Category MOOC Reviews

MOOC Reviews: Online Linguistics Courses (Coursera and VLC Marburg)

In this post I will write some overdue reviews of several online MOOCs on linguistics, the course “Miracles of Human Language: An Introduction to Linguistics” by Prof. Marc van Oostendorp of Leiden University on Coursera and the courses “Linguistics 101: Fundamentals” and “Linguistics 102: Speech Science” by Prof. Jürgen Handke on the Virtual Linguistics Campus of the Universität Marburg.

Miracles of Human Language: An Introduction to Linguistics – Coursera

Summary

The course offered exactly what the title promised, an introduction to linguistics. The level was fairly basic, at the high school to early college level, so none of the topics were covered in depth. However, the two video projects that were part of the assignments were fun and instructive, and Prof. van Oostendorp’s enthusiasm was so contagious that I signed up for some more serious linguistics MOOCs (see below).

Course format

The course was delivered in videos which were a mix of lectures by Prof. van Oostendorp, dialogues with his teaching assistants, and interviews with various linguistics experts. There were fairly easy multiple choice quizzes as well as two fun video projects to complete. There were quite active discussions on the Coursera discussion forums. The course runs over 6 weeks, Coursera estimates an average of 4-6 hrs/week, which is about accurate, factoring in the two more involved assignments.

Rating          ✍ ✍ ✍ ✍ ✍ 

Overall, the course was a bit too elementary for a professional translator with some linguistics knowledge, but I liked the fun assignments and, as already said above, the lecturer’s enthusiasm for the topic is contagious. Thus I would highly recommend this course to beginning translators and beginning college students. Advanced language professionals, even those with no formal linguistics background, might find the content a bit too basic.

Linguistics 101: Fundamentals, Linguistics 102: Speech Science – VLC

Summary

The two courses were held concurrently, so I signed up for both. The content of the courses necessarily overlap a bit, since the “Fundamentals” also include some speech science. The content of the course is as advanced as one would expect at a professional/university level. The videos are expertly made, and the tests, which are not always multiple choice, not as easy as most of the MOOC quizzes I have taken. Overall, I learned quite a bit, and can recommend the VLC including the more advanced courses to any language professional without a formal linguistics background.

Course format

The courses are hosted on the Virtual Linguistics Campus of the University of Marburg. Both courses run over 2 months, with a pace of about 2 modules per week, although the pace can be chosen individually, so about 15 modules in total. Every module contains a “worksheet” with a test that needs to be completed before the end of the course. The content is delivered via video lectures, hosted on YouTube, and accompanying PDF slides. I estimate the total volume to about 10 hrs/week for one of the courses, to really absorb the content.

The form of content delivery on the front-end is one of my main points of criticism, because navigating at least 3 pop-up windows to get to the course content was quite cumbersome, compared to the ease of use of the Coursera or edX platforms. Many students had technical difficulties, and I also had to try several browsers and adjust the settings to make the pop-up windows work without a browser crash. Another point of criticism is the fact that the discussion forum was hosted on Facebook, which in my opinion, for content of this nature, is the wrong forum. Facebook also does not allow proper academic discussions that a more “traditional” discussion platform would offer, simply due to the length and linking restrictions on Facebook.

Rating          ✍ ✍ ✍ ✍ ✍ 

Overall, I would absolutely recommend these courses and the more advanced ones to anybody who wants to learn about linguistics. The content is truly excellent, Prof. Handke’s delivery is truly excellent, and the worksheets really test one’s knowledge, unlike most MOOC quizzes I have taken. The only reason these courses only get a rating of 4 out of 5 is because of the aforementioned unnecessarily complicated interface, including the technical drawback of having to navigate 3 separate pop-ups to finally get to the content.

The above linguistics courses and a few others are now made available for self-paced study on the VLC platform.

MOOC Reviews

MOOCs on Coursera

MOOCs on OpenEdX

MOOCs on the VLC

MOOC Review – Coursera “Global Sustainable Energy: Past, Present and Future” by Wendell Porter

In the following, I will briefly review the course “Global Sustainable Energy: Past, Present and Future” by Prof. Wendell Porter of the University of Florida on Coursera.

