Pedagogy of Coursera

Coursera is an educational technology company that collaborates with prestigious universities to make their courses available online.  Coursera allows individuals from all over the world and of all ages and backgrounds to learn about topics spanning the Humanities, Medicine, Biology, Social Sciences, Mathematics, Business, Computer Science, and more.  In 2013, an additional 29 new universities became a part of the Coursera community, increasing the total number of collaborating universities to 62.  Coursera and these universities serve around 2.7 million people across 4 continents and in 5 languages (Coursera blog).  Coursera hopes that their technology will be able to provide everyone with a world-class education, now limited to a select few.  The vision of the Coursera organization and online education endeavor is the following:

To empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in” (Coursera).

The following short video will give a brief overview of Coursera:

  • To learn even more about Coursera follow click here to go to the Coursera website


The Coursera models its user interface on the following pedagogical foundations:

  • Retrieval Learning Techniques

The assumption that learning happens when individuals encode knowledge and experiences and the assumption that no learning occurs during the process of retrieval has resulted in most educational research and practice centering on improving the efficacy of elaborative learning activities, activities that promote effective encoding.  A 2011 study published in Science by Karpicke and Blunt reveals that retrieval practice produces more learning than the stressed elaborative studying emphasized by contemporary education institutions and practices (772).

Coursera utilizes many interactive exercises.  For example, in my Bio 202 Coursera lecture videos, I often have to solve simple questions embedded directly within the video.  I have discovered that, in order to solve these problems, I must actively engage with the lecture content and that solving these problems helps me synthesize the previously discussed material.

  • Mastery Learning

Current applications of mastery learning in the classroom derive from the studies of Benjamin S. Bloom in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  After his research, Bloom claimed that if students are taught through the more effective program of mastery learning, most of the students have the potential to reach a high level of learning, comprehension, and mastery.  In one of his studies in 1984, Bloom showed that the performance of the average student under mastery learning was about one standard deviation above the average performance of the control class (4).  Two key components of mastery learning are diagnostic pre-assessments/pre-teaching and progress monitoring through regular formative assessments (Guskey 52).  Studies have shown that students who reviewed missing prerequisite concepts and skills before actual course instruction are more likely to master the content.  Frequent formative assessments “reinforce precisely what students were expected to learn, identify what they learned well, and describe what they need to learn better” (Guskey 54).

2010-1207-ic-the-khan-academy-600x338“The traditional model penalizes you for experimentation and failure, but it does not expect mastery” (Salman Khan, March 2011 TED Talk).

Coursera uses both pre-assessments and formative assessments.  For my Bio 202 class, we did not have a diagnostic assessment before class instruction began.  However, Bio 202 employed a similar technique that would mostly likely yield similar benefits to learning.  After watching the online lecture videos, we have to take a pre-lecture quiz that like Guskey stated reinforces, assesses, and gives feedback.  Material in the quiz is expected to be mastered before attending class, and questions can be submitted to be answered by the professor at the beginning of each class.  In addition, students can submit these pre-lecture quizzes as well as the frequent problem sets multiple times to ensure mastery of the material.

“Stay on that bicycle, fall off that bicycle, do it as long as necessary until you have mastery” (Salman Khan, March 2011 TED Talk).


Online Education’s Place in Today’s Worldonlineed

In a world where technology permeates all aspects of our lives, online education has dominated the dialogue of the education community.  More and more online education portals are being created such as Coursera, Khan Academy, edX, and Udacity. Intellectuals praise online education for being innovative, progressive, and the “future of education.”

Columnist and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Thomas Friedman robustly stated that “nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty…. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems” (Chase).

Does this new form of teaching actually improve learning?  Or is online education merely an inferior alternative to the traditional face-to-face lecture?

In September 2010, the “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning “ issued by the U.S. Department of Education conducts a meta-analysis of 45 published online learning studies and answers these questions.  Through the analysis, online instruction appears to be as effective as but not better than traditional face-to-face classroom instruction.  The hybrid or flipped classroom approach appeared to be significantly more effective than the conventional teaching approach (xv).  However, even though online learning does not appear to improve the quality of instruction, online education does and will continue to, like Coursera envisions, provide a quality education for individuals without access to education.  This study, on the other hand does promote the concept of the flipped classroom model such as my Bio 202 course.

  • Click here to go to the Flipped Classroom tab