coursera signature track

One of the difficulties with online courses is how they offer credentialing.  Many classes offer a certificate.  Unfortunately, it isn’t worth the bytes it is stored in as anyone could have taken the class for you.  (Students: it is still fine to use it as a conversation piece.)  There are a few ways to deal with this:

  1. The honor system – I got my Masters degree at Regis University.  Most exams and projects were the honor system.  The only thing that wasn’t was the thesis presentation.  And that was a phone call so someone else could have done it for me.
  2. Testing at Prometric/Pearson.  Another moderator at CodeRanch got her Bachelors degree at Western Governors University where much of the course work is a series of certifications.
  3. Proctored exams at work/school/the library – When I was researching online Masters degrees, many schools had you take their exams proctored by someone local.  I didn’t go this route because I didn’t want to keep bothering people by asking them to proctor.  And in New York City, the librarians are busy with their actual job responsibilities and aren’t going to proctor an exam.

Coursera and Udacity have been using the honor system to date.  Udacity is starting a $7000 masters degree.  Coursera is starting a signature track.

Why I tried the signature track

Mostly curiosity.  Also it said that the professor gets a small portion of the fee.  And the professor (@drchuck) was by far the most engaged I’ve ever seen in an online class.  Perhaps a bit too engaged!  He’s on twitter what feels like constantly, posts in the forums and does physical office hours as he travels around the world.

How much does it cost

Coursera says it costs between $30 and $100 per class.  I think I paid $39.

How does it work

When signing up, you take a webcam photo of yourself and one of your drivers license (or other id.)  You also type a sentence about not cheating.  Then after each assignment, you re-type that sentence and re-take your photo.  Your typing pattern is compared to verify it is you.  In theory, your photo is checked as well.  I say in theory because a student said he put up a picture of his dog and nothing happened.

Was it worth it

Only in that I was curious.  I wouldn’t do it again.  It was annoying to have to keep typing the sentence and taking a photo.  I don’t need a certificate for anything.  And it STILL doesn’t prove you didn’t cheat.  Just that you were present when the assignments were submitted and quizzes were taken.

The interesting thing is that the course was definitely worth $39.  It was a fun review of internet history and some things I never knew.  But paying for the benefit of a somewhat verified certificate isn’t.


udacity and coursera – python editor, peer reviewing and complaining

Since I last blogged on the topic, I’ve taken an additional course from udacity and coursera. While I did learn from both courses, I took them largely because I wanted to see how they would handle certain aspects.

Udacity – CS 253 – Web Application Engineering (aka building a blog taught by a founder of reddit)

Feature #1 – a good inline Python editor made the interactive quizzes fun.  The homework got me to practice Python a lot to which was nice.  And there was exposure to a Python MVC framework for those interested although it wasn’t required.  It was also interesting to see what college students are taught about the web “these days.”  More emphasis on performance/scalability/ideas then 10 years ago when I graduated.

The time commitment wasn’t large.  The lectures were short snippets and easy to fit in.  The assignments were easy – probably because I already am a web developer – albeit not in Python.

The forums were good (stack exchange style).  Udacity structures things so the quizzes/assignments don’t count and are “self paced.”   They offer final exams every hexa-semester which is what counts toward the “certification.”  I find it more fun to stay with the initial offering because you get the benefit of discussion with other students exploring together.

Coursera – Human Computer Interaction

Feature #2 – Peer review/grading.  This was nice in that you got to see how others attempted the assignments.  And get feedback from real people.  It also lets the assignments go deeper since they don’t need to be reviewed by a computer.

The style of the course was similar to the SAAS one  with the addition of peer review and the removal of a required book.  Oh and the assignments were significantly longer.

Feature #3 – complaining

This isn’t new.  I blogged about it in March.  Both classes this time around had more complaining than in the past classes I have taken in this model.  Why?

  • Udacity – The inability to get a google app engine account internationally and ignoring the pre-requiste (Python) by students than annoyed they couldn’t follow the lectures were the big ones.
  • Coursera – Oh boy.  Where to begin.  Many people don’t like deadlines.  They don’t like peer review.  They want exceptions when the instructors said don’t ask for exceptions.  They are overly concerned about grades. There was too much work.  (This I think could have been communicated better.)   There were also plenty of constructive people in the forums.  Which meant reading through complaints to get to the good parts.


