Guest Post: Report on a CS MOOC from a CS Lecturer

April 16, 2014 at 8:45 am 10 comments

That students don’t finish a CS MOOC isn’t news.  That a CS Lecturer from a research intensive university (an expert in CS teaching) couldn’t stand to finish a CS MOOC is interesting.  Bettina Bair is a Senior Lecturer in CS at Ohio State University.  I’m posting her note to me as a guest post, with her permission.
Recently I enrolled in (and did not complete) a MOOC class from University of Maryland, delivered by Coursera. Since you’ve done some blogging on the idea of distance learning, I thought I would share the enrollment statistics and my experience with you.
The final enrollment for the course was over 220,000 students.  Then about 5000 students completed the course; they will receive a certificate.  About 40% of the students came from developing countries.  And the gender split was 85/15, about the same as for our courses.
The course was presented with canned videos of the professor standing in front of a powerpoint.  There was about an hour of video to watch each week.  The videos had questions to answer every ten minutes or so.  There were also weekly homeworks, quizzes and projects to complete.  There was an online forum for discussion.
Even though I was very interested in the subject, I found the format to be unappealing, and I probably would have learned more from reading a book. The online forum was especially hard to navigate. Imagine 220,000 vying for attention and everyone names their posts, “Help!”.
That said, 5000 people did finish the course.  And good for them.
Let me know if you’re interested in talking more about this course or seeing examples of the coursework.


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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. mgozaydin  |  April 16, 2014 at 9:17 am

    love to see some samples

  • 2. ruzanne  |  April 16, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    I think the energy of the lecturers and their delivery style makes a big difference. I’ve completed 2 CS MOOCs (yes, got the certificates) and liked the format just fine. The discussion boards are easily navigated using the search function. I sure don’t read every thread.

    However, one other MOOC I’m in I’m not sure I will complete, but that’s partly because the subject matter is a little beyond and to the side of my interests right at the moment.

    • 3. ruzanne  |  April 16, 2014 at 12:56 pm

      (PS, I am female, which you could probably guess)

  • 4. Bettina  |  April 16, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    I have saved some of the lectures and other materials here:

    You can view, and copy.

  • 5. Michael S. Kirkpatrick  |  April 16, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    “About 40% of the students came from developing countries. And the gender split was 85/15, about the same as for our courses.”

    Out of curiosity, were those demographics of the original 220,000 or just the 5,000 that completed the certificate? It would be interesting to see the demographic breakdown of attrition rates.

  • 6. dennisfrailey  |  April 16, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    I’ve been teaching in distance education format for over 40 years – since long before the internet and long before MOOCs. The experience cited by Bettina Bair (hi, Bettina!) should be taken more as a condemnation of the way that MOOC was organized and instructed, not of MOOCs alone. The description reminds me of an example we used to use in a training course on how to use our distance education infrastructure – the example, of course, was how to do it wrong! MOOCs and on-line format courses require the instructor to change the way he or she teaches. It sounds like the instructor in this case was unwilling to do this. As Ruzanne notes, the instructor’s energy and delivery style make a big difference. In my case, another factor was the care given to devising student assignments that work well in this mode of teaching.

  • 7. Bettina  |  April 17, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    Michael, Coursera has not shared the demographics of the students who completed the course.

    And Dennis is correct (Hi Dennis!). My note was not intended to be an indictment of Coursera, MOOCs or the U of Maryland. Just my personal point of view. However, they should be concerned when they are giving away a program for free, and only 2% of the people who tried it kept it.

    I don’t know what the perfect format for distance education will be. There are a few sites that are doing really interesting things with purely internet-mediated instruction like duolingo,, and TED-ed (Hey, look it’s me –>

    Interesting times we live in.

  • 8. CSProfMom  |  April 18, 2014 at 10:13 am

    I have started and not finished three MOOCs now, all in fairly advanced topics where I was trying to bring my knowledge up to date. All three featured a talking head with Powerpoint. I don’t get why people think a talking head is a good use of time. It would have been a thousand times more efficient to have had the Powerpoints with a *transcript* of the talk, indexed so that they could be easily searched. The lack of an index mechanism makes talking head videos very frustrating. In a real class, you can always stop the talker and ask questions, but you can’t do that with a video. I found myself constantly fumbling for the pause button, or backing up and replaying bits, so I could frantically transcribe what was being said.

    I think a course based on a good solid book or set of readings, with online discussion groups where people could ask questions of a human facilitator, would be far more effective. But I guess you can’t do that with 220,000 students.

  • 9. Jeff Gray  |  April 21, 2014 at 5:11 am

    It would be good to hear Adam Porter’s side of this story…

    • 10. Bettina  |  April 21, 2014 at 8:24 am

      Definitely. And if you know how to reach him, please ask him what the demographics of the final group were.


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