London plays host to the Coursera community

Tom Inkelaar reports on two days of lively debate at the second annual Coursera Partners' Conference
Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller
Coursera co-founder, Professor Daphne Koller
Changes to the technology available to institutions, plus developments to the platform, may make MOOCs a more appealing and integrated option for education in the 21st century

The University of London welcomed 450 delegates from over 100 international institutions to Senate House on 31 March and 1 April for the second annual Coursera Partners' conference, co-hosted with the University of Edinburgh. The event was an opportunity for partner institutions on the Coursera MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) platform to get together, share their experiences, and debate the key issues around MOOCs, online and flexible learning.

The University of London was the first English institution to offer MOOCs on Coursera (see more about our courses here). With partner institutions from Korea, China, Israel, Australia, the US and Europe, London was seen as the perfect place to host such a diverse group. The conference was opened by Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, co-founders of Coursera, along with Sir Adrian Smith and Sir Tim O’Shea, Vice-Chancellors of the Universities of London and Edinburgh respectively. 

"Koller and Ng illustrated Coursera’s continued rise with some eye-opening figures: over 7 million users; 7,466 years of videos watched; 164 million quizzes submitted; and 3.5 million peer-graded assessments completed."

Attendees at the Coursera conferenceKoller and Ng illustrated Coursera’s continued rise with some eye-opening figures: over 7 million users; 7,466 years of videos watched; 164 million quizzes submitted; and 3.5 million peer-graded assessments completed. The opening session also featured some individual stories, such as that of Sharmeen Shehabuddin, who opened a bakery in Bangladesh without any experience of running a business or baking, but managed to expand her new venture with the help of MOOCs on economics, finance and accounting. Beyond these headline figures and personal successes, however, the main thrust of the event was to offer presentations, panel discussions and workshops on the key issues.

Some of the most involved debates concerned the short- and longer- term future of MOOCs. Key areas of interest for institutions included improving the number of users completing MOOCs and trying to make courses financially sustainable. A session on finance and revenue brought up a diverse number of potential ways to make MOOCs pay – from ‘pay-as-you-like’ virtual tip jars, to micro-transactions for additional course material, to more tutor support and blended approaches featuring campus study or assessment. The only clear consensus was that there isn’t yet a way to make MOOCs financially sustainable in their own right.

"As techniques and technology improve, universities will get to see and analyse a lot more of what users do on Coursera – for example, where, when and how long they spend on videos, forums or assessments."

Retention rates, the number of users who complete the courses, are generally low. However, positive post-course evaluations for many courses suggest many students take what they like from the course and then stop – for some a completion certificate is the aim, others just want to watch a few videos. Advances in the analysis of large amounts of data that MOOCs produce may make it easier to understand why students stop when they do.

As techniques and technology improve, universities will get to see and analyse a lot more of what users do on Coursera – for example, where, when and how long they spend on videos, forums or assessments. This may mean that courses can be better personalised and tailored to individual students. However, processing the vast amounts of data involved in a meaningful way remains a challenge.

Of course, MOOCs aren’t only about completion rates and money for universities.

2014 Coursera Partners' ConferenceThe way that students are taught and learn on these courses was a common area of discussion. Many examples of interesting and innovative practices were provided, including the design of a MOOC on Comic Books and Graphic Novels, and assessments that included the peer-review of users’ MP3s and their drawings of dinosaurs

Peer-review has received some criticism as a tool for student assessment in MOOCs. However, institutional studies mentioned during the conference compared this method against tutor-reviewed assessments and suggested that there may only be 0.5 or 1 grade difference between the two, and in fact students tend to be harsher markers!  Our own Undergraduate Laws Programme used their MOOC on English Common Law as a testing ground for new techniques that will be used on their VLE if successful.

"Many Coursera partners indicated their plans to run numerous more courses – including Peking University, who are setting up a training programme for 500 staff to deliver 25 MOOCs over the next five years."

Despite the doubts across the sector that MOOCs will be ‘the future of education’, there is still a great deal of interest. Many Coursera partners indicated their plans to run numerous more courses – including Peking University, who are setting up a training programme for 500 staff to deliver 25 MOOCs over the next five years. Changes to the technology available to institutions, plus developments to the platform, may make MOOCs a more appealing and integrated option for education in the 21st century, but not (yet) at the expense of traditional models of teaching and learning.

  • Further information about MOOCs offered by the University of London is available on the Coursera website.