Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Apprehensive, but inspired by Jennifer Widom’s blog. (And no, the book isn’t free.)

So our online SaaS class launched yesterday, with 62k students and counting.

Not having done this before, of course I’m apprehensive.  Will people “get” the material the way we explain it?  Will the book be useful (to those who are buying it)?  Will our autograders (which go far beyond the multiple-choice autograders used in previous courses on Coursera) scale?  Will the material appeal to most of the people taking the course, whose educational profile is pretty different from that of the Berkeley undergraduates for whom the course was originally designed?

The good news is that the course at Berkeley is going quite well, even with lots of new material since any previous offering and even dry-running some of the technologies that will be used for the online version.

And I’m also inspired by Prof. Jennifer Widom’s blog post “from 100 students to 100,000” about her recent experience teaching her Intro to Databases course at this scale.  I found myself mentally saying “+1? to a lot of her statements, such as “Creating these [multiple-choice but nontrivial] exams, at just the right level, turned out to be one of the most challenging tasks of the entire endeavor”; “having 60,000 students is the need for absolute perfection: not one tiny flaw or ambiguity goes unnoticed”; and the emails from students who were “unabashedly, genuinely, deeplyappreciative” (her emphasis).

We’ve received a few nice emails like that too, although like Prof. Widom, we’ve also (already!) got a handful of complainers.  So far, because there isn’t much actual content to complain about yet (the course just launched yesterday), most of those have been either about the fact that the book is not readily available in their country (to which I’m sympathetic) or the fact that it isn’t free (to which I’m not).  One person was wondering why we aren’t paying them to give us feedback on this early version.  (I guess this person doesn’t post reviews on Amazon or Yelp either, unless those companies have a payola system I don’t know about.)

The problem of the book not being available in some places is vexing.  Most of these complaints have come from students in the Middle East.  I hope they realize that we don’t control where Amazon does business and that we are actively looking at options for wider distribution, though I don’t know that we will solve this problem in time for the current offering of the class.  But we really do want to make the book available to as many people as possible.

That said, some people are apparently multiplying 60,000 by $10 (the price of the ebook) and assuming we (the authors) are cackling to ourselves while sleeping on a big pile of money, or expressing some level of indignation that we’re not giving the book away.  The facts are more modest—fewer than 5% of enrolled students have bought the book, we don’t receive anywhere near100% of the price of each copy sold, we haven’t seen a penny of revenue yet (it takes over 60 days to actually get paid, and the book wasn’t available til mid-January), and it’s cost roughly $20,000 of our own money so far (not Berkeley’s money) and thousands of additional hours of our own time (in addition to our regular duties at Berkeley, so it comes out of our weekends and vacations) to create.  That’s not counting the extra time (also our own) to adapt the course materials, develop autograders that (we hope) will provide meaningful feedback on programming assignments, and so on—work that we wouldn’t have done for the on-campus version and was undertaken specifically to do the best job we could with the online version.  It’s great that ebooks make the cost of distribution  nearly zero, but that doesn’t mean the cost of designing and creating the content is also zero. (Just ask my spouse if you don’t believe me!)

So that’s why the book isn’t free, and relax, we are not doing this in order to quit our day jobs.  Indeed, one might conclude that we actually like our day jobs quite a bit if we are willing to do all the extra work (for no extra compensation) of repurposing the course to reach 60,000 students within the constraints of Coursera’s infrastructure, despite the fact there is an active thread on the course forums about “how can I get a copy for free.”

So, to those of you who’ve expressed gratitude and well-wishes, we thank you deeply, and remind you that attitudes like yours are one of the reasons we LIKE teaching and were foolhardy enough to try this project.  We really and truly hope you will get something positive out of the course and that you’ll be motivated to give us constructive criticism on how to improve it, and when the inevitable infrastructure issues do occur, we hope you will be patient as we try to work them out.  We’re trying all kinds of stuff that even other courses on Coursera haven’t tried yet, especially where autograding is concerned.

And to those of you who believe we are doing this as a secret plot to cash out early, or who believe it is your right to get the book for free for whatever reason, sorry to disappoint you but I’m afraid we are just not as cynical as you.  We hope you get something out of the course anyway, and respectfully ask that you respect our work and our effort.

(Personally, like most people I believe that eventually these courses will have to charge some kind of tuition or find an underwriting model, since the expenses are nontrivial: we’ve used our connections with Amazon, Google, Microsoft and GitHub, among others, to secure donations of free products and services to support the class, but probably not everyone can do that.  My hunch is that if direct tuition were involved, even if it was only $10, a lot of these complaints would go away.  I spend a lot of volunteer time helping to run a small theater, and one thing we’ve learned is that if you give product away, some people conclude that it has no value, and they are the ones who tend to complain the most loudly.  The ones who pay usually say “I can’t believe you don’t charge more.”  It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out for online courses.)

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