Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Holocaust (UC Santa Cruz, Coursera) - great course but highlights some difficulties with moocs

I should preface this review by saying that I have an interest in history especially related to the second World War. I've read quite a few books on the Third Reich, including Shirer's "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" and Richard Evans trilogy, among many others. When I saw this course I was immediately interested not only because of my interest in history but also because I had not really read much specifically on the Holocaust. While all of those books discussed the Holocaust at length that was not their primary focus.

One thing that I will talk about in much greater detail has to do with the readings assigned for this course. I purchased many of the books that they suggested, owning only Elie Wiesel's "Night". Out of the 11 suggested texts I now own all but 3. This will be important later in this review.

The course itself is made of of 10 modules and each module has assigned readings combined with video lectures. The video lectures themselves are taken directly from the physical lectures at UCSC. Normally I prefer video lectures that were designed specifically for the course because they tend to be much more direct but I like this format here mainly because there are two professors.

Professors Baumgarten and Kenez each present about an hour of lecture each week with Prof Kenez giving more of a history lecture and Prof Baumgarten more of a literature lecture. They often interact with each other during the videos which is where having a recording of the physical lecture is nice. Their interactions are often humorous but also enlightening especially when they disagree. They especially disagree on the notion of resistance in the context of the Holocaust and seeing that from two points of view is wonderful.

There are three written assignments that make up the grading for the course and they are graded by peer review. They are fairly short (approx 500-700 words) but it is here where I think the course runs into trouble. If you do not have access to the books then while Prof Kenez's lectures are easy to follow you lose much from Prof. Baumgarten's. One of the books that I did not purchase was "The Last of the Just" and when Prof. Baumgarten was discussing it I felt lost when compared to lectures I had watched that corresponded to books that I had read.

There are also videos that are assigned each week but unfortunately they are not easy to find for the most part, and by that I mean they are not available on Netflix. I have seen some of the films before but it is a shame that they are not more readily accessible. I was able to purchase most of the books fairly cheap from on Amazon and you could find the videos there as well but I tend not to purchase DVDs much these days.

The first assignment was very open-ended but out of the three papers I read only one of them had read any of the material. The other two had to write their papers simply from the video lectures so that they were merely rehashed information from the lectures. They weren't able to make arguments or ask questions from the readings because they weren't able to do the readings. The grading scale went from 1-3 and I was torn with how to grade them. Certainly I couldn't hold them to the same standard as I would someone who had read the books because they weren't required. Still, in both cases they seemed to be more of a regurgitation of material from the video lectures rather than any kind of analysis so I gave them a 2. The third paper I read not only showed evidence of having done some readings but also tried to make arguments and draw conclusions so I gave it a 3.

Here is a copy of what I wrote, "The thing that has struck me most from the readings are how very different two Holocaust experiences could be. Traditionally we might think of someone who experienced the Holocaust as someone who had an experience similar to that described by Primo Levy. To be sure, the majority of European Jewery did experience the Holocaust in a similar way. Concentration into ghettos, transport to an extermination camp and more often than not death at the camp. Nechma Tec's experience is just as much the Holocaust as Levy's. In the past I would not have really considered them to be as similar as I do now because to me the Holocaust was merely the death camps. The way that I see it now is that the Holocaust was the destruction of the Jewish way of life, which could be experienced in many different ways.

Both Levy and Tec experienced the constant threat of death although it was a much more prevalent aspect of Levy's life than Tec's. When Tec faced death, as with the dead baby still in it's stroller, or the mass shootings after round-ups it was an extraordinary situation for her whereas with Levy death was a normal occurrence. Those Jews that were able to survive the Nazi's by passing may have heard rumors about Birkineau but Levy lived in the shadows of the crematoria. It is easy to see that their two experiences were vastly different but that raises an interesting question of if one of their experiences was somehow "better" than the others.
I find this to be a very difficult and troubling question not only to try and answer but even just to ask. Was surviving the Holocaust even better than not? At first this would seem to have an obvious answer, of course surviving is better than not, but so many survivors took their own lives after liberation. They were living in a world where their entire families were often gone, including many of the people they had known prior to the war. So if the idea of survival doesn't even allow us to place the tag of "better" on it then how can we ask the same thing about one's experience? 
Reading Tadeusz Borowski's writings about Auschwitz are what first made me consider the question. After reading Levy I almost found myself having a hard time feeling sympathy for Borowski even though I know that his experience was horrible. Since he was not a Jew, however, his experience was very different. There are examples he gives where he seems to be playful and almost having a good time. In other words, he was able to keep his humanity. This is something that was robbed of many, if not most or all, of the Jews who were not immediately exterminated. He receives packages from outside the camp and seems to have a much better diet than just the watery soup that Levy had to live on. In this case it is easy to say that Borowski's experience was better than Levy's but then I realized that lead me to another question. Did Borowski actually experience the Holocaust, or was he merely a concentration camp inmate?"

