MOOCs

A comparison between Coursera and edX

Over September and October of 2013, I have evaluated a number of  MOOCs. These vary hugely in their design, in part due to the knowledge being transferred. My previous experience of MOOCs is limited to having completed the AP level Introduction to Mathematical Thinking, which I can highly recommend as a first MOOC.

My interest in MOOCs was reawakened when I saw that TU Delft was putting two of its courses online, on the edX platform. As a contributor to the TU, let me start by saying that both courses are excellent and can be approached on two different levels: what I would call "advanced exposure" and "undergraduate". This is not true of every course in my comparison; nor can or should it be.

For all of the courses discussed here, all criticism is intended constructively and only in the most general terms. Teething problems are assumed.

DelftX & HarvardX

Introduction to Water Treatment is a 3rd year course, but has no specific prerequisites. The video lectures are sufficient to get a clear understanding of the two component subjects of the course: drinking water and wastewater. Watching the videos alone is not enough to pass the course, but will give an excellent understanding of the subject for non-engineers. The online text goes into far more detail, and is essential for any engineer wanting to earn a certificate. Tutorials are available for worked problems.

Solar Technology is also a 3rd year course, but requires some serious understanding of physics and mathematics. The course is completely self-contained, with a single enthusiastic professor sharing his knowledge in a step-by-step fashion. Well worth it for the discussions of diodes alone.

The Ancient Greek Hero is based on a course [...] taught at Harvard University ever since the late 1970s. As such, it is by far the longest developed course. Each "hour" is a contact hour; in the first eight chapters the entire Iliad is handled; the next three cover the Oddyssey. Hours 22 & 23 cover Plato: the Apology of Socrates and Phaedo respectively. 

MITx & UTAustinX

Circuits and Electronics in just a couple of weeks has brought me (a little) of the understanding that Electrical Engineers must have. Professor Anant Agarwal, who is also President of edX, is one of the most entertaining lecturers. Weekly, two lectures, tutorials, homework and interactive labs are posted. Each lecture is broken up into videos and practice questions.
Recommended viewing: S1V9, or the mouse being disassembled.

Intrigued by the title of this course, I decided to give it a go and... o boy!
Ideas of the 20th Century actually starts with the Enlightenment. Preliminary reading was The Gathering Storm, and the series is a fascinating insight into how one man single-handedly saved the world from both Voldemort and Sauron.

Colorado, Stanford, Pennsylvania

Introduction to Power Electronics is above my head most of the time, and at about nose level the remainder. I may follow it more seriously once I'm at the level of an undergraduate with basic electronics knowledge again. The Coursera platform is used to ask questions (typically once or twice per video) which is an improvement on the "chop and change" method for this particular subject.

Democratic Development is a course which only started in October. Living in a liberal democracy which is becoming less liberal - the Netherlands has a populist party which is not run on democratic lines, and this party has something like 20% of the vote - this is an important subject to know about. In Africa, there is a trend for increased desire for democracy with education. Yet the baseline, those with no school at all, is 81% for those rejecting one-man rule.

Designing Cities is perhaps the least academic of the MOOCs I am taking, but also one of the most unique. Peer assessment is a major part of the course, which is fun, and learning how cities were designed (by our ancestors! by us!) makes for an enjoyable MOOC anybody can learn from.

Introduction to Mathematical Thinking
is the one MOOC I've completed, and that only partially (as a TA). Mathematical thinking is not the same as doing mathematics – at least not as mathematics is typically presented in our school system. Highly recommended.

November 1, 2013

The following table summarizes, particularly for the edX courses, what their developers could best learn from, and to students learning one which they might be interested in next to make their own comparison. There is not much more that can be said apart from perhaps picking out a "best feature".
Learn fromRecommend toBest feature
WaterSolarCitiesVideos only = AP level
SolarElectronicsElectronicsDetail
Greek Hero20th C20th CRepeatability
Electronics(Coursera)CompSciLab simulator, fun
20th CElectronicsAllBreadth of scope
PowerN/AElectronicsDetail
DemocracyN/AAllBreadth of scope
CitiesN/AAllInteraction with peers
ThinkingN/AAllHow to think!

Since fully following 8 MOOCs at the same time is a challenge, my focus from now on is to ensure I actually understand Electronics. Because sometimes I at the end of my Latin! 20th C and Democracy I shall also complete, as well as the lighter Cities. The Greek Hero I shall definitely revisit, as well as perhaps Democracy for the further readings. Should there be a second iteration of Solar Power, I shall definitely take the course properly.