Why Coursera and Udacity are the worst things that ever happened to MOOCs.

6 09 2013

Alone in my office yesterday afternoon, avoiding work on a book proposal, I read a couple of really interesting, seemingly-unrelated articles that actually go great together. The first was an old Chronicle piece that I found via Sara Goldrick-Rab’s blog which argues that the destruction of shared governance is a key reason that college costs so much. When faculty have no say in things, it argues, administrators spend money on more administrators rather than on education.

I’d actually take that one step further. When faculty have no say in things, administrators also spend money on complete and utterly hopeless boondoggles. Perhaps it’s a new building that the university doesn’t need, or an expensive climbing wall for the gym or perhaps it’s an online program that only attracts one paying student from outside the system.

Rather than being chastened, the same UC administrators who brought the State of California that failed online education program have indirectly brought upon the debacle described in the link my friend Historiann sent me yesterday. This is the great Jon Wiener in The Nation, describing the history MOOC he took that originated at UC Santa Cruz:

To find out how Coursera works, I recently signed up for a course in my own field, history. The course was on the Holocaust and taught by UC Santa Cruz professors Peter Kenez and Murray Baumgarten. The lecture topics and reading assignments were outstanding, but it turns out that this course, like other Coursera offerings, is nothing like the “world-class education” promised in the company’s mission statement. Coursera co-CEO Koller says they can do better than “the default form of college classes—a professor standing in front of her students, lecturing for an hour.” But the lectures on the Holocaust were nothing more than video of the lecturers standing in front of a class and lecturing for an hour. There was no attempt to intercut the lecturing with visual material, film clips, illustrations, interviews or anything else, and the audio quality was often pretty bad. To young eyes familiar with action movies, fast-paced TV shows and video games, this looks practically Paleolithic. And although the UC Santa Cruz name and seal appeared on every page of the course website, there was no way for Coursera students to ask questions of the two Santa Cruz professors. Instead, students were encouraged to ask each other, in the online “forums.” Then the students voted on the best answer. If you don’t think that’s a good way to learn, you don’t belong in a Coursera course.

It actually gets worse. Here’s the part that just left me stunned:

The video was shot not by Coursera but by UC Santa Cruz, and not for Coursera but rather two years earlier, before Coursera was created, when the course was offered on campus. “The film already existed,” Kenez said, “so we didn’t have to do anything. They hired our TA to put together the material at their website; we had nothing to do with that.” He said he had never looked at the Coursera video. As for the forums, the writing assignments, the student questions and student problems, “I have nothing to do with any of the online activity,” Kenez told me. “I haven’t even checked in. I have nothing to do with the evaluations.”

I’d argue that faculty input is not just essential in creating a decent MOOC, it’s also essential for deciding whether to MOOC or not to MOOC in the first place. After all, we’re the ones who teach every day. We’re the experts, and if you try create an educational product with no little or input from actual educators you’ll probably end up destroying the university’s brand rather than extending it.

Contrary to the seemingly popular assumption in the edtech community that faculty are against virtually everything, you’ll find plenty of takers among highly qualified professors at elite institutions and elsewhere. I sometimes question Cathy Davidson’s judgement on this blog, but she’s absolutely right when she argues that:

Whether online or face-to-face, most courses are only as good as what you put into them. Sitting in an intimate seminar classroom, with the best teacher in the world, you still only learn if you participate. The hyperbole and the “either-or” generalizations tend to be unrealistic about what online education can offer and equally unrealistic about what traditional onsite education can offer. Neither is all good, neither is all bad and neither is a panacea. Nor is either all one thing. It’s not a binary. There is tremendous variety, online and onsite.

The more faculty participation you get in the creation and the administration of any course (MOOC or otherwise), the better the result will be and, perhaps more importantly, the less MOOCish it will be too. My new theory is this: the best MOOCs are the ones with the most faculty input throughout their lifespans, and the ones with the most faculty input are the ones that administrators and private MOOC providers have the least control over.

The many ways in which administrators can destroy a MOOC should be obvious, penny-pinching being the most obvious one of all. Coursera and Udacity are the worst things that ever happened to MOOCs because their business models depend upon teaming up with ambitious administrators to shove a shoddy product (if not with respect to production values, then certainly with respect to educational values) down the throats of both students and faculty alike. I look forward to the inevitable, fast-approaching, post-xMOOC world because it will almost certainly be a period of real pedagogical innovation conducted by people who are more interested in actual education than they are in becoming famous or just making a quick buck.

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75 responses

6 09 2013
Nat Nelson

Interesting. I am currently doing the Holocaust mooc and despite the subject fascinating, I have found it difficult to follow without slides. Especially when they keep referring to notes and images they have on the board. Despite this I still love coursers but equally I will un-enroll if a course isn’t engaging me.

7 09 2013

Of course it’s also a mistake to take one’s own experience (as, say, an exceptionally bright, emotionally mature, multiply privileged intellectually curious retired academic who already knows how to learn and already has a well-developed knowledge base on which to build, etc.) as evidence for the value of MOOCs as college courses for a general student population. We could call this “generalizing from a single subject position.” This sort of false universalization is a longstanding white-western-male-bourgeois habit that has done and continues to do a great deal of damage.

