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Netflix-style unlimited subscriptions at Coursera?

This morning, I logged into Coursera with the intention on doing some work on a programming course I’ve been working on. Was hoping to finish the course in the week before a much anticipated and needed summer vacation.

On logging in, I encountered a new banner at the top of the screen:

Intrigued, I clicked, and found this.

There is no “Read More” button here to find more, so I don’t know if there is any fine print.  The only way to find out more is to sign up for a free 7 day trial.

On the surface, it seems to be billing itself as unlimited access to the full course catalogue. It also indicates a price of $66 CDN per month after the trial period. At current exchange rates, this would translate to $52 USD per month, so I’m assuming based on price equivalents in other courses that the US price would be an even $50 USD per month.

This seems to be a step beyond the previous model, launched in the fall of 2016. That move introduced subscriptions for specializations. A specialization in Coursera is a set of courses related to a common discipline and usually totaling around 6 months of class time. Think the equivalent of taking a year-long university course on a topic. Prior to fall 2016, courses were paid for individually, with perhaps a volume discount for those who paid for a whole specialization at once. Since fall of 2016, the move has been toward subscribing, monthly, to a specialization, until the subscription is cancelled or the program is completed.

Previously though, subscriptions would be to one specific specialization, and subscribing to multiple specializations would mean paying for each individually. What I am seeing advertised now is more of a blanket Netflix-style buffet subscription to the whole course catalogue.

Oddly, I’m not seeing anything about this on the Coursera blog.

I pinged Coursera on Twitter to see if they have anything more to say. I’ll update here if I hear anything. I also can’t see anything else written anywhere on the internet. I suspect, as a long time regular user of the platform that I may be on the early wave of the rollout or part of a pilot test.

However, if this is indeed the direction Coursera is going, this is very exciting news.  This sort of general subscription model is popular across a range of other types of content like music (Xbox music, Spotify, Apple Music) and video/TV (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu). Subscription to a library of online courses seems like a logical step.

In fact, this is already the case with services like (in the process of rebranding as LinkedIn Learning. LinkedIn Learning is $26 a month with an annual subscription in Canada.

That’s a little less than half what Coursera seems to be settting as a price. However, it’s a bit of an apple and oranges. LinkedIn Learning / Lynda courses are usually pretty basic instruction, a few hours of video tutorials and no graded assignments but some simple exercises you can follow along with. It’s kind of the equivalent of a webinar. There is also no learner-instructor or learner-learner interactions available.

Coursera courses on the other hand tend to be more of a substantive course. There are graded assignments (in some courses, very demanding ones), the courses are longer (4-6 weeks with 1-2 hours of lecture content per week), and there are discussion forums to help scaffold learning. A full access to the Coursera catalogue is a larger thing, and it makes sense that it would be more.

The interesting thing to see will be how well this is received. Doubtless Coursera is collecting lots of data to drive their decision-making on new models of payment. And their revenues have been rising at a steep rate during the past few years.

I can see a lot of intriguing applications of this.

  • For someone who is serious about continuing professional development, this could be a pretty good deal. $66 ($50 USD) a month is about $2 a day, about the cost of a cup of coffee. Put another way,  it’s comparable to a gym membership, but for your mind. Or, alternatively, about $800 a year. 1 – 2% of annual income if you have a decent job; not an unreasonable amount to invest in yourself if you want to keep sharp.
  • It’s also low enough that a company could offer a subscription as a perk to employees to help them keep skills sharp.
  • Conceivably, a government could pay for a subscription temporarily as part of employment insurance or welfare.
  • Finally, the price is pretty reasonable for someone between jobs to take a concentrated crash course of study to skill up.

All in all, if this is in fact the path Coursera is generally planning to take, this is pretty exciting development for the world of MOOCs and online training in general.

More on this as information becomes available.


(July 10, 2017) The learner help page at Coursera seems to confirm that this is planned as a broad rollout eventually.

(October 1, 2017) Discovered that Coursera is more generally offering subscription access to businesses for employee learning and development. $400 USD / person / year.

Concept: Video-conferencing for second-language learning


For decades, bilingualism has been official governnent policy in Canada, a goal of the educational system across the provinces. In pursuit of this, federal and provincial governments have spent lots of money on second language learning. All across the country, anglophone students take French as a Second Language (FSL)  courses from early grades through to high school. These courses range from basic core French up to immersion and intensive.

