivot and this latest announcement of VC funding for Coursera remind me of a moment that occurred in the spring while I was at the Connexions conference at Rice University, home of the OpenStax College open textbook project. I attended a Skyped in keynote from Coursera’s Andrew Ng, similar to the one that those who attended OpenEd did a few weeks ago (he did take some questions from the audience at the Connexions conference at the end of his presentation, moderated by Richard Baraniuk).

Connexions is all about open textbooks; free for students, CC-BY licensed for reuse and redistribution. In his keynote, Ng spoke about the importance of projects like Connexions and open textbooks in general as ways to reach the goal of free and open courses for all. This happened one day after I read an Inside Higher Ed article which pointed out that Coursera had an affiliate deal with Amazon whereby Coursera makes money from the sale of textbooks. For each textbook sold, Coursera gets a slice from Amazon. So, on one hand, Coursera is extolling the virtues and importance of open textbooks to the open textbook crowd while on the other they are using textbooks as a source of revenue, selling them to students. To me, it came across as hypocritical and was one of those moments where I saw clearly through the fog.

Big money got a heavy hand
Big money take control
Big money got a mean streak
Big money got no soul

It’s about the money, and I wish that Coursera would join Udacity and drop the pretense because altruism alone doesn’t have a good enough ROI to pay back $63 million in investments.

God, Geddy Lee had great hair.


So, here's the thing about the video in my Coursera course

I’m taking a Coursera course, and the primary content delivery tool being used is video. Talking head video of the instructor switching to voice over PowerPoint lectures with bullet point slides and diagrams.

Now, I wish I could leave my first impressions aside, but can’t (because I’m a bit shallow and judgmental this way and first impressions count), but I am staring at PowerPoint slides primarily composed of bullet points of text (bad) in FREAKIN’ COMIC SANS.  I mean, bullet points of texts are bad enough in terms of adding nothing to my understanding of what is being said, but it’s FREAKIN’ COMIC SANS. I am in a kindergarten class.

Anyway, where was I. Oh yeah. Video.

So, a little technical & pedagogical note about using video as a content delivery method. Web video can be great in that it allows students to interact with the video. Learners can pause, rewind, fast forward and otherwise move through video at their own pace. Going back to review content they may be fuzzy on. As  Zhang, Zhou, Biggs and Nunamaker noted in their 2005 research study Assessing the impact of interactive video on learning effectiveness (pdf) , the interactive nature of web video – this ability to stop, rewind and replay – is one of the prime pedagogical affordances of web video .

Results of the experiment showed that the value of video for learning effectiveness was contingent upon the provision of interactivity. Students in the e-learning environment that provided interactive video achieved significantly better learning performance and a higher level of learner satisfaction than those in other settings

Now, for me, if you are going to make video your primary content delivery platform and take advantage of that pedagogical affordance of video – this ability for learners to manipulate the timeline – then the video should be a true streaming experience. Coursera videos are not.

What does that mean? Well, there are 2 ways you can deliver video on the internet: progressive download and streaming. I won’t get into the technical details of each (you can read for yourself a bit more if you like), but one of the major differences between the two methods of video delivery is how quickly you can move thru the timeline. Progressive download buffers the video, meaning when you move the timeline, you get the hourglass for a few seconds while the video buffers and then restarts. Whereas in streaming video, you get no buffering. You move your cursor on the timeline and the video starts at that point instantaneously.

Imagine this (and I am sure you have experienced it yourself). You are a student and you are trying to find a specific spot on a video, how frustrating is the progressive method? You move the cursor back. Wait (buffer). Wait (buffer). Wait (buffer). The video plays. Whoops, wrong spot. You move the video back a few more seconds. Wait (buffer). Wait (buffer). Wait (buffer). Hmmm. Too far. Move the cursor forward. Wait (buffer). wait (buffer)….you get the picture.

Knowledge is created in instants. When you are on the verge of connecting concepts, these little delays matter. You want to find the spot you need, not give your mind even that extra couple of seconds to wander or worse, get frustrated interacting with technology.

On the plus side for Coursera videos, the videos appear to be short (less than 6 minutes), so shuffling back and forth and buffering to find an exact spot is reduced as there isn’t much of a timeline to slide through. And you do have the option to play at slower or faster speeds – great if you want to review a 5 minute video in 3, or slow down the pace to catch concepts. But, if you are going to make video your pedagogical tool of choice for content delivery, and the primary pedagogical advantage of video is the ability to move thru the timeline and review what you saw, then it is worth it to invest the extra dollars and make the video true streaming video for a seamless user experience where the technology gets out of the way and not in the way.


My Coursera profile

I’m taking a Coursera course this fall called Networked Life and blogging my reflections/experience about both the content and the format.

A brand new (August 30th, 2012) feature of Coursera is the ability to create a profile on the Coursera site – a good thing as it makes it easier for students to find and connect with each other. Here’s mine.

The bit I really like about the profile is that Coursera has given you the ability to make your profile open to the world.

As a networked learner, I believe being open to the world is an important principle and core networked learning concept. Open to the world as the default is the first step that enables learning connections beyond the institution – something that I want.

