Coursera – too much of a good thing?


I discovered the world of free online courses from Coursera in August last year. I took a six-week course on Listening to World Music. It was a good  experience and the course opened by ears and mind to new musical experiences.

It was also my first experience in a MOOC – a Massively Open Online Course. I watched lectures, answered quizzes, submitted a weekly essay and assessed my peers.

Now I have become a Coursera addict, signing up to courses, getting started, then often dropping out because I have been overwhelmed by the amount of material I need to watch and read.

The reality is that a free online course is still a course and needs time to watch the lectures, do the readings, watch additional videos (usually documentaries on YouTube), participate in discussion forums and doing the assignments.

In recent months I have become overwhelmed with this abundance of free online learning, and I thought it is time to take a break, and think about how I use my time and participate in these free online courses.

What is Coursera?

Coursera is an organisation that offers free online courses from recognised universities, mostly in the United States. A course runs for around 4 – 8 weeks with weekly video lectures. There are embedded quizzes (usually multiple choice questions) in the lectures, used to check your understanding and often there is a weekly or fortnightly quiz which counts towards your final grade.

The assignments can be a collection of multiple choice questions which can be assessed automatically or an assessment task submitted for peer review. Typically there are 3 to 5 peer reviews and a rubric is provided to guide the assessment. This is where the system can break down as there is no accountability for the assessors – they could give full marks or no marks with no repercussions or dialog with the student.

A statement of completion is awarded based on the assessments but this certificate is really not much more than a PDF that shows you completed a free online course. It doesn’t carry any weight as far as the university is concerned. The benefit of the course is what you learn, and the friends you make in the forums.

Usually one of the students creates a Facebook page which I think is a wonderful forum for discussion. Recently I took a course on listening to Beethoven’s piano sonatas. The Facebook page has become a wonderful community and I have made many friends around the world – including USA, Canada, Brazil, England and even Mongolia.

Some recent courses I have completed with a Statement of Completion are:

Listening to World Music – I learnt about pygmy music, the ethics of sampling music from one culture and repackaging in another (Deep Forest), Tuvan throat singing, South Africa, Paul Simon and Graceland, and Australian Aboriginal music (Yothu Yindi). I bought a book on Tuva and another book on the pygmies – both books are still on my “to read” shelf.

Introduction to Sound Design – this was an interesting course about the physics and qualities of sound. I now understand the nature of sound in regard to partials, harmonics and timbre and the nature of sound propagation. This may sound theoretical but it has practical applications in courses such as digital music.

Introduction to Music Production – conducted by Loudon Stearnes from the Berklee Music online school in Boston. This course was brilliant! I learnt about digital audio workstations, effects, filters and how they affect the quality of sound. The assessment tasks were essays or screen-casts on how to use different effects, or choosing a microphone. I learnt about digital audio interfaces, microphone characteristics and mixers.

History of Rock Music part 1 – another fascinating course on music. The lecturer is John Covach from the University of Rochester. I learnt a lot about the early days of rock and roll, and the music of the 1950s, and 1960s up to about 1970. There was a prescribed textbook “What’s that Sound” which I ordered second-hand but it only arrived in the last week of the course, so I will eventually get around to reading it.

Part 2 of this course starts in late October and I will probably take the course again. I started this course after part one completed, but I had trouble keeping up so I dropped out. I downloaded the lecture videos for later viewing but I will probably get more benefit by participating in the forums, taking the quizzes and reading the text book in conjunction with the course.

Introduction to Public Speaking was a terrific course by Professor Matt McGarrity of University of Washington. Learning public speaking in an online environment? How can that work? Students had to make a video recording of their speech, upload to YouTube but keep the link unlisted, then submit for peer review. I learnt a lot about persuasive speaking and better understand the challenge of making good video recordings.

Two Facebook pages were created for this course and I helped many people with my comments on their speeches. One of my speeches was on how to reduce your accent as many of the speakers had English as their second language. I enjoyed helping my new Facebook friends with their speeches – Fatima in Pakistan, Mireia in Spain, James in USA and many more.

My follow-up activity from this course is to develop my skills in video recording and speaking to a camera as well as learning more about rhetoric, persuasive speaking and constructing a solid argument.

Participation but no assignments

A recent course that I enjoyed was Introduction to Social Psychology. I wasn’t sure what to expect but the subject matter is fascinating, I watched all the lectures and I purchased second-hand copies of the text books for later reading. Unfortunately the assignments demanded a lot of time and I wasn’t able to make the commitment which is a pity as I am sure I would learnt a lot more. Anyway, I am now a member of the Social Psychology network  and I have the two text books by David Myers to read.