And similarly, francophone students take English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

The problem

However, despite all the cost and effort over decades, results are somewhat lackluster. Statistics indicate that only about 17% of Canadians however are bilingual English-French. (A reasonably impressive 35% of Canadians are bilingual, but this includes other languages)

Why is this so?

One of the challenges of second language learning for official languages in Canada is lack of opportunity to practice with speakers of the other language in an immersive fashion. Language, we must remember, is not some abstract skill. Language is a practical set of tools used to communicate with people. And these tools take regular practice to gain and maintain.

It is hard to acquire language skills in a vacuum, and harder to maintain them after the formal learning stops. These skills have to be practiced to gain them, and need to be regularly used to avoid the skills degrading.

The problem is that for much of the population in Canada, there is no regular access to speakers of the other official language. Imagine a French Québécois living in rural Quebec. The locals are almost 100% francophone. All normal conversation, outside of a school, are in French. English is only accessible passively through American TV and movies. Aside from tourists, there is little to no daily opportunity to try out English skills.

On the other hand, imagine an English speaking person in suburban Toronto or Vancouver or Calgary. French is something that exists only in a classroom. How many French speakers can be found out on the streets? Truth be told, it is probably easier to find a conversation partner in Hindi or Mandarin in these areas than French.

Bilingualism rates in Canada
French-English Bilingualism rates in Canada

To practice speaking the second language, you either need to find a willing language partner in your community. Either that, or you need to travel to go immerse yourself, or live in a mixed area. Most people are not going to find the first. And as for the second, outside of southeastern New Brunswick, Montreal, and the Ottawa River valley, you don’t tend to see these highly mixed environments. Again, Canada’s cities are linguistically rich, but this is not widely so in terms of English-French. Ottawa, Montreal, and Moncton, are probably the richest urban environments in Canada for vibrant English-French bilingualism. There are also bands of bilingualism in Northern Ontario bordering Quebec, the Ottawa RIver valley, and Quebec’s Eastern Townships. These places are home to something like 5 million Canadians. What about the other 30-odd million?


So what is to be done? How can willing language learners get around these limitations?

One option would be to take advantage of advances in communication technology.

Video-conferencing software like Skype, Whatsapp, Lync, Google Hangouts, and Facetime combined with faster wired and wireless internet offer an opportunity to collapse the barriers of distance and bring together people in different places for face-to-face communication. These tools are already used every day for separated family members to keep in touch and for business associates to communicate.

What if this was applied to second language learning courses?

Penpal exchanges are a long running learning approachfor language classrooms. But what about using Internet audio or video chat to allow a voice or face to face connection? Any of the existing video conferencing tools could work as the medium of communication. The challenge then would be to help connect / pair up people with complementary needs for language exchanges.

I’m imagining some sort of web-based platform to help connect FSL classroom teachers and students from English Canada with ESL classroom teachers and students from French Canada. The platform would enable people to meet each other, at which point contact information could be exchanged and appointments set to do face to face exchanges. Then sessions could be set one on one between matched pairs of students.

Such a platform could target either students in grade school classrooms or older students pursuing second language learning on their own as two distinct markets. There could also be a third institutional market, for example for government hires to meet language requirements, or for a Canada-wide company looking to skill up its employees who need bilingualism.

This social platform could enable people to match up for video/audio-based conversational exchanges, as well as provide a platform (internet chat or discussion board) for text-based exchanges. The video and audio conferencing itself is probably best handled by the specialized platforms that deal with all the complexities of providing smooth video chatting. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel of video chat tools.

The service of this site would be focused on enabling appropriate pairings of classrooms and individuals. Learners could be matched on age, relative language level, gender, hobbies/interests or whatever other factors are appropriate. The key is that francophones get matched with anglophones to allow for a real exchange.

With better opportunities for regular real life practice, a lot of potential benefits appear:

  • The use of the second language becomes necessary. In a dialogue with your local classmate who is also unilingual, it is tempting fior both to just slip back into their own first language, because it’s easily possible. However, if you’re talking with someone who is just as weak in English as you are in French, you both need to work your opposite language skills or else communication won’t happen.
  • Cultural exchange. The “other” becomes less of an other. English Canadians have real first hand contact with French Canadians. They become more real to each other, no longer “Two Solitudes.”
  • The motivation to learn the second language is raised because the practical benefits are made more concrete. It’s not just an artificial dialogue to pass an assessment. It’s not an abstract piece of learning to pass a test or course. It becomes a useful tool to communicate with real human beings you can see and interact with.
  • Confidence in second language skills rises and hesitation to go out and practice in the real world falls. It’s often a lack of confidence that keeps people back from practice even when skills are there and opportunity is available.

