MOOC and me: Reflections on a Coursera course

On April 10, I signed up for a course on network theory and analysis with professor Matthew Jackson of Stanford University. That was about one week into the course, which started April 1, so I will have to hurry to finish some of the assignments. The course is both a test in online coursing for me – not that I think I am at a stage where I should create on, but it could be interesting to try – and I chose this particular one because it is a field in which I have brushing knowledge (I have read Burt’s Structural Holes: The Social Structure of Competition, for instance) but never have systematically undertaken any training or done any math.

Signing up was very easy: Name, email address and a password, no cost, off we go. The web site is very simple, well, here we go. Estimated work 3-6 hours per week. Will see if I can make that, especially if I am blogging on the side…

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The course (at least the intro) is delivered with a set of slides and the instructor superimposed over them, using on-screen drawing (using a tablet pen, it looks like) drawing lines around or between concepts. The ability to speed up the presentation is useful – I can still follow it at 1.5x normal speed, and used that to rush through some of the examples I had heard before and some of the more self-explanatory slides. There are some problems with the transmission – occasionally, the screen will be garbled (especially when there is movement on the screen, such as the instructor drawing on the slides, which means that I will have to print out the slides for the next week’s lectures, when the formulas become more complicated. i will also have to start taking notes by hand, since my typed comments can’t keep up with the presentation when it comes to creating formulas and drawing diagrams.

The course uses open-source network software (Pajek) and the first homework assignment dealt with basic network attributes such as diameter, density, and average paths. Not too hard so far, but i have a graduate education from an English-speaking university and some intuitive understanding of the topic (plus experience in fiddling with software until it works, including screwing up the Pajek configuration and fixing it by simply erasing the config file and starting over.)

On the positive side, I might be just in the right market segment: Someone who is interested in the topic but does not have the time to sign up for a course in it. Wonder how many other academics there are out there who see MOOCs as a great way to update themselves on a related field…

I’ll be back with more observations in a few weeks, assuming I haven’t dropped out – which many students tend to do in these courses.

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