Coursera Condescension

Daphne KollerYesterday I watched the video of Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, speaking at UBC a couple of weeks ago. After her presentation, three UBC professors who have taught or are currently teaching a Coursera MOOC contributed to a panel discussion.

In many ways, neither the talk nor the discussion were particularly illuminating. Koller gave a talk that, I understand, she has been giving for some time. It’s the basic schtick for Coursera: “The Online Revolution: Learning without Limits.” It begins with the mathematical sublime, stunning us with the sheer numbers who register or show initial interest in Coursera offerings. And it transitions smoothly through the prestige of the universities who have signed up so far (“30 of the top 60 universities worldwide,” represented by their logos) to the pathos of individual cases.

For the first of three “vignettes” that she provides, we dwell on Raúl Coaguila, a Peruvian who won a Fulbright, we are told, thanks to his Coursera expertise. Because the fact is, Koller informs us, there is “not very much computer education to be had in Peru.” Only Coursera could give him this opportunity, dedicated as the company is to “people whose lives have been transformed by education that they would never otherwise have had.”

As soon as I heard this, I wanted to call bullshit. Because I’ve been to Lima (and Cuzco and Trujillo and Huamanga…) and pretty much all you see are endless adverts for computer courses at the multitude of local colleges and universities. Try for instance, the Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas or the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería. Or even the venerable Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, which has been teaching computing for over seventy years. Heck, this October you could take part in the V Congreso Internacional de Computación y Telecomunicación, hosted at the Universidad Inca Garcilaso de la Vega.

What, did Koller think they live in mud huts down there?

In fact, if this is the same Raúl Coaguila whose user page you can find on the Coursera site (and it’s likely: 24 year old male from Lima, Peru, with a strong interest in computing), then in fact he did his BA in software engineering at (precisely) the aforesaid Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas. Indeed, his LinkedIn profile suggests that he has been teaching there for the past three years.

Now, none of this is to say that putting Coursera on his CV didn’t help Raúl in his Fulbright application. Nor that he isn’t a Coursera fan. On the contrary: he’s clearly heavily involved in the site, listing 21 courses from “Machine Learning” to “Introduction to Guitar.” (It’s not clear how many–if any–of these he’s completed.) And he’s satisfied with his experience enough to encourage his followers on Twitter to vote for the company as “Best Education Startup” in the 2012 Crunchie Awards. Sadly for Raúl, they only came second, losing out to Codecademy. But he’s also a fan of sky-diving (hardly a regular past-time of Lima’s urban poor), and who knows if that influenced his Fulbright assessors just as much, if not more, than his application’s mention of Coursera.

Let me stress that in no way do I want to suggest that Raúl Coaguila is an undeserving recipient of a Fulbright. I wish him well in his future studies (and hope he takes care with his sky-diving).

But I do object to the romanticized pathos invoked by Koller (here and increasingly as her talk goes on): the conceit that Coursera’s object is to lift up the impoverished in Latin America, Africa, and the Third World more generally. Or the notion that North American universities’ participation with her company is the best way to make up for lack of educational capacity in the global South. Beyond the immense condescension and ignorance that it betrays on her part, I bet she isn’t spinning this line to her venture-capital investors. And I’d rather she didn’t spin it to us.

23 thoughts on “Coursera Condescension

  1. Pingback: Coursera Condescension | ilene_scoops |

  2. I have just launched, just today, a Canadian open, online education platform to combat this very thing. All nations have unique and diverse peoples and can share their innovation and what they know with interested people around the world. But the idea that China, or Africa, or India, or any other nation in the world desires and lusts after what we are willing to share, or the ridiculous, preposterous notion that what one nation can develop is superior to another is nonsense. Education systems are unique, languages and context, individual, family, provincial and national ways of teaching and learning matter. Partner and support local success, that’s the only way forward.

  3. Nice commentary. Not to mention the implication that courses offered in English, from N. America, are inherently better and provide better skills & opportunities for students in the future than courses offered in a local language, from local universities.

    I’m really very, very tired of this line of “we’re helping the world’s poor and uneducated because they have few other opportunities.” It is often false and always condescending. It needs to stop.