I received a grade of a 3 although I'm not sure exactly how the grading works because the feedback I got from one of the graders was quite negative. He said that he felt my paper was very lacking because I did not answer the final question that I posed. I'm not sure if he was just a lazy reader or if I did a poor job setting it up but my goal was not to answer that question but to leave it for the reader to think about.

One of the greatest things for me about this course is that it was the first time I read poetry and had any time of positive response. Prior to this course every time I read a poem the only reaction I had was to think how I couldn't wait to finally be done with it so I could get on with my life. We read Dan Pagis's "Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway Car" and Paul Celan's "Todesfuge". Both of these make me feel sad, and the more I read them or listen to them read the sadder I get. Perhaps it is that I read them within a much deeper context than poem's I read in high school but it was ironically very fulfilling to me to feel so sad from a poem.

This is a wonderful course and I look forward to it each week but it does highlight some of the shortcomings of a course where readings are assigned that are not in the public domain. My experience watching the video lectures related to one of the books I had not read really emphasizes how serious an issue it can be to not have access to the readings. The lectures that did correspond to the readings were superb and enlightening and this multi-disciplined approach to one of the darkest events in human history allows for a more emotional response than would be possible from a strictly historical view.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Microeconomics Principles (UIUC, Coursera) - a fun introduction to basic microeconomics

I always find economics courses interesting in the way they deal with math. Some really embrace it while others try to avoid it at all cost. Others, such as this course, are in the middle. If you happen to know calculus then you will find yourself smiling when concepts are introduced and you recognize that they are nothing more than derivatives and integrals. Without calculus, however, you have to work with straight lines for supply and demand curves which is unfortunate but you can still get an understanding of the concepts much the same as you can when taking a conceptual physics course instead of a calculus-based one. (As a brief aside I started out in the Caltech Econ course that required calculus but dropped out in the second week because the labs didn't work. I decided to wait for another offering when they were able to get the labs running but so far that hasn't happened. I really hope they offer that again.)

Professor Vazquez does an excellent job with this course. It is eight weeks long and covers most of the material that an introductory micro class would teach. The class offers three ways to earn a certificate, including quizzes (the option I took), forum participation and a project. I like this idea and have seen it used in a few courses. It allows you to choose how much effort you want to put into the course and gives you guidance no matter which path you choose.

The videos tend to be under 10 minutes in length although some weeks there are quite a few videos. I like this style as well because each video can be focused on a specific topic or narrow range of topics. The biggest selling point for this course is when Prof. Vazquez goes out into the world and applies the concepts to real businesses. This includes a local farmer's market and a popular barbecue restaurant among others.

The quizzes themselves aren't extremely challenging but they are not trivial either. Some of the problems will require you to work out a problem but often they test your ability to recall concepts from the lecture. Since this is a principles course there isn't anything necessarily wrong with that and I believe that the applications section of the course makes up for it somewhat. There are also quite a few problems on some of the quizzes which I am a big fan of.

The one thing that I wish this course did was go into more depth with each topic. It is truly a survey course but there were times where I felt like there was more that could be taught. This is a minor complaint though and this course does provide you with a good survey of microeconomics at roughly the level of an undergraduate elective course. Those who want to go into greater depth or more mathematical rigor can probably find other courses on Coursera for that as there seem to be quite a few economics courses.

I noticed that the next offering of this course will provide three options for students, 4, 8, or 16 weeks.  It seems that the 4 week course is the only one that offers less material with the 16 week course just having a slower pace but covering the same material as the 8 week one. For what its worth I did not find the 8 week course to be too stressful or time consuming. If you are pressed for time the 16 week course should be more than enough.

While not a very rigorous course, many microeconomics courses are just as basic. The lectures are fun and the course offers many different ways to complete it. The principles are highlighted in real-world businesses and if you have the time and interest this is a course worth checking out.

