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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

Book Review: Kill the Company

Early this past summer, I blogged about an article on an innovation book that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on, and it was every bit as good as I thought it would be.  Kill the Company, subtitled End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution was written by Lisa Bodell, CEO of Futurethink.  Futurethink is a company that teaches other companies how to be innovative, and Lisa’s book is based on the methods she and her team have used with clients over the years.  These techniques are unconventional, and it’s easy to imagine the electric energy Bodell describes as she recounts her experiences using exercises, like the one the book is named after, with her clients.  Much of Futurethink’s approach is just a very smart reframing of problems and questions.  For instance, instead of asking, “How can we beat the competition?”, ask “How can the competition beat us?”

As I read the book, I realized that while there is a lot of power in asking different questions, the real strength of this exercise and others she describes is in giving employees the power to share their ideas – especially ideas we might normally call negative.  It’s rare that we’re allowed as employees to attack our own companies, and it’s probably all too common that we think new ideas need to come from somewhere else.  Why would we expect someone in finance to have a great product design idea, or a graphic designer to hold valuable insights about competitors?  We generally wouldn’t, because we think too narrowly; we pigeonhole people based on any number of characteristics that end up stifling their potential to contribute to making a great company.

The points I’m making are not revolutionary to those that study innovation, but Bodell’s book offers a passionate perspective and is motivating even if what she has to say isn’t new to you.  On the other hand, the book is full of practical tools that any group could use to evaluate just how innovative they really are, and to begin to instill innovation as a core capability that drives the culture of the company.  I say “begin to instill innovation as a core capability” because, as Bodell points out, innovation is about small changes that gather momentum and shift the way a company and its employees see the world and operate over time.  You can’t be a complacent company one day, go through an exercise or two, and wake up the next day an innovation powerhouse.  Having spent some years in marketing, an industry that already thinks it is really innovative, I’ve seen first hand how inaccurate labeling can simply exacerbate the issue.  Just because a company says it is innovative and creative does not mean it is; it is perhaps even more dangerous to be in this category because little to no effort is made to increase the innovation capability.

I’ve also seen major change initiatives fail precisely because they were major change initiatives, and Bodell does a good job of explaining that not only are small changes the sustainable ones, but often stealthy changes are much more successful than loudly lauded efforts.  This was a particularly interesting part of the book for me.  I’ve long been an advocate of transparency in any business environment, and my first instinct was that stealth wasn’t transparent, but as I read on, it wasn’t long before I saw the wisdom in Bodell’s statements.  The context matters, and stealth mode may be the only way to initiate grass-roots change in a larger organization, which will always be more effective than demanding change from the top.  In large companies, especially those with a particularly negative or complacent culture, many people just flat out won’t believe that management is interested in change when the call to innovate comes from above – or, they’ll feel as though they’re just being asked to work harder.  There are bigger gaps between the people in the trenches and company leadership, often marked by a lack of trust.  In these cases, it makes perfect sense to assemble a core group of influential individuals and challenge them to start to change the culture from within.  The key is to give them the support and tools they need.  This book will teach you how to do that.

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.

Clever Features: Betabrand (Too many to list)

I hate marketing emails.  I get them no matter how hard I try not to and no matter how many times I unsubscribe.  It’s an annoying fact of Internet life, I guess.  There is one exception, though, and when I realized today that I actually open and read the emails I get from Betabrand every time I receive one, I thought it was worth a few minutes of my time to give Betabrand some kudos and do my part to spread the word about a brand that I think highly deserves it.

Betabrand is a small clothing operation run out of the Mission in San Francisco, and from all indications, they are on fire.  I am not a very fashion-conscious person; in fact, people that know me would probably say I’m anti-fashion, or fashion agnostic, or something like that.  Truth be told, I would wear jeans and a t-shirt all the time if I could get away with it.  I mention this simply to underscore how effective the marketing of Betabrand is.  I’m the last person on the planet that would be their customer.  First, they sell primarily men’s clothing, and second, they are beyond hip in a way I can barely fathom.  So why am I on their mailing list, and why do I read every email and immediately go check out their latest products online?  It all started last Christmas – I was looking for a cool pair of corduroy pants as a gift for my other half.  Somehow I stumbled upon Betabrand and the Cordarounds.

I thought the Cordarounds were clever for two reasons:  1) the horizontal ridges on the pants and 2) the bold fabric that peeks out of the sides of the pockets.  These pants are really unique!  It doesn’t stop there, though.  The reason I continue to read all their emails is because they are ridiculous.  They are funny, campy, weird, and just plain entertaining.  Below is part of the text of the email I received yesterday, titled “Betabrand presents: Black Sheep and Sasquatch Sweaters”:

In today’s newsletter: one beautiful wool sweater, two tales of varying veracity. Plus, a strategy for photographing Bigfoot that’s guaranteed to work!

