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.

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