Mathematical Biostatistics Boot Camp 1 (Johns Hopkins, Coursera) - how NOT to teach math online

I apologize in advance for how angry this course makes me. It is teaching like this that makes people believe that math is inherently difficult or that you have to have a certain mindset to do math. That simply isn't the case at all. I have a degree in math, teach statistics and have considered becoming an actuary. I know my statistics! Still I found myself being confused as to what exactly Professor Caffo was trying to say at times. I have no doubt that he is able to teach this stuff well at Johns Hopkins but Prof. Caffo seems oblivious to online learning.

Whereas the UPenn calculus course was a great example of how you can teach advanced math over the internet this is the exact opposite. Sure you can assume that your audience has more mathematical maturity than the average audience since they need to know basic calculus in order to understand anything but as will be described below the course is a confusing muddle of poorly designed slides, lengthy videos and poor assessments.

Professor Caffo uses the LaTeX Beamer package to design his slides which I like. I use the same thing for my calculus and statistics lecture slides. Unfortunately he doesn't seem to have designed the slides in a matter that fits his lecture. The biggest mistake that he makes is that he tends to present the entire slide all at once rather than in parts. To his credit he does sometimes use highlighting to let you know where he is on a slide but there is just too much information presented at once. Sometimes it is hard to figure out where he is on a slide because his lecture style is more conversational (not that this is a problem in and of itself) so he often goes off on mini-tangents about something causing you to lose your place within the slide. There are a few videos where the lecture itself gets confusing and these should probably be re-recorded. Of course that is made difficult by my next problem with the lectures...their length.

I believe that most mooc video lectures should be under 15 minutes of length and deal with a very specific topic. This makes it easier for the students to go back and re-watch the video or find specific parts of the lecture that they want to review. I think this is even more important when dealing with technical material and to me is one of the strongest selling points of a mooc. In a traditional classroom setting you have to have lengthy lectures in order to get all of the material taught. You can't have students showing up for 8-10 lectures each week for 15 minutes or so.

One of the things I liked about the UPenn calculus course was that you had that short video followed by a homework assignment pertaining to just that video. The videos were also set up so that if you did one per day you would finish everything on schedule. This makes it easier for the student to absorb the material because they can focus on one specific thing at a time.

Now to be fair, many of Prof. Caffo's videos are under the 15 minute mark but there are also quite a few that are way over. In the first three weeks of videos there are four videos over 20 minutes and one of those is over a half an hour! The strange thing is that in many of these videos there are times when Prof. Caffo makes it seem as though the lecture is about to end but the video continues. This might have just been an editing error on their part, i.e. they intended for the video to end there, but this is something like the third iteration of the course so it could have been fixed by now.

Sometimes there is a significant amount of time spent on a new topic before any examples are given. The examples do help to clarify the material but after so long many students are struggling far more than they need to be. The examples also seem hurried at times when they are actually the most important part of the lecture itself. Since students don't have a section to go to and work out problems with a graduate students it is more important that they are able to see the theory applied in detail in the lecture.

This might seem like a minor point, after all you can still go back and find specific parts easily and you can also pause and continue to watch whenever you like. I think that people tend to watch the lectures through in their entirety the first time through; at least I know I do. I will concede that a course can still be great with longer videos and if that were my only criticism of this course I would probably only mention it in passing but combined with everything else it makes for a worse experience.

My absolute biggest problem with this course is not the length of the videos, or the poorly designed slides. It is the lack of problems that really makes me mad. The only way to learn math is to do math. That is it. There is no other way. You can watch all the video lectures you want and read all of the math books in the world. If you do not do problems you will not master the material.

In the third week of the course there were three video lectures, two of them over 20 minutes long and one of those was the 32 minute one. None of them had in-video quizzes. There were quite a few the first week but after that they seem to be absent. This is unfortunate especially with the length of the videos. The in-video quizzes are natural break points. Beyond that there is an optional homework assignment followed by a non-optional quiz that is generally very similar to the homework. These tend to be about 8-10 questions long. That simply is not enough for a course like this. There should be that many questions per each video. Some students will only need to do a couple in order to understand, some may need all 10. The way that Professor Caffo designed the course you get only a couple of questions per topic at best. In week two there were lectures on covariance and correlation but neither of those were addressed in the assessments.

I should point out that some students have complained about a lack of problems with practical applications. This was never really a sore point for me because I enjoy math for math's sake. However this is supposed to be a bio-statistics course so perhaps the complaint is not without merit.