Since the courses are free I sometimes enrol and watch the first week of lectures to see what it is like. I also want to know what the workload will be like. I have started the Gamification course twice, but not convinced it is of much relevance to me. I started another course on Disruptive Technologies, but didn’t like the lecturing style. Another course on history was very disappointing with an avuncular lecturer sitting in a chair and waffling on about something. Boring!

Why the overload?

The reality is that I only have limited discretionary time, maybe two hours each day which I need for other activities such as playing the piano, rowing machine workout, going out, blogging, watching DVDs or just relaxing. Based on my previous 12 months I think it best to take no more than two concurrent courses – one is ideal. Different days of the week can be assigned for the courses to maximise the focus.

I enrolled in the Listening to Beethoven Piano sonatas course but I have fallen behind in watching the lectures and doing the supplementary listening, so I decided not to worry about it. I download the lectures and will watch another time and with no pressure to complete the assignments which are written responses to the music – something I find very challenging to do. The Facebook community is a wonderful resource for this course and I have learnt a lot and had great discussions.

The temptation of Coursera is that because courses are free so I want to sign up and see what I can learn. It is easy to click “Sign up” but it didn’t take long to discover I am enrolled in up to five concurrent courses. I am sure that these courses won’t be free for much longer. Coursera must have a business model in mind, and I am sure that charging for courses will happen sometime soon.

One option is to stay enrolled in the course then save the videos and PowerPoint slides for later viewing. I know that I will probably never watch the videos, so I think it is better to make a commitment to a course and participate fully.

The big challenge  is which courses should I take? I am going on holiday for three weeks and during that time there are some courses happening – some I have just started (Comics and Graphic Novels) and others will be starting: Introduction to Programming for Digital Artists and Musicians, and The Kennedy Half Century. My plan is to start these courses when I return from my break.

Usually I watch the videos in the evening when I am quite tired, so I am now going to explore the option of watching the videos early in the morning – maybe get up earlier during the week. Another option is to watch the videos on my phone will I commute on the train. I have tried listening while on my walk, with occasional glances on the screen, but this is unsatisfactory as I want to take notes, especially when text is displayed on the screen.

What’s my new strategy?

Before I begin a course I need to ask myself why I want to take the course. What do I expect to learn? Some of the course are purely for fun like the Comics and Graphic Novels. I used to read comics and now I want to learn more about this genre.

Once I have chosen a course I should commit to watching the week one lectures in the first week and see if the style of teaching and course objectives are what I am expecting. If possible I should attempt the first assignment.

After one week I should be able to decide one of the following:

  • Commit to doing the course properly
  • Save the videos and handouts for later viewing
  • Unenroll and forget about it.

The course I am going to explore in the near future are as follows.  I expect that I will only be watching the videos of the first two courses as I will be away for part of the course.

  • Comic Books and Graphic Novels ( 7 weeks)
  • From the Repertoire: Western Music History through Performance (7 weeks)
  • The Kennedy Half Century (American History/Politics) (4 weeks)
  • Intro to Programming for Musicians and Digital Artists (8 weeks)
  • Design thinking for Business Innovation (5 weeks)

You can view my Coursera student page and see which courses I am enrolled in. I hope you find something of interest!

My earlier articles

MOOCS – Free online learning for the world

Coursera – Quality University education for the world


Author: charuzu

I live in Sydney and interests include music, piano playing, technology, cooking, English language, public speaking, Toastmasters, Asian culture (especially Japan and Korea), cinema, personal development, productivity and making friends with people from around the world.

6 thoughts on “Coursera – too much of a good thing?”

  1. I too am somewhat overwhelmed with the online learning possibilities. I’ve used com Virtual Training Company ( since 2005; it costs $250/year for online access to all their courses. I also started subscribing to Screencasts Online ( as I’m a Mac-addict ($US70/year). Problem is: I’m always “behind” (so I say to myself) in my learning endeavors! Add to that MIT Open Courseware ( and Stanford/Harvard University et al via iTunes and I’m a more involved student now than when I was in my teens! :0)

    Gratifying learning possibilities: yes! Overwhelming at times: YES!

    But I’ll keep at it anyway! :0)

    PS Note too I have ( a free-trial go, but their server performance was just too painful to deal with (lectures/lessons stalled mid-play etc..).

  2. Hi, Charles. This is your Coursera “friend,” Laura. I’m enrolled in 4 courses, but I was able to finish two early because they posted all the videos and quizzes at the start of the course. I really like that idea. I’m going to follow your blog! Loved the pictures of your trip…glad you’re home safely.

  3. i enrolled 3 courses at 1 time, then thought i wouldn’t have time to work on all at the same time, dropped off 2 to make my life easier.

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