I wrote the following essay and posted in the coursera forum in response to “I don’t want to interview/take photos of my three test subjects and you are making me drop the course.”  As of today, it has 70 upvotes.  And a day or two after I posted the essay, photos were extra credit.  Which implies the staff do monitor the forums for legitimate comments.

Don’t. Here’s why – it reads like a flow chart. Higher options are better. The theme is to see how close you can come to the goal.

  1. Can you observe/interview three people and just not take a photo? Awesome! You’ve learned everything the instructors want you to learn. You just don’t have evidence of the fact you did it. But from a learning point of view, you are set!
  2. Can you interview one person in person? Can you interview a person online and take a picture of the screen? – If so, great. You still get some of the experience of observing/interviewing someone. And you get to do the brainstorming/finding inspiration based on real observations. Granted it isn’t as complete an experience as if you do the full assignment, but it is more of an experience than if you drop the class.
  3. Can you interview someone on the phone? Can you seek out a couple of volunteers in the forum to observe online or interview on the phone or even ask questions in the forum? – If so, great. You still get some of the experience of observing/interviewing someone. And you get to do the brainstorming/finding inspiration based on real observations. Granted it isn’t as complete an experience as if you do the full assignment, but it is more of an experience than if you drop the class.
  4. Are you so busy you can’t talk to a soul? Or maybe you are reading this on June 2nd and it is too late? Skip the observation step and move on to brainstorming phase. – Granted you miss a third of assignment. But you learn more about brainstorming for HCI and HCI inspiration than if you drop the class.

But wait you say. A requirement of the assignment is to observe and take photos as evidence. Well, let me ask you this – does the act of taking a photo make you learn more? Of course not. For observing, you do learn by really doing it. If you can’t meet the assignment criteria, getting as close as you can means you learn as much as you can.

Ok. But what about my grade you ask? This is a free online class. We are all enrolled because we want to learn. You don’t learn less because you’ve gotten a low score on one assignment. And as an added bonus, this class is essentially pass/fail. If you get about 80% or so, you get a certificate of accomplishment. Projects are 67% of that. This means that the decision to not provide photos or observe three people is at most 4-5% of your grade. Do well at everything else and you still have a pass on the studio track. Don’t do well enough on everything else and you have the apprentice track and a heck of a lot of knowledge and experience.

Finally, think back to school. Suppose you were in an English class where everyone had to see a play. You had to work or couldn’t afford to see the show. You did poorly on the one assignment, but tried your best at everything else. And you passed. Coursera is even better because the grade doesn’t count!

I always liked my “pass no credit” classes best because I got to learn without having to think about my grade.

Don’t fret. Don’t drop the class. Knowledge is the reward here.

coursera saas-class and mitx circuits class feedback

After AI-Class, I blogged with some feedback.  Over the past month or two, I took saas-class and MITx 6.0002x.

How I found out

I found about saas-class from comments at aiqus – the AI-class forum.  I found out about the MITx course via an e-mail from a friend.

Why I took it

Software as a Service is a hot topic and I was curious what they would teach about designing for scalability.  Even before the class started, it was apparent the class was really about software engineering practices using Ruby.  It seemed like a cool way to learn a little Ruby and tools like Cucumber.  It turned out I had a real world friend along with two fellow coderanch moderators in this class.

The MITx circuits class was less work related.  I took a hands on circuits class and was disappointed on the lack of coverage of concepts/how things work.


For SAAS, the main pre-req was knowledge of at least one object oriented programming language.  Check.  I’m a Java developer.  This pre-req was important in the course as it moved too fast for someone who has never programmed before.

For MITx the pre-reqs were calculus, linear algebra and first year college physics.  I did take all these classes.  However, I haven’t used much of them since college so I didn’t really have the pre-reqs in my mind.