All of this should serve to improve outcomes in learning in terms of transfer of learning and retention of learning.

Concept: A VR tool for couples to reconnect

Relationships take work.

These days, the world is busy, and lives are busy. Our minds are scattered on a hundred different competing points of attention and little tasks to do. In a couple, one person will have his job, and the other will have hers, and attending to the details can be all-consuming.

As you pass through life, day after day, your mind tracks on a journey, your whole mindset bouncing and drifting over time as the waves of life come up against you. And you have your own daily concerns and challenges, and your parter has her own. If you don’t take the time to regularly reconnect and resync, it’s all too easy to drift off in different directions and end up on different pages. That’s why it’s so important to take the time to step away, together from this daily noise to be meaningfully together and rekindle that shared heartbeat, that shared engine that drives the ships in a shared direction underneath all this daily and weekly turmoil. We humans are forgetful, and benefit from reminders.

This can take many forms. A dinner out, a weekend away from the kids, a nice vacation together, some shared hobby. All of these are great ideas.

But, as always, I’m into technology, and like to think about the ways that tech can enhance our lives in weird and wonderful ways. And in this spirit, an interesting application of VR occurred to me recently.

Couples will have certain moments and places where they have shared sweet memories together. Places and times when they shared the best moments together, where they felt most in sync and in love. The place you first went out together. Your honeymoon. Some great weekend or vacation together. Reminding ourselves of these moments, and regularly creating new such moments is one of the ways you keep that connection fresh and alive.

Now imagine if you could take these places and moments, say from pictures and videos you have taken, and then somehow digitize the place into a 3D VR model. Then maybe add in some soundscapes that remind you of that place and time and incorporate that into the model. Then on some given night, instead of sitting on the couch watching Netflix in that hour before bed, you can both put on the VR headset, and fire up this moment and sort of bring yourself back into that shared memory and mental state. Do that for 15, 20 minutes, and then take off the goggles and spend some time together IRL.

Log out of the world. Resync your signals. And then log back into reality and spend time together maybe a little more present to each other.

Hands-on with HoloLens

I’ve written a lot here previously about the potential for Augmented Reality, specifically the HoloLens, introduced in 2015 and released as a developer edition in 2016. However, the HoloLens being expensive ($4000 in Canada) and a little hard to find, I haven’t previously had the chance to use one hands on. Last week, thanks to a vendor demo at work, I was finally lucky enough to get my hands and eyes on this amazing piece of technology. Here I share some of my observations from this brief hands on session.

Note that I only got to spend something like 30 minutes of time directly with the device, so there was not time for a full and comprehensive review, nor for any deep assessment of how well it would fit into an extended use workflow. But I explored around as much as I could in the time I had.


First of all, the strengths:

  • The refresh rate and power seem good. I didn’t notice any lag or stutter while moving around a relatively complex 3d image
  • The device features a decent amount of storage memory. The device has a nominal memory is 64GB. You end up with somewhat less with the operating system installed, but you still have a decent amount of memory.
  • The main interface is similar to Windows with the tiled layout. Menu interfaces are similar to Windows, Xbox One, etc. It runs a special edition of Windows 10.

  • The voice interface and voice recognition seemed to work very well. The interface for the OS uses Cortana voice assistant as one of its main interface modalities (along with gestures). You can use voice commands to launch apps and other basic tasks.
  • The operating system comes with a nice tutorial app to help the user quickly acclimate to the user interface. I didn’t get a chance to go all the way through this tutorial, but what I saw was good.
  • The device has connectivity for Bluetooth and Wifi. Can connect a Bluetooth keyboard. Allows you to use typical apps for productivity, serves as a screen. I did not have the chance to try this out.
  • Battery life is not bad. About 3 hours with active use. I see some reviews online reporting up to 5 hours, depending on the type of usage. This is not enough for a full workday, but enough to say, get you to lunch, you plugin to recharge, and then come back after.  Recharging apparently takes a fair amount of time. However, the HoloLens can be used while plugged in if you’re sitting in one place, which could help extend the length of a session.
  • Video capture was smooth and easy, and will capture your first person perspective, including the apps and holograms in your view. Microsoft calls this “mixed reality capture.” The device features a 2.3 megapixel video and still camera.
  • I found the device to be reasonably “glasses friendly.” I wear glasses, and sometimes VR headsets can be a pain to make sure the two layers of lenses between the digital goodness and my eyes cooperate and align, but this worked well.
  • The device was also reasonably comfortable to wear. It sat well on my head, and was not noticeably heavy. Some VR goggles I find a little front heavy, but the HoloLens is lighter and doesn’t project as much outwards in the front.