I thought Wiener’s MOOC article was rather more thoughtful than most. It doesn’t confuse MOOCs with online education generally, and it doesn’t condemn the whole technology, only certain deployments of that technology.

I don’t know of anyone who opposes MOOCs per se as a new vehicle for transmitting knowledge. What a lot of us do oppose, quite specifically, is the idea that MOOCs can adequately substitute for F2F education of the non-elite students who are most likely to have MOOCs foisted on them. Our objections are grounded not in the technology itself, but in a fully justified skepticism about the social and political context in which it will be used. We very much doubt that Daphne Koller, Andrew Ng, or Bill Gates have the slightest inkling of how their beliefs are distorted by their privilege. We resist a possible future we can see all too clearly: genuine education for the elite and sh*tty MOOCs for the masses.

7 09 2013

Have you actually looked at Udacity? Your title groups “Coursera and Udacity” together, but everything you write about is specific to Coursera. The Udacity model and courses are very different, and nothing you actually say here is true about Udacity.

7 09 2013
Jonathan Rees


They are exactly the same in implementation. Look at San Jose State. Lack of faculty input is the root of the problem. Everything else is just window dressing.

7 09 2013

That’s not true. The Udacity/San Jose State courses were produced through a close collaboration between a production and pedagogy team at Udacity working with SJSU faculty who completely controlled the curriculum for the courses, with support and involvement from their administration.

The main complaints I see in your article are:

1. Most university administrators are primarily motivated to grow the university administration, and waste a lot of money and corrupt the values of the university as a result. – Sadly, I totally agree (but irrelevant to the other points you are making). Fortunately, there are some university administrators that believe in the mission of improving education and making it accessible to more people, and looking at the opportunities for technology to enhance that missions seems like a smart thing to do, especially if they are carefully evaluating the results (as seems clear is happening with the Udacity/SJSU courses by deciding to suspend and improve them based on an analysis of student outcomes).

2. The Coursera courses are produced by the university partners, some of whom have no idea how to produce a decent on-line course. This is obviously true, but completely different from the Udacity model (including the Udacity/SJSU courses).

3. The teaching quality of the Coursera courses you’ve seen is very low, and they are mostly just videos of instructors standing in front of classes. This is true for some, and others of them are outstanding courses with great teachers and better production. If you take a few minutes to look at any of the Udacity courses, you’ll see that none of them are videos of instructors standing in front of classes.

7 09 2013
Jonathan Rees

1. Michael Sandel. 2. Why are the math courses in the hands of lecturers then? 3. Georgia Tech.

7 09 2013

1. That was about an arrangement with edX, and unrelated to the Udacity/SJSU courses.
2. I don’t understand the question – take 2 minutes to click on a link https://www.udacity.com/course/ps001 and watch a few minutes of a course before continuing to disparage it.
3. ? There haven’t been any Udacity/Georgia Tech courses released yet.

7 09 2013
Jonathan Rees

1. I know. I’m talking about the tendencies of the SJSU administration. 2. I will when I have more than my phone for internet. Nevertheless “my talking heads are better than yours” is hardly a compelling argument for an entire medium. As Jon Wiener suggests, replacing in class lectures with taped one is hardly a step forward. 3. Half the Georgia Tech CS Department was against the program. They did it anyways. If I remember right, no faculty outside that department even knew.

None of this is going to do any good for shared governance anywhere.

7 09 2013

“[T]here are some university administrators that believe in the mission of improving education and making it accessible to more people, and looking at the opportunities for technology to enhance that missions seems like a smart thing to do, especially if they are carefully evaluating the results (as seems clear is happening with the Udacity/SJSU courses by deciding to suspend and improve them based on an analysis of student outcomes).”

Sure, there are such administrators. But what did their benevolence have to do with San Jose State? Do you really think that deal was based on a careful consideration of the pedagogical needs of SJSU students, as opposed to a backroom deal? Everyone with a lick of sense knows that MOOCs are nowhere near ready for prime time, especially for poorly-prepared, at-risk freshmen, but Udacity needs to make a little money to impress its investors and California politicians want to cut spending on the poor, so the deal went down anyway, with nary a thought to the damage likely to be suffered by students-cum-guinea-pigs. It stinks.

7 09 2013

To a point you are right – the meetings I know of were in a room in the back of a rather decrepit building (in my view, a positive sign about SJSU’s priorities that this was the best room President Mo had access to), and involved President, Provost, and other admins from SJSU, on-line learning experts, faculty and deans from several departments, and representatives from Udacity. There was also an open meeting with all of the faculty of all of the departments involved with the Provost and representatives from Udacity. This doesn’t mean the faculty unanimously supported everything that was done, but if universities only did things when the faculty unanimously supported them, we would still be arguing about whether or not to allow colored chalk.

7 09 2013

Evans1629, the meetings that actually counted–the meetings between Udacity and the politicians–had already been held well beforehand. As it was put on the Udacity website, “The offices of Governor Brown and CSU Chancellor White have also been critically important to this partnership for their leadership and expediency.”

Here the words “critically important” and “leadership and expediency” means “already a done deal.”

