Gas station without pumps

2012 July 22

Coursera Course Catalog

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 17:12
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Because of the news about all sorts of prestigious colleges joining Coursera, I decided to look over Coursera’s  Course Catalog.  They now have 111 courses, which sounds like a lot, until you realize that a medium-size institution like UCSC offers about 1000 undergrad courses every quarter.

I’m having trouble getting an exact count, as there does not seem to be an easily accessible report of total numbers of distinct courses offered—I can get some information about the number of different sections of undergrad (that is, distinct classroom assignments) at around 1300 from the course schedule, and the number of undergrad courses taught in a year by tenure-track faculty as about 1000 a year, but the first has a lot of duplication and the second excludes the huge number of courses taught by lecturers or instructors who are not tenure-track.  Also, I only counted undergrad courses, but 37% of the course tenure-track faculty teach are grad courses.

In any case, it is clear that Coursera is offering only a tiny fraction of what their member universities offer.  A lot of the courses look like they were chosen more as advertisements than as substance—picking some of the most popular courses as a “look how great we are” come-on to get people to attend the university.  Nothing wrong with that, and probably the only way the universities can justify the enormous expense of a MOOC (massive open online course), given that they bring in no direct revenue to cover their expenses.  [I think MOOC actually stands for massively over-hyped online course.]

A lot of the courses that are offered are the “book learning” courses that require no lab facilities, no face-to-face discussions, and no close mentoring.  They are the easiest courses to offer, but the ones least likely to save universities much by switching to an online format (those sorts of lecture classes are already relatively cheap per student).

One exception is computer science classes, since the specialized equipment needed for CS courses is now so cheap that just about anyone who can access on-line courses has the necessary equipment already, and much of the software needed for CS courses is available free (often open-source).  If grading the courses is reduced to low-quality automatic checking of programs (a travesty that has already happened in some brick-and-mortar CS courses), then there is nothing stopping the scaling of fairly advanced courses to MOOCs.

Coursera, Udacity, and other MOOC providers are riding a wave of venture capital, but I’ve yet to hear a coherent business plan from any of them.  At some point the capital will run out, and unless some way of paying the developers and maintainers is found (Coursera has 20 people on their “team page”), the companies will collapse.

I suggest that people who want to participate in one of the MOOCs do so in the next year, because it is not clear whether the idea will find a way to become self-sustaining or not.  Right now, the courses are free because they are heavily subsidized.  That subsidy is unlike to last long.


  1. For Nick Parlante’s Computer Science 101, students didn’t need any software beyond their web browser. Nick integrated into the platform features he developed from his CodingBat website to provide a web-based coding environment alongside of the course material. It was really quite cool; students coded in a subset of the javascript language that Nick (and his TA’s I presume) implemented for the course. They provided skeleton code for students to modify/implement and evaluated/checked the output to determine correctness. This was done both for assignments and amidst the lecture notes allowing students to try/practice as the material was presented — also cool.

    The thing that really surprised me was how short the course was. I was definitely caught of guard when I logged in for the weekly lesson and saw something to the effect of “Congratulations on completing the course”. It only lasted 6 weeks and seemed light on content. After viewing the new set of lectures posted each week, I was able to sit down and complete all exercises in the corresponding assignment in anywhere from 10 minutes (on the assignments only involving multiple choice) to 20 minutes. Granted, I was quite familiar with the course material but we’re talking about a MAX of 2 hours of time I spent on homework for the entire course. I expected much more. Most assignments were in the form of Media Computation and required students to do things like determine average pixel values, perform some thresholding, and do various pixel-level transformations. There was not a lot of critical thinking — it mostly just involved repeated the steps in the lecture and making sure you evaluated the appropriate RGB values of the pixels to apply the given/defined transformations. Assignments were never more involved than implementing a few lines (usually 3-6) within the provided function. This may have been a limitation of the coding environment as they invoke the student-implemented function on the server side to evaluate/grade against test cases or a known output (automated grading, as you mentioned). Perhaps this also lead the course authors to the creation of rather formulaic assignments. From my estimation, there was not a lot of critical thinking required and critical thinking was exactly what I was expecting to be the focus in an intro course for CS.

