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Introducing MOOCs: Alison

10 Aug
Alison is a bit different from many of the other MOOCs. Alison aims to be more practical, and to give people the skills that they need for doing a better job at work or for starting a new career. Such a focus on technical skills rather than on liberal arts education means that there aren’t classes on greek philosophy, literature, or microeconomics. Rather, the courses on Alison focus on how to effectively use Microsoft suite (word, power point, excel), business management, legal studies, and project management. I have to admit that I likes this idea from the start. It is great to be able to get a good liberal arts education from Coursera, or to learn how to program from Udacity, but unless you want to be a college professor or a computer programmer, those courses are just for hobbyists. I think it is wonderful that Alison is providing courses for people who need job skills. The courses are also self-paced, like Udacity, so you don’t need to wait to start learning. You can just dive right in, which is great. That where the greatness ends, though. There are a few aspects of Alison which makes it a far lesser platform than either Coursera or Udacity.


Bad formatting on Alison's site
Simply put, Alison is not as pretty or visually attractive as Udacity or Coursera. The website looks cluttered, having too many links leading to too many places on the main page. They need to collapse some of these lists and allow them to be opened in secondary menus. As an example, take a look at the image to the right. I took this image from a page on Alison’s website where links were overlapping with a photo, making the text hard to read. This is a simple thing to fix, and the fact that it hasn’t been fixed shows a very low level of care, attention, ability, or design skill.

Quality of courses

I took a course on customer service from Alison. It turned out to be about 15 pages of reading, and it was pretty basic stuff, too. I was somewhat disappointed.  I’m not sure what quality control there is on Alison, but it definitely doesn’t compare to Udacity and Coursera. Some of the classes are also very basic, such as how to use MS Word. Not all of the classes are that simple, as they also host classes such as Fundraising for Non-Profits and Accounting. These classes could be quite useful, and I could envision many people benefiting from taking some of these classes. In my experience so far, many of the classes are very elementary.
I know very little about Microsoft Office’s programs (such as power point and excel), so I started a class on Alison to learn more about how to use Powerpoint. It moved slowly and was very boring. It taught me many ways to use Powerpoint that I think weren’t especially useful. If I had been able to skip around more or speed up the class it wouldn’t have been so bad, but…

Videos from Vimeo

You can’t change the speed on Alison’s videos. This is a problem. One major feature on Coursera is the ability to speed up videos. It is built into the system, and it is a commonly used strategy to allow learners to watch one hour of video lectures in 50 minutes. Although this feature isn’t built directly into Udacity, the function is available on their YouTube hosted-videos. But Alison’s video lectures are hosted on Vimeo, which offers less flexibility to the viewer. On YouTube you can choose the quality and the speed of the video depending on your preferences and available bandwidth. But Vimeo doesn’t offer this option. I consider this to be a big drawback.
All in all, I like the idea of Alison, and the have a major strong point in offering courses on subjects that the bigger MOOCs aren’t touching. However, there are some significant downsides, too. I think that Alison is still worth it, but if I was in charge I would definitely make some major changes to the site.

