Nearly two weeks ago, (old news in the rapidly evolving MOOC universe) Coursera announced that they have begun working with ten additional US state university systems. Some of these systems contain more than 21 universities on their own, and according to the NY Times, these institutions contain more than 1.2 million students. This little addition comes on top of Coursera’s 71 existing institutional partnerships. Wow. For a company that is only 18 months old, they seem to have mobilized an amazing number of otherwise ponderous institutions to stand beneath their banner. I cannot help but be impressed.
But there are some who are less so. Some say that the move by Coursera to partner with these large state institutions marks the end of their blitzkrieg. Alex Usher at Higher Education Strategy Associates has gone so far as to say that this latest move amounts to Coursera “Jumping the Shark.” His basic opinion is that Coursera has now become little more than an LMS provider. However, I am skeptical that Coursera can be jammed into the LMS provider box. The new version of Blackboard Learn, like previous versions of Blackboard, is a place for hosting empty course shells with content provided by the purchaser. Coursera is that, perhaps, but also includes (as of February) five courses accredited by the American Council on Education (ACE), and as of today, they offer 381 additional fully developed courses. The marriage between content hosting service (LMS) and content providing service (publishing company), with some already accredited elements, positions Coursera to become an education services conglomerate never before imagined.
Coursera the LMS:
Luke Waltzer, author of the Bloviate blog offers a thorough review of Coursera the LMS. Waltzer is quite critical of Coursera in this capacity. I am not sure it is fair to call a product that gives home to video lectures, some simple quizzes, and some discussion forums an LMS. But, in a world where definitions grow increasingly fuzzy – perhaps this is the new normal? One could also call WordPress or even Google Drive an LMS for that matter, but they are hardly competitors of Blackboard. So, I guess I agree with Mr. Waltzer on this point. I don’t see Coursera as much of a fully functional LMS. Anyone who’s spent any time in a deeply evolved LMS can understand that Coursera’s platform is fairly trivial by comparison, but that isn’t to say that within a few months they couldn’t be much more serious. I do not agree with Waltzer that Coursera presents an inherently limited environment for learning, worse than other mainstream offerings. Or rather, I think expecting more than the “meh” Waltzer attributes to the “learning space” offered by Coursera may be unfair. This is a bit like referring to the “writing space” that MS Word offers as “meh?” I would and do whole heartedly agree, but I don’t look for much in that space, I guess, and thus it isn’t a very strong criticism. Regardless, I imagine there are developers losing sleep this very evening, adding LMS functionality to Coursera’s already modest capacity. Adding that functionality is relatively easy given that Coursera is also hosting all of their own courses. This is an advantage that a distributed service such as Blackboard doesn’t have. Upgrading the software is relatively easy compared to getting institutional buy-in. Once you’ve got institutional momentum, everyone can hate the software for a few revisions. It won’t matter. I’m thinking MS Windows, Blackboard, etc… If Coursera can stay afloat for the next year, which they will, look for deepening and broadening of their platform’s features. Most importantly, Coursera the LMS isn’t even in 1.0 yet and they’re already rolling with serious institutional momentum.
Coursera the Content Juggernaut:
Three hundred and eighty six courses in a matter of less than a year? That is amazing. I would predict Coursera offering something near a thousand by next spring. And I wonder how many additional accredited offerings? The capacity for institutions to host internal content, paired with deep (and possibly accredited) external course offerings is remarkable. In a way, Coursera offers the trojan horse of an inexpensive internal blended class platform, while out of the horse climb course products that are pre-packaged, cheaper-still, and carry name branded institutional clout. The potential here is something difficult to underestimate.
Usher says Coursera’s revolution is over “with a whimper, and not with a roar.” But I think we have yet to hear this fat lady sing.