The device is not by any means perfect, however. This is a first generation developer edition for developer experimenters and creative professionals. It’s an R0 product. It’s a lot of the way toward where it needs to be for a widely usable consumer device, but some things could benefit from a few more years to tweak and take advantage of the ever falling prices of hardware to improve the specs and performance. A few shortcomings with the current edition:

  • The vertical field of view is a little narrow.  It’s far enough from your eyes that it only takes up part of the field of view and the edge is visible. If you’re too close to a large holographic object, it will just end at the edge, which breaks the illusion. Perhaps later versions will address this with a screen that fills more of the field of view.
  • Resolution is a little low at a max of 720. It would be difficult to do very detailed 3D models. Hopefully future models can bump this up to at least HD.
  • The device seems somewhat limited in terms of the basic built in gestures. Tap to click on something,tap and hold to drag, resize, or rotate an object and bloom (open your fingers with your palm facing you) to launch a menu. I would be interested to see if the development kit allows you to build new gestures. I believe the Kinect dev kit has a tool for this.  The only thing is that if you build new gestures, part of your work would be to seamlessly educate users on the gestures. All in all though, I did find it relatively intuitive to pick up the basic gestures, even without the built in tutorial.


  • The RAM is somewhat limited – 2GB for the CPU, and 1GB for the “Holographic Processing Unit,” a specialized GPU of sorts for handling processing of 3D graphics. The CPU specs are at the level of a smartphone or tablet, so despite the fact you can connect a keyboard, you wouldn’t be able to run very heavy apps. That’s something that would be good to work on for later editions, because one of the places I could see HoloLens ultimately being useful would be as a replacement for a desktop computer and screen. More RAM would be needed to make that feasible.

Apps available

There are a number of apps available. Some of these I was able to try out, others I was not. The apps available include:

  • Netflix
  • Edge browser
  • Camera
  • Movies and Tv
  • Skype
  • Music
  • OneNote
  • OneDrive
  • MS Office
  • HoloStudio
  • Minecraft

Basic Functionality

The HoloLens responds to movement laterally and vertically through space, and to 3 axis rotations of your head.

Windows that are launched initially hover a few meters in front of your eyes, and by default move to stay in your view as you move and turn your head.  However, you can also point and click to pin windows and objects in place. There is some smartness to this; the system software identifies flat surfaces, whether horizontal or vertical. If you turn so that an object or window is hovering above a table, and then click to pin, it will lock to the table top. If you hover a window over a wall, and point and click to pin, it will lock to the wall. You can similarly point and click to unpin. Picture something like pinning an app icon to your desktop or the toolbar in Windows or MacOS, but with the desktop now being now any planar surface in your  surroundings. It’s hard to understand how cool this really is until you try it, to spatially arrange your computing within your environment.

Even more interesting is that the system can remember the placement of Windows and holograms between sessions. For example, you could pin a Netflix window to your living room wall. Voila. Virtual TV. Walk away into another room or to another floor and come back, and it’s still there.  Or rather, it remembers that it should be there. And it will still be there the next time you fire up the HoloLens. There are so many possibilities for this.

Cameras within HoloLens map the environment as you walk and gaze around. This creates a 3d model of the surroundings. If you walk around a building or house, it will map all the rooms visited and store a map of the area.

The HoloLens has built in speakers that allow for an immersive spatial sound experience. Sound sources can have directionality, just as in real life, and sounds attached to holographic objects will rise and fall in volume and adjust in perceived position relative to you as you move closer, farther away, and go around the virtual object. This enhances the immersiveness. And while the speakers in the device manage a good volume to let you hear, it doesn’t seem to project significant noise to those nearby.

Unfortunately the HoloStudio tool for crafting 3D objects did not seem to be installed on the unit I got to play  with, which was a minor disappointment. This is an app I was pretty excited about. Nor did a get a chance to check out the experience of browsing and downloading apps from the store.

Nor, sadly, was the amazingly cool looking Minecraft app installed. (First thing my son asked about when I told about my hands-on)

The Path Forward for HoloLens

All in all, I came out of this brief test of the HoloLens extremely impressed. This is an amazing first draft of this technology. Even with some minor shortcomings it nevertheless reinforced  my earlier perception that Augmented Reality is going to be a key part of the future of personal, creative, and work computing.