7 09 2013

“2. I will when I have more than my phone for internet. Nevertheless “my talking heads are better than yours” is hardly a compelling argument for an entire medium. As Jon Weiner suggests, replacing in class lectures with taped one is hardly a step forward. ” They aren’t talking heads.

For someone who claims to be a “Professor of History”, I’m really surprised you don’t think its actually necessary to look at things before you draw conclusions about them.

7 09 2013
Jonathan Rees

That’s because your arguing about window decorations while the house is burning down.

7 09 2013

Sadly, this discussion is becoming unproductive, since you’re talking about houses burning down when you don’t even know which neighborhood you are in.

7 09 2013

My neighborhood might be burning down, but at least I’m enjoying the metaphors.

7 09 2013
Cooking with Clio

Maybe those battles need to be fought continuously, they are not just over seventy years ago, move on…I am afraid labor issues do not work that way, hey we won or we lost now we just move to another issue, they require constant vigilance, sigh. I was going to comment on the class that the MOOC was made from as I know the faculty members and the course well, but I think I shall bow out of this one!

8 09 2013

Totally non academic article.

It’s IMHO below any standard of academic pedagogy and absolutely not substantiated with proper academic research.

It’s like having one meal at one restaurant and then calling the whole food industry names.

Shame on you.

8 09 2013

Category mistake. It’s a blog post, not a scholarly article. It’s like reading a Facebook comment and then b*tching that it’s not War and Peace.

Also, please note that Udacity’s MOOCs were themselves “absolutely not substantiated with proper academic research,” yet SJSU adopted them anyway. That’s a far greater sin than any Jonathan may have committed. You’re holding the little guy to a higher standard than the rich and powerful. Typical slave mentality.

8 09 2013
Jonathan Rees

Thank you, Mazel.

I’ll add though that I don’t think I haven’t comitted any sin. I’ve described the MOOC providers’ unilateralist, administration-first M.O. Sometimes the result of this tactic is OK, oftentimes it’s a debacle. The result is the worst thing that ever happened to MOOCs because if the MOOC providers recruited faculty first and let them put pedagogy first they’d ALWAYS be better.

Sometimes “progress” isn’t progress. Why is that so hard for some people to understand?

8 09 2013

“Sometimes ‘progress’ isn’t progress. Why is that so hard for some people to understand?”

Good question. For all its faults, conservatism did have the virtue of prompting liberals to think more critically about progress. But ever since conservatism was bitten in the neck by the Chamber of Commerce and turned into the zombie that now lurches around eating people’s brains, it’s been tough times.

8 09 2013

Jonathan – I’m afraid you have committed some (at least academic) sins. I’m not a trained historian, but I would imagine it is part of scholarship in history to actually look for readily available primary sources before making strong statements about things, and especially after you are questioned about the truth of your statements, to go look at the source before repeating them and adding increasingly disparaging remarks about people and institutions.

I’ve already pointed you to some sources that directly contradict what you said in your post, but you seem to be unwilling to look at them. As for the sweeping statements here, I can say very confidently and with a lot of credibility that it is false. I was the first professor recruited to teach for Udacity, and was given complete control of the pedagogy of my courses (with helpful advice and collaboration from the Udacity team). No administrators were involved at all, or even knew about it, until it got to the point where I needed to request leave time to have enough time to do it, and then they generously and supportively granted it but had not other involvement in it. (If you are still skeptical and need better-sourced evidence to support this, you can start with http://blog.udacity.com/2013/02/cs101-one-year-later.html).

As for the SJSU project, I am less knowledgable about all the details of that but familiar with enough of them to know that faculty were heavily involved in all aspects. As for the “substantiated with proper academic research” issue, part of the point of the SJSU pilot was to *do* some of that research. That’s why there is an NSF-funded study analyzing data from the pilot courses, and why SJSU/Udacity decided to suspend the fall offerings based on preliminary analysis of those results indicating that re-offering those courses in a similar way would not be the best thing to do for students, and instead its necessary to analyze what happened more and have time to develop new ideas to figure out things that will work better.

8 09 2013
Jonathan Rees

Wow Dave,

This is getting quite amazing. First you question my ethics, yet I give you examples from California and Georgia. In reply, you tell us all, “This didn’t happen to me when I designed my MOOC.” Don’t you think the fact that you’re a superprofessor is kind of important to how we evaluate your trustworthiness as a source of information?

Then I click through on the name on your comments and find out that you teach at the University of Virginia, ground zero for administration-inspired MOOCs on demand. Enjoy going through academic life with blinders on, I bet it makes tolerating the inequality and exploitation a whole lot easier.

8 09 2013
Jonathan Rees

PS That video link is nothing but a talking head with a dog. I’d rather watch a talking head with a dog than a talking head in a studio, but that doesn’t compensate for the fact that it’s still a talking head.

8 09 2013

> Jonathan Rees (12:28:50) :
> PS That video link is nothing but a talking head with a dog. I’d rather watch > a talking head with a dog than a talking head in a studio, but that doesn’t
> compensate for the fact that it’s still a talking head.

I think you took my “two minutes” a bit too literally, and spent the first 1:45 of it opening your web browser. If you were willing to go for another 9 seconds, in addition to the three-talking heads conversation, dog, scene with running in a stairwell, snake, 2 people conversing, car driving, etc. you should have noticed in the first 2:00, you would also have seen a video whiteboard, transparent hand, interactive quiz, and links to student discussions.

