Saturday, May 25, 2013

Challenges with the Schedule MOOC and Prerequisites

For my second and third MOOCs I decided to sign up for Data Science on Coursera and Web Development on Udacity and I'm running into some challenges. Previous posts have discussed the problem with Udacity MOOCs not having a schedule or deadlines. I have to admit, I haven't yet done anything for that course and the lack of deadlines contributes to that. However, my bigger problem is with the Coursera course and it centers on the fact that there are deadlines.

Having regularly scheduled semesters and courses for college students makes a lot of sense, especially for traditional students. All they are doing is going to college. That is the main activity of their lives. Like most adults, I am not in that position. I have a house, yard, kids, and work issues to deal with. The Data Science course started on May 1st. That happens to be 2 weeks before grades are due for Trinity. So the first two weeks of the course overlapped with one of the busiest times in my semester and I had no control over that. There isn't a rolling enrollment and at this point I have no idea if the course will ever be offered again. The result of this is that I have been letting deadlines slip because I simply haven't had the time to meet them. I want to learn the topic, but I have a stronger need to complete the job that pays my mortgage.

There is a second reason I have let things slip that compounds the first one, and that is the lack of structured prerequisites. When I signed up for the course I knew that it was going to use Python and R for the programming assignment, two languages that are not part of my standard repertoire. What I didn't realize was that the video lectures weren't going to spend any time at all teaching them. The assignments point you to other resources to view to learn things like Python, but when you are under a time crunch and can barely get the work done for this course, it doesn't help to find out that they want you to go watch 9 other videos on a different site so that you can do the first assignment.

Now these assignments really aren't programming intensive and given just a bit more time I could have done them without watching those other videos, but I'm a CS professor, I don't think that would be true for a large fraction of the people signed up for this course. In a normal college curriculum this type of thing is handled with prerequisites. The fact that there is a coherent curriculum that has a flow to it where we make sure that each course comes after others that establish the needed material is critical. That is especially true in departments where there is a lot of structure to prerequisite knowledge, something that is common in STEM.

What I feel like I am seeing is really a shortcoming of the Coursera model. (It is probably true of edX as well.) Coursera offers a diverse assortment of courses from many different schools. However, the diversity and the fact that they are coming from many schools is a problem for anything that isn't in some sense introductory level. Any specific prerequisite knowledge needed for these courses becomes a problem because there isn't anything in place to fully communicate that or to help students take courses in a proper sequence. This is something that I think Udacity is much better with. They do describe something of a prerequisite structure in their courses and because they are the sole provider, they can make sure that things line up well. Also, not having hard start and end dates means that people can string courses together when they fit their schedules. The one thing that Udacity might consider, for those who need deadlines, would be to provide an option for artificial deadlines that students could have imposed just to make sure they keep moving forward.