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.

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

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.

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.

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!

Massive Open Online Courses – Gamification on Coursera

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been in the news a lot lately, and Coursera seems to have an edge over other major competitors, at least when measured by the variety of courses currently available.  See below for a quick breakdown of courses and participating institutions.  I have long been a proponent of online education, and am excited to see where this industry goes, so I signed up for a Coursera course that started today.  The course is Gamification, and is being taught by Kevin Werbach, Associate Professor at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

I’m particularly interested in how data will be used and what the interaction dynamics will be in an environment like this.  The term “Massive” is part of the name of this category of courses for a reason.  Almost two weeks prior to the start of the course, Professor Werbach tweeted that he was amazed to see more than 50,000 registered students.

My first impressions today are positive.  After logging into the course, the information is well organized, and there are both discussion forums and wikis to encourage engagement.  At a glance, it seems approximately 300 primary posts have already been made in discussion forums, with hundreds of replies.  The discussion has a voting feature, which is useful and should allow us to focus on the most popular threads, which I imagine will be vital with the ridiculous volume of information that will likely be posted here over the six week span of the course.  Posts can also be tagged, which makes it simple to find a collection of posts on a given topic if tagging is used well.  Integration with the wiki feature could be tighter.  When I navigate to one of two wiki links, I have to log in again to view the content, and have no simple way to navigate back to the course site itself.  The wiki is labeled ‘Beta,’ so I imagine better integration will come with time.

As far as data goes, students were asked to complete a survey answering questions about demographics and the reason for taking the course.  I would love to see an analysis of that data at the close of the course, and hope there are further surveys to capture additional data points along the way.

After having watched the first two video lecture segments, I’m happy with the quality of the video, and like the fact that interactivity can be built into the lectures.  Occasionally, the video will pause to offer a simple quiz question, and the instructor seems to use a stylus to highlight elements on screen as he’s speaking.  It’s easy to navigate directly to the next video without having to “exit” the viewer, and the site design in general is simple, clean, and easy to follow.  Another interesting point to note is that in the spirit of free learning, there are no required materials to purchase to go along with the course.

I’ve joined in my first discussion, and so far, everything looks good.  I’ll be back with more thoughts as the course progresses.

Provider # Courses Participating Institutions
Coursera 120 Princeton University, University of Michigan, Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania, California Institute of Technology, Duke University, Georgia Tech, University of Virginia, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Rice University, University of California San Francisco, University of Washington, and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Udacity 14  None, Udacity develops its own content
edX 7 MIT, Harvard, University of California Berkeley

Click here for an article that discusses all three providers.

Book Review: The Little Black Book of Innovation

Scott D. Anthony’s book, The Little Black Book of Innovation, is a quick and pleasant read.  For those of us that think we aren’t as innovative as we could or should be, this book provides a practical approach to developing your innovation capabilities.  Anthony draws on years of experience both practicing and teaching innovation, and presents his perspectives in a 4-week program made up of actions that will help you become more innovative.  The four weeks break down as shown below.  I’ve added one lesson from each week that particularly resonated with me.

Week 1 – Discovering Opportunities

The first week’s activities are designed to help you identify your target customer, identify a problem the customer is trying to solve today, and find signals suggesting customer dissatisfaction with the status quo.  Day 5, titled “Find Compensating Behaviors” is devoted to the central question, “How can I find nonobvious opportunities?”  I love this advice because it instantly changes my mindset from one of attempting to dream up “something big,” to one of examining what’s out there already and where it falls down.  We all use compensating behaviors all the time, often unconsciously.  A silly example that pops to my mind immediately involves my morning coffee.  I make myself coffee as soon as I wake up, and I drink it throughout the day.  I take my coffee with milk and sugar, and I would imagine that at least 7 of 10 times, when I pour milk from the big plastic gallon container into my cup, I spill just a little bit, no matter how careful I try to be.  I compensate for this by keeping a sponge nearby, and wiping up the drips of milk that have run down the edge of my cup.  This isn’t a particularly big deal, but I can’t imagine there isn’t a way to design a spill proof container for milk.  It’s been done for plenty of other liquids – why not the milk jug?