Synopsis

The course covered a variety of topics, whereby 3 of the topics, residential energy, renewable energy sources, and transportation were covered more in-depth by the students themselves in peer assessments/papers, which were then graded (anonymously) by other students.

Course format

The course included videos, short and to the point, quizzes, and mandatory discussions in the forums, where the topics were covered first, with the peer assessments following up in-depth. Prof. Porter used the online medium very wisely through the mix of videos that were partly shot at various outdoors locations and especially the 3 longer peer assessments that where then graded by other students.

Rating          ✍ ✍ ✍ ✍ ✍ 

I definitely learned a lot, particularly while researching for the projects/peer assessments and while grading other students’ projects. I could have done without some of the mandatory discussions, simple because more often than not people posted random statements without references or links just to get credit. Nevertheless, the rest of the course far outweighed this slight drawback. Overall, I can definitely recommend this course.

MOOC Review – Coursera “Introduction to Finance” by Gautam Kaul

In the following I will briefly review the MOOC (massive open online course) “Introduction to Finance” on Coursera by Prof. Gautam Kaul.

Synopsis

The course covered a variety of topics in a whirlwind, from mortgage calculations over a brief intro to accounting to stocks and bonds. Of course, none of these topics could be covered in-depth in the short amount of time, but it was just the right amount for a small business owner or for anybody with a retirement account and interest in purchasing a home.

Course format

While the format was very “traditional” (for an online course), video lectures with online assignments, Prof. Kaul’s ability to be highly engaging in a video with a bland background is simply amazing. Prof. Kaul is one of the best lecturers I’ve ever heard. The assignments were just the right difficulty and not purely academic, partly tricky, and forced you to actually learn the material and be able to apply what you have learned.

Rating          ✍ ✍ ✍ ✍ ✍ 

I highly recommend this course for anybody as an entry level course into personal and business finances and rate it as a 5 out of 5.

MOOC Review – Two Courses on Writing

I have previously reviewed some MOOC courses on Coursera and voiced my general opinion about MOOCs (massive open online courses). Below I’d like to review two more courses I have recently completed, both on the topic of writing: Crafting an Effective Writer: Tools of the Trade on Coursera and SciWrite Writing in the Sciences on the Stanford OpenEdX platform. I believe that both will be offered again in the future.

Crafting an Effective Writer: Tools of the Trade

This course is offered on the tried and tested Coursera platform by Lorrie Ross, Lawrence (Larry) Barkley, and Ted Blake of Mt. San Jacinto College. The course info describes this course as suited for high school and college students as well as for people whose native language is not English, i.e. as more of an entry-level course. I have found this course to be indeed quite basic, and I would say that it definitely is below college-level. Nevertheless, I followed the course until the end, since the time commitment was fairly minimal compared to other MOOCs I have taken.

Overall, the course is well structured and the workload just right for taking the course on the side to one’s regular schoolwork or occupation. However, in my opinion, the content focuses too much on theoretical grammatical constructs. I don’t think the flow of my writing will improve if I know that a clause is a nonrestrictive subordinate clause and that a particular sentence is of the type compound-complex. The actual writing assignments were few and far in between. However, the peer assessment and grading process was smooth and fair. The course mainly discussed the grammatical structure of sentences and attempted to put these structures into a broader context in the (too) short writing assignments. The grade was calculated from a number of fairly easy multiple-choice quizzes and the peer writing assignments.

In summary, this course is probably helpful for people whose native language is not English, who are still learning the basics of grammar, or for high school students with a grammar-obsessed teacher. But I don’t think it does much to improve one’s writing style because the course focuses too much on theoretical constructs instead of practical application.

SciWrite Writing in the Sciences

This course is offered by Prof. Kristin Sainani on Stanford’s OpenEdX platform which still seems to have a few technical bugs that need to be ironed out, at least compared to Coursera. This course is much more advanced than the course above and geared towards academics at the graduate level. Although the examples are mostly taken from Dr. Sainani’s field of expertise, medicine, the course is suited for writers and editors (and translators) in all scientific fields. I found the course extremely useful and thorough and was looking forward to the videos each week. A minor drawback was Dr. Sainani’s often very quick speech pattern which could pose a problem in terms of understanding for non-native speakers.

