Coursera

Leading Strategic Innovations in Organizations

I’m about half-way through the course offered by David A. Owens, Professor of the Practice of Management and Innovation at Vanderbilt’s Graduate School of Management, where he directs the Executive Development Institute.  I’m enjoying the course, partly because I’m highly interested in innovation and how it happens, but also because Owens delivers the course well.  He’s comfortable in front of the camera, and the approach he takes to analyzing innovation is somewhat innovative itself.  As opposed to digging into what makes innovation work, the course is entirely framed from within the perspective of what gets in the way of innovation.  The framework itself is very logical and easy to follow, and Owens breaks down innovation constraints into a number of logical categories, such as individual, group, organizational, industry/market, societal, and technological constraints.  Each week he reviews one of these areas, using examples from industry, and proffering means to overcome the constraints that are typical in these categories.

InnovationScreenshot

Though it’s a minor detail, the way he places himself in the weekly videos stood out for me.  Of the 8 or 10 courses I’ve looked at, he’s the only person to record himself standing and show his entire body as though he’s standing next to the slides and images he presents.  It was nice to see a different approach, and it works well because it allows him to use lots of body language which livens up the presentation.  He also enlisted an illustrator to create cartoon-ish sketches that appear throughout each lecture.  Again, something that seems like a small touch, but as someone who has seen a ton of online course video, it’s something that I think increases engagement, and that will be vital to creating some separation among professors and courses that are offered on platforms like Coursera.  I’m not sure when the course will be offered again, but I’d recommend it as an interesting overview of the challenges associated with innovation.

Gamification and Human-Computer Interaction on Coursera

courseraI’m a learning junkie, and have just completed my fifth course on Coursera, with three others underway.  Two of the courses I particularly enjoyed were Gamification and Human-Computer Interaction, and both are set to begin their next run in the next few days.  Human-Computer Interaction begins on March 31, and Gamification on April 1.  If you have an interest in developing or refreshing software design skills, I highly recommend both of these courses.  For more on my thoughts on the Gamification course, see this post and this post.  For my previous thoughts on the HCI course, see this post.  I’ve decided to take the HCI course again because I enjoyed the process so much, and have a new product idea that I plan to flesh out in the course.  The HCI course, like many Coursera courses, offers multiple “tracks.”  Last time around, I wasn’t able to devote enough time, so I landed in the Apprentice track, but this time, I hope to make it through the Studio Practicum.  Anyone else that’s taking the course, let me know, and I’ll look for you in the forums.

Guest Post: MOOCs – Boon or Bane

While I’ve been knee-deep in Udacity’s CS-253 Web Development course, I’ve also been exchanging emails with Soumabha of Bytes and Banter. He, too, has been taking advantage of courses at Udacity and Coursera, so I asked him what he thought the pros and cons of these new educational systems are. Below are a few of his thoughts.

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SoumabhaSoumabha is a blogger, technology enthusiast and a freelancing marketing analyst. He is a computer science engineering student in BITS Pilani, one of the top colleges of India. His thirst for education and love for comics drives him to post on his blog Bytes and Banter
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One of the hottest debates raging in higher education right now regards the effectiveness of MOOCs. In case you are wondering what a MOOC is, the acronym stands for Massive Open Online Courses. These courses aim to target a global audience and generally reach them through video lectures or sharing slides and docs of their courseware. As the name implies, they are open to anyone, delivered online, and because they are free, they tend to get massive numbers of enrollees.

This concept of free online, video-based instruction was started by Khan Academy but it was Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig’s Artificial Intelligence course offered by Udacity which amassed a whooping 160,000 students that brought the word MOOC to the world. Then came the Stanford initiative, Coursera, along with MIT’s edX and now there are many more developing sites increasing by the day, while the early leaders add more courses and schools to their offerings regularly. But enough about the history; let us come to the main question – Will this technology actually change the face of education?

MOOCs have the potential to actually meet a person’s quest for knowledge, transforming what might only have been a dream to a reality. While some MOOC sites are better than others, the ‘big three’ – Coursera, Udacity and edX have already impacted a million lives by making available to the masses the video lectures of professors from Stanford, Princeton, The Wharton School, MIT and many others. I for one, coming from a middle-class Indian background, got exposure to wonderful subjects and it has changed my perspective a great deal.

MOOCs also enable students to participate in discussions with a wide variety of others with different backgrounds, tastes and from different cultures. Friendships are formed, and these new ‘classmates’ can provide that extra push you might need to keep progressing in a course. The MOOC services encourage collaboration and connection-making, as can be seen with the recent addition of the Google+ hangout feature in the course webpages.