This first release of the HoloLens is a developer version is not meant for mass adoption. It’s a first step in a planned series of releases. Previously there was an intention to release an incremental v2 in 2018, and a v3 in 2020.

However, recent unconfirmed reports indicate that Microsoft will instead focus effort on speeding up the v3 release by skipping v2 and refocusing efforts on a big jump with v3. V3 is expected in 2019, and, one would presume, this is where the tech would launch in a more powerful and hopefully cheaper consumer oriented model.

I for one am looking forward with anticipation. Until then, I can only hope I will have the chance to spend more time exploring the the possibilities of this new mode of computing.

Another review:

Previous Augmented/Virtual Reality Articles on this Blog

Virtual and Augmented Reality and first person media

On the Microsoft HoloLens

Augmented Reality and Wearable Computing: Possibilities for Google Glass in Training

Concept: Maintenance Training 2030

April 25, 2032 …

Ed, a Canadian aircraft maintenance training instructor located in Montreal, gets ready for his upcoming engines maintenance class.

Supposed to be a big class this week, 8 students.

  • 1 from Canada
  • 1 from the US
  • 2 from South America
  • 2 from India, and
  • 2 from China

Ed checks on the equipment in the classroom.

He puts on his Holo-Glasses, which come to life, softly glowing holographic data displays and icons popping up in front of him.  The device recognizes him, launching the virtual assistant to greet him. “Hello Ed! How are you? All set for your class?” “Just fine, thanks. Everything set?” “Yes, Ed. All the students are going to be attending; no cancellations. Everything looks good with the students. One was having some technical issues earlier, but I helped him through it.” Excellent,” thought Ed. “Everything looks alright with 15 mins to go.”

Ed begins cueing up the opening presentation notes, and the multimedia training manual. These pop up in their own windows in Ed’s field of view.

As Ed continues his preparations, the digital assistant relays notifications confirming the status of the students. The assistant is communicating with the students before class so Ed can focus on his preparation. Everything is looking good. Ed checks the 3D cameras and tests out his holopresence projection, seeing what his students will see.

“Loo-king good! Let’s do this!”

A few minutes later, the class begins. Ed welcomes the students as they holopresence in from their remote locations. Ed and the students, their Holo-glasses on,  take their places in the shared virtual classroom. The software places softly glowing holographic representations of the other participants in the shared visual space.  Ed looks out at the students’ faces, and the students see a holographic overlay of the same classroom and the same students from their own virtual perspective. At first, the experience is a little eerie, but as the class gets going, and all the students introduce themselves, the illusion takes hold and it feels like everyone is in the same classroom.

Ed presents the content, asks questions, and listens to the responses. Master teacher he is, he observes carefully, gets a sense of the learners’ body language and expressions, and, much like in a real class, adjusts as he goes. Ed brings up holographic 3D animations and models of the engine and components for the class to see. He zooms, rotates, and takes apart the holographic engine parts. The hologram also appears in the students’ fields of view, and Ed invites students here and there to come up and try for themselves and demonstrate actions to the class. Static images appear on screens in mid air, demonstrating schematics.

In the afternoon portion it is time for the virtual hands-on lab exercises. Ed and the students convene again, once again with beautiful, interactive 3D holographic models of the engine floating in the shared digital overlay. This time however everyone puts on their SureTouch(TM) haptic feedback gloves.

The gloves use sensors to read finger and hand position, the headset measures their hand positions in relation to the digital model’s virtual position, and actuators in the gloves give pressure feedback to simulate handling real objects with substance instead of just weightless holograms. It’s kind of weird at first, and it’s not quite the same as the real thing, but close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades, as they say. And definitely a hell of a lot cheaper than taking an actual engine offline to train.

As always, it took a few years for the technology to perfect itself and a lot of research and proofs of concept before the regulators really believed it could be as effective as the real thing. The Dutch Aerospace Lab did some great research as always, and once EASA signed off, the other regulators followed pretty swiftly after. Regulators came to appreciate virtual maintenance training, just as they came to appreciate the power of full flight simulators decades before.

The company definitely appreciates it too – they save a small fortune in flights, hotels, taxis, and per diems doing virtual classes like this over the course of the year. As do the students’ companies..

