An Evaluation of Coursera as Public Outreach

Shaker rattle from Uganda

I have posted several times lately about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) such as offered through  In those posts I stuck to a general discussion of MOOCs, holding off on evaluative statements until I completed a course.  So, yesterday I took the final exam for my first MOOC: Listening to World Music taught by Professor Carol Muller at the University of Pennsylvania.  Here are some thoughts:

The academic level for the course was on a junior/senior undergraduate level.  I spent 4 – 8 hours per week watching video lectures, YouTube clips, searching for internet resources, writing essays, and taking quizzes.  Based on the grading scheme, I will end up with a B+ or so, a reasonable grade for the effort I expended.  I could have earned an A except I blew off the 100 question multiple guess final exam by not reviewing any of my notes to refresh my memory on what is a hocket, who employs them, whether an event happened in 1996 or 1998 etc.

  • Overall, the lecture content was quite good.  I learned a lot.  As an anthropologist, I was disappointed by what I perceived as some rather convoluted statements on cultural development, notions of authenticity, and so forth.  But I know ethnomusicologists are equally disappointed in my inability to distinguish between polyphonic and heterophonic textures.
  • But . . . my disappointment is precisely where the class discussion forums provided an outstanding opportunity to engage.  For example, on the concept of authenticity, I had excellent discussions with students and “staff” for the course.  I was particularly impressed with the diversity of  responses as the majority of students were from outside the United States.  Although data were not published for the Listening to World Music class, for another coursera offering on Gamification, U.S. participation was one-third of the student body.  As a general statement, the level and quality of engagement in the discussion forums was in line with first year graduate level seminars.  I was quite pleased with this aspect of the course.
  • Each week participants chose one of four questions/topics and submitted a 700 – 1000 word essay on same.  The essays required synthesizing lecture content, built sequentially throughout the 7-week course, and drew on personal experiences.  In this regard, the student diversity was particularly insightful.
  • Based on my Listening to World Music experience and reviewing the requirements of other offerings, I dropped a couple of courses for which I had previously registered.  Simply the quality and effort required for these MOOC courses is considerably more than I originally imagined.  I note that the course descriptions at now include an estimated time commitment per week.  I really cannot manage taking more than one course at a time.  Fortunately, the schedule of courses and breadth of offerings is such that at the present rate, I will be kept busy for quite a while before I run through all the courses that interest me or will be helpful in my career.

Here is what I found did not work in the Listening to World Music course:

  • The peer review of the weekly essays was perhaps the weakest part of the experience.  This finding is consistent with other MOOC reviews I have read.  The evaluations ranged from the silly (requirement of 2 -3 paragraphs of up to 1000 words, but having points deducted when the evaluator counted a block quote as a separate paragraph making the total 4 even though word count was under 800) to the unhelpful (“very good but I would like to have seen more”).  Ultimately, I followed the solution of other folks who posted portions of their essays in the discussion forums to meaningfully engage.
  • Anonymity on two levels was problematic.  First, for essay evaluations peer review anonymity is problematic simply because there is not an opportunity for further discussion with the writer one is evaluating.  There were several essays I evaluated where I would have liked following up with the writer on some of their insightful comments.  Second, in the discussion forums, students can post anonymously.  Consistently, folks who posted inflammatory or troll-like responses did so anonymously.  In the instances where posters were questioned on their anonymity, they explained anonymity as their right, blah, blah, blah. Signing as Anonymous relegates comments to the great “they said” of discussions and seems completely out of place.  I hope will deal with this issue.
  • The professors and graduate assistants taking the leap into teaching these courses are to be congratulated for their pioneering efforts.  I expect that technical issues will improve, such as Prof Muller’s problems with pointing out locations on digital maps.  The graduate assistant discussions needed work as they sometimes mumbled through important course information, looking down at their notes/iPads while speaking, greatly reducing the effectiveness of delivery.  Perhaps coursera should offer a coursera course on how to deliver a coursera course presentation?

So what has any of this got to do with public outreach for archaeology or museums:

  • The demographic data of the Gamification course offering are quite interesting.  Sixty percent of the participants took the course because of “interest in the subject matter, without a particular educational/business rationale”  Only 15% took the course because “it relates to my educational program.”  MOOCs also offer opportunities for those yet to find a place at the higher education table.  This MOOC reality is contrary to the “sky is falling” concerns expressed by some in higher education.  I am hopeful that coursera will make public such data as they start rolling in from completed courses.
  • Although the MOOC concept will inevitably, and rightly so, find its place within the formal structure of  higher education, as the coursera founders note, taking over all of the 30 seat lecture classes is not there intent.  I don’t really see a hidden agenda here.  Peter Norvig, a pioneer in MOOCs argues that coursera is about the democratization of knowledge and addressing the needs of lifelong learners.
  • In this capacity, think of the opportunities for a MOOC offering on the Introduction to Archaeology as a resource for those with an “interest in the subject matter, without a particular educational/business rationale.”  Or we can abstain from such mass opportunities and leave it to the American Digger.  The same is true for a MOOC offering on the Introduction to Museum Practices.  Would the American Alliance of Museums (until two weeks ago the 100-year-old American Association of Museums) be well served in its decade old campaign of Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums to consider such a form of outreach?

How do you envision that MOOC-like opportunities can be effectively used in your public outreach efforts?

Published by


Museums, Anthropology, Bicycles, Recovery, Cancer, Retired

5 thoughts on “An Evaluation of Coursera as Public Outreach”

  1. I agree with many of the points that you made. I actually ended up enjoy the peer review, not because of the feedback of a grade, but because it forced me to articulate ideas about the topics that i wouldn’t have done otherwise.

    Probably the best thing would be to get rid of the grading of the pieces and instead request responses to the assignments.

    As a form of education, I believe it is a different genre from classroom classes, distance courses, or even listening to lectures on video or audio. The key element is the requirement to do assignments and the class not giving you anything back except for knowledge. The fact that there are no credits or real certificate at the end of it means that the people who work through the course are doing it mainly because they like learning.

  2. I, too, am an anthropologist and teacher (retired) so I found your comments to be very interesting. I enjoyed the course and agree with you for the most part. The peer-reviewing still needs to be worked on; I would have liked more substantial comments than the few that I received. But, I’m not in it for the grade (god knows, I spent enough time doing that from elementary school through my Ph.D. orals. I have problems with the anonymous participants who chose to use their anonymity to attack others or just do some basic trolling.

    I’m still signed up for over a dozen courses, but I will have to drop most of them because they do take up more time than I thought at first. I’m taking two courses now, but that may be pushing things a bit. The World History course has already gotten my attention because the professor is already engaging students online even before the course starts. In the Intro to Soc course, the instructor directly addressed forum issues in each of his videos. That personal touch adds a lot to the course.

    As an educational resource for those of us who are past our student years, I find Coursera to be a great way for me to keep from slipping into tropical malaise while actually getting to enjoy learning this time around.

  3. Hugo,

    I agree on getting rid of the grading. I would be happy to agree to a 50 word minimum critique of each essay I peer reviewed.


    I too dropped several courses I enrolled in, for the very same reason – this is a real study and not just a cursory reading of web pages. For my purposes, is pretty much on target. I look forward to continued courses and am confident the downsides will be addressed.

  4. I have worked my whole life in the medical field and have recently retired so this course really opened my eyes to anthropology and I found it fascinating. The course took much more time than I thought. I enjoyed the course immensely but would have liked to hear more world music. The discussion forums were often very helpful. Thank you for this review and I look forward to reading more about your suggestions and comments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s