One feature which is very useful for working people is the ability to watch and do exercises at their own sweet will. Udacity’s courses are self-paced, which enables a wide range of people to join and helps the office-goers to manage time in office and get quality education delivered right at their doorstep. Thus far, Coursera’s courses are offered only at specific times and students move through the material as a huge cohort. In time, perhaps their courses will run all the time, too.

As with any technology, there is never such a thing as all good and no bad, and MOOCs also have a downside, the most famous being plagiarism. I once searched for course reviews and to my horror I landed on a site where course questions and answers were publicly discussed in a particular forum. Many people post code for Computer Science courses in their ideone / github account and often forget to keep it private. This just invites the cheaters to use the working code and pass it on as their own. Many students have complained about the lack of security and awareness which leads to plagiarism.

The value of the certificates students receive is also a big concern. While these courses are often the same courses offered at their brick and mortar schools, MOOC participants receive no college credit, and instead get a certificate of completion. When my friend took his Algorithms by Tim Roughgarden certificate to a placement interview, he was clearly told that these online certificates would not be recognized. Hiring companies realize it could have been anyone sitting in front of the computer, so the MOOC websites are finding it really difficult to increase their certificate value in the corporate world.

Finally, will MOOCs actually replace the in-school and the hands on teaching approach? Well that is debatable. There are many advantages of the MOOC system but the feeling of studying in a small class of 40 is something entirely different and maybe even irreplaceable. The special attention of a teacher, a structured 6-month timeline with written exams and the individual monitoring of not only subject-wise knowledge but also the behavioral aspects of a student work are quite essential.

Although MOOC services have a long way to go, nevertheless it is a huge step taken to bring education to every house (or at least the ones which have a computer inside). The development in this field can only result in some good and as the hurdles are crossed, this new way of teaching will continually improve.

Compare and Contrast: Udacity vs Coursera

I decided recently to brush up on my coding skills, because I haven’t really exercised them in a while, so I took the opportunity to try a course at Udacity to kill two birds with one stone.  I’ve been using Coursera for a few months now, and I was curious to see how Udacity compared – and Udacity had a CS101 course I could take immediately.  I don’t really need a CS101 course in general, because I was a programmer for a handful of years, but this course is taught using Python, which I have little experience with, so I decided to really go back to basics in order to pick up a new language.

The biggest difference between Coursera and Udacity is that Udacity’s courses use rolling enrollment, which means you can start anytime you like.  That’s a big plus over Coursera, where you have many more choices for courses, but often have to wait months for your course to begin.  I have no idea if Coursera intends to offer its courses this way in the future, but I think they should.  The power of these platforms is only amplified when anyone can start any course at any time. Another fairly striking difference can be found in the content of the home page when you load each site.  

At Coursera, if I go to the home page and am logged in, I see a list of the courses I’m registered for, and can click a ‘Go to Class’ button for any of them.  I like the design quite a bit – each course has an image, so there is something visually interesting on the page, and there is a progress bar for each course that has started to show you how far along you are in that given course.  To get any specific course information, I have to ‘Go to Class.’
At Udacity, when I go to the home page and am logged in, I see a list of announcements for the courses I am enrolled in, and there is a small widget in the upper right corner with a link to my courses.  Because Udacity leaves its courses open, they offer the opportunity to continue to engage, even after you’ve completed the course.  New content in the form of problem sets is added periodically, for instance.  So, one of the positive aspects of the home page announcements is that they may pull me back into a course I might otherwise forget about.  

While I tend to like very simple, clean, straightforward designs, I would like to see something visually interesting on this screen, which I don’t, short of an icon that appears next to each announcement. Another negative aspect of their approach is that when I click on the CS101 link to enter the “classroom,” the system automatically assumes I’m starting at the beginning and begins to play the very first video lecture.  The system does remember what I’ve completed already, which I can see because a green checkmark shows up next to each lecture or assignment I’ve already finished, so it’s fairly easy to scroll down to the first unfinished session and go from there – but it begs the question – if they’ve remembered where I left off, why not take me there right away?
Compare these two screens, and you’ll see both companies have implemented a very “white” design, with Coursera tossing in a bit of light gray for additional contrast.  I like Coursera’s approach a bit better because of that additional contrast, but think both designs are good in general.  Given these two, and what I like about each of them, below is a simple mockup of a design approach that would make me happier than either individual design does.