Now, giving me the option to make my profile open to the world doesn’t guarantee that those connections will happen, but I can tell you that without having the option, they won’t. So, I think Coursera has done a good thing by including the “open to the world” option.

The profile also gives you the opportunity to add in links to a personal website, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or G+ account, and (reflecting that Coursera was born out of computing science) a GitHub account, again enabling connections to happen outside the institution; connections that can carry on long after the course is finished.



Taking a Coursera course: Step 1 signing up

One of my goals for this fall was to enroll in a Coursera MOOC to both get a better understanding of how they work, and to learn some new stuff.

The course I decided on is called Networked Life, offered by Dr. Michael Kearns at Penn State. The description looked intriguing as network theory is something I have wanted to dig a bit deeper into for awhile.

Networked Life looks at how our world is connected — socially, strategically and technologically — and why it matters.

  • What science underlies companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google?
  • How does your position in a social network (dis)advantage you?
  • What do game theory and the Paris subway have to do with Internet routing?
  • How might a social network influence election outcomes?
  • What are the economics of email spam?
  • How does Google find what you’re looking for… and exactly how do they make money doing so?

First thing I did was Google Dr. Kearns, hoping to find a Twitter account where I could connect and follow him. But the best I could find was a group Twitter account from his department at Penn State.

Sign up process was pretty straightforward and asked for the bare minimum of information: name, email and password.

As soon as you sign up you get the ability to share that info with your network.

Now, no doubt a large part of the intent here from Coursera is to increase enrollment. But it was also good to see not only an acknowledgement that a learning network was going to be an important piece in ensuring that you, the student, will be successful, but an actual prompt to begin developing your own network so that;

You will be able to discuss and work on material together.

This is where having an already established network of people begins to (hopefully) pay off for students. I was able to send a tweet, post on FB and post on G+ that I was not only taking the course, but also looking for others to come along and learn with me (and help me learn as well).

A few minutes later, I got an email welcoming me into the course.

Dear Clint Lalonde,
Thank you for signing up for Networked Life!
We look forward to seeing you in class, and we’ll notify you again when the class is about to start. Stay tuned!
Prof. Michael Kearns

For this interested in the PKM mechanics of how I am going to organize the info during this course, step one was creating a label in Gmail that automatically filters Coursera email and adds a colour code to those emails so I notice them in my already cluttered inbox. I have also created a Twitter list and any other students who I come across on Twitter that are also enrolled in this course will be added to this list. My other plan is to blog as much as I can about not only the mechanics of the course, but about the contents as well. So, if I can stick to it for 10 weeks, expect a few blog posts about networks in the coming weeks.

The Honour Code

I read over the honour code (thanks for keeping it short and sweet Coursera), which seems fine and fair, although this little bit in section 3 (my emphasis) does make me pause for a second:

I will not make solutions to homework, quizzes or exams available to anyone else. This includes both solutions written by me, as well as any official solutions provided by the course staff.

Quizzes and exams – okay, fair enough. But my own homework? Heck, getting feedback on my homework from THE WORLD is something that I want to happen. I want to be able to post my homework online and have others take a look at, respond to, critique, agree/disagree with and otherwise hack at ‘er. I want to share my homework, not for the benefit of someone else (although that may happen) but for the benefit of myself and my learning.

Mind you, if most of the homework I get is more cut and dry answer-10-multiple-choice-questions-that-will-then-be-graded-by-a-machine (which I suspect will be the case), then my homework may be more like a quiz than some kind of long form piece of writing that might be more conducive to open discussion among peers. We’ll see.

The ToS and Privacy Policy

On to the Terms of Service, which includes this line:

Neither the User Content (as defined below) on these Sites, nor any links to other websites, are screened, moderated, approved, reviewed or endorsed by Coursera or its participating institutions.

I read this as a) fair warning that the forums could be a free range for all kinds of opinions, some good and some bad and b) there will probably be little instructor presence in the interactive bits of the course (ie forums), which I’d expect when there are thousands of people in the course contributing.

There is also this bit in the terms of service where I grant Coursera the right to use whatever content I post in the course:

With respect to User Content you submit or otherwise make available in connection with your use of the Site, and subject to the Privacy Policy, you grant Coursera and the Participating Institutions a fully transferable, worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free and non-exclusive license to use, distribute, sublicense, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such User Content.

Well, at least it doesn’t say “sell”. But I did pop down to take a look at the Privacy Policy and found this bit that makes me wonder exactly what a “business partner” is:

We may share your Personally Identifiable Information with business partners of Coursera to receive communications from such parties that you have opted in to.

Not sure who that might be or what that might mean. Free may have a bit of a price.

Finally, this bit in the Terms makes it clear that Coursera MOOC’s are an ongoing experiment, and we, the students, are the data providing subjects:

Records of your participation in Online Courses may be used for researching online education. In the interests of this research, you may be exposed to slight variations in the course materials that will not substantially alter your learning experience. All research findings will be reported at the aggregate level and will not expose your personal identity.

Hopefully, there is some research work going on behind the scenes and that work gets published so that we all benefit from understanding how (and if) this model works, and how it can be refined and improved.

Okay, on to learning new stuff!