Week 2 – Blueprinting Ideas

The second weeks’ activities are designed to help you use multiple sources of inspiration to develop an idea, determine where your idea will be “good enough,” and develop a comprehensive blueprint for your idea.  I found the advice on day 11, “Avoid Overshooting,” to be well aligned with design and development processes that I already subscribe to, and something I know people struggle with all the time.  The central question in this section is, “Is there such a thing as too good?”  The answer depends on the context, but it is certainly possible to build something that is “too good.”  Take web design, for instance.  People that are part of a software team often think of, or come across, new feature ideas.  There is a cost to building a feature, though, and that cost varies with just how fancy you want to get.  When something simple will do the job and satisfy the customer, it may not warrant the extra investment to make it flashier than it needs to be.

Week 3 – Assessing and Testing Ideas

Week 3 is all about assessing the true potential of your ideas, and I think this is something that innovators naturally struggle with.  As the originator of what seems like a great idea, it’s very tempting to move full steam ahead without stopping to assess whether the idea is the right one.  On Day 18, Anthony presents the important step, “Test Critical Assumptions.”  This exercise first gets you to define your assumptions, and that in itself can be very illuminating.  Then, the exercise prompts you to get out and back those assumptions up with testing.  Going back to my milk carton example from Week 1, one of my assumptions is that I’m not the only one annoyed by dripping milk, but do I really know that’s true?  Even if it’s true to a degree, are people annoyed enough that they’d pay for what may end up to be a more expensive gallon of milk if the cost of producing packaging is higher?  If I really wanted to pursue my genius idea for a new milk carton, I’d be smart to test my assumptions before I go very far forward.

Week 4 – Moving Forward

Week 4 covers a lot of obstacles and pitfalls related to managing innovation within existing business environments, in order to position a company and its people to be successful innovators.  On Day 26, Anthony says, “Reward Behaviors, Not Outcomes.”  I don’t know about you, but practically every place I’ve worked at, outcomes are valued above behaviors.  I’ve seen this work negatively in a few ways.  First, a rotten coworker can get away with being rotten if he or she delivers.  Or, a really innovative thinker can be punished when a particular idea doesn’t work out in the long run.  It’s this case that Anthony is specifically targeting.  It can take many, many failures before a success is achieved, but if the behavior is rewarded, employees will keep trying, anyway.  On the other hand, punish people for ideas that don’t turn out, and they’ll quickly turn into automatons.

Anthony uses a few metaphors and examples here and there throughout the book that I didn’t particularly like, but they don’t harm his overall message, which is valuable, practical, and quite accessible to anyone interested in becoming more innovative.

Book Review: Getting Naked

Getting Naked: A Business Fable about shedding the three fears that sabotage client loyalty, written by Patrick Lencioni, is a quick read that presents its lessons in an interesting format.  As the title of the book indicates, it’s a “Business Fable,” and the author’s premises are shared within the context of a story about a high-powered management consultant that must attempt to integrate a newly acquired consulting firm with his.  The firms involved share wildly different operational philosophies and the narrator undergoes a significant transformation as he spends time getting to know the new firm and its employees.

While the book is primarily targeted at consultants, its lessons can easily be applied to anyone in a service role, and really, that means all of us.  Even if you don’t operate in a service capacity at work, you inherently serve others in your personal life, one way or another.

Lencioni is an accomplished figure in business, one of the most sought-after speakers in the country, and this book is largely about his own firm, The Table Group.  He has published a host of other titles, the most popular of which focus on the function or dysfunction of teams.

One of the fears Lencioni believes must be shed in order to be effective in service is the ‘Fear of Feeling Inferior.’  To deal with this fear, he suggests four key behaviors that a service provider enact:

1 – Take a bullet for the client

2 – Make everything about the client

3 – Honor the client’s work

4 – Do the dirty work

The author does not refer to any particular business or management theory, but I drew a strong correlation between the above behavioral principles and the concepts of Servant Leadership.  This book would be a good addition to the reading list of anyone interested in Servant Leadership.  The presentation of the material in story form makes it surprisingly refreshing.  If you have a couple hours to spare, I’d recommend reading this.  The story format was captivating enough that I read it from cover to cover in one sitting.