{ words and pictures from the cerebrum of Becky Gessler }

November 1, 2012 - 1:42am

Why I failed Coursera and Coursera failed me

I vowed to blog each week during my Finance course at Coursera, and if you’ve been reading, you can see I only posted this and that. Oh, and my initial explanation is here. But really? Only two weeks? What happened?


The onus of education is on the student. But when one attends a class with some level of instruction, there is some onus on the provider of the education. My attempt to learn finance was noble, but I failed in my responsibilities as a student. No, the dog did not eat my homework. It’s more like: I had to drive around the city looking for parking, wake up earlier and stay later at work, buy groceries and cook dinner, somehow fit the gym in.... yea, that whole, working full-time thing, kinda got in the way. My bad.

But Coursera, your bad too. You know I am the kind of student you will attract. Or at least, I assume you do? College educated and intellectually curious, swayed by Ivy-level university branding. I should be right up your alley. How’d you let me fall through the cracks? After the two good weeks, I tried to embark on a third, but in the end I wasn't able to keep up with it. I submitted the third and fourth assignment by blindly guessing, telling myself I would do the work later when I had more time. That never happened. And then I lost hope. And you were never there to tell me to keep going.

As I present my analysis of our unsuccessful relationship, I concede that it is one-sided: this is only my perspective. Well, for a relationship to work you need to be able to give and take, so here it is Coursera.

What Coursera Could Have Done Better

  • You never called me once. I got an email the few times when my teacher posted an announcement, but Coursera, you never sent me any individualized notices about my progress or lack thereof. It’s like I was just a number to you.
  • You never tried to introduce me to your friends. Maybe I was shy dammit. But why didn’t you at least suggest people in my area or from my school or whatever and make me friends?! I guess you didn’t even really know enough about me to make a guess of who I’d get along with.
  • You never reminded me of what I meant to you. After all I had done for you, I never got a “wow good job you’re making progress” or “you’ve already done 2 weeks, keep going!” I need encouragement to feel good about myself Coursera.
  • You just assumed I wanted to keep our relationship secret. For those two weeks it was really good, and you could have done me a favor of conveniently having some ways to share the good news after I passed a quiz or watched a video or something. I just might have used them.
  • Call me superficial, but to be honest, I didn’t like your style. Your Blackboard-ish looking learning system was not awesome, to say the least. Just saying, I didn’t leave you thinking “I can’t wait to log back in!”
  • You were so difficult to read. Getting to the answers on my assignments was so complicated. Maybe this was specific to the finance class, but honestly, it was really hard to know when I was on the right path or the wrong path. I hated mucking around in the forums trying to understand how to correctly solve problems. Sure, it’s all “organic” because the class forms the discussion, but when you just want to know if you are right or wrong, it felt impossible to get there.
  • You didn’t give me any place to put my toothbrush. I alluded to this in past blogs, but seriously, if we are going to be together, I need at least a shelf or something. I was taking all these damn notes and trying to learn, but I had nowhere to put them. I tried Google docs, I tried a notebook, I was using random scraps of paper... that really sucked. There was no way of keeping any of these inside the course.
  • Your arbitrary due dates were uninspiring. I had to do an assignment each week, and in the back of my head I was just thinking, “why does this need to have a due date?” Why couldn’t the course itself just have been 10 weeks and all I had to do was submit the assignments during that time period? I found myself rushing to complete things for these stupid due dates instead of trying to learn things fully. In the end, this is what killed me. And once I missed an assignment, I knew I couldn’t get a certificate, so I said to myself “oh it’s fine, I can just do this course anytime I want now and it doesn’t make a difference.”

What Becky Could Have Done Better

  • Obviously, I should’ve stayed on top of my assignments. But time was so hard. Between all my regular responsibilities and my work getting crazier and my travel schedule, it was really really hard to get my work done on time.
  • I was reluctant to get involved with the forums and interact with the other people in my class. It seemed like too much of a commitment and I wasn’t looking for a social experience. However it seemed like if I had done more in the forums, I would’ve probably gotten more clarity on areas where I was hung up
  • I didn’t involve my social network in my learning experience- I have at least one close friend who is really good at finance, and I could’ve leveraged him and gotten to a place of understanding faster. It would’ve also upped my accountability and made me more pressured to stay on top of my class had someone been asking me “hey, how’s class going?”

Overall it’s interesting how Coursera as a course platform could’ve done a lot more to keep me engaged. Clearly, it would’ve been another test of if they would’ve actually worked, but as of now, the ground is fertile for Coursera to be a more active participant in the learning experience.

In the end, did I just do it for the certificate? In my heart of hearts, I don’t think so. In reality, what would that certificate have given me? It’s not like I would’ve put it on my resume or anything. But the certificate did create some sort of end game, it gave me reason to want to do things on time. And maybe that’s an important lesson in creating engaging online learning. Too much freedom can be crippling.


Your post resonates with my personal experiences with Coursera really well, almost as if I had written it myself (only in Polish). I work from home, which theoretically should make things easier, but I didn't realize how much time watching the (boring - sorry, they were boring, but I'll get to this point in a minute) lectures and doing the homework would take me, on top of preparing and doing my usual work-related stuff, shopping, walking the dog, taking care of my elderly parent, etc.
I tried Introduction to Genetics and Evolution, the subject I'm passionate about, I quit after two weeks of "seeking the answers to the problems" all over the net and in the local and University libraries...Then there was another subject I'm really interested in, Astronomy. The problem is I've got background in Physics/Maths. You'd think this would make the course easier. On the contrary, the lack of proper mathematical approach to the subject, where real equations were really required, made the course borng. Oh ok, so I am picky. I wanted to have formulae, I wanted to know how the lecturer had arrrived at this or that equation. I quit. I started reading "Stellar Astrophysics", which finally has all the answers I was looking for.
So yes, I'm a quitter. But I also found the format of discussion forums not to my liking at all, I don't know, maybe I'm not a "discussion-forums animal" - the thing is, though, I have no problems interacting with people IRL.
Then I discovered Udacity...Uff, a bit of relief! I've already finished the Intro to Physics (good to brush up on one's knowledge). And there are NO WEEKLY assignments there. There are assignments, but you can do them any time you want. You can take the finaly exam at the beginning of the course, which I did (lol). But again, I can't interact with people via discussion forum.
To be honest, I've found my experiment with MOOCs deeply disappointing. Now I'm revising Maths (Calculus, etc.) simply using youtube and the lectures put there by various universities and colleges. Yes, it takes a lot more motivation for me to sit and watch those lectures. And I won't get the certificate after I've finished watching them - but I don't need one. I just want to revise and have fun. And not feel the pressure of "weekly assignments, quizzes (you'd better start preparing now, the quiz is scheduled for next week), and THE FINAL exam". Gosh, I had that at Uni and could have it at Uni if I wanted to go back to school.
Thank you, really, for the post. I feel I'm no longer alone.

All the best from the rainy Poland.