- Technology. Coursera is not bounded by constraints of the physical classroom and allows for a new kind of individual experience through technology. Instead of one smarty pants answering all quiz questions from the professor, now each student can answer individually. Lectures can be broken up into small sections and each individual can go at their own pace.
- Structure. I find this unique to Coursera - they allow students not only to receive formal education from some of the best universities and professors, but accepts assignments and give students some degree of recognition in the form of certificates. It required some very innovative approaches, for example, letting students grade each others' papers in the humanities, and letting computers auto grade programming and math assignments.
- Community. This is my favourite point. Coursera has students from all ages, geographies, and backgrounds. Each class can be huge - my history class currently has 86,000 students enrolled. Though not all students are active, it creates for a very unique interaction experience both on and off line. Online forum discussions are thus jam packed with new perspectives, and with so many students keeping watch on the material, discrepancies are quickly found and improvements can be made. I've learned very much through the exchange between my fellow students.
There will remain challenges in recognition of a students' work, especially in the context of work. One might be - how can an employer be sure their employee was the one who took the course online? Most people are honest, but for more mission critical work, this becomes a more important question.
I am very excited to see Coursera's quick developments - it makes quality educational content and interaction available and accessible, especially to the less privileged. Here's a wonderful talk by one of the co founders of the initiative. Enjoy: