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.