I’m not claiming Udacity has figured out some miraculous way to make an on-line experience as good as a live classroom (or that this class is a particularly good example – I just randomly picked one of the SJSU courses since that’s what you were talking about and I haven’t otherwise been involved or taken any of them), but its pointless and shameful for you to keep critiquing things without bothering to actually look at them seriously.

8 09 2013
Nan Zingrone

I have taken four Coursera courses (rather lurked in them) and I found them to be very well put together, and very well coordinated in terms of materials, tests, discussions and short lectures. I’m now lurking in a couple more, and planning on taking through to completion University of Edinburgh digital learning course that starts in November. The point should not be that Coursera is the worst thing that ever happened to MOOCs. Not only is that one of those generalization that has very little validity and is useless to someone think about the meaning of MOOCs–useless in the extreme in my opinion, but it blames the delivery system for the failings of the individual universities to take full advantage of the opportunities that the Coursera system provides. I talk about my experience with the first four courses I lurked in (saw all the videos, read some of the readings, dipped in and out of the discussion forums, looked over but didn’t do the assignments) in a blog I wrote some months back. It’s here: http://nanzingrone.wordpress.com/2013/05/23/what-makes-a-great-online-course/

8 09 2013

Yes, Nan, there are MOOCs that are “very well put together” and that you and others have enjoyed. But guess what? There are also books that are very well put together, and that millions of people have enjoyed and learned from. Books have been a boon to education, in the broad sense of “lots of people learning stuff,” and perhaps MOOCs will be too. But this doesn’t mean that reading a book or taking a MOOC will be an adequate substitute for taking a college course. College courses didn’t disappear when books began to be mass-produced, for some very good reasons that most likely will apply to MOOCs.

8 09 2013
Nan Zingrone

Well in the courses I lurked in the quality was equal to anything I took as an undergraduate or graduate student (I have a PhD and have taught so I think I have a pretty good basis for comparison), so again it depends on the course: so far the quality has been top notch.

8 09 2013

I find this very interesting. In the courses you’ve taken in college, did you exchange ideas with your professors? Did you get detailed feedback on your writing? Maybe our differences here are rooted in the differences between psychology and English. I typically work closely with my students to develop their insights. By the latter I mean things like helping each student have ideas in the first place (a skill in its own right), and then to see the unstated theoretical assumptions underlying those ideas, and then to find sources relevant to those ideas, and then to situate those ideas in the current state of (as well as the history of) literary criticism and theory, and then to review drafts of their papers. I don’t see how these could possibly be done in a MOOC, and were I not doing them I feel I’d be severely shortchanging my students.

8 09 2013
Nan Zingrone

As my blog says I lurked in these classes, and read some of the discussions and the responses. I also attended a couple of real time Google+ meet-ups with the faculty and the students. I didn’t complete the courses myself; I start a course on digital learning on Coursera on November 4th that I expect to finish. The courses I lurked in have several assistants helping the professor handle the email and discussion post load and assessments are peer-reviewed with spot checks by the faculty and the course assistants. I’ll know more about how well they do in the mentoring/tutoring aspect of face to face education when I get into the nitty-gritty of working towards a course certificate in the upcoming course.

I have to say though, I have taught adult education courses of a high level online myself and have observed online graduate courses (not Coursera) as a faculty administrator at the online grad school I worked at until recently in which the type of communication you’re describing has occurred, both in writing, in Skype conversations, in emails, in other types of one on one interactions that augmented the online course materials. If an online course is well-done — and that’s what a Coursera course is in essence, an online course writ large — it can be better than a face to face class because the the folks who would otherwise not speak, not take the time to interact with the faculty member (initiate interaction) are forced to do to be more involved with the faculty member. Also faculty members have an easier time of keeping track whose falling behind or floundering if the course is large (something I always thought was pretty hard to do if you were teaching something at the college level that wasn’t a seminar with a limited number of students). How that more personal tutoring/mentoring will work in an online course writ-large like a Coursera course, I don’t know that first hand as yet.

My point was that the materials, the lecture, and the discussions are of equal quality in my experience, and from what I’ve seen from the real-time discussions, the level of interaction there is also very high, at least the ones I’ve lurked in. Not for every single person in the class, of course, because a significant amount of people are like I have been, just lurking, not engaging to any significant extent.

8 09 2013

> Then I click through on the name on your comments and find out that you > teach at the University of Virginia, ground zero for administration-inspired
> MOOCs on demand. Enjoy going through academic life with blinders on, I
> bet it makes tolerating the inequality and exploitation a whole lot easier.

Now that you are criticizing my University, I’m starting to get offended. UVa is a nearly 200 year old institution, that shouldn’t be judged solely based on the actions of a few nutty BoV members and donors last year. Our University was the first secular institution of higher learning on this continent, and our founder was a pioneer in public education, proposing a state-wide system of public education from grade school through university in 1817.

I am not blind to many of the flaws of the current academic system, but not blind to its charms and potential for improvement either. If you do feel like you are being exploited as a faculty member, I would encourage you to find another occupation. There are millions of under-employed history PhDs that would love to have your job.