How it worked

Area Coursera – SAAS MITx – 6.002 Circuits
What I liked What could be better next time What I liked What could be better next time
Lectures 5-15 minute course snippets.  The videos were a bit jumpy but still possible to follow. I felt like there was too much overlap between the lectures and the book.  I read the book and this caused me to gloss over some of the later videos. Tended to be longer, but still a reasonable range.  Good snippets as well and broken up as needed.  I liked the switch between lecture (powerpoint), human face and demo. Bookmark your place more clearly.  Your position in the lecture sequences was marked but it was hard to see and you had to know what to look for.
In lecture quizzes Quizzes were short multiple choices to make sure you understood the lecture. The AI-class and MITx quizzes tested deeper knowledge.  As did the saas-class exam type quizzes.  Bringing some of that rigor to the lectures would have made it more interesting. These were well thought out exercises.  You could submit as many times as you wanted or see the answers and backfigure from there.  There were excellent forum discussions on the exercises as students posted worked answers. Provide a built in walkthru for the early ones?
Homework I think the homeworks were by far the best part of course.  They were well crafted to reinforce/try/play with the material.  They gave you a sandbox that was big enough to play in but not so big as to flounder around in.  The auto grader which allowed multiple attempts help avoid any perceived ambiguity. The only thing I would change is that the auto-grader was up late for the last assignment. The format was similar to the quizzes in that there were unlimited retries.  The big difference is that the answer wasn’t available until afterwards. The content was more challenging and checked your understanding.  There were also virtual labs where you could build circuits which was really cool.  The homeworks/labs also generated different sets of numbers making it harder for people to cheat. There was some reports that the virtual labs were too sensitive.  I didn’t run into this problem personally though.
Exams The exams were timed multiple choice quizzes.  They were a good way of seeing how much you retained in a quick manner. On the last quiz, I got a longer quiz and then when I submitted “it was gone.”  Going back I was presented with a shorter quiz as if I had never been there.  I would have liked the answers to the first one. While the exams haven’t actually occurred yet, the announcements say they will be like the homeworks except you can only submit three wrong answers (as opposed to trial an error around) and you only have 24 hours from when you start to complete it.  I like this idea.  It’s a natural progression. n/a
Book Choice of e-book or printed book.  On a very beta book.  The book was good though so I don’t mind. The book was only available in certain countries. The book went well with the course and let you go into more detail on concepts/understanding. Aside from being expensive, this book was difficult to find.  I ordered it several weeks before the course and barely got it in time.
Forums The forum was built into coursera.  It was a bare bones forum and organized by “general”, “assignments”, etc.  The forum moderators did create a new forum for study groups when it became apparent that was causing clutter. I didn’t like the forum.  Part of it was the large number of stickied threads for long periods of time.  Part of it was the lack of contrast between read and unread posts.  And I suspect part of it is was the subconscious missing of features I reply on in other forums. I really like the forum.  It is powered by askbot and has a lot of the features I like in stackoverflow – tags, showing tags, hiding tags and voting.  It also has badges, karma and an easy way to see your topics/posts. At the beginning of the course, hardly anyone had enough karma to delete posts including those that contained answers to the homeworks.
Progress Bar If you click on assignments or quizzes, you can see your scores. There was a lot of “click to expand” needed to see all the information at once. A page clearly showed how “done” you were.  It gave a percentage for homeworks, labs, exams and non-credit quizzes in the lectures. Minor, but it would be nice if the homework/lab scores linked to the homework/lab.
Announcements The home page had announcements.  Kind of.  Most things were “announced” in the forums or by editing a paragraphs long text area.  Only a few announcements had a date. The announcements had a feel of the plans were “on display” in the basement of the planning office, where both the lights and stairs had been removed, in an old filing cabinet locked in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard.”Yes.  They were there.  But it took a lot of looking and re-looking to ascertain what was new.Source: Hitchhiker Guide Useful, timely and ordered by date. n/a

My measure of success

For SAAS, I know more than I did when I started the class.  I got to do some hands on development with Ruby and Ruby testing tools.  I got to participate in an online forum with fellow learner.

For MITx, I did learn two and a half weeks of material.  And it was great to see how they did it.  Between being shakey on the pre-reqs and not being at home at all for three of the first five weekends, I had to declare defeat.  This is not the course’s fault and I imagined it would happen.  I wanted to try it out anyway.

How I did

I’d like to repeat the part about learning being the important part here.  When one says that someone often chimes in “oh, that’s just because you didn’t do well.”  So I’ll share.  For SAAS,  I don’t know my exact score because I didn’t calculate it.  (I’m not clear on exactly how they count the quizzes.)  It think it is somewhere between 85 and 90 though. For MITx, my score is 7%.   Seven percent is two weeks of 100%, one week of partially done and then all zeros.

What’s next?

SAAS will be running a part 2 later in the year.  And a lot more courses are being offered.  See the full list at class central.  I still want to take Human Computer Interaction.  Which conveniently didn’t conflict with SAAS!  I’m also thinking about Udacity 253 – how to build a blog with the creator of reddit.  It seems to cover some of the scalability concerns I was hoping for in SAAS.  That will also let me take a look at Udacity – the third major provider.