Ed for one, appreciates it too. No packing, no airport security, no  cramped 12 hour flight, no hotel room, no taxis, no jetlag, no traffic. Well … scratch that last one. This is Montreal, after all, where the seasons are winter … and construction. Even in 2032, there’s plenty of traffic. (You can’t win ’em all, I guess.) “Oh well, ” thought Ed. “Decent weather today, so at least could read a book on the way in while the autodrive on the car took care of all the unpleasantness.”  And all from the comfort of the Montreal office.

Ed loves it, and his family loves it too – less time away. And besides. even though he felt a little silly to admit it, irrational as it was, Ed had felt a littled weirded out by flying ever since they started the rollout of unpiloted commerical flights in the late 2020s. Hundreds of times safer than human pilots or not, it’s still kind of creepy to have algorithms flying you around instead of people.

“Or maybe I’m just getting old, ” Ed thought. Gets a little jarring after awhile to see the world transform itself before your eyes so quickly. The young seem to take it in stride, unphased, as they always do. And, Ed had to admit that the toys are pretty cool. All this change has its benefits.

Such is the stuff of life in a world of sci-fi dreams made true.





Concept: A VR “Memory Palace”

Introduction – Blame it on the Black Star …

About a month back, early January, I was driving on the way to work, listening to CBC Radio Montreal, as I often do. On the radio, the announcers were talking about David Bowie – it was the one year anniversary of his death.  They talked a bit about his final album, Black Star, which came out just days before his death, and played a short clip from the lead-off title track Black Star. I had played this album a lot last January, and so, a few blocks up, at the next red light, I dug the CD out of the storage compartment between the seats and popped it into the CD player.  And the beautiful-haunting-sprawling-soaring music flowed out after probably a year since I had heard the song.

And as often happens to me when I hear a piece of music tied to an emotionally poignant moment in my life, like a key turning the tumblers of a lock, a door opened, and sweet memory gushed forth in brilliant flashes. I think everyone gets this from time to time, with songs, with smells – but for me it is an explosive experience. This album was tied to a particularly poignant period of my life last year. A week to the day after Bowie died, I got married – remarried after 5 years going it alone following a nasty divorce. This album was the soundtrack in effect of all my driving during that period, including my wedding and honeymoon. The sweetest flashbacks danced across my memory – my wife’s colorful wedding outfit and the look on her face, the sight of the flurries in Mississauga that day, the smell of the January air, the scent of jasmine blossoms in a garland around my neck, the drive along the Niagara Parkway to the grand old Victorian inn where we honeymooned, and the gorgeous room where we stayed, the quiet streets of Niagara-on-the-Lake in the snow. All of this flooded back – I could actually smell the jasmine! – all of this from a song.

The portals of memory open in such unexpected and wonderful ways. And how strange its ways sometimes. The knowledge in the pages of a textbook you were trying to learn from yesterday – information you struggled hard to understand and remember – can be lost in oblivion, despite all your efforts, but the rich details of a weekend a year before can come back to you effortlessly if the right trigger is applied.

On the nature of memory …

Memory is deeply tied to emotion and place. Places to which you have a strong emotional connection, places which have great significance to you, they stick in your memory very vividly. Everyone has places like this. Some beautiful natural spot from a wonderful vacation, the location of a meaningful life event. Probably right now you can think of such a place. If you close your eyes, you can probably see the place in your mind’s eye in rich detail. You could even close your eyes and walk around in the place. Places with high emotional significance are given preferential treatment in being placed into memory, and are easier to retrieve. Spatial information in general – information about the layout of places – in general is easier to remember than general pieces of information, but emotionally-laden spaces are particularly memorable. And it is effortless. Certain portions of our brain are evolutionarily tuned to efficiently store and retrieve spatial data, just as certain portions of our brain are tuned to store and retrieve emotionaly laden information. Compare this to random verbal or conceptual information we want to make ourselves memorize. How hard it is to push it into long term memory so that it sticks, and how hard it can be to retrieve it again.

An ancient technique – The “Memory Palace”

One millenias-old trick for remembering things takes advantage of this ease of remembering places. This trick involves building a “memory palace,” and putting the things you want to remember there. In this technique, a person goes through an exercise of visualizing some place – it could be a familiar place, and imaging placing information to be remembered in distinct places within this familiar space. Then, when it is time to remember, the person simply closes his eyes, and in his mind’s eye, traverses the space, going from place to place, retrieving the information stored in this spatial filing cabinet.

Modernizing the technique – Virtual Reality

Now, let’s modernize this technique a bit, bringing it into the 21st century with the help of technology.