8 09 2013
Nan Zingrone

I’m with Dave, that’s a terrible way to characterize UVA. I had a research assistant professorship at UVA from 03 to 10, and I have to tell you that’s a very serious place with some incredible Profs, many of whom are 100% behind the blended model (where they lecture in class, but their materials and tests are online), the conventional online model (smaller online courses offered for credit), and now the Mooc model. These are serious people who are doing their best to bring an exceedingly high level of expertise not only to their own students but to the wider world. At Duke (I’m a Duke alum and now live in the Triangle area), there are a number of Profs in the Coursera group like Dan Airely who is a behavioral economist and exceedingly top notch; his face to face students use the materials and assignments in his MOOC courses to supplement their work in his conventional classroom. So two birds with one technological stone.

There are a lot of very smart people at UVA and elsewhere who are presenting courses through Coursera that are of very high quality. If you haven’t actually spent time in at least one of these courses from start to finish, Jonathan, I suggest you do that. And I certainly don’t see why you need to bash the folks who want to carry on the discussion with you.

9 09 2013

Oh my, Jonathon, when you tweeted that comments were getting interesting, you weren’t just a whistling Dixie (as we say down south where the overseers know how to crack a Blacksnake whip).

As far as the rest, not only have been following More or Less Bunk since before MOOCs, I’ve also taken, completed, followed, lurked, mentored in and dropped out of a comprehensive selection of MOOC models since 2010, starting with those crazy, idealistic Canadians before Stanford AI and the birth of the xMOOC). I don’t always agree with Jonathon (have considered suggesting he change his name to Jeremiah) but always respect his opinion because he does his homework, keeps current with e-learning tech specialists, reads all sides and opinions – no cherry picking – and bases his opinion on in depth (even obsessive) research that includes taking and completing an xMOOC.

Few (if any) higher ed MOOC critics take the pains to examine the subject so thoroughly. I wish they would and, pointing to Jonathon as a model, tell the most egregiously sloppy researcher so.

Mind you, I wish he would blog more history because he does that well too. My only disappointment was discovering that he does not look like the Henry Ford in the MoLB banner. Oh well, at least he doesn’t look like his twitter avatar either.

9 09 2013
Jonathan Rees

Thank you Vanessa,

The refrigeration history blogging should begin soon, although I don’t think all of it will be here. I’ve been thinking about changing my Twitter avatar to the kid eating the sandwich on the cover of the book, but then I’d miss my Korean troll.

17 09 2013

i’m a brazilian student and honestly i got to say, you’re wrong.
They are both the top mooc providers i found, you should take more courses until you have enough data to say something.
I think it’s a honor to can take so many courses for free and just donate a small amount of money so they can still survive.
I’m not rich. I’m not a genious. My english is pretty bad as you can see and yet i can still understand.
You are saying that but you are not thinking in the different type of life in other countrys and etc… enough said i wish you the best cya

27 09 2013

Why Coursera and Udacity are the worst things that ever happened to MOOCs. | More or Less Bunk, interesante. Me encanta vuestra web.

11 11 2013
Open learning revolution in leadership crisis : Free Culture and Books

[…] Jonathan Rees has written very strong words against two best-known private providers of MOOCs: […]

3 12 2013
Complete list of Coursera courses using R ranked by “popularity” –

[…] 100+ institutional partners offering 500+ courses to over 5 million students worldwide. So despite being criticized by some, it is becoming more and more clear that they are here to […]

9 12 2013

“Coursera and Udacity are the worst things that ever happened to MOOCs because their business models depend upon teaming up with ambitious administrators to shove a shoddy product (if not with respect to production values, then certainly with respect to educational values) down the throats of both students and faculty alike. ”

Currently a student of Udacity’s CS101 course, Intro to Computer Science.

If by “shoddy product” you mean a course which has taken me from someone who’s read a couple of learn-how-to-program books but could barely remember how to write the simplest of programs two weeks later to someone who was able to write a very effective pig latin translator halfway through the course, and can now write effective programs that do real work with only a little bit more instruction and experience beyond Udacity, then yeah, you’re right.

My computer science student friends are quite impressed in how quickly my proficiency in programming is developing. Sure, they can tell me more about the theories and algorithms behind programming, but I don’t think Udacity ever said taking their courses is going to provide you with a Bachelors in Computer Science, either.

Overall, I feel highly satisfied with this “shoddy product.” In my satisfaction, I will continue to take Udacity’s courses to expand my horizons (which is a goal of education, is it not?). I highly recommend Udacity’s CS101 to anyone who’d like to learn the basics of programming.

On the matter of Coursera, I’ve tried a couple of courses and felt the lecture-video formats of most of their courses were ineffective.

Perhaps you should try CS101’s material before lumping the entirety of Udacity’s courses into the faults you describe.

31 12 2013

Udacity is no different from Coursera. Another fancy made videos with what they call “superb” pedagogy, which for me is complete nonsense. Glossed over videos, incomprehension and lack of moderation. Waste of time.

21 01 2014

No. Coursera is quite good and notice the point they do it for free. So stop complaining and encourage something good like this.