Introducing MOOCs: Khan Academy

3 Aug
English: Salman Khan, famous for the Khan Acad...

English: Salman Khan, famous for the Khan Academy, speaking at TED 2011. Cropped from the original. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love Khan Academy. It’s mission is to provide “a free world-class education for anyone anywhere“. Khan Academy is an old classic, and I didn’t even consider it a MOOC until Udacity started up and created a lot of press about MOOCs. It originally focused mostly on mathematics, finance, and economics, but it has branched out a lot and now features videos on art history, civics, chemistry, and much more.
Khan Academy is mostly created by one guy, Salman Khan. This guy is a hero and a pioneer. Recently Salman has gotten a lot of press and funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Google, but for most of Khan Academy’s history it was just him and his computer. Similar to MRU, Khan Academy offers collections of his short videos (micro lectures) categorized into different topics and subtopics, such as finance, algebra, history, etc. Many of the videos are very simple and seem to have no budget for production, consisting of nothing more than Salman’s voice and a few sketches which he uses to illustrate the idea. However, that doesn’t stop him from delivering high quality content. Salman obviously knows what he is talking about:  he graduated from of MIT and from Harvard Business School, and most of the videos are very elementary for someone with his education. This shines through clearly with his lectures, as he explains the topics smoothly and lucidly.
There are a few ways that Khan Academy is doing things right which I want to highlight. The length of the videos The videos are excellent. Normally around 10 minutes long, these videos are easy to focus on. Two summers ago I had the evening habit of watching one Khan Academy micro lecture each night before bed. What a great daily habit! Some online courses have videos that are an hour-long or longer, and it is difficult to focus on a single video or lecture for 30 or 60 minutes unless it is truly, rivetingly interesting. iTunes U is often just a video recording of a normal college class, and they sometimes go on for 90 minutes. One of the advantages of online education is how we can get straight to the point. We are able to cut out all the fluff and go straight for the crunch. MRU tried to focus on this a lot, and some of the Coursera classes are forgetting this. Usually it is better to have a short video containing a higher density of content than a longer video with the information more spread out. Few longer videos are so engaging as to keep attention for long periods of time. (Randy Pauch comes to mind as an excellent exception)
Another thing that Khan Academy is doing right is the sequential nature of the videos. After watching a video on the fiscal cliff, a video on the debt ceiling is within the same group. After learning about traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs I am nudged towards a video about 401(k)s. This grouping of videos in a logical sequence, and with related videos on the same topic, is fantastic. For a collection of videos as large as Khan Academy has, I would say that it is also necessary, but there are a shocking number of places on the internet with just as more content at Khan Academy with virtually no system of organization.
As if just creating Khan Academy wasn’t enough Salman also is proposing a new type of education for the future. Check out his TED Talk to hear about some of his ideas:
So I’ve only had positive experiences with Khan Academy. You won’t earn a degree from the sight, but you will learn a lot. I sure did. When I took a finance class from Coursera (which was excellent) there were many concepts that I didn’t fully understand. I watched many of Khan Academy’s finance videos while I took the Coursera class, and they were excellent supplementary material. They helped me to better understand the content of the Coursera class, and they gave me a broader (but light) introduction to finance. Now I feel that I have a basic understanding of finance, but I plan to continue watching Khan Academy videos to learn more.

Progress for Online Education

8 Jul

Take a look at what Scott H Young wrote recently. He described his own experience with his MIT challenge, and how much easier online, self-directed education is now mainly because of the rise of MOOCs like Coursera, EdX, and Udacity. I normally consider myself a realist when asked to place myself on the pessimist-optimist scale, the the future of education is a situation in which I fully agree with CGP Grey’s brief analysis of history.

Introducing MOOCs: Udemy

3 May
Udemy holds a special place in my heart. It was the first platform for online courses that I discovered. Although it has been around since 2010, I was first introduced to Udemy by a Brazilian-focused blog I followed which noted that Brazil for Beginners was about to begin. Udemy is a bit different from the other MOOCs that I’ve reviewed here. In fact, it isn’t really a MOOC. It is more of a platform, in which instructors can provide videos, presentations, and PDFs to potential students. It successfully raised a lot of money, too. All in all, despite my early introduction to Udemy, it just can’t compare to Udacity and Coursera. The reason for this is simple: It seems like Udemy doesn’t have any quality control, and is a random collection of online courses. Some of them are just taken from other sites, such as iTunes U or Khan Academy, and some are specifically made for the Udemy platform.
Whereas Udacity and Coursera courses are created by university professors and the quality is tightly controlled, it seems like Udemy was thrown together quickly by internet entrepreneurs  and was then populated quickly by whatever material could be found (or by whoever found Udemy and decided to put content on there). Udemy is only a platform, and seems to have no relation to the people who publish content there, so like any other open marketplace there is good quality stuff a lot of crap that you must sift through. Udemy classes seem to be all over the place. For example, there is a class on how to use google adwordshow to use wordpressa Tai Chi class, and a class called An Introduction to basic Hand Balancing. Now, I would certainly enjoy learning all of these things if I had enough time for it, but I am concerned about the quality of the courses offered on Udemy.

Some of Udemy’s courses are free, and some of the courses must be paid for. Each class is independent of all other classes. They lack the structure that Coursera has, and there are no quizzes or tests. Many of the classes seem to focus on internet marketing and SEO. I assume that the passive income crowd and bloggers are using Udemy as a source of income, but I have no doubt that in the long run it will earn much less than Udacity or Coursera.
The open nature of Udemy also causes it to lack focus. This isn’t inherently a bad thing: lots of great things come from diversity, but I fear that as a business model Udemy won’t reach the heights of the major players in online education. Whereas MRU is highly focused, and Udacity is fairly focused, Udemy has no focus whatsoever. It is merely a platform, in which people put up their own classes. Again, I want to stress that this doesn’t mean that they are all bad. I took Brazil for Beginners from Udemy, and it was my first venture into serious online education. It was nice: I got a good introduction to Brazil. Also, it is specific enough that if I had to wait for Stanford or Yale to put up a class on Brazil, I probably would have had to wait for several years. So although it is nice to have the official stamp of a well-known university on the course that I am taking, there are also benefits to allowing other actors to provide course material. However, the class consisted of only video lectures. There wasn’t any interaction with other students in forums, and there were no writing assignments, quizzes, or tests.
Regardless, if you want to learn how to market yourself on the internet and how to build a good blog, you will probably learn far more at Udemy then at any other MOOC platform. Coursera doesn’t offer any marketing courses, but Udemy is full of them. Udacity won’t teach you how to do SEO for goolge, but you can find that on Udemy.

