Coursera. How I Love Thee.

I’ve previously written about my experiences with Khan Academy and Udacity over on Magic Travel Blog. Today I’m going to talk about Coursera.


The next chapter in my tour of free online courses was “An Introduction To Interactive Programming In Python” followed by “Calculus One” on Coursera’s courses are provided by a large coalition of universities. The Python programming course is provided by Rice University. The Calculus course is provided by Ohio State University.

Just looking at Coursera, how it looks, the page layout is noticeably clean and well laid out. Your name appears in the top right of the screen. Clicking on it expands a drop down that contains everything not directly related to the course you’re currently in. Prior to expanding that drop down, 100% of the screen is devoted to the current course. The end result is very uncluttered and free of distractions. It’s really hard to get lost.

The course format for Python Programming is to watch video lectures, do 1 or more quizzes interleaved between the videos, then do a weekly mini-project. Calculus One has a similar weekly cycle made up of videos, free pdf textbook chapters to read, rounded out by an end of week quiz. Periodically the end of week quiz is replaced by a larger exam.

The video lectures are all very professionally put together. They’re not as fancy as the videos on which feature lots of animation and a presenter who apparently travelled around Europe visiting locations relevant to the topic. They are however watchable and informative. The presenters are charismatic and enthusiastic about the material they’re teaching.

The quizzes and exams in the Calculus course are all automatically marked as you would expect with a course of this size. The grading of the mini-projects in the Python programming course is more involved. There are apparently around 50,000 students in the course. Far too many for the staff at Rice University to deal with and computer programs often do not lend themselves to automatic marking.

To deal with the volume of student projects they’ve opted for peer assessment. After everyone has handed in their assignment each student marks 5 other people’s projects using the grading rubric provided. No doubt there will be tuning required and problem cases to deal with however the experience of assessing your peers is almost as informative as completing the project yourself.

The feedback I received was often surprisingly thorough. Looking back on my time attending a bricks and mortar university I suspect the feedback provided by my peers during this course may have be more useful than the scrawled feedback I frequently received from overworked tutors plowing through great piles of assignments.

It’s worth noting how much software has been produced specifically for these courses.

An Introduction To Interactive Programming In Python

All programming for the mini-projects is done in a tool called Code Skulptor. It means you can do everything in your browser with no need to install any software. Very handy for a course populated with students running every kind of computer imaginable.

Code Skulptor was apparently built by one of the gentlemen running the course specifically for the course. It’s a very nice tool that allows you to write, run, save and share your Python code. It even has a simple versioning system built in.

Interestly Code Skulptor has no Internet Explorer (IE) support. A flat ban on IE is a bold move although admittedly it’s one with the general feeling of many computer science types. The requirement to use a non-IE browser will certainly be far more easily accepted in the computer science department than it might be elsewhere. Note that this browser restriction only affects this particular course as it is heavily reliant on Code Skulptor. Coursera itself has no such limitation.

Calculus One

The quizzes and exams are, I believe, being run on software borrowed from Khan Academy. Calculus One’s demand for large equations is evidently exceeding anything required by Khan Academy itself. Inputting complex equations is particularly painful and error prone although the process is evolving rapidly. They’re working hard on this and, at the pace the system is evolving, hopefully we can soon say goodbye to messages like this…

You can enter this as (((-( (((csc (((e)^((((-( ((3 * x)))) + 1)))))))^(2)))) * ((e)^((((-( ((3 * x)))) + 1)))) * -3))


Despite encountering some teething problems my experience with Coursera has been overwhelming positive. It’s amazing how smoothly it all works given the newness of it all. I’m learning a lot and having a great time doing it. So are hundreds of thousands of people all over the world.

If you haven’t yet done a course on Coursera go and enrol right now. Seriously. Do it now.