21 01 2014

I just read the title and want to comment..You sir are as stupid as it gets..I dont have enough money to join some costly university but i’m glad i am getting the education which is at par with those univs.

22 01 2014

Teachers be mad, bro.

4 02 2014

Clickbaiting is the worst thing that ever happened to serious blogs.

I came though, because I thought you had something to say but, no, it looks like you just want to offend some people and show how better than them you are.

You are not.

Everybody is learning in this field, including the people who create and publish the courses.

How can it be wrong to publish pre-existing material if it has already been proved usable by other students? It might be a quick and dirty solution, but not a degraded one.

Coursera being free, tell me how administrators are going to make a quick buck.

These are things “wrong” (or rather: “not so great”) with MOOCs but not what you are pointing out in this click-whoring post.

4 02 2014
Jonathan Rees


Administrators will make a quick buck by firing faculty and offering pure MOOC credit instead as long as students still pay for it. Thanks for stopping by!

17 02 2014

Oh my goodness some of these comments are ridiculous. I love Coursera. I think its amazing. I have taken a lot of classes with it. I have dropped a lot of classes, when they were not good or interesting for me. I have learned a lot in these courses. My favorite was on disaster preparedness through the University of Pittsburgh. It was really well done. My current favorite class is about changing the world. Now I have taken enough classes on the internet and in person to have an informed opinion. I went to a state college and a prestigious graduate school. In both situations, the class quality depended on the quality of the professor and my interest in the subject. The prestigious school was actually a much worse educational experience, with worse professors in my opinion. Those professors were so pressured to publish that they were terrible instructors for the most part.
As for MOOCs I hope they stick around…they keep my ridiculously long commute informative. Should you expect every class to be amazing….no! Is every class at Harvard amazing? No. I can recall from my undergraduate education, that a professor gave me a poor grade when frankly he was completely wrong in his understanding of his question. So I went to the department head thinking he could get me out of the class or change my grade because I was so informed. He did neither instead he said: I am sorry he is tenured and we are waiting for him to retire. He may have been great in his day. However when he was pushing 80 he was too old to keep up with the current trends in the field. Did that mean my undergraduate education was crap. No that was a great lesson in itself. You see organizations are complex. Topics in education are complex to teach. If you don’t like a particular course, take another one. They are free and honestly there are some excellent courses on coursera.

3 03 2014

You definitely overstate the importance of faculty in teaching. Yes, faculty are subject matter experts, usually in a very narrow slice of life. That doesn’t mean they know how to teach. Maybe you are a great teacher, but anyone who has gone to university has experienced poor teaching. Being deeply knowledgeable about something doesn’t mean you know how to communicate that knowledge with the intention of other people learning.

24 06 2014
Nan Zingrone

Actually the faculty that I have followed to the end on Cousera are at the core of what’s great about the course; they are well-connected scholars who bring colleagues and experts in for hangouts and interviews, or brief guest lecturers, they tie their comments to the copious additional materials or the textbooks. There is no reason to behave as if a MOOC were machine-taught, or constructed by nameless course designers being paid $5 an hour. Coursera’s courses have top notch faculty members, and the most successful of them — it looks like to a mere observer, meaning me — show personality, engagement, expertise, and a network of astonishing colleagues with access to other points of view. That’s not mentioning the deep pockets of first rate supplementary materials. Chuck Severance’s courses on the Internet are one example. The faculty members in any online course are key except the kind built like a 1990s throwback to the computer-assisted education model. By the way there’s a lot of snarkiness in this thread that doesn’t need to be here.

12 03 2014
Patrick Bukasa

I have 2 degrees from 2 different universities which I physically attended and after doing a couple of courses on Coursera I actually think MOOC’s are the best thing to ever happen to education. It’s still early days for MOOC’s and they have a few problems but to rule them out is not right. Many normal/traditional classes are outdated and actually provide solutions to yesterdays problem. This article could have been written more objectively.

13 03 2014

I have a Bachelor of Technology degree in Electrical Engineering from India and am currently pursuing a M.S. in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech. I strongly believe Coursera does a good job and this article is misleading. You cannot draw the generalization (“Coursera .. are the worst things that ever happened to moocs”) from a single (the Holocaust course) or indeed, even from two or three cases.
Consider my Coursera experience:
I completed the Coursera course in Machine Learning. The course was taught by Andrew Ng, a professor at Stanford university. I don’t know how accurate the articles cited above are, but the course lectures in my case were created by the instructor especially for the course. The majority of the videos were dedicated to the slides the instructor had prepared and while explaining, he would often draw or write on the slides to illustrate a point. Also sometimes, the video would pause and a MCQ (Multiple Choice Question) would pop up on screen that one had to answer to continue. At the end of each video, the instructor would outline what he was going to cover in the next video.
As long as you take the course seriously, I believe completing a course on Coursera is as close to an authentic classroom experience as possible. I hope this article doesn’t discourage you from signing up for an online course. While a lot of what this article says regarding university administrators and changing university focus is true, the title and conclusion of the article is misleading.

27 03 2014
Daniel Punton

Udemy is designed to be an online community college experience not anything competing with MOOCs or the academies. You may know the University politics well but seem to have little real experience of the platforms you are damning.