Introducing MOOCs: MRU

20 Apr

Don’t they have a great logo?

MRU (short for Marginal Revolution University) is a relatively new site created by the two economists who run the most popular economics blog on the webTyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok. MRU has a focus on economics, which I think is great: economics is a valuable tool for understanding the world. However, it is still a young project in the early stages of development. The first course, Development Economics, started in December 2012. As of this writing (April 2013) there are five courses available: The Eurozone CrisisEconomics of the MediaMexico’s Economy, and The American Housing Finance System.

The classes are composed of short YouTube videos, each on a different topics, but clearly related and within the scope of each class. These topics together form a class. The videos are basically just power point presentations that get straight to the point, and from taking their development economics course I can safely say that I am pleased with the quality. In that sense it is a bit similar to Khan Academy. Although MRU has quizzes and exams, I think that these are learning tools, not a serious test to prove your knowledge and to get a certificate (although they have certificates, too). For example, the final exam for the Development Economics class:
“The exam is 20 questions made up of multiple choice and true or false. To pass and receive a certification awarded on your profile, you must earn an 80% or higher on the exam.  The exam is open note, untimed, and can be retaken as many times as needed.”
If you are allowed to retake it an infinite number of times, then I am dubious as to whether it can fulfill the traditional function of a final exam: to separate those who know and understand the material from those who don’t. However, that does not mean that it is useless. It can be very effective as a learning tool.
All in all, I love MRU, and I love that there is a MOOC (or at least a MOOC-like thing) that has a focus on a specific field. You may not be able to boast to a future employer about all the skills you’ve gain from MRU, but you will certainly gain greater understanding of the world around you. (If you want to boast for skills, try Udacity) I’ve seen too many Intro to X courses offered, but MRU promises to give much more than simple intro courses. If you are curious, jump right into the Development Economics class. There is no set schedule, so you can watch the videos at whatever pace you want. If you study development or you are curious about development but you lack a strong foundation in economics, this course is perfect for you.
Has anyone else taken a course from MRU? Which one did you take and what did you think about it?

New Series: Introducing MOOCs

20 Apr

I’ve decided that I will start a new series of blog posts. Inspired by a conversation with a friend in which I learned that many people aren’t aware of the new developments occurring in online education, over the next several weeks I plan to write multiple summaries and reviews of various online education platforms, commonly called MOOCs. MOOC stands for Massively Online Open Course. Take a look at either of these Youtube videos or this description in the New York Times if you want a quick and easy idea of what a MOOC is. In this series I plan to cover all the big names in the industry, as well as some smaller ones. This will allow my friends who are studying international development to explore to fields, as well people outside of academia (like me) to indulge their curiosities. Although there are many benefits to MOOCs that a normal in-person course cannot offer, for now I will focus on the big three that make up the MOO of the MOOC.

  • Massive – There is a physical limit to how many bodies can fit into any lecture hall, but the bandwidth which limits participants in a MOOC is much higher. The highest enrollment so far has been Think Again: How to Reason and Argue, a course from Duke University offered on Coursera, which had an enrollment of 180000 students. These numbers are impressive, but it is also clear that if a professor’s priority is to teach students, she can teach far more students with a single MOOC than with an entire career of teaching in a brick and mortar university. When Sebastian Thrun of Stanford first offered his Introduction to Artificial Intelligence he was amazed to see an enrollment of 160,000 students. Thrun eventually left his tenured position at Stanford to start his own MOOC, Udacity. There is also a benefit for the student, though: through the forums in a course the students and discuss, connect, and network with far more people than a traditional brick and mortar course would ever allow.
  • Online – This seems simple, but this is a huge development. Traditionally, if a person lived in an area with no school or university nearby, there is no option for that person to learn from a professor. But with a MOOC a person can live in a geographically isolated area and still learn from courses created by respected universities and taught by experienced and passionate professors. This is a big equalizing effect, seeing as people who live in Chicago, Boston, or Paris, or Tokyo have relatively easy access to high education, but people living in rural Afghanistan (like some of Thrun’s students) or other physically isolated areas normally have few options for advanced education. A MOOC changes this, allowing  these students to learn independent of their geography.
  • Open – These courses are open in at least two senses. First, you don’t have to be affiliated with any particular organization in order to take the course. You can take a course from Duke University, UC Berkley, or Yale, and you don’t have to be officially enrolled as a student, nor to have any connection whatsoever to that University. Second, they are free. That’s right: MOOCs (normally) are %100 free. There are some courses where you can pay to have your work officially certified and recognized by some educational authority, but the course itself doesn’t cost anything.

