The Deterioration of Coursera

Coursera is the biggest massive open online course (MOOC) platform founded in 2012 with over 1900 courses currently being offered. The website today is nothing like what it used to be in 2015, especially after moving to a new system in mid-2016. It’s not surprising that Coursera remains the alpha in the MOOC industry since it’s an oligopolistic market with universities mostly sticking to the same platform over time. But it’s mind-blowing to know that highly competent people can create a great platform and then destroy it a few years later.

So what happened? For each good feature they added, they removed five other great features. After the 2016 update, course providers are no longer allowed to place a promotional video in the course description and old videos are removed. Users could no longer click on professor names to see their profiles, which took Coursera a year to fix this problem. Professors should deeply appreciate the reappearance of their profiles, because not only are links to university profiles gone, the catalog of all university providers has also been deleted recently.

Coursera has redefined MOOC to be Monthly Open Online Course, as most of the courses now are running a new session every month, and even allowing students to switch sessions if they miss any deadline, helping procrastinating students strengthen their habit of ignoring deadlines. With so many ongoing sessions at once, course sizes have decreased dramatically and the discussion forums are now for roam, as students stare at the blank screen and wonder why nobody complies when the professor asks them to write down their thoughts in the forums. Forum posts are never kept from session to session, strangling the only way left to revive the forums. The Meetup.com collaboration with Coursera is gone too, and the Coursera experience is now predominantly solitary.

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Low resolution thumbnail extremely enlarged to evoke nostalgia of 90s computer monitor.
A course thumbnail.

The original system used rectangular course thumbnails, which were elegant and suited modern wide-screen monitors. They scaled the thumbnails down and made them squares and that’s why you see those unpleasant looking thumbnails from older courses. To win the ugliness contest, they further blow up the thumbnails in course description pages to show how low the image resolution can be.

 

The courses in the original system offered a lot of features and allowed providers to create their own tabs. It was richer and better looking than other course management systems such as Blackboard. When I first saw the updated course interface, all I saw was a skeleton of the old system, and I optimistically thought I didn’t log in my account so the new features were just hidden. I see that a great interface can look very clean, but there are indeed countless removed course features.

The current Coursera is much more emphasized on making money, which is necessary, but all the backward changes on the website can only be explained by replacing old web developers with new ones who are spies from edX (their competitor)! Not even interns can be smart enough to just delete all the great work previously done and make a new system from scratch.

Coursera is the only major MOOC platform that does not allow users to always have access to courses after they are finished, not even if you pay. Their developers probably never take any of their own courses, because they never recognize any non-monetary value in online courses as they permanently deleted a whopping 500 courses (how to recover them), without any remorse, when they changed the system in 2016. When you go to any web address of deleted courses, it simply redirects to the course catalog, without showing any message of apology. Then I started to hate their course catalog page, because most of the times when I see it, it means an old course is gone! As Professor John Cochrane mentioned, he did want to keep his Coursera course when the system updated, but the new system had so few features that many parts of his course are no longer supported and he was forced to terminate the course and migrate it to his own website.

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The redirected page of deleted courses shows a cup holding tears of Coursera fans.

Since one of Coursera’s founders is prominent in machine learning, you probably expect Coursera to have a great course recommender system. But no! On course description pages, “You May Also Like” is shown all the way in the bottom below FAQ and “How It Works”. And when you click the arrow to see more related courses, it just shows one more course, with a maximum of only five courses. And these courses are most likely the other courses in the same specialization, duh. Ironically, a specialization’s description page did not link to constituent courses that are free before 2017 (another blind profit grabbing example), so the quickest way to browse all courses in a specialization was to go to one of them (through search bar) and view “You May Also Like” section. In the personal recommendations page, it works by asking users to pick a few categories and simply show the five most popular courses in those categories, without any consideration of personal course history.

My real life professor Scott E. Page teaches Model Thinking on Coursera. When he tried to tell his former students about his new free e-book for the course, Coursera did not allow that message to be sent, because a message about free things belongs to “spam” and monetizing the book (in which Coursera will probably share profit) is the way to make the message legitimate. If this is the mindset of Coursera, I really hope it will die the day after I download all of the remaining great courses.

 

List of other worsened site features:

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Level and commitment attributes are unpredictably shown in some courses.
  • Course description format differed greatly among courses.
  • List of completed courses does not list all of the completed courses.
  • In the catalog, there is only one way to sort the courses, further promoting disparity in popularity among courses.
  • Diminished excitement when the sessions start since almost all videos are viewable before sessions start. The only difference between an ongoing session and a future session is whether quizzes are open.
  • Fixed after a year: list of inactive courses was a graveyard of deleted and alive courses with no clickable links.
  • Tracking keyboard typing pattern to verify student identity is gone.
  • Numerous site bugs that never get fixed and Coursera never learns from great features of other MOOC platforms.

 

List of added site features:

  • User ratings of courses with room for improvement (e.g. use Bayesian rating scores, use an algorithm to show important ratings first)
  • A more detailed catalog replaces the original filtering system
  • Videos settings are easier to adjust. Transcript is shown below the video. Added like button to videos but does not show the number of likes or anything.
  • One, and only one, of the multiple categories a course belongs to is displayed in the course description page
  • A more detailed personal profile page which nobody views because the forums are deserted
  • Online master degrees
  • Many other money grabbing designs

 

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