    So in addition to the slim selection of courses that you note, the content of those courses may also be slimmer than you would expect too! With that said, I am very much looking forward to seeing how Sedgewick’s Algorithms I and II courses turn out in the coming fall!

    Comment by Nathan — 2012 July 22 @ 21:34 | Reply

  2. […] not the only professor cynical about the mad rush to massive open on-line courses.  In A Sociological Eye on Education | Midsummer whimsy: How to write recommendations for 847 […]

    Pingback by MOOC humor « Gas station without pumps — 2012 July 26 @ 16:36 | Reply

  3. I don’t know what their plans are, but I would teach the classes for free and sell the credentials. You first concentrate on developing an effective teaching system: the technology, the course design (evolve away from mere filming of the brick-and-morter lectures), meta technology (ex: peer-to-peer communication among students), figure out what works best for what type of course (say, CS vs. chem lab vs. Chinese language), etc. The students get free teaching, and you get guinea pigs for the experiments you need to conduct to evolve a working system.

    Once you prove successful at teaching some things, you figure out how to assess what is taught in a rigorous-enough way to be able to offer meaningful credentials. You want your institutional name on a credential to have market value, so you have to work out both a way to teach successfully and a way to prove the learning. If you can convince employers of the value of credentials issued by your institution, you can convince students to pay for those credentials.

    You can then have a “freemium” model, where you can take classes for free as long as your participation doesn’t have any marginal cost (you only use the services of machines and fellow students), and you pay to interact with staff and get a credential.

    Comment by Glen — 2012 July 31 @ 04:35 | Reply

  4. […] Coursera Course Catalog « Gas station without pumps. Share this:EmailDiggRedditFacebookPrintStumbleUponTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

    Pingback by What makes for a course that works as a MOOC? « Computing Education Blog — 2012 August 1 @ 00:34 | Reply

  5. […] Because of the news about all sorts of prestigious colleges joining Coursera, I decided to look over Coursera’s  Course Catalog.  They now have 111 courses, which sounds like a lot, until you…  […]

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  6. […] supporting informal learning, as Stephen shares here.  Is MOOC the solution to future learning?  Here is another interesting post asking if the x MOOCs are sustainable.  I don’t have the crystal […]

    Pingback by What are you interested in exploring in a MOOC? Are you learning? | Learner Weblog — 2012 August 1 @ 17:01 | Reply

  7. I would draw to your attention ALISON, ( a company which has existed successively in the free course business for a number of years. Their cataloge of courses is comprehensive, and they have over a million students enrolled.

    Comment by Laurence Cuffe (@CuffeL) — 2012 August 2 @ 01:42 | Reply

    • I quote from their web page:

      ALISON can offer free learning because:

      • Advertising is displayed throughout the website. When a learner clicks on an advertisement, ALISON earns revenue. That revenue is then shared with content publishers and used to invest in new ‘free to the learner’ offerings. Click here to review our advertising policy.
      • Nominal fees are charged for the use of ALISON Manager, the service which allows for the creation and monitoring of learner groups.
      • Much of our available learning is sponsored by partner organisations who wish to see learning on a particular subject freely available. Other content is provided by owners and developers of learning content who provide it at no charge and are seeking no monetary return. Others publishers earn a split on the revenue we generate through the display of their content.

      I know of other sponsored courses, of course, like the OpenHelix training for the UCSC Genome Browser and for PDB, but ALISON seems to be operating on a larger scale.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 August 2 @ 08:53 | Reply

  8. Dear All
    ONLINE Education is a technology, like transportation technology.
    Everything transports you from one place to another.
    Question is
    what is quality of service
    what is the cost.

    1.- If a technology is used by millions cost per user is almost nill
    2.- Quality depends on who is providing it, do they have the knowhow of the quality product?

