Thursday, April 24, 2014

Review Day: Coursera

I just finished a free 10-week online course in "Designing and Executing Information Security Strategies". It was something of a soft-skills course, with emphasis on analysis and argument over right answers. Here are my thoughts about Coursera, based on my first class.

What I Liked

  • The course materials are self-contained and all freely available. No textbooks required.

  • Lectures are posted as slides and video, and text dumps of the video are available, to capture all of the extraneous comments the lecturer provides around the slides. You can playback the video at faster speeds to be more efficient.

  • The weekly quizzes and assignments keep you more invested than just reading a book might.

What I Disliked

  • Site navigation for this particular course was all over the place, reminding me of Blackboard in the 2000s. It's hard to get a big picture view of what you've done, what's due this week, and upcoming deadlines from one place.

  • The multiple-choice quizzes are easily gamed. Answer order is randomized automatically, even if it's nonsensical, as shown by the number of "A" options saying "All of the Above". In this class' quizzes, generally all of the "check all that apply" questions needed all of the options checked.

  • Most egregiously: Written assignments are peer-reviewed, with results ranging from "blind leading the blind" to "grades not grounded in reality" to "obviously I've never graded an assignment before". I graded at least two assignments back-to-back that were identical and obviously copied, many that had a bare minimum of English proficiency, and a few that were decent. In one assignment, I had to provide risk recommendations for new banking software that might be in violation of European privacy laws. I proposed starting a pilot with US citizens only, and expanding to foreign members after the initial kinks had been worked out. I got downgraded with this comment:

Overall, I found Coursera to be worthwhile for "personal growth" types of learning activities, but lacking in the rigor that would prove you had actually learned something. If I were to see a Coursera course on a resume, I would give the interviewee the benefit of the doubt that he or she had taken the course, but wouldn't assume that they knew the subject matter. I'm starting a course in Functional Programming with Scala this weekend, which I'm hoping will be a better fit, since there are right and wrong answers, and thus no peer review.

Final Grade: B-, good for personal growth but not certification

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