Monday, 31 March 2014

Coursera By the Numbers

In a scant 2.5 years, the landscape for teaching and learning at postsecondary institutions has changed. It began in September 2011with a Standford University course in Artificial Intelligence (Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig) -- the first “massive” MOOC had 160,000 registrants and 20,000 course completions. There is a raging debate as to the academic value of MOOCs. However, there is no disagreement that MOOCS have shone the spotlight on teaching and learning in a public way and to an extent that has never happened before. And that is a good thing.

A major research university, like the University of Alberta, has the mandate to do research and teaching. At most such institutions, the former receives all the attention (and all the funding) while the latter is low profile (and often underfunded). Given all the recent media attention given to MOOCs, teaching and learning, many institutions have begun to invest heavily in transforming and even moving away from the traditional classroom experience. “Blended”, “flipped” and “experiential” are some of the popular buzzwords that describe (not-so-) new teaching techniques starting to be widely deployed.

Coursera was created almost two years ago by Stanford University professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. Most people associate the company with providing the computing platform for offering MOOCs. However, many instructors are using the vast amount of content that is being put up on the Coursera site as a resource for the blended/flipped delivery of their local courses.

I am writing these words at the second annual Coursera conference, in London, United Kingdom. The venue is the University of London in a building that is literally beside the British Museum. When there’s a 15 minute break, what better way to pass the time than by walking next door and browsing (and it’s free!). How cool is that!

Daphne Koller, London 2014
Daphne and Andrew gave a tag-team presentation on the current state of Coursera and some of the company’s future directions. Some of the takeaway numbers include:
·      7 million registered users,
·      33% of users are from the United States,
·      33% of users are from emerging economies,
·      25 million course enrolments,
·      7,466 years of video watched,
·      64 million quizzes taken,
·      2.5 million peer-graded assessments, and
·      1 million course completions.

A big discussion point is the completion rate of MOOCs. The first Stanford MOOC turned out to be an exception: 20,000/160,000 = 12.5% of registered students completed the course. The latest data from a variety of sources, including multiple MOOC providers, shows that roughly 5% of course registrants complete their course. To many observers, the completion percentage is an indication that MOOCs are fundamentally flawed. However, a reality check is in order. Since there's no cost to registering for a course, many people sign up to see what it is about before making a big time commitment (so called window shopping). Coursera has broken their completion rate data down as follows:
·      5% for those who register,
·      63% who register and say that they are committed to complete the course, and
·      90% who pay ($39-$69US) for Coursera’s “Signature Track” (essentially a “credit”)
The lesson is obvious: you get what you pay for. If you plunk down money for a course, you are very likely to complete it. Not a surprise.

Andrew Ng, London 2014
The other major knock against MOOCs is the monetization model. If courses are free, how does one recoup the costs? Coursera’s Signature Track is generating revenue, mostly for Coursera but a portion goes to the participating institutions. This revenue stream is catching on. It took nine months from the start of Signature Track to generate $1 million of revenue. It took three more months to reach $2 million. The next three months brought the total revenue to $4 million. Of course, one should be careful about extrapolating this trend! Clearly there is a market for students getting a piece of paper verifying that they passed a course.

So far there are no surprises at the Coursera conference. Attendees include a mix of people ranging from university presidents and provosts at one end to interested students at the other. The conference is all about hearing the experience of learners, instructors, and administrators. Everyone has an interesting story to tell.

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