One of the following sweater stories is true. Which one is more worthy of retelling is up to you. Read on!

#1 The Black Sheep Sweater: Now You Can Wear A Figure Of Speech

Every autumn, we knit a small batch of limited-edition Black Sheep Sweaters with loners, iconoclasts, and the oft-misunderstood in mind.

True to its name, this crew-neck pullover is knit from 100% natural (undyed and untreated) wool yarn that comes from actual black sheep. Shunned by most of their paler brethren, these outcast ovines live on a few small Montana ranches near Yellowstone National Park. They’re raised how you’d imagine Western sheep would like to be raised — in fresh air and wide open spaces, with lots of tasty summer grass to munch on and plenty of John Wayne DVDs to watch at night.

Our mill in the nearby Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming takes the shorn black fleeces (more grayish-brown, actually) and spins them into soft, extra-fine yarn for our sweaters. We’ve been assured that no hazardous chemicals or robots are used in the process. In fact, these folks are dedicated to environmental sustainability and preserving traditional ranching culture in the West.

Yes, the Black Sheep Sweater is not only ruggedly handsome and ethically produced, it’s a figure of speech you can actually wear. But what if you want a slightly more exotic (and hirsute) garment? In that case …

#2 The Sasquatch Sweater: Cryptid Couture

Since time immemorial, the hair of the Sasquatch has been prized by clothing manufacturers for its color, texture, and unique earthy aroma. But this shy creature’s reclusive nature — and occasional propensity for sudden and terrible acts of violence — has made genuine Sasquatch-wool garments nearly impossible to find. Until now!

Introducing our new, limited-edition Sasquatch Sweater. Each one is knit from 100% pure Bigfoot fur, harvested from our free-range herd in the Cascade Mountains. We like to say a better sweater begins with a happy Sasquatch, so ours are lovingly raised on an all-organic diet of berries, roots, and fresh salmon, giving their fur a robust character that’s been compared favorably to the finest black-sheep wool.

Know that our Sasquatch enjoy an idyllic existence at the sprawling Double B Ranch, spending their days sunning in wildflower-filled meadows, loping through copses of hemlock and spruce, or just rolling around in mud and fragrant bear scat. And when it’s time for our ranchers to gather lovely Sasquatch fleeces, the gentle brutes are taken to feng-shui-approved wool sheds and given a powerful chamomile-based sedative, lest they grow uneasy and rip off a rancher’s arm or face.

Also, rest assured that this garment contains only residual amounts of Sasquatch musk, ensuring that sweater-wearers may visit the forests of the Pacific Northwest during mating season with only moderate fear of romantic entanglement.

No matter which story you choose to believe, one thing’s for certain: We made just a limited batch of Sasquatch and Black Sheep Sweaters, so they won’t stay around for long. Order yours today — only at Betabrand.com. (We’ll be tracking the popularity of each product and will report back next week with our findings.)

This company has so many things going for it; it’s really pretty inspirational to watch them expand.  According to a year-old article on FastCompany.com, they debuted with the Cordarounds last May (2011) and expected to hit $2MM in revenue that year.  Pretty insane, and they now carry tons of apparel.  Speaking of which, besides being hip and hilarious, they find really clever ways to design innovative features into their clothing.

Take the Gluttony pants, with three buttons so they can be expanded when the wearer eats too much.  Or the Bike to Work pants, that when rolled up have a reflective material on the cuff and a triangular reflective flag that pulls out of the back pocket to make the rider more visible.  This is definitely a company I’m keeping my eye on.  Their humor has captivated many, and the company has capitalized on how well they resonate with consumers, with a highly successful app for submitting user generated content.  People that upload photos of themselves wearing Betabrand or with the Betabrand ‘B’ photoshopped onto their faces sideways like a pair of glasses get a discount if they purchase within 24 hours, and the pictures the public comes up with are almost as funny as the content the brand produces.  Check them out, even if you’re not a clothes junkie – they are impressive.

Clever Features: Ford Escape Foot-Activated Liftgate

Normally when I think about clever features, I’m thinking about software, as in Gmail’s brilliant attachment prompt, and WordPress’s smart logo redirect.  I caught a commercial on TV today, though, for the Ford Escape that demonstrated the new foot-activated liftgate.  Check out this article and video on Forbes.com.  It struck a chord because I think it’s a great example of one of the concepts I wrote about from The Little Black Book of Innovation – looking for innovation opportunities in the space where people compensate.  When you watch the simple wave of a foot underneath the back bumper of the vehicle, it seems completely obvious that someone should have come up with this idea eons ago.  How often do you struggle with your hands full when you approach the trunk or hatchback of your vehicle?  Especially when what I’m carrying is heavy, the last thing I want to do is put it down and have to pick it up again after I open up the trunk.  Kudos to Ford for delivering some real innovation!