Coursera: Free Higher Education

Coursera is an online education company launched by Stanford University professors in April 2012. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Coursera offers massive open online courses (MOOC), in which anyone from around the world can gain free access to “video lectures” and assignments of classes from renowned universities worldwide. It offers a broad variety of subjects, taught in multiple languages. Users are able to complete graded assignments and earn a certificate of completion at the end of the course duration. As of October 2014, Coursera has over 10 million students and raised $85 million in venture funds. They derive their revenue out of signature tracks, corporate professional development programs and specializations.

Coursera has revolutionized the education industry by giving free access to video lectures provided by top institutions. In observation of individual courses, it proves to be a challenge for professors to run “office hours” for more than 10,000 online students (Coursera has recently integrated “live-stream hangouts” into their courses to counter this obstacle). Thus the most intriguing characteristic of Coursera is it’s integration of a social element between students taking a certain course. I personally have taken a few classes on Coursera over my gap year and I would like to take this opportunity to share my experienced of a socially driven course.

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Class Run By Thousands

The very first, and memorable course I’ve taken in Coursera was “Introduction to Mathematical Thinking” taught by Professor Keith Devlin of Stanford University. This was an opportunity for me to experience the rigor in my field of passion provided by one of the world’s best institutions. However, I would not have been able to do well without accessing the Discussion Forum.

Coursera has integrated a forum in which students can share helpful learning resources and provide “hints” to assignment problems to each other. I found the course I was taking to be very challenging, and having access to a discussion forum of thousands of others had not only given me the ability to adequately succeed, but it has opened up an entire network of individuals from around the world with similar a passion. It also fosters engagement in the topics discussed in lectures and has allowed for a mass interaction within the class as a whole. Overall, what I observed in the forums was an incredible macro-collaboration between global strangers for means of learning.


Users may also volunteer to become Teacher Assistants, in which they would regulate the forums to uphold academic integrity. For example, users are restricted by the honor code to post direct answers to assignments, or reveal any questions that may appear in online tests. TA’s will be in charge of monitoring the forums accordingly. They would also report any specific difficulties students could be facing to the professor, who could improve the course structure and content based on feedback. Additionally, professors are given the autonomy to design their own evaluation systems. I remember having to grade my peer’s exams after taking my own and having 3-5 random others grading my work resulted in an efficiently fair and unbiased evaluation. It also gave me the opportunity to observe how other students decided to approach the test questions and learn from the perspective of others.

Academic Integrity Plagiarism-extreme-learni-001

Overall, Coursera’s course technical operations and its informational value are mostly socially driven. The website sets up an ideal platform that lets its users “run” the class, and crowd-sources regulator positions to the public. But letting strangers assume TA positions raises a question of credibility. Is integrity perfectly preserved? No. But with proper organization and incentive systems, a crowd-regulated online class can still maintain a great extent of honesty.

Since MOOC’s are simply “an alternative to no higher education”, completion does not award any form of accreditation that may provide an opportunity for further education or employment. Thus the consequence of dishonesty would not be as severe as those in formal institutions. However, students may choose to sign up for a signature track (which would require a $30-$90 fee) to increase the credibility of their course completion by adhering to tighter surveillance processes. In these cases, Coursera utilizes a special software that recognizes the user’s typing rhythm and pattern to verify their identity when taking tests.

Will Coursera eventually compete with current institutions and live up to the “free education” utopia? Definitely not without perfecting their proctoring system. But it has successfully given at least an equally valuable form of engagement online to that of physical classrooms. As student-to-student interaction is encouraged, users are able to derive and create resources to improve the overall learning experience. While most universities sell on the professor-student intimacy of small classes, I would argue that we derive more informational value from the massive conversation of a lecture hall, and Coursera serves to be the ultimate example.

So, how do you think #IS6621 would fare as a massive open online course?


  1. Great post, Denn! You raise many interesting points about Coursera and the online education model in general. Online courses present a unique opportunity for teachers to implement peer evaluations as part of the grading process. We’ve seen the value of this play out in IS6621. So much of this course takes place online, between Twitter and the blog, and I think it promotes deeper conversation. It’s not about what you can spit back out, but what you bring to the table–how you facilitate and drive conversation. I think these collaborative environments are where the best kind of learning occurs and social media presents great opportunities for this. I also think online learning can promote further offline collaboration. My younger brother’s high school has been implementing “reverse classroom” strategies where he watches the teacher’s recorded lectures at home so that there’s more time for group work and assistance from the teacher during the limited in-class time they have.

    I’ve been looking into Coursera classes over the past couple of weeks, trying to decide if it’s something I’d want to do and your post definitely convinced me to!