The course thoroughly covered everything from good writing style over proper editing and writing procedure and the structure of publications to the publication submission process and plagiarism. The videos contained a lot of examples. If anything, there were too many editing examples, which one can however skip over. There were 3 essay assignments on practical topics, which were graded by peers. The 3 essays comprised 50% of the final grade, the remainder of the grade was calculated from multiple-choice quizzes, free-form online homework assignments, and a fairly easy multiple-choice final exam.

My main criticism is the peer grading process, which a) still suffered from technical issues of the OpenEdX platform and b) did not provide enough incentive for peers to grade fairly and thoroughly. Since the purpose of the entire course is to improve one’s writing, this peer feedback is quite important. However, more often than not I received seemingly random grades by my peers on all my essays. The marks were all over the place, and no additional comment or reason was given. Since the essays could be resubmitted twice, that feedback would have been essential for me to improve the first attempt. But because the feedback was missing and the marks in the various categories often varied from 0 to the maximum number of points, it was hard for me to determine the specific problems with my writing. I think that an additional mandatory comment field like that on the Coursera platform would greatly help here.

Another minor issue is the layout of the discussion forums. The main topics are not clearly separated, and technical issues are mixed with topical posts or even editing exercises. This is however an issue of the platform, not of the course structure.

Overall, I found this course extremely useful, although the usefulness could be even more improved if the structure of the peer review process could somehow force peers to give more feedback. In any case, I wish that some of the people whose papers I had to read and/or review during my scientific career had taken this course before they started writing their first sentence.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) – a Brief Review

I recently took two massive open online courses (MOOCs) on Coursera, “Introduction to Finance” by Prof. Kaul of the U. of Michigan, and “Global Sustainable Energy” by Prof. Porter of the U. of Florida. I took the first course to get a better overview over the financial world as a business person, and I took the second course because I’m very interested in sustainable energy and would like to move my translation specialization in this direction. I can highly recommend both courses.

“Introduction to Finance” covered a variety of topics in a whirlwind, from mortgage calculations over a brief intro to accounting to stocks and bonds. Of course, none of these topics could be covered in-depth in the short amount of time, but it was just the right amount for a business person with a retirement account and interest in purchasing a home. While the format was very “traditional” (for an online course), video lectures with online assignments, Prof. Kaul’s ability to be highly engaging in a video with a bland background is simply amazing. Prof. Kaul is one of the best lecturers I’ve ever heard. The assignments were just the right difficulty, partly tricky, and forced you to actually learn the material. Overall, I highly recommend this course.

“Global Sustainable Energy: Past, Present and Future” also covered a variety of topics, whereby 3 of the topics, residential energy, renewable energy sources, and transportation were covered more in-depth by the students themselves in peer assessments/papers, which were then graded (anonymously) by other students. The course included videos, short and to the point, quizzes, and mandatory discussions in the forums, where the topics were covered first, with the peer assessments following up in-depth. I learned a lot, particularly while researching for the projects/peer assessments, and I think Prof. Porter used the online medium very wisely through the mix of videos that were partly shot at various outdoors locations and especially the peer assessments, my own and while grading the other students’ papers. I could have done without some of the mandatory discussions, simple because more often than not people posted random statements without references or links just to get credit. Nevertheless, the rest of the course far outweighed this slight drawback. Overall, I can definitely recommend this course as well.

That said, I would like to point out a potential drawback of MOOCs. In one case, I dropped a course I was enrolled in, because the instructor seemed to have his own agenda instead of presenting a balanced viewpoint on the topic. People tried to point this out in the discussion forums, but were quickly shut down. I then dropped the course after about 2 weeks of this. That, IMHO, is one of the dangers with MOOCs in general. Since they are free (or almost free), they need to be sponsored by somebody. And if that sponsor has their own agenda, it’s very easy to pick and choose the presented data to fit an agenda instead of presenting a balanced overview. And thousands of people, who are not scientifically trained to question data that they are presented with, walk off with incomplete or worse, very wrong ideas.

With this in mind, I still recommend MOOCs, simply because the quantity of courses offered online on every conceivable topic is so large that there are bound to be some excellent courses out there.