Imagine building a  high fidelity 3D digital representation of one of these meaningful places that is viewable and navigable in an interactive VR (Virtual Reality) environment. A 3D scene with some interactivity laid over top. Imagine being able to place notes or representations of information or objects you want to remember within this virtual space that immerses you in a meaningful place already seared into your memory. These pieces of information then end up arranged spatially within this virtual space using an arrangement of your chosing.

This representation of place and spatially arranged information and items could be saved and accessed and modified later.

This VR tool would provide a nice visual scaffold to the classical memory palace technique, which traditionally depended entirely on the imagination.  I would hypothesize that actually being immersed in that space and “seeing” the spatial relationships would support the process significantly. In addition, I could see the physical action of virtually placing the items within the space with hand gestures could also serve to reinforce the memory.


Interestingly, it looks like a company in England is already trying to do something similar to this, with a particular focus on using VR memory palaces to scaffold second language learning.


Coursera trend – no pay, no grades


Anyone who’s been taking courses on Coursera for awhile has probably noticed by now a recent development – that is, the move to charging students for submitting assessments for grading. Apparently, this new “feature” started in early 2016, but has become a disturbingly common trend lately. For courses that do this, you need to pay for the course to benefit from graded assignments. And, mind you, this is even for courses that use peer-graded and machine-graded assessments. A very informal sampling (probably at least 80% of the courses I’ve looked at recently) indicates that most new courses are adopting this.

This is problematic.

Coursera trend - No pay, no grade
No pay – no grade

The importance of assessment to learning

Seeing how the assessments work in a course is an important part of evaluating whether to take the course, and whether to pay for it. In many courses, the feedback from graded assessments is the best part of the course. For example, the completely free (funded out of an endowment project) Algorithms I and II courses from Princeton University use a machine grader that gives great feedback when you submit your assignments. This is where you do a lot of your learning.

Going through the assessments gives you a good sense of the quality of the course. When a course gives meaningfully rigorous assignments, you learn more, and being able to try out the assignments gives you more information about whether the course is worth paying for.

I understand that MOOC courses are expensive to develop, with estimates ranging between $30 000 and $100 000 per course. And I understand that Coursera is probably under pressure to gain more revenue to please investors. Given that, you can understand the desire of Coursera, and of  institutions to recoup their costs and investments. But they also need to reflect more carefully on what makes sense to a student.

Previously, as of 2015, the model was this: You could audit the course, including graded assignments, for free. If you just wanted to learn, you could watch videos, do readings, participate in the class discussion forums, do assignments, and get a peer-graded or machine graded mark. But, if you wanted a certificate of completion you had to pay for that. If you didn’t pay, you could still fully experience the learning, but wouldn’t have a sharable record of completion. This was the model since 2015, and it was a pretty fair model. It wasn’t quite the Utopian vision of free, accessible university level education for everyone,  but it was about the best you could reasonably expect from what is ultimately a for-profit platform.

For those who are newer to Coursera, in the beginning days it used to be even more open than this – you could get a completion certifcate or statement of accomplishment, even without paying. There was some minor uproar when free certificates were removed, but that at least I can accept as a fair compromise. “Freemium” is, after all, a pretty common model these days. It’s expensive to develop courses, not to mention host and serve them up to students. Someone has to pay the bills, and $70 – 100  to take a meaningful course  and have proof of completion you can share on LinkedIn is not a bad deal.

However, the key to freemium is that you need to offer a reasonably satisfying and enticing free product that stands on its own feet. You want a large number of people consuming the free product, because the larger that pool is, the more revenue you make from that percentage that opt in to extras like certifications. But getting an assignment graded is not an extra. That’s an essential part of the course. If you turn people away by hiding key parts of the educational experience behind a paywall, you threaten to shrink that pool of people.

I guess someone will probably make the analogy of auditing a university course. You can just pop in, sit in the back row and watch a lecture. But you’re not going to get assignments graded or sit for an exam. There’s maybe some merit to this analogy. But on the other hand, in the university course what you’re really paying for ultimately is the certified university credit (And the degree that a series of credit courses in a specialization ultimately add up to)

The problem with this move

Philosophical merits aside, there are two flaws I can see with the idea of charging to get assignments graded.

1. Any good course has a “long tail” – it’s expensive to get the course out there initially, but then it can be rolled out more easily month after month. A good course will be attractive to students over a long time, and this will give lots of opportunity to recoup costs. I see lots of good courses and programs like Stanford’s Machine Learning and Rice’s Principles of Programming in Python courses that continue to roll on with plenty of students years after they were first created.