  2. Very well-written post, Denn! I personally am glad that I’m going to graduate college before things have completely shifted online, as I can barely read a textbook off of my computer without becoming frustrated, annoyed. But as higher education costs continue to rise, I think any company that can establish itself as a first mover in well executed online courses (Coursera coming first to mind) is setting itself up for future success. I had no idea that one’s rhythm and pattern of typing could be used to cross-reference academic integrity, that’s pretty cool!

    Because IS6621 is innately social and focused so heavily on online interactions, I think our class would thrive via Coursera. However, obviously classes like biology and chemistry that require lab work could not fully be recreated, simply due to financials & available resources for most.

    Very interesting post! Hope we can discuss it more in class on Thursday!

  3. Great post, Denn! I heard about Coursera in my marketing class last year and had not further researched the program, so I was happy to learn more about it from your post. As I’ve gone through my own college career, I’ve become more passionate about free, accessible education for all and it sounds like Coursera is the best place to start. It would be ideal if the courses did have more regulation and could therefore count towards more “legitimate” degrees. But the TA and evaluation system could really helpful and a good option for an alternative approach.

    On a different note, I am curious of the 10 million students’ demographics. I know you said the courses are offered from universities worldwide, but I am curious about the breakdown of the students’ locations and ages. I wonder how many other BC students have enrolled? In terms of this class, I agree with Pat that it would have a great shot at being structured similar to Coursera because of the nature of the course. It may be overwhelming to connect with all of the students via Twitter and blogging, but I think small group discussions online could be very productive. Thanks again for such an intriguing post!

  4. As Caroline said, a large portion of our class does take place online so in a way we follow the Coursera model, but I’m not sure how I would feel about having the entire course online since so much of our class time is spent in discussion. Similar to the online forums in Coursera, so much of IS6621 is dependent on us, like you said “lets its users “run” the class, and crowd-sources regulator positions to the public” – although we don’t hold as much authority as the TA’s for Coursera ccourses, we do fill out the survey each week, which gives us some sort of “regulator position”.

    I think Coursera is such a cool concept. Unlike any other online learning system, it sources content from the most elite universities around the world rather than creating it’s own content. I actually just signed up for a class earlier today, before I even saw your blog post! It starts in January and I’m really excited. I was also surprised/excited to find that there are courses that you can start whenever you want and can work at your own pace, rather than having to follow the course with everyone else taking it. Like you, I also wonder if this type of learning will soon replace traditional universities, especially with rising tuition prices across the board. I think Coursera would need to add more basic courses, because as of now it seems like they only have upper level, more specialized courses. Cool topic, I’m sure we will discuss further in small group discussion tomorrow!

  5. It will be really interesting to see how MOOCs will impact higher education. I do think they are invaluable, but I also think they don’t do things that education does. The smartest schools will learn how to integrate MOOCS to further their misssion and build their brand.

  6. meganmorgan9 · ·

    Awesome post! I did not know much about how Coursera worked previously so thank you for sharing! I did see two interesting articles about Coursera recently. One had to do with the Indian Business School partnering with Coursera to offer content for working adults ( The second article I saw was about Coursera looking to expand their presence in China ( So, like Jenni I am wondering what the break down of the Coursera users is, especially in light of them trying to expand their presence globally. I also find Caroline’s comment interesting about the reverse classroom implementations. Immediately what comes to mind is that initially I’d probably be annoyed if more homework was added to my plate by having to watch something that would previously happen in class. However, that being said, I do understand the positives it brings and it seems like more and more of this is happening with the increasing pressures of meeting education standards. I wonder if Coursera will become integrated into schools, somewhat like the reverse classroom implementations. It seems that they could be helpful and future looking.

  7. I like that you have some first-hand experience here, Denn. As others have noted, it will be interesting to see how the traditional education system will start to integrate MOOCs into their curriculum. Good description of the interactions between students and the crowdsourced nature of these classes. I wonder if this is something that can catch on in the physical classroom.

  8. Nice post Denn! Thank you for bringing this topic and sharing your experience with Coursera.
    I’m thinking that MOOCs may be more valuable for ‘normal’ colleges, than that for those prestigious schools. Because what reputed colleges provide are more than just ‘courses and curriculum’, it’s the on-campus ‘environment’ and the ‘experiences’ for sharing and exchanging ideas with outstanding classmates, colleagues, and faculties. That’s what MOOC is lack of.

  9. Most of what I knew about Coursera was surrounding the fact that increases the access to education, but the retention rate was very low! It’s interesting to learn that the discussion boards helped you out – I have definitely considered taking a course from there and is good to know some best practices for moving forward. It’s really cool to see how successful Coursera has been at mediating things such as academic integrity through collaboration! It would be really cool if we could see concepts of collaboration that we see on Coursera appear back in the physical classroom (a twist on reverse innovation??) – there is definitely something to be said about the power of collaborative learning, and I think that is something that can be exemplified in this class! Nice post.

  10. Reblogged this on dennhadi.

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