Human-Computer Interaction

I promised recently that I’d talk about a project I’m working on for the Human-Computer Interaction course I’m taking through Coursera.  The course takes us through a standard design process, starting with a very short and broad design brief and applying various methods to understand user needs.  Students move through 2-3 iterations of prototyping, beginning with low-fidelity prototypes using Balsamiq’s Mockups (a great tool, by the way), and advancing to higher-fidelity interactive prototypes using Justinmind’s Prototyper (I was less impressed with this tool – it has some serious usability issues itself, which seems ironic considering the space they’re in).  We create development plans, user testing plans, and conduct user testing, while also covering topic areas such as human cognition, visual representation, information design, heuristic evaluation, and creating and running experiments.  It’s a great hands-on course that also offers lots of theory and practical information if you have the time to dedicate to it, and if you don’t, there’s a lighter-weight track that offers all the lectures and quizzes without the hands-on project.

I chose to implement the hands-on project because I learn best by doing.  Having recently finished a Gamification course, and being a regular user of LinkedIn, it struck me that there really aren’t any broad, technology-based career or recruiting services that address career change or make the process of looking for a job a particularly fun or satisfying experience.

On the topic of career change, there seem to be too many companies complaining that they can’t find the resources they need, even with the ridiculous unemployment rates we’ve experienced in the past few years.  Add to that that people are living and working longer, and much more likely to have 2 or even 3 distinct “careers” over the course of their working lives, and you’d think this would be an opportunity someone would take a stab at.  I personally think there’s a need on both sides of the fence – companies need a broader pool of resources to pull from, and there are plenty of people that need jobs and can’t find them, or could use some help moving in new directions.  Jobs have become so specialized that it can be really difficult to shift after you have any significant experience.

On the topic of fun, I think a career site that focuses on more than just a place to post what amounts largely to an online version of a resume, and does so using gamification, would be a big hit with job seekers.  It can be disheartening to look for a job, especially when the path to the job you want isn’t obvious.  I think this calls for a service that analyzes existing skills and interests, while also mapping them to other compatible job types.  Think of a site that would be integrated with learning resources, give you the ability to test in certain skills, and reward you for building your skills or spending more time breaking down information about your history and interests.  A site that allows you to set multiple objectives so you can keep your eyes open for opportunities you might not normally think of yourself.

I could go on and on about this topic, but for now, I’ll share screen shots of both the low-fidelity and higher-fidelity prototypes from two screens in the project – the Home Page, and the page you’d see if you clicked on ‘Build my knowledge.’  In the end, my idea was a bit too big for the course, so I’m not going to be able to flesh everything out that I originally had in mind, but I’ve had fun with the concept and it’s gotten me thinking about not only literal design, but also about a real life problem that I think needs a solution.

Early prototype of Home page made with Balsamiq Mockups

Higher-fidelity prototype of the Home page

Early prototype of the Knowledge center screen made with Balsamiq Mockups

Coursera Update

I am in free course heaven these days!  I blogged earlier about the Gamification course I started with, which was excellent.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the concept.  There are quite a few misconceptions about what Gamification is (for instance, it is not the same thing as game development or game theory), and this course will absolutely clear them up for you.  It is also full of excellent examples of gamification in real life and a decent overview of the psychology behind motivation, which is what gamification is really all about.  Having jumped into a few more courses already, I can also tell you that Kevin Werbach, the professor of the Gamification course, is pretty comfortable lecturing to a camera, which is more important than you might think.  That said, I’m excited about the other courses that are ongoing…

I decided some time ago that I needed to hone my design skills.  I have a long background in software development, operations, and some product development and management, as well.  I have always approached software with a feature-first perspective, though, and for too long I even classified myself as someone who isn’t creative.  At least not in an aesthetic sort of way.  I’m completely comfortable discussing, planning, and developing strategy about what software should do and how it should work, but how it should look?  Not as much.  The gamification course fell into that ‘what should software do,’ category, but my current courses are a bit different.  Here’s a quick overview:

Human-Computer Interaction (Coursera – Stanford) – This course is taught by Scott Klemmer.  I’m about 5 weeks in now, and knee deep in an interesting project.  We’re running through the a typical software design life cycle, using great software to design our products (which are websites or mobile apps), and acting as usability testers for each other.  For each assignment, we perform a peer review and analysis of the work of five other students.  Like all of the courses I will write about, the biggest benefit of the format is the “homework.”  It gives you a chance to really develop your ideas, and at least for me, doing is the best way of learning.  I’ll post soon about the project I’m working on.

Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society (Coursera – University of Pennsylvania) – This course by Karl Ulrich is pretty much what it says it is – a design course, about the “things” humans create, in which I will have to create a “thing” of my choosing (so long as I can do it in 8 weeks).  We’re just a week in, but so far, I like it quite a bit.  The focus has been on identifying problems that need solutions and designing those solutions.  This really resonated with the problem-solver in me, and I was glad I would be able to tie my project to something meaningful that drove me nuts.  Part of our first assignment, in fact, was to list things that drive us nuts.  The textbook, by Professor Ulrich, is also available for free in .pdf version.

