Coursera: The Platform

Free MOOCs? Forget about it.

Remember the halcyon days when MOOCs (massive, online open courses) were going to revolutionize the world, eliminating barriers of class and geography that were preventing hardworking, intelligent people from receiving—and benefitting from—an education?

Over the past month, Coursera has quietly implemented a huge policy change that gives up on that dream.

It will no longer be offering free Statements of Accomplishment to students who successfully complete (pass) Coursera courses.

If you’re a student who wants to share your achievement with current or potential employers, you’ll have to pay for that certificate.

For a while now, Coursera has offered two types of certificates: a Statement of Accomplishment (Honor Code Track), which is free, and a Verified Certificate (Signature Track), which requires a registration fee. Most courses have offered both options. The Verified Certificate (Signature Track) requires students to give Coursera access to their computer camersas, so Coursera can use facial recognition and typing pattern recognition technology to verify a student’s identity. This has advantages if an individual is seeking Continuing Education Units or similar professional credentials that require identity verification. But as someone who went to a college with a robust and respected honor code, I see no shame in an honor code credential.

I first noticed something was going on a few weeks ago, when I went to my course records page. Back in the day, each successfully completed course was listed with a final grade, a link to a certificate, and a button the student could click to share the certificate on LinkedIn. EdX still formats course records this way:

cells
An “add to LinkedIn profile” button is available on the lower right.

But suddenly, with no fanfare or explanation, the LinkedIn button on Coursera disappeared. Completed courses were listed like this:

genetics and evolution
The LinkedIn button is now missing.

I searched the Coursera site and good old Google for the reason behind the change. Was it permanent or just a temporary glitch? No answers were to be found.

Another curious thing started to happen. Coursera has an Android app, and I used to be able to do entire courses on my phone. But suddenly I was no longer able to take quizzes on my phone. When I tried to, I would get this notice:

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“This is a Signature Track course. You will need to take this quiz on coursera.org.”

This happened for every course, including those for which I had registered as Honor Code Track.

Fast forward to this morning, when I signed up for a new Coursera course and was greeted with this:

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The registration process now offers two options: “Full course with Certificate – USD $49” and “No certificate.”

The implication seemed clear: Coursera was no longer offering free certificates.

But how could that be? I hadn’t received an email from Coursera about the policy change. There was no announcement on the front page of the website. Nothing on Twitter. Zilch on the Coursera blog. Even a Google news search didn’t turn up anything about a new policy.

In short, none of the communication that should happen around such a big change had happened.

Maybe it was just a misleading sales pitch? Perhaps Coursera is desperate for cash, and therefore has chosen to imply that students can only get a certificate if they pay? That thought didn’t give me any comfort. Bait-and-switch doesn’t belong in education.

At first, though, it did look like a bait-and-switch. After completing registration for the above course, I went to its grading and logistics page, which said,

“The Statements of Accomplishment (free) and Verified Certificates (signature track) will be provided to all those who achieve 50% or higher grade, and will be released within 1-2 weeks after the final submission deadline closes. Everyone will be notified by email when they are ready. You will be able to download the certificate from your course records after they are released.”

I’ll refrain from commenting about my chagrin at learning you only need a 50% to pass the course, and instead focus on the fact that, despite the above notice I received when signing up, it does seem to be offering free Statements of Accomplishment.

But what about other courses? I started randomly registering for a bunch of different ones. All gave me just two options:

  • Full course with Certificate – USD $49
  • No certificate

When I went to those courses’ logistics pages, some mentioned Statements of Accomplishment. Others did not.

I did more searching on the Coursera website and finally found this:

Screenshot 2015-05-26 at 8.57.14 AM

“Most Coursera courses offer the option to purchase a Verified Certificate, a shareable way to show your progress on Coursera. Some older Coursera courses also offer a free Statement of Accomplishment to learners who successfully complete the course.” [x]

So there you have it. Coursera is phasing out free certificates. When and how this is happening, we can only guess.