27 03 2014
Jonathan Rees


Udemy and Udacity are different companies.

3 04 2014
8 04 2014
Ashley A. Knapp (@CtrlAltLee)

Ive enjoyed hearing world class lecturers, enjoying humanities courses that couldnt fit in my electives in my local degree program. what my husband learned in a cornell university computer science mooc on coursera helped him land a middle class job the month after his paperwork came in after a lifetime of minimum wage and factory floor positions ( he was smart but couldnt go to college because he was illegal. ) I pray with all my heart coursera is around for years to come.

17 04 2014

all i read is old professors bitching cos their job will be on the line and their line of work hope one day will no longer exist, but a new kind build online.
I think i had a better laugh here then on facebook wow that something impressive, grown adult bitching more then teenage girls that’s something

23 04 2014

someone doesn’t like having competition. real world sucks, amirite.

24 04 2014

Given the author is admittedly inexperienced regarding Coursera and Udacity, I submit that Mr Rees is way off base. I have taken 17 Coursera courses and 1 Udacity course in the last 8 months including various topics, various institutions around the world and various professors. Mr Rees seems comfortable denigrating a system based on only one course. It seems he is assuming that the faculty are somehow forced into preparing and offering these courses. How the courses are conducted vary from institution to institution, professor to professor within the institution and subject to subject. Enthusiasm among the individual instructors is the unmistakably unanimous characteristics of all the courses. I took a course from Noble prize winning Yale professor Robert Shiller. Does Mr. Rees really believe that Dr. Shiller had no input regarding the course? Dr. Shiller certainly didn’t appear to be forced into doing something he didn’t like. I have dozens of examples to further support my argument.

3 05 2014

Sites like coursera, free education, is one of the best things the internet has to offer!

3 06 2014

Oh my god, have you looked what is Coursera or Udacity yourself? I have a PhD and I prefer 1000 to use Coursera than to be in a classroom! I get much more out of it!

5 06 2014
John Keenan

Even in their infancy, these on-line courses, together with the numerous lectures and documentaries available through YouTube, and websites such as the Annenberg Foundation’s “learner.org”, have enriched these closing days of my life experience beyond all expectations. For a largely uneducated person, nine points short of your average IQ, and beyond the range of a decent library to be granted a glimpse of his world through the eyes of some of humanity’s greatest thinkers is a treat that didn’t exist for my kind until these delivery systems recently came into being.
The luxury of squeezing a few night courses in with the demands of multiple jobs, a hunger for overtime, and a desire to satisfy civic duties fades into a wormhole of oblivion as the family you’re building joins in the competition for you time and attention. At the other end of that wormhole lies a brief moment of intense focus on the present, coupled with an irresistible desire to live in the moment, for as long as you can. A moment called old age. A moment you for which you want tools like this to complete your preparation. A moment which can be fraught with stark terror and despair or filled with precious end game strategies and experiences to tie up lose ends and complete the connection between you and that final, eternal moment.
Each visit to these sites goes beyond mere facts or plain knowledge. Pieces of grand puzzle come together with the promise of completing a great mystery. The story that unfolds as you visit and revisit these sites talks to the challenges and wisdom of many generations just as though you were living through each cited event with them; first going back hundreds, then thousands, and even tens of thousands of years. If I you don’t feel ancient enough after adding historical and anthropological pieces to the puzzle, paleontology, and cosmology really add years to your sense of self.
Concurrently assembling pieces that introduce you to your inner self help you answer some of the questions you would have done well to ask a long time back, is an absolutely exhilarating experience. It not only frees you from many self imposed limits, it also helps you empathize with peoples from the countless generations in all those societies and cultures with whom you are beginning to forge a connection.
Sorry to hear that shortsighted administrators are seriously considering spoiling this gift with a crass worship of metrics and a devotion to the dubious goals used to guide their pursuit of misguided objectives. Their folly helps me realize that while our predecessors advanced from leaving cave paintings behind, to huge stone circles in England, giant idols on Easter Island, and monumental pyramids in Egypt; we will probably leave behind a greenhouse the size of our planet. Unless, of course, we are saved by a generation of highly “certified” (as opposed to educated) graduates who never saw the inside of a university classroom or engaged in a meaningful discussion with a classroom educated professor.
I presume to speak for my peers when I say that we would never ask you to pay such a price for our benefit, no matter how much we treasure these tools. We do, however, implore you to avoid discarding the baby with the bath water as you search for a solution to the real problems: flawed logic, false economy, and failure to define meaningful goals and objectives.

24 06 2014
Nan Zingrone

Love this post! Thank you. One of my favorite ways of pushing forward my professional development is watching Coursera course videos while I’m eating my breakfast. Stolen moments that add to my appreciation of what there is to learn in this world.

24 06 2014

Maybe I’m lucky but Coursera’s courses (in computer programming) I’ve attended were outstanding. It’s pleasure to sit here in Russia before laptop, see video, take my notes, and complete both complex and elegant projects. Thank you, Coursera!
Udacity is another great possibility.