Over the course of the next few weeks I’ll write summaries of the different organizations and business that offer these MOOCs online (I’ll refer to the organizations and the companies as MOOCs as well), and hopefully by following along on this series of blog posts you’ll be able to get a good idea of what the MOOC landscape looks like. In the meantime, take a look at one of the founders of Udacity describing his own experience in a TEDTalk:

Introducing MOOCs: Udacity

19 Apr
Udacity seems to be heavily focused on computer science, programming, and similar tech-focused fields. If you are interests in humanities or social sciences then Udacity might not be your best choice, but if you want to learn how to write code or how to program, then Udacity could be a good choice for you. Udacity was the first of the MOOCs, and it made big news when it started. The identity of Udacity’s founder certainly didn’t hurt: Sebastian Thrun is very well-known in the tech field, and his research in robotics is one of the driving forces behind a potentially revolutionary technology, the driverless car (here is a writeup in the New York Times). He also has worked on Google Glass and has won numerous awards and recognitions for his research, including being names #4 on Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2012. Of course, as a university professor he has written textbooks on robotics as well.
Udacity’s mission statement claims that “Our mission is to bring accessible, affordable, engaging, and highly effective higher education to the world. We believe that higher education is a basic human right, and we seek to empower our students to advance their education and careers.” So far, they seem to be doing pretty well: Udacity’s classes are free (or affordable when offered for college credit), engaging, and high quality. Udacity is really at the forefront of a revolution in education, something that Sebastian Thrun evangelizes often.
Despite a strong start, Coursera has overtaken Udacity in publicity and in the number of courses offered. But Udacity has two big advantages that are keeping it competitive. First, the courses offered are very focused: they all have to do with tech stuff, such as programming, statistics, mathematics. This is not the place to go if you are looking to learn political science, history, or literature. I’ve taken about half of Udacity’s Intro to Statistics class, and it seems to be pretty good. There is a big fan base, too. Big enough that the courses have been translated into dozens of different languages, greatly increasing the number of students that are able to take the courses. Udacity is still going strong, and getting funding, too.
Aside from intellectually curious people who simply want to learn many things, Udacity is also focusing specifically on job-based skills with large companies acting as partners:
“Udacity has developed partnerships with companies such as NvidiaMicrosoft and Google, helping to develop online classes that sharpen specific technical skills such as parallel programming, thereby broadening the pool of potential job candidates for these employers.”
This is a huge benefit, as many companies complain they cannot find enough employees with the proper skills. Udacity could help to train a new generation in programming and computer science. But the cooperation isn’t only with companies. Some universities are also entering into official cooperation with Udacity, such as San Jose State University, which allows students to take a Udacity course for college credit.
One aspect of Udacity which sets it apart is the schedule. While some MOOCs (such as Coursera) offer courses with specific start and end dates, with lectures being released on a weekly basis, “students taking Udacity courses can start any time and take lessons at their own pace with no deadlines hanging over them to complete the course within a required timeframe.” This can be a benefit if you are highly motivated and you have a large chunk of free time. For example, more than once I’ve thought about locking myself in my room for two days and doing an entire course (I almost do that every weekend, actually!). However, if you are the kind of person that needs more structure, then Udacity’s format won’t be very effective. There are no strict deadlines in Udacity courses, and there is also an ever-changing group of students, so it lacks the sense of community that exists on the forums on Coursera. The other downside to the open schedule that is for the people who choose to spread it out over a longer period of time, as ” there is a certain momentum to learning that gets lost the more time separates one lesson from the next.” In general, Devavrat Ravetkar provides an excellent summary of the advantages and disadvantages of these different models, and I recommend looking at his brief analysis.