    ONLINE EDUCATION is good and productive if it is used by millions, that means coıurses should be shared by whole world, only the students of USA is not enough.
    Look up MITx + Harvardx consortium. Their target is 1 billion. Then cost per person will be nill .

    ONLINE Education also should be provided by the best schools of the world as the classical education. Classical education given by top schools are expensive, but online education given by top schools are at a small cost .

    So 2 conditions :
    Top schools of the world
    Million students

    MITx + Harvardx satisfy these conditions. Therefore they have good strategy and a sustainable initiative. Now UC Berkeley joined them too.
    I expect Stanford, Yale, Princeton join them soon .

    It is a multibillion business . If they charge only $10-20 per course annual income would be $ 10-20 billion a year .

    BE CAREFUL just a $ 10 fee makes consortijum a multibillion $ business.
    Condition is that attendents must be by millions and billions .

    But question is ” can every student make MIT and Harvard, are they smart enough comprehending courses ? ” Surely NO .

    Therefore we need another consorsium, building up from less competitice schools of the world , such as Uni of Illinois, Uni of Edinborogh, PennState, Uni of Michigan and the likes .

    Here comes Coursera.
    Coursera does not have a business plan yet .

    Let Coursera organize a less competitive schools consortium, but still very good ones.

    Make selection such that number of students will be millions internationally.
    Then charge only $ 10 – 20 per course.

    If Coursera can register 1-10 million students per year annual income would be
    $ 10-200 million . per year. Please think BIG, think internationally.

    Selection of universities is very very important. Do not take any bad ones. Build up a brand .Just say you are behind MITx and Harvardx consortium for ones having less SAT .

    No business plan is very bad.
    How even good universities are going after Coursera without any business plan I freally do not understand .
    Follow the strategy of MITx . Ask them to use their internet technology and online learning knowhow. I am sure they are willing to help you . Even use their platform like Harvardx.

    This model of x universities are more in demand than MITx. Not everyone can go to MIT or Harvard . I am sure the followers of Coursera will be much more than MITx+ Harvardx .

    I hope Daphne reads these lines . I am from Stanford too .

    Comment by mgozaydin — 2012 August 2 @ 05:49 | Reply

  9. I agree Coursera cannot be successful.
    They do not have a business plan yet .
    MITx and Harvardx targeted top students inn the world.
    But there are also a second top always.
    So let Course gtarget that second top people of the world.
    Definitely become international
    Select the second top universities of the world
    Attract millions students from the world
    Charge only $ 10 per course.
    Imagine if you have 1 million students in first year you will collect $ 10 million, second year 10 million students then you collect $ $ 100 million, more than enough to finance whole project and grow to 1 billion like MITx .
    The number of second top people of the world is greater than first top people of the world .

    Comment by Muvaffak GOZAYDIN — 2012 August 4 @ 05:15 | Reply

  10. Agree. Coursera cannot be successful

    Comment by mgozaydin — 2012 August 4 @ 05:17 | Reply

    • I’m not convinced that Coursera “cannot be successful”. I do think that the MOOC bubble will collapse in a few years and only a few providers will be left (perhaps along the lines of the ALISON model, with a mix of grant money, industry-sponsored “training” programs, and outright ads).

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 August 4 @ 12:38 | Reply

  11. I don’t see the big distinction you see between EdX and Coursera in terms of quality. Coursera has attempted a for-profit business model (though with no clear idea where the profits will come from) and has been more inclusive of institutions, in order to build their catalog of courses more quickly. Neither comes anywhere close to what even a small college offers.

    Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 August 4 @ 12:41 | Reply

  12. I would like to quote the original author of this post in my research but am unable to find any way to contact them on this blog. Please email me at
    Many thanks in advance. Ruari

    Comment by Ruari Elkington — 2012 August 5 @ 19:01 | Reply

    • The proper way to quote a blog is by title and URL. Like many blog writers, I use a nom de plume for my blog (though half the readers probably know who I am, since I directed them to the blog using my real name). For an explanation of the reasons for this partial anonymity see Privacy of bloggers

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 August 5 @ 20:12 | Reply

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