2. Someone is going to be less likely to want to pay if he can’t get a proper representative feel for what the course is like first. Myself, I tend to take courses on Coursera in programming. Lectures are useful, but the hands-on programming assignments and the feedback I get from an auto-grader are the most useful part of any course. Applying the skills you learned from the lecture and getting feedback on what you’re doing right and wrong is a key part of the learning experience.

If a course prevents me from seeing what a course is like in this regard, I tend to drop it. Recently, I was looking into a Johns Hopkins specialization in Data Science. The first course looked interesting, but I felt compelled to drop it, because it wouldn’t let me submit even one assignment without paying for the course first. Why would I spend $80 for a course if I can’t get a proper sense of what it’s like?

And especially so when the course is the first in a specialization. A four week course is not really worth much as learning on its own. If I’d had a chance to fully try out the first course, maybe I would have gone for the specialization, and the organization might have gotten a few hundred dollars. Instead, because they were cheap, they got nothing.

I think Coursera probably believes, based on their own research, that enough people who would otherwise audit for free are going to find assessment valuable enough to pay for it if they can’t get it otherwise. And I agree that there are probably people out there for whom this will work. But I have the feeling there are more people like me who would otherwise have been inclined to pay after the fact, but now will not. I anticipate that many schools will see this play out over many courses, and will have to backtrack.

The good

This whole thing is unfortunate, because other than this, Coursera is making a lot of useful steps forward, and I want to give credit where credit is due. It’s come a long way in some respects in building both a great catalogue of training, as well as a nice, functional learning / learning management platform.

  • Many courses are being offered with great regularity, some even on a monthly basis. There is always a session going for many courses.
  • Course lengths seem to be settling into a nice average  – 4-6 weeks seems to be the norm, which is a nice size balance between having a meaningful chunk of content and being able to fit the course commitments into the life of someone with a full time job and family.
  • A lot more specializations are popping up – groupings of courses centered around a common theme or skillset grouping. This is immensely practical, and probably more meaningful as a show of learning than an isolated course. A single 5 week course on data science in Python? Ok, cool, but doesn’t add up to much beyond an introduction. But a 5 course specialization on Data Science in Python over 25 weeks that covers data cleaning, plotting and charting, machine learning, text mining, and social network analysis? There’s some value in that.
  • It is easy to switch sessions and transfer grading progress across sessions if you fall behind. I’ve found this very useful in a few courses where unexpected life business bogged me down and I got behind.
  • There is very good flexibility in terms of paying for courses. In courses where graded assignments are free without the certificate, you can complete the whole course and then later upgrade to a certificate by paying, even months after the fact. This is very nice.
  • Prices, while noticably rising over time, seem to be finding a sensible equilibrium. A few hundred dollars for 20 weeks of decent video instruction and meaningful assignments is a decent value compared to other training you see out on the market.

Larger question – the value proposition of Coursera Certifications

So really, I’m griping about one major misstep in what is, overall, a very good platform for learning. There are a lot of positive things happening.

The bigger question behind all of this is the value proposition for Coursera certificates. What value does a student get by paying for a course on Coursera? It’s still pretty fuzzy. I’ve taken a fair number of courses over the past few years on Coursera. Some on other platforms too, but Coursera has tended to be the one I have used the most. Some of those courses I have chosen to pay for, for various reasons. The first few, as a motivation to complete the course amidt work and family. Some others because I thought the courses were great and wanted to vote with my money – encouraging the people who made them and encouraging a model of continuing education I’m convinced is the future of career skills development. And finally, some others because I thought they might add something to my LinkedIn page or CV.

It’s this last one that has always been the most fuzzy and uncertain value proposition.

Do I get the sense that recruiters or hiring managers are going to see a LinkedIn or CV with Coursera courses on it and suddenly perk up? Not so much. I don’t think it’s realistically  there yet in terms of credibility.

Does a sequence of related courses add up to something interesting for the same people? Perhaps to the level of showing a certain discipline and commitment to continuing learning. Beyond that, hard to say. HR is often stubbornly conservative.

Given this reality, I think Coursera needs to do more work to justify the value of what students are paying for rather than focussing on paring back the free experience of their courses. Ultimately, that is the existential question upom which their ability to collect revenue and support the whole enterprise long term depends on. How can Coursera ensure that their certifications and specializations have value in the marketplace?