MOOC Madness

Ah, the MOOC–or massive open online course. It sounds like such an opportunity: take a class on thousands of topics, any time, any where, from some of the world’s best professors. And what’s more, it’s free! Or, if you want an official certificate, just pay pennies on the dollar of what it would cost for an in-person class, complete a few homework assignments, and you’ll be officially proficient and ready to take on the world. Thank you, 21st century!

Or not.

Let’s go back to September 2016. I was starting to feel restless professionally and unsure about going back to school. Get another masters degree? Spring for the PhD? Or a professional doctorate? And in what? Did I just want a fancy title? To challenge myself to keep learning? Should I try to tackle this while keeping a full time job or take time off? I decided to take a page from my design thinking skills and prototype: find an easy, cheap, and fast way to see if my hypothesis (“go back to school”) was a good one.

While my undergraduate and graduate degrees are in international affairs, my professional focus is human-centered design–i.e. how to create products and experiences that actually make sense to people. Think of Instagram or Facebook–did you need to take a training class to learn how to use those tools? No, because they’re really intuitive. Now think about most software programs you use at work (especially if you’re a government employee). Exactly. As you can imagine, however, this concept of building things for people [who are not the developers or the senior person who paid for it] is still new in government and met with suspicion. I’ve been leading these projects for several years now and have taken some fantastic classes at LUMA and Cooper, among others, but what about dedicating a longer amount of time toward a certificate program?

Enter the Interaction Design certificate through Coursera, sponsored by the University of California San Diego. The eight course program would help us “learn how to design great user experiences.” The certificate was billed as intermediate level, with some relevant experience required. Just like me! Plus, it offered courses in some areas where I had knowledge gaps, such as designing and running experiments, and the opportunity to create a capstone portfolio project. Scrolling through the listings, each class was about four weeks long, and based on the pre-populated start dates, I should be done within a few months. Sold!

This week, I will complete the certificate. (Is this blog post my way of procrastinating my final homework assignment? No comment.) I can definitely say that I’ve learned quite a bit…but not what I expected. In case other people are considering taking a MOOC for credit, here are some lessons from the past 53 weeks (that should be your first clue).

Are we there yet? In retrospect, I should have done some more math before signing up. The website describing the course lists upcoming start dates for each class–there’s one in October, then one in early November, late November, December, etc. Scrolling down, I should start the final class in February. Perfect! Not exactly. Adding up the total time of each course (3-4 weeks for most, but sometimes 9 or 10), it actually becomes 40 weeks total. Slightly longer commitment.

The stick figure wasn’t the only one feeling overwhelmed.

The professor has left the building: The professors giving the lectures are often good, but are no longer involved with the class. In some cases, the videos are several years old. So if we have a question about any of the lectures or homework assignments, we are mostly on our own. There is a discussion forum for each class, but it was hit or miss and often questions wouldn’t be answered at all, or other students would chime in to say they were also stuck. Occasionally there would be a teaching assistant, but not for every class. As you can imagine, learning new skills–especially involving technology–is not always smooth sailing. There are technical glitches, or shortcuts that need to be learned. And if there is no one to ask, you’re spending extra hours spinning your wheels, getting frustrated, and feeling incredibly stupid.

Grading gets an F: If there are no professors, who grades the homework? Why, we do! Every Sunday night, the homework is due. By the following Wednesday, we have to grade the work of three fellow students. Often, the students do not speak English fluently or grade arbitrarily. After all, there are no consequences for marking something incorrectly. Several times, I lost points because the grader didn’t understand the instructions or I paraphrased something rather than using exactly the same wording as the question. Once, I failed an assignment–that I had done correctly–because the student grader hadn’t understood the instructions! To mitigate this risk, Coursera has each person grade three assignments, so our homework would receive the average of the three grades it received. In this case, only two people had graded my homework; one gave it a 100% and one incorrectly gave it a 0% and I failed. I asked the Coursera help desk to intervene and they said they couldn’t do anything; I should resubmit my homework and hope other people grade it better, or repeat the course in a month. Seriously. (I did resubmit and got 100%.)

