Saturday, November 17, 2012

Price Is Right

This past summer, a friend of mine tipped me off to Coursera, a site where many big name universities are offering free online courses to large numbers of students. I had really hoped to take a traditional university course in the fall, but was unable to, due to my schedule, and decided to give one of Coursera's offerings a try. I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by how much I got out of the course.

After reviewing the directory of available courses, I decided to take Stanford's Human Computer Interaction, which is a course on software design. For those interested in software development, there are a good variety of courses to choose from. Even if you're not, there are money other topics that are touched on in the 200+ courses available.

The assignments proved to be very interesting, and it will be fun to apply some of these techniques to a real world project. To start out, we had to observe three people performing a particular action, determining areas where technology could help them improve their experience. Next, we had to draw up storyboards (similar to a comic strip), demonstrating a scenario in which our proposed technology could be used. After this, we created a prototype using Balsamiq Mockups. Once this was done, we built an interactive version of our prototype. Finally, we sought out three people to test our prototype and identify flaws.

The video lectures were informative as well, but I personally got the most out of the assignments, and would whole-heartedly recommend this class. You can't really beat an offering like this for the price.

The only thing that proved slightly annoying to me was the grading. Due to the size of the course, students grade each others' homework. Each person is responsible for grading the homework of five other people. Some weeks this took a considerable amount of time. Towards the end of the course, the faculty did recognize that this was the case and made adjustments so that a lesser amount of time was needed. One other small annoyance with this method of grading was that I found that other students tended to add requirements that were not outlined in the instructions for grading, due to their own idea of how the assignment should be completed.

In the end, the minor annoyances were not of importance, as the key was the amount of learning that was gained via the assignments. If you have a chance to take a look at one of Coursera's courses, I would certainly recommend it. The friend that pointed me to the site is just wrapping up a course that he is taking as well and sounds like he is equally satisfied with the one that he chose to take.