I certainly understand the need for money. Coursera has employees and servers and a lot of other things that don’t come free. If it’s in financial straits and needs to push more people to pay, that’s its prerogative.

But doing it in this non-transparent way is a shame. It’s a change that alters the character of Coursera. It deserves more public acknowledgment from its implementers than it’s getting.

Coursera has a few decent arguments on its side:

  1. Course materials can still be accessed for free, so learning is still free. It’s just the certification that costs money now.
  2. Financial aid is available for students who can prove that the cost of the course would cause significant financial hardship.

The problem is that Coursera hasn’t made those arguments, because there’s been no public discussion. And even if it did, it doesn’t fix the technical problems caused by the new policy that end up making courses less accessible. For example, students who have old computers without cameras, or who rely on their phones to use the Coursera site, won’t be able to earn certificates even if they qualify for financial aid. This makes Coursera much less accessible in developing countries, where old computers and new phones are often the only internet access that individuals have. It also makes accessibility difficult for the unemployed and folks on limited incomes in developed countries. If you can’t afford a new computer, a camera, or don’t have access to a library with these facilities, you can’t earn a certificate.

In addition, Coursera is misrepresenting its certificate options for the “old” courses that still offer Statements of Accomplishment. By using the “Full course with Certificate – USD $49” vs. “No certificate” language during the registration process of every course, they mislead students into believing that there is no free certificate option, when in fact there is. This could lead to students either paying for a course with money they can’t really afford to spend, or not taking a course at all under the belief that they won’t be able to share their accomplishment with anyone once they’ve completed it.

On Coursera discussion boards, I’ve seen mentions of some universities leaving the Coursera platform for EdX. I’d assumed it was a preference for the EdX platform, but now I wonder if this policy change is the reason behind the shift.

So, Coursera students, universities, employees and fans — what do you think about the change? Is it fair? Is it adequately transparent?

Let’s have the discussion that Coursera should have started long ago.

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214 thoughts on “Free MOOCs? Forget about it.

  1. u.u i feel really sad i just finnish a course but i have to pay for my certificate i dont have that money to spend on one paper :/ 49dls for me is to much i live in mexico so its a kind of expensive

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I have tried and obtained financial aid for 6 courses last week. It works but, the thing you need to understand is that these verified certificates aren’t worth shit (USELESS/REDUNDANT). More importantly it would be preferable if you attend a college/school and keep your GRADES HIGH and to show that you have knowledge of topic “X” (maybe X was taught, maybe not in your course) do a PROJECT or PUBLISH a PAPER on “X”. That will help.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I agree. I don’t know that the certificates are very useful for anything beyond the sense of accomplishment they might give. I suppose if the course involved a project, including that project in a portfolio might be useful.

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      3. They (Recruiters) won’t even bother looking at MOOC’s. Yeah if you want that project to shine, highlight them separately and keep a separate Project’s section.

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  2. Lately, they have even deprived us of the graded quizzes and programming assignments on some courses. It’s a total bait-and-switch. I used to rely on those quizzes and assignments to test my learning. I don’t care if I can share my certificate with others or not, but this deprivation of tests is abhorrent. I am not going to pay, though, on principle, howsoever tempting it might be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally agree with this statement. I too find it a pity (or shall I call it a shame) that even the quizzes are not validated any more. I can kind of live with the fact that I don’t get an “official certificate” or that I can’t share it with others (who cares???), but they should not have taken away the chance to test your knowledge about the course you’ve followed. Now you can fill in the quizzes, but the moment you want to submit for evaluation, you hit the wall they built around the courses. Too bad…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It seems they have even tightened further.Some courses now require you to purchase it if you want to access teaching videos beyond the preview video.Luckily i completed some of these courses before these new restrictions were imposed.

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  4. I’m finding courses that don’t have any sort of free option. It seems to be ‘pay or get out of the way’ now, even if you don’t care about any level of certification. Not a good thing.

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  5. Well now its worse, you can’t take up a course (almost all of the courses) without paying for it, even with no certificate option.

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