Use this tool…or not: Remember how I said the videos were sometimes several years old? Now imagine trying to complete a homework assignment directing you to use a certain website or software tool…but the instructions are from several years ago. Yep. In some cases, the websites we were supposed to use for a homework assignment simply didn’t exist any more (in one case, we used the forum to self-organize Skype sessions as a workaround). Last week, we had to conduct A/B tests on a prototype with…except the site isn’t designed to do that. It wound up taking four hours of elaborate workarounds to input my two prototypes into the site…only to receive videos of very confused and frustrated users who were wondering why they were seeing two nearly identical web apps, instead of just one. I followed up with the site’s help desk and they said the homework instructions were out of date and needed to be changed. Ok, great, let me talk to my professor. Oh wait.

One giant leap for studentkind: Even for an “intermediate” certificate program, there were some pretty significant jumps in terms of what we were expected to know. Courses 1-6 were relatively straightforward, covering design theory, social computing, user research, ideation, etc. Enter class 7: Designing and running experiments. This one had a different instructor, though most of the videos were of his computer screen. On this screen, he showed us how to calculate significance in results of various experiments, e.g. if people who used a trackpad were faster at completing a task than people using a mouse. It’s not as simple as looking at the average amount of time spent doing task A vs. task B. Oh no. There are actual statistics involved. Statistics that are calculated using the computer programming language R and tool R Studio, explained by a professor who finds this all very easy and likes to use keyboard shortcuts…and then give homework assignments that are not covered by the lecture. (I eventually downloaded the transcripts of the lectures so I could reference them on the homework and sure enough, the homework covered totally new concepts.) Thankfully, the homework for this one was graded by a computer who gave hints if you put in literally any numerical answer, so I survived this class without learning much more than how to game the system. The next class–the capstone–had another treat in store for us: after several weeks of doing paper prototypes, in one homework assignment, we had to switch to online prototypes. This meant learning not one but two new tools (Sketch and InVision) in one weekend, plus figuring out elaborate workarounds when some of the features were buggy. Good times. True, these are all very useful skills to have, but I could have done without the abrupt transitions and required self-sufficiency.

athlete roster1
Look what I made…eventually


Hostage crisis: And yet, I persisted. I circled October 15–the date my final homework was due–on my calendar and counted the weeks. Sundays became homework days, and I had to find time between training, racing, and travel. Last week, after hours of struggle with the user testing site, I finally finished my penultimate assignment. I tried to hand it in, but was informed I had to pay $39 more to finish the class. Seriously?! But what was I going to do, stop after 53 weeks of this nonsense? So I paid. And I seethed. And I asked the Coursera help desk for a refund. I was informed that when I paid for the certificate back in October 2016, it was only good for one year’s worth of classes. I had just passed the one year mark, so would need to pay an additional $39 to complete the capstone. I replied that I had been taking the classes sequentially, without interruption–except for a gap in the summer because the capstone doesn’t run as frequently. So really, the reason for the delay was due to their class schedule, not on my end. Their reply: I could have taken more than one class at the same time to finish earlier. Seriously. Never mind the fact these courses are aimed at working professionals, or their website implies a single class sequence. Those are the rules. Several additional complaints on my part, including on social media, had no effect. And yes, I realize it’s just $39, but the whole experience feels so disappointing and sketchy.

Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 8.51.20 AM
In which Coursera holds my homework hostage

The workaround: Probably my biggest takeaway from this experience was not design skills, but rather the ability to work around problems. Whether it was copying and pasting screen shots from Sketch into InVision because the Craft syncing tool wasn’t working, or looking up everything on YouTube when the lectures made no sense, I refused to give up. And neither should you. So, if you want to keep learning throughout your life, go for it! Just save yourself the hassle and frustration of pursuing a paid certificate through a MOOC. Coursera tries to make it difficult, but there is a not-obvious audit option for each class (not certificates, but the individual classes in each certificate) buried at the bottom.


Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 5.14.46 PM
See it? In the tiny print at the bottom? This is the button you want.


PS – if you are curious about what I actually made as part of this class, here are links to the prototype app itself, Medium post about the process, and (required) explanatory video.


One thought on “MOOC Madness

  1. Yikes! I signed up for one once on endangered languages from a linguistics prof in Israel. The course ran for 3 weeks coincidentally when we were on R&R in Croatia. Sadly, our house internet didn’t work and we had to use internet at a local park to check email. But that internet wasn’t fast enough and would kick you off after 30 minutes. The course is still out there and maybe I’ll try it again someday.


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