Tag Archives: Massive open online course

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.

A master’s degree in computer science for $7,000

15 May

Sorry for the lack of posts recently: my four different courses from Udacity have been taking up a lot of my time, not to mention my reflexive job hunt and the accompanying fear freaking out which is intensifying as the summer approaches. And similar freaking out about getting a visa for Brazil. Apparently visa agencies don’t really exist in Spain, so I might have to take another trip to Madrid.

However, I just saw this from Tyler Cowen, which merited sharing. If this plan goes through, then it is big news. Sometimes projects like these are announced and then quietly sputter out, but I think that neither  Sebastian Thrun nor Georgia Tech would have made the announcement if there were doubts of it reaching fruition. I’m sure that by the time I am in my mid-30s there will be plenty of opportunities like this for me to get new training. I can’t wait.

Introducing MOOCs: Coursera

22 Apr
From my opinion, Coursera seems to be the strongest of any MOOCs that I’ve seen. Although there are other free online courses offered at different websites, Coursera has a far more professional appearance, generally more high quality courses, and a much wider variety of courses than anywhere else I’ve seen. It has also received a lot of media attention. Add in the fact that Coursera is getting some of its classes officially certified to count for college credit in the United States, and that they are aggressively increasing the number of courses offered and the number of partner universities. I suspect that Coursera is going to have far more success than any of its competitors.
On the design side, Coursera has a very clean interface, with a standardized appearance for all of its courses. Coursera tightly controls for the quality of the courses, only working with certified professionals and universities. I have successfully completed five Coursera classes, and I was disappointed once, pleased twice, and highly pleased twice. Coursera classes are free (although a paid option exists to certify your identity), and they cover a wide range of subjects, including finance, economics, history, philosophy, music, computer programming, nutrition, and even gamification, which was the first course on gamification ever offered (and which I highly recommend).
I plan on using Coursera heavily to explore my interests in many different fields, and possibly even to start new paths. For example, if I decided that I wanted to pursue a Master’s degree in economics, I would first take all the Coursera classes I could on economics to help me decide if I really wanted to pursue the degree or not, kind of as a test drive. It is possible that someday I’ll try to work in international aid and development, and I am sure that the knowledge I gain from Coursera classes will help me.
There are some subjects, such as logic or statistics which many professionals could benefit from, regardless of their field. Other subjects, like finance, nutrition, or psychology, are things that could help people in the non-professional lives to understand the world around themselves a little bit better. Speaking from my own experience, I took a finance class offered by Coursera and it opened my eyes to a whole new world. I have zero intention of becoming and investment banker, but know I know (on a simple level) how investments work, and it caused me to think about not just saving but also investing for my future.
A heads up for anyone interested in development or just how the world got to be the way that it is today, there is a Generating the Wealth of Nations class that will start on April 29th. From the course description:

If you had been alive at the start of the eighteenth century, your material well-being would have been much the same whichever region of the world you lived in, and it would almost certainly have been a precarious existence… But come forward 300 years to the present, and we see a startling transformation.

Incomes in some parts of the world have increased more than ten-fold; and now it most certainly does matter where you live – with income differentials of 50 times between the world’s richest and poorest countries.

In this course we’ll explore the spectacular (but uneven) story of economic development – beginning with the Malthusian era, moving on to the take-off of growth in the Industrial Revolution and the Great Divergence in living standards that followed, and finishing in the present with the Global Financial Crisis.

It seems like this course will be in the same vein as Why Nations Fail and The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, which is a much explored area. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating area, too. I will certainly be taking this class, and hopefully I will get some good historical and economic knowledge that will help me in a (possible) future career in development.

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.