24 06 2014

I’m beginning to suspect that a) Coursera has paid booster trolls (or maybe they just get free certificates), and b) you either need better spam filters or find the performances amusing


24 06 2014

@VanessaVaile Does it occur to you that :
– actually the post itself is troll-bait,
– people with hands-on experience with Coursera or other MOOCs might actually find it offensive ? (hint: I do)

24 06 2014
Nan Zingrone

I agree with Vanessa. Having lurked in a number of Coursera courses, I find the suggestion offensive.

24 06 2014

Gormless twit, I have experienced MOOCs, probably more kinds than you do since I took my first one years before Stanford AI, before Coursera existed. I do not find this site offensive.


24 06 2014
Nan Zingrone

Oops I just realized I agree with Georgy and don’t agree with Vanessa, and I must say Vanessa, calling Georgy a “gormless twiit” is significantly offensive and thoroughly unnecessary. We all have our opinions. For example, I tend to see the title of this blog “More or Less Bunk” a good description of the original article this thread rifts off of.

24 06 2014

Oh, insults now.

Have fun, but count me out.

Moderator: please be kind enough to remove my comments to this article if you can.

24 06 2014
Jonathan Rees


While I’m certainly amused now, that wasn’t why I’ve been approving all these comments. My philosophy is to let anybody comment unless they directly insult me or say something so obviously offensive that they are likely to insult others. What’s really interesting about this post is that it’s apparently getting all this attention through Google searches (like 100 hits per day months after I wrote it) and a fair number of hostile comments yet it’s one of the mildest things I’ve ever written about MOOCs. Seriously, it’s a plea for better MOOCs than the inert xMOOCs that Coursera and Udacity tend to create. What’s to be offended about?

Those of you reading this who love MOOCs and want to be offended, try this:


or this:


or this:


If you aren’t interested in addressing the distinctly academic and pedagogical problems which I’m addressing, then you should really take your browser somewhere else.

26 06 2014

The author completly missed the point of online-courses he is comparing oranges to apples and cherry-picking what can easily be attacked.
If you really want to compare and evaluate online vs face-to-face you need to consider ALL factors not cherry-picking.

8 07 2014

Well. Maybe the author should recommend an example of a competent course-online website besides the negative critics of those he didnt like. It would be a more objective point of view then.

10 07 2014

Super-ridiculous. I found this while trying to find a way to look at my Udacity course progress (there used to be a better way… ah well). But suggesting Udacity is somehow not faculty driven is meaningless, it was founded by the professors who taught the pilot course. Y’know, the faculty. Suggesting it is all talking heads is meaningless, in most of the technical classes you rarely even see heads except in color bits like on-site interviews with people in the industry or intros and outros to class segments. Suggesting it is all static video is meaningless, there are constant opportunities to solve problems, demonstrate and apply knowledge, and constant updates when certain segments of the classes are shown to be hard to understand or lacking in certain areas. Entire courses have been redone as room to improve was taken advantage of.
Suggesting Udacity is “the worst thing that happened to moocs” is ridiculous, not only does it fit the description of “the best moocs” as listed in this bunk-post, there actually seems to be no reason Udacity was mentioned in the title at all, at least not one borne out by the content.
I have found the Coursera courses…. boring, but they reminded me of on-site college lectures a lot more than Udacity’s more interactive format.
You may disagree with my assessment of Udacity, but if so, you probably aren’t the author of this blog post, since that person seems to have never bothered to assess Udacity in any meaningful definition of the word assess.

13 07 2014
Why most MOOCs are boring for nearly everybody involved. | More or Less Bunk

[…] This post has more views than any other on the history of this blog. I have no idea why. OK, I think it’s because it shows up pretty high on the results list when somebody Googles “Coursera” or “Udacity,” because it gets about 100 hits a day these days, but why that post gets all the traffic as opposed to anything else that I’ve written about MOOCs is indeed a mystery to me. Even though I consider it to be a rather mild denunciation of inert MOOCs that students only absorb passively, it has attracted a fair number of hostile comments by now. I figure as long as passersby don’t insult me or write something that’s prima facie offensive, I’ll approve such comments for display. […]

17 07 2014

That’s just my two cents, but the ‘Cryptography I’ course on coursera is one of the best pieces of education I’ve ever experienced. German undergraduate student here.

20 07 2014
Why Coursera and Udacity are the worst things that ever happened to MOOCs. | rarsenue

[…] Why Coursera and Udacity are the worst things that ever happened to MOOCs.. […]

27 07 2014

This article is absolute nonsense. I have 2 master degrees that I have got from 2 universities + Phd in Computer Science. I have been attending Coursera courses (Crypto, Networks, Statistics etc.) and I am absolutely sure those are fabulous and Coursera and Udacity are the best things that happen to education. I have passed many courses at physical universities but there is very different quality depending on a course teacher. But I can not choose to switch to different class when compared to MOOC, to change my teacher when seeing he is ignorant. Universities is changing but there are many old-fashioned people at the universities that do not accept modern technologies and are not able to be flexible enough to use them for good, for good of students. What is behind this is a fight for a power as people at the universities, professors are fighting for grants and money and they must prove they are important. With MOOC this is downgraded and education is more independent from physical people and there is higher competition. So there are people as you refusing to accept modern technologies and use them for good of students. But time has changed and people love it and those old-fashioned guys must simply just die and not to obstruct modern changes.

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