  4. Thanks for the piece, and for calling out this kind of BS.

    Just a minor but substantive correction: “Code_a_cademy” is a different entity from the “Codecademy” that you link.

  5. hmmm. . . well, I think the founder probably just used Peru as an example. Maybe you can substitute Suriname, Chad, Laos, or Oman. I know for a fact that there are no Homeric Greek specialist in Singapore – where I will be teaching – or any of its neighboring countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines. I do not think that people in Southeast Asia live in mud huts, but the vast majority of them do not have an opportunity to learn from Gregory Nagy. And now with HarvardX they can listen to his lectures. What can be wrong with that?

    Andrew Hui
    Assistant Professor of Humanities
    Yale-NUS College

    • Andrew, yes, clearly it was just an example. But in that Koller said she could go on for hours about such student experiences, and given the tens (hundreds) of thousands of people who have enrolled in Coursera courses, I find it surprising that she couldn’t find a better one. And I also find the way in which she talked about this particular example revealing, as I say.

      Note that I have nothing against online or distance education. Far from it. I have problems, rather, in the first instance with the rhetoric and the shallowness of the thinking that accompanies it.

    • The point of Coursera is not to put students in touch with Greg Nagy, it is to make money. There have long been YouTube/Vimeo videos of famous professors up for free. Nothing prevents Nagy from doing this. And the reason he publishes is so that people can read him. Speaking of which, do HarvardX students get access to the Harvard libraries?

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  8. More Coursera condescension: the Latin American culture MOOC, taught in English by a professor from the Tecnologico de Monterrey, with a Phd in instructional design!!! And reading material that literally says things like “Until 1852, Argentina was a gaucho paradise” (????), or informs the reader that Santa Anna was a “preposterous” dictator.
    You should join it just to get an idea of how awful it is

    • Ha! I might. Can you pass on the link? To be fair, however, there will always be bad courses, in whatever format.

      • True, but I don’t see a course on Latin American studies offered through an American university with a professor with no credentials. In fact, that’s part of their selling point, “the best professors, experts, blah….”. But when the course is offered through a Mexican university, they get somebody with a Phd in instructional design.

        Here is the link:

    • True. Their “quality control” mainly involves touting the prestige of the universities that have signed up. As they increasingly add less prestigious universities to their roster, even that claim loses whatever credibility it ever had.

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  11. Great post. And you are the only person who has voiced my thought about the poor 3d world students Coursera is allegedly helping — they aren’t the poor 3d world, they are the global elite.

  12. Excellent post. As someone who has been on a Fulbright selection panel, I know Raul is a good candidate without Coursera because he is clearly eager to learn and likely to use his scholarship to return from the US and be productive in his home country. As for MOOCs, they do allow someone in a developing country an opportunity to learn, but only if that someone is among the minority who can benefit from them. Before Youtube there were libraries. If access to a million books don’t translate into millions of scholars, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that MOOCs won’t be as world-changing as they claim.

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  14. Thanks for this post. I feel like I should contribute to this discussion since I’m connected to it on multiple counts: 1) I’m from Spain, 2) I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, 3) my research is in the same field as Daphne Koller’s, and 4) I have taken Coursera classes.

    I agree with you that the example of Raúl is probably overstated but I think that this is normally the case in many testimonials and success stories used for marketing. What I would like to share with you is the impressive quality of some MOOCs. I have been lucky enough to do my undergrad in a very decent engineering school and I’m now at a world-class university. Yet, I still think that some of the Coursera classes I took are amongst the best I have ever taken. Why? Simply because the instructors are exceptionally good.

    Sadly, I have never seen any research in top publications in my field coming from South American universities. And very little from Spain for that matter. This needs to change. But the fact is that the lack of top-notch researchers/professors makes it very hard to train new generations of students at the top level. You may think that Daphne Koller is condescending but you would be surprised at how low the quality is in the Congresos Iberoamericanos (or similar) in technical subjects. Lectures by people who are at the forefront of a field can be very refreshing for keen students in any country in the world (Peru, Germany, India…) who are stuck with well-meaning but not very well prepared university lecturers.

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