The online education challenge

I’m currently enrolled in my second course on Coursera. I can’t help but wondering how amazing it is to be given the chance to learn whatever you like from great teachers. Needless to say that I’m a big fan of the whole concept of free online education. However, I’m still not convinced that Coursera will make universities obsolete.

Both courses I’ve taken on so far were technical in nature. I believe a major reason for that is that in technical courses the feedback you get is immediate. On the other hand, liberal arts courses strive from interaction and discussion amongst students.

And this is the first thing that struck me. Although, one is taking a course together with thousands of people, it still very much feels like a solitary effort. Maybe, it’s because I’m used to studying alone. But it might also be, that these courses self-select for people who prefer to learn following their own rhythm.

Even the social tools provided, like the forums don’t feel very inviting. I don’t know whether it is the abundance of advanced questions or the fact that it feels like cheating to ask for help there. But so far I’ve noticed that active engagement is highly concentrated) among a few, as would be expected in any internet context.

The ability to engage as many students as possible is the major challenge of all online courses. It is also the largest opportunity. In my day to day job I’m usually interacting with colleagues from 3 continents and several countries. That is every day! Imagine how valuable the experience would prove to be able if given the chance to work as a group on course assignments with students from all over the world while interacting purely online. That is tough! That is helpful! That is what you can’t do in a traditional university!

Obviously Coursera is trying really hard to engage more people. They’re using forums, gamification, and peer reviews. But so far they’re missing the part where they force people to work together. This is a typical game mechanic in MMORPGs where some bosses are impossible to solo. It not only keeps players engaged but also keeps players collaborating later.

All in all it’s an early day for online learning. And so far I’m very happy that it’s around. Let’s see how it will develop in the future.

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