A Crash Course in Creativity (Venture Lab – Stanford) – I’m in the second week of this course, and Tina Seelig, the instructor and Executive Director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, is completely comfortable in front of a camera.  In the first week, we listened to a TED talk she did about creativity, which you can find here.  In the next couple of days, I’ll be visiting half a dozen different stores, observing things about them from their atmosphere to design to the way their staff treat people to what they sell and whether people interact directly with their products.  The goal is to “pay attention” and look for insights and hidden opportunities.

Like any new technology, these Massive Open Online Courses have their drawbacks.  It is literally impossible to reach an instructor, so if you have a problem along the way, you need to be able to figure it out on your own or rely on your peers assistance in the forums.  Given that these courses are not for formal credit, I think that’s manageable, but I have had moments of frustration.  For instance, in one assignment, a file I uploaded appeared for me when I previewed my work, but wasn’t there when it was reviewed by peers, so I lost a significant chunk of points for a technical reason and I just have to live with it.  Again, the course isn’t for real credit, but it may impact what “track” I’m placed in at the end of the course, and all of these courses have at least two paths through them – one is equivalent to an audit, where you listen to the lectures but don’t bother with the homework, and others are based on how much homework you do, or how in depth you go.  Since they are not for real credit, I am focusing on the tracks that would at least get me certificates of completion that prove I did the work and got reasonable scores.

Another drawback is that tens of thousands of people do sign up, but many of them drop out along the way, and at least in the courses I’m taking, group assignments aren’t uncommon.  It can be pretty maddening to try to decide when to  just move forward without people.  There are also technical glitches and bugs that the Coursera staff is still working out, but that’s to be expected.  That said, the benefits still seriously outweigh the drawbacks, and this is just the beginning.  I’m sure companies like Coursera are going places we can’t even yet imagine.

Coursera: Gamification Update – Week 1

The first week of the MOOC Gamification course I signed up for has come to a close, and I’m ready for Week 2.  In Week 1, our primary task was to view a series of 11 video lectures, broken into two groups, recorded by Professor Kevin Werbach, of The Wharton School.  In total, the lectures ran one hour and fifty-seven minutes, and each set was meant to be equivalent to an hour long classroom lecture.  The course is meant to be a pretty entry-level look at gamification, and as such, has no specific pre-requisites.  My initial impressions are that the material is appropriate for an introductory type of course, and subsequently, though the lectures have so far been pretty interesting and informative, the content is not very challenging.

In my initial post about this course, I mentioned there is some minor interactivity built into the lectures, such as the occasional break for a quiz question.  The quiz questions are of the sort that could probably be answered correctly even if the viewer hadn’t paid attention to the lectures, though, and the formal quiz to finish Week 1 had only five questions.  These questions did require that you’d absorbed information from the lectures, but the short length leads me to believe that evaluation of concept mastery isn’t a leading priority in delivering the course.  In my opinion, this element could have a huge impact on where this industry goes.  The idea of courses offered by prestigious universities for anyone to access online has instant appeal, for fairly obvious reasons, and while there are those of us that love learning just for the sake of learning, there are plenty of others that want to rack up certificates and proof of learning to add to a resume or show qualifications for a new job.

We’ll have to wait and see what happens, but I expect to see things like official certifications come for a fee in time as a means to monetize the industry.  While the concepts are so new, the major players are smart to create as open an environment as possible, to attract the widest range of participants and focus on data gathering to help inform the best future directions.

Because the content in week 1 is meant to be very introductory, providing definitions and examples of gamification and games, key differences between games and play, and a brief history of the concept, my hope is that the remainder of the course is more challenging and gets into these subjects in more depth.

As far as statistics and engagement go, our written assignments will be peer-graded, and they are only required for those of us that want a certificate of completion.  Our first written assignment should be released tomorrow.  Also, it looks as though participation jumped to 71000 people in the first few days, and results of the survey we took when we began the course have been posted.  There are students from at least 147 countries, 67% of survey respondents are between the ages of 22 and 39, 70% are male, and the US is most heavily represented with 32% of respondents originating here.  More than half of respondents are employed full-time, as opposed to other statuses, such as students enrolled in an institution.

I intend to jump in on the discussion courses this weekend, and will report back on any particularly interesting threads I find.  Wish me luck on my first written assignment, and in my second week in the course!