The problem with moocs is that you can not assume students have access to any material outside of what is provided. I have a few mathematical statistics books but most students will not. These books tend to be on the expensive side since they are textbooks and the whole point of a mooc is to be as accessible as possible. I truly believe that Prof. Caffo's course in person teaches students a solid foundation of mathematical statistics. They are able to ask questions during lecture of sections, they have faculty members that they can approach with questions. They have a textbook. This allows them to not only read the material but also gives them access to more problems and worked solutions.

When all the students have are the lecture videos (although the forums can be helpful when it comes to specific problems) there needs to be additional support provided throughout the structure of the course. My biggest suggestion is to add a lot more problems, ranging from the trivial to the more advanced.

There are two things I would like to conclude with. The first are the videos that Prof. Caffo gave after the first week where he went over the quiz questions in detail. This is a step in the right direction because at least it gives students a way to work through the problems with someone. Unfortunately this is given after they are due and when they are working on new material. Providing similar videos of worked problems that are similar to the homework problems might be a nice option. These could be released before the quiz deadlines so students have a place to go when they are stuck other than the forums.

Finally this was one of the earlier courses offered on Coursera, it has been offered a few times since. There was still a lot to learn about designing moocs. There still is! Professor Caffo is offering a second course that is described as a continuation of this one. Perhaps that course was built on the feedback from this one and will be less problematic. If so, hopefully Prof. Caffo will go back and make changes to this course down the road.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Upcoming plans

I am in the process of finishing reviews for the following courses that I have completed and earned certificates for:

Think Again: How to Reason and Argue (Duke, Coursera)

Microeconomics Principles (UIUC, Coursera)

Intro to Computer Science (Udacity)

as well as some courses that I audited but did not complete requirements for. After that I will start giving reviews for courses that I am taking which include:

Competitive Strategy (LMU, Coursera)

The Holocaust (UC Santa Cruz, Coursera)

Mathematical Biostatistics Boot Camp (Johns Hopkins, Coursera)

The Global Business of Sports (UPenn/Wharton)

as well as give reviews of my experiences as I continue to take courses.

Introduction to Finance (UMich, Coursera) - a solid beginning finance course with a great professor

The Intro to Finance course offered by Gautam Kaul is a solid choice if you have an interest in finance. It was the first course I took at Coursera that could be considered more technical. Professor Kaul is perhaps the friendliest prof I've seen on Coursera and many of the students seemed to fall in love with him. His friendly demeanor is infectious and really helps make you feel comfortable learning what can be a challenging course for people with math-phobia.

The quality of the course itself was superb and I thought the problem sets were well-done. The problems were a mix of basic to advanced with many problems presenting some subtle nuances that were easily missed and turned out to be very important. This course will require some work but it is well worth it. Like other technical courses the forums can be a great help if you are stuck.

During the first offering some students complained that there wasn't enough time to complete the work so I believe the following offerings have been extended two weeks to accommodate this. I did not find it difficult to complete the work personally but I have a stronger math and finance background than most people who would take the course so it might have been a valid concern. Either way two more weeks, with the same amount of material, should certainly be sufficient.

This is a very basic finance course and it focuses primarily on understanding the time value of money. Risk is introduced at the end of the course but if you are looking for a course on investing or understanding securities you will want to look elsewhere. Of course you really need to understand this course in order to grasp those other ideas at any meaningful level.

At the beginning of the course Professor Kaul talks about the need to understand accounting at some level to be able to learn finance. While he briefly explains some of the basic concepts throughout the course as needed there were no accounting moocs available at that time. That has changed with UPenn/Wharton offering a financial accounting course that begins a few weeks before the next offering of this course (as I write this in the middle of August, 2013). I would suggest starting with that course, and taking it concurrent with this.

I should also note that Wharton will be offering their corporate finance course on Coursera at around the same time. I will definitely be taking that class and reporting on it here. From looking over the brief syllabus that the Wharton class has posted it looks similar to what Prof. Kaul's course teaches although I wouldn't be surprised if it is at a higher level. The Wharton course is also being offered in two parts so I expect that it will go into much more depth than what is offered here. If you are a beginner to finance my suggestion would be to start the financial accounting course and take Prof. Kaul's class when it is offered. Sign up for the Wharton corporate finance course and see how it is going for you the first week.

