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Students question whether classes are using Coursera effectively

Even as Coursera, an online learning platform developed at Stanford, continues to assume an increasingly influential role in the field of online education, its usage at Stanford has prompted concerns among students that courses using the platform have not fully exploited its potential.

Coursera was launched in April 2012 by Associate Professor of Computer Science Andrew Ng and Professor of Computer Science Daphne Koller Ph.D. ’94, and it has since partnered with 33 universities to offer free online courses to millions of students.

Coursera’s focus on facilitating a “flipped classroom” model of education – in which students watch pre-recorded lectures on their own before interacting with professors during class time – has, however, been inconsistently applied in several Stanford courses that use Coursera, with professors instead combining the new format with traditional lectures.

“It would make sense if we were using Coursera to achieve a pure flipped classroom experience, but we aren’t doing that,” said Johnny Winston ’15, who took CS 147: Introduction to Human-Computer Interaction – which used Coursera – in fall quarter. “We only meet in small design studio groups one out of the three days of class, and the other two days consist of a more traditional lecture format.”

Nate Nunez ’15, who was also enrolled in CS 147, agreed, arguing that class time “could be better used” compared to the frequent replication of content between lectures and online videos.

By contrast, Scott Klemmer, who taught CS 147, claimed that there were several important differences between his online and live lectures. He said that feedback gathered from CS 147 students would lead to revisions in the course’s content and use of Coursera in the future.

“There are benefits and drawbacks of being an early adopter,” Klemmer, an associate professor of computer science, said. “This academic year of students gets the advantage of being first people to experience the flipped classroom, but they have the challenge of dealing with first-generation software.”

Dan Boneh, a professor of computer science who currently teaches CS 255: Introduction to Cryptography through Coursera, said he is using a “semi-flipped” classroom model.

Boneh posts videos of course content on Coursera, increasing the time available in lecture for student questions, and integrates quizzes into his videos using the Coursera software to help students track their progress.

“It’s not just using Coursera as a YouTube,” Boneh said. “It’s a lot more than that.”
While many professors have chosen to use Coursera as a supplement to their traditional course format, some of their peers have fully embraced the flipped-classroom model.

Kristin Cobb M.S. ’99 Ph.D. ’02, who taught HRP 213: Writing in the Sciences with Coursera in fall quarter, attributed her ability to spend more time interacting with students to the flipped-classroom model.

“Because writing is so hands on, to get the students to edit each other’s papers in class and make them write in class is a great use of class time,” Cobb, a clinical professor of health research and policy, said. “It’s also much more fun for me as an instructor than just giving the same lectures and having to rush through material.”

Cobb said that 77 percent of her students in Writing in the Sciences had agreed or strongly agreed that they preferred the flipped-classroom model to the traditional classroom model.

Jason van der Merwe ’15 cited the existence of several bugs in the Coursera platform as another hindrance to students, a criticism echoed by Winston.

“I think we grew so fast that we had some growing pains,” Ng conceded. “The whole company is taking reliability as a priority though…and I think we are doing much better than we were a few months ago.”

While Klemmer acknowledged the existence of several shortcomings with the Coursera experience, he expressed optimism that the flipped-classroom model will become more feasible to adopt in the future.

“Everything we are doing in online education right now is experimental,” Klemmer said. “Some of these experiments are turning out amazingly, and others are teaching us things that we need to change. Coursera is not set up for in-person classes in many ways right now, but I think we are going to get there soon.”