Coursera looks to harness the free labor of its devotees
Nils De Jonghe is a busy student these days. Since the spring he has registered for 32 courses, the equivalent of a typical bachelor’s degree, and he aims to have completed nearly all of them by the end of next summer. And he is not receiving formal credit for any of them.
In the world of MOOCs (massive open online courses) De Jonghe, 25, is what techies might call a “power user.” The Belgian grad student, who is also working on his thesis for a master’s degree in communication sciences at the University of Ghent, has completed four MOOCs so far. He has also dropped out of two, but still De Jonghe’s persistence is notable: Only about 12 percent of students complete a given Coursera course, and De Jonghe recently became one of only 2 percent of registered students to complete the final exam in what appears to have been a particularly harrowing course on Social Networking Analysis.
He is scheduled to participate in another 26 courses -- a diverse array that includes courses on reasoning, storytelling, data analysis, astrobiology, nutrition, computer science, economics and gaming -- within the next nine months. He has also signed up for four courses through Canvas.net, another MOOC provider.
He’s not sure if he will finish all of them. Nevertheless De Jonghe, perhaps more than any of Coursera’s 2 million other registrants, embodies the enthusiasm that has collected around this new species of online course. But with the company’s “certificates of accomplishment” bearing no well-defined value, and pathways to credit still very much under construction, the ability of Coursera and other MOOC providers to continue stoking the enthusiasm of their users turns on their ability to redeem their labors with rewards that are intangible yet compelling. And power users such as De Jonghe stand to play an increasingly important role in this process.
MOOCs have generated a lot of buzz with their five-, sometimes six-digit registration figures. But equally they have drawn scorn from critics with their striking attrition rates. Conventional wisdom suggests that the fact that registration is simple and cost-free attracts a lot of casual participants who are not necessarily interested in completing an entire course.
But user experience may also determine how many registrants stick around. And in a type of course that relies heavily on fruitful exchanges among students, how many registrants stick around may determine the quality of the user experience, says the company.
“We’re trying to figure out what the best way is getting students involved in keeping the class running, alive,” says Norian Caporale-Berkowitz, a member of the course operations team at Coursera.
Caporale-Berkowitz has been helping coordinate experiments in various MOOCs that seek to deputize certain students into the company’s instructional model. Professors have begun recruiting “community TAs” (teaching assistants) from its class rolls based on a combination of academic performance and activity in online discussion forums. “This has been piloted out only in a couple classes so far, and we're still working on figuring out what works best before rolling this out more broadly,” says Andrew Ng, one of the co-founders of Coursera.
The company is still feeling out what should qualify students to be TAs and what sort of administrative privileges they should get. The models have differed across courses, says Caporale-Berkowitz, but the most promising so far has been in a course on Probabilistic Graphic Models, taught by Daphne Koller, one of Coursera’s co-founders. That course has been held twice; the second time around, Koller selected 18 high-performing participants from the previous iteration who had also been active on the forums and appointed them community TAs.
In addition to an icon next to their posts in the discussion forums identifying them as TAs (as well as flags on discussion threads to which they have made contributions), those 18 students also had an exclusive channel to Coursera’s administrative team.
The idea is to give these power users “the sense that they’re contributing and helping build this with us,” says Caporale-Berkowitz. And there could be more perks in the future, he says. The company could grant TAs special certificates of achievement indicating that they have learned the content well enough to help teach it. As for courses with a peer-grading component, feedback from users who have “shown proficiency in grading the way the professor might have graded” may get extra weight, says Caporale-Berkowitz.
Assigning administrative status to selected outsiders is a common organizational principle of websites, such as Reddit and Wikipedia, that stake the value of their product at least partly on user-generated content. Coursera likes to boast that students who post questions to course discussion forums are likely to get a useful answer from another user in 20 minutes. The stakes of user participation are especially high in the company’s humanities courses, which use a peer grading system that relies on participants to score and give feedback on each other’s essays.
De Jonghe, the Belgian power user, has not served as a TA and was unfamiliar with Coursera’s experiments. But he does agree that to some degree the company’s quality and success will be linked to its ability to wield the labors of its more committed users.
“The platform could really use more people doing TA stuff from what I've seen,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Rarely do professors really interact on the forums, and I think it's perfectly understandable when they don't” -- so far there has been no indication that Coursera’s institutional partners have given participating faculty relief from their normal course loads, and either way, being a dynamic force at the head of a classroom of 50,000 students is a tall order for a lone instructor.
For his part, De Jonghe says he would relish the chance to lend a hand. Over the course of several e-mails to Inside Higher Ed he described several bugs in the model -- particularly the peer grading system in a literature course he took over the summer -- and proposed a raft of suggestions for how the company and its institutional faculty might fix them.
“I have e-mailed the staff a suggestion of giving students an option that lets them track all impending deadlines, along with information about the score penalties associated with each one,” De Jonghe wrote in October after getting docked for turning in late work in one of his MOOCs, “but have not heard back from them, nor do I really expect they will contact me."
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