This is a great beginning course in finance with a great professor that will offer some challenge without being overwhelming. I would recommend it as a great first technical course to take if you have any interest in finance.

Securing Digital Democracy (UMich, Coursera) - umm a fun umm course but umm needs some small umm improvement

Professor Halderman's course on voting security and history was quite interesting and when I took it during the 2012 election season is was especially significant since talk of voter fraud was common. The course consists of 40 video lectures and 5 quizzes. The course material itself wasn't difficult and while there was a companion book that was recommended you could do well with just the materials from the video. The level of the course was basic and did not really go into the technical details of the voting systems and subsequent attempts at breaking them. This isn't a criticism because to be honest I would have found the course boring if it had been presented that way.

The course starts out going over methods of voting used in the past. The basic idea of each week is the same. You are asked to view each video with the security mindset, i.e. asking yourself what could go wrong with each voting method. After an overview of each method itself Prof Halderman goes over ways that the system could be broken and manipulated.  What I really appreciated is the experience that the professor was able to bring to the later lectures since he was part of a team that was able to break some DRE voting machines that were considered impenetrable.

My biggest complaint with the course is related specifically to the video lectures. Professor Halderman frequently interrupts himself with a number of "umms" which can be quite distracting. The content of what he is saying is fine but I think that for subsequent offerings he would do well to redo the videos to improve the flow and pacing. Once you become aware of just how many "umms" there are in a video (sorry!) it becomes even more distracting. Some students were upset by this much more than I think was necessary, at least from what I gathered by their posts in the forums.

This is another course, similar to the IHTS course, that I think is a good place to begin your mooc journey. I don't think it is quite as good because the IHTS videos are better quality. The course staff also hosted a few Google+ hangouts which allowed some students to interact directly with the professor. I appreciate it whenever I see the professor go out of their way to make an effort to connect with the students. In a medium like this that isn't always possible but trying to develop some sense of interaction goes a long way to making these feel more like college courses.

Overall this is a solid, fun course to take if you have a moderate interest in the history of voting or voting security.

Internet History, Technology, and Security (UMich, Coursera) - a great starting point for your mooc journey

One of the first moocs that I took was this course by Charles Severance (@drchuck) on internet history and technology. As I mentioned in my introductory post this was also one of the most enjoyable courses I took. This is not a very rigorous course but that does not detract at all from its attractiveness. In fact, as I mentioned in my introduction I believe that this course hit all of the goals it seems to have set out to achieve.

There are 7 units, 4 on history and 3 that deal with the more technical aspects of how the internet works. Dr. Severance is very involved with this class and holds in-person office hours in various cities that he visits. He is also very active on twitter which allows some students to have interaction that is usually not practical with moocs.

The assesments for the course were 6 quizzes for the week, a short written assignment that was graded via peer review and a final exam. The highlight of this course for me were the videos, which often had us going back in time to listen to people involved in the early days of the internet talking about their experience as it was going on.

As I proceeded through the course I found myself excited to get to the technology part of it. When we got there I remember wishing that there were more details but I actually think that this is a strength of the course and not a weakness. It inspired me to do some additional research outside of the course to learn a bit more. I can understand not wanting to make the course itself more technical because at some point you risk losing those who don't have any background. As an overview course I felt that it spent the proper amount of time on each topic and went into sufficient detail.

For those that are taking their first moocs I would suggest this course, or a course like it. It features both of the methods of assessment currently part of Coursera, peer review and multiple choice/automated grading. It is not a technical course which makes the forums more important in my opinion. In technical classes like the UPenn calculus class the forums tend to be full of discussions about specific homework problems but in classes like these the discussion forums can be a big part of the experience. Try to get involved in some discussions just to start building it as a habit. Some courses offer forum participation as a way to earn a certificate as well.

Finally it is not inherently a time-intensive course nor is it difficult which makes it easier to complete. I think it is important to complete the first couple of courses that you take. While I've dropped out of more courses than I've completed I finished most of the first courses I took which set the tone for my future studies. (They were Internet History, Securing Digital Democracy, Introduction to Finance, and Udacity's CS101.) A large portion of students don't complete the courses they sign up for and it is easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of Coursera courses that interest you. I have a hard rule to never take more than 5 classes at a time but the actual number tends to hover around 2-3. Taking a class like IHTS (acronym for this course) is a great place to start but make sure you commit to finish. Once you have a few courses under your belt and have a good feel for how moocs work you will be able to better plan your schedule in the future.