Knowing something about methods and statistics is more and more important in a world that’s becoming increasingly data-driven. From evidence-based medicine to evidence-based business strategy, in nonprofit, government, and business alike, basing decisions on empirical evidence is rapidly becoming the norm. Making sound evidence-based decisions requires that you know what you’re doing. You need to know what questions to ask, what data to collect, how to collect them and, perhaps most importantly, how to interpret the answers they present. To what extent can you draw inferences from the data? How likely are you to draw the right conclusions?
You can collect all the data in the world and run the most complicated analyses, but if you ask the wrong questions of your data or misinterpret the answers they provide, you can end up in a dangerous place: making wrong decisions that you think are backed by hard evidence.
So how do you get it right? This is where methods and statistics come in. The empirical sciences are about developing the best possible descriptions and explanations of how the world works, by systematically testing our ideas against empirical observations. Methods and statistics are all about how to ‘do science’. What hypotheses can we test? What’s the best way to test them? What should we measure, and how? Once we have the data, how do we summarize them to make them interpretable? How do we decide if the data support our hypotheses? How convincing are our results?
Given how long the scientific method has been around and given that methods and statistics are continually improved, you would think that the quality of our research findings would have steadily increased in the past decades. Unfortunately, the integrity of many recent research findings is being questioned, especially in the social and behavioral sciences. Both in the medical and social sciences, several fraud cases have shaken entire scientific disciplines to their core. Failures to replicate key results are leading people to question the effectiveness of scientific ‘control’ mechanisms like peer review and the publication system. Questionable research practices, involving inappropriate use of statistics, are suspected to be much more influential than we all thought just a couple of years ago.
As social scientist Daniel Kahneman suggests, it’s time for the social sciences to clean house. We’ve tried to answer his call by offering a new specialization, consisting of four courses on methods and statistics and a capstone project. The idea is to not just explain the basic scientific principles, research designs and statistical techniques, but to also show how their correct use supports scientific integrity and solid science, and how their misuse results in sloppy science, that can potentially bring the whole system down. The goal is to help learners to avoid questionable research practices in their own research projects and to recognize them in published articles.
The Methods and Statistics Specialization familiarizes learners with the basics scientific concepts and gives you the tools to critically evaluate research—which are relevant skills in any field of study by the way; it also helps you take your first steps on the path to performing your own statistical analyses using the programming language R, with no prior knowledge of programming required.
Archives for October 2015
This guest post is written by Javier Solana, professor at ESADE Business and Law School introducing the course “Geopolitics and Global Governance: Risks and Opportunities”.
The citizens of today’s world are deeply interconnected. The incredible advances in communications—especially through the internet—have brought us all closer to one another. Platforms like Coursera have given people of myriad backgrounds access to content developed by universities the world over—places they may never have visited in person. Initiatives like these are fantastic: access to high-quality education is essential for the free development of individuals and societies.
These technological advances provide us with important benefits, but they also multiply our responsibilities. Being connected makes us interdependent: the consequences of our actions become broader in scope. We must therefore develop a solid understanding of the world we live in, the people we interact with, and the likely effects of our decisions.
Today, more than ever before, learning about current geopolitical issues and global governance is vital. We are global citizens. It doesn’t matter what field you work in or where you live: international issues affect us all. It is important that we understand how these issues impact us and, in the case of cross-border problems, that we play a role in problem-solving mechanisms. No matter where we live, work and interact, our actions can influence others’.
At the ESADE Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics (ESADEgeo), the organization I lead, this is what we do: we provide people and organizations with the tools they need to organize and strategize in a globalized world. Starting in early November, I will be leading a course on Coursera called “Geopolítica y Gobernanza Global: Riesgos y Oportunidades” (“Geopolitics and Global Governance: Risks and Opportunities”). In this course, we will discuss key ideas that will help participants gain an understanding of global events and future prospects. We will look at the risks we will be facing in the future and the strategies we can adopt to address them as best we can. We will also discuss how to lead in order to reach the type of global consensus the world so clearly needs.
When Coursera began offering our first paid product, Course Certificates, we also committed to supporting a comprehensive financial aid option. We knew that financial aid would be critical to achieving our mission of enabling all individuals, regardless of their financial means, to access the world’s best education.
We recently approved our 100,000th financial aid application of the year. As we pass this exciting milestone, we wanted to share an update on how Financial Aid works, who benefits, and how we plan to improve the program to help more learners achieve their goals.
What is Financial Aid?
Coursera offers financial aid for learners who could benefit from our paid products, but cannot afford to pay the associated fee. Learners accepted into the program are granted a fee waiver that allows them to access all of the course content and complete all work required to earn a Certificate. To receive Coursera Financial Aid, learners must complete a brief application describing their financial circumstances and motivations for taking the course.
A recent survey showed that less than half of of our learners knew about the program, meaning not everyone who can benefit from Financial Aid is aware of it. To address this issue, we recently developed a new design for our payment page designed to raise the visibility of Financial Aid. When we applied the new design to a few courses, we doubled the number of learners receiving Financial Aid. This result suggests that financial aid can help many more learners benefit from our paid offerings. We are now working to increase the visibility of Financial Aid in a similar way across our entire website.
Who is benefiting from Financial Aid?
Specifically, is Financial Aid reaching the learners who need it most? In reviewing data from our Financial Aid applications, we found that two facts stood out:
- 60 percent of Financial Aid applications come from learners in countries considered to have developing economies, despite the fact that those learners represent only 38 percent of total course enrollments.
- Learners from developing economies are about seven times as likely as learners in higher-income countries to apply for and receive Financial Aid.
These results tell us that our Financial Aid program, coupled with top-quality courses, is truly changing lives around the world. In addition, a recent survey revealed that lower income course completers on Coursera are considerably more likely to report tangible career and educational benefits. We’ve heard accounts from many Financial Aid recipients who’ve gained access to new opportunities after earning Course and Specialization Certificates – opportunities that had resounding positive effects not just on their own lives, but also on their communities.
One of those learners is Michael Tumwesigye of Kampala, Uganda. After receiving a BA, Michael Tumwesigye started teaching in Uganda and Kenya. In 2007, he went back to his hometown, Kampala, to help his aunt start a nonprofit called “In Need Home” — an organization dedicated to the care, protection, and education of orphans and vulnerable children. He dreamed of going back to school to acquire the skills he needed to accelerate the program’s curriculum, but had limited financial resources. Searching for ways to improve his situation, he found Coursera.
After browsing the catalog, he applied for Financial Aid and earned certificates for several courses, including the Virtual Teacher Program Specialization offered by The University of California, Irvine. He proudly lists all of his Course Certificates on his LinkedIn profile.
With the skills he learned on Coursera, he was able to start a social enterprise called Snacks for Education (S4E) to produce and package snacks like roasted peanuts, plantain chips, and more to sell at local supermarkets. The proceeds are used to give educational support to orphans living in the slums. In addition, he was able to create an association for teachers called Country Society for Technology Education (COSOTED) where over 300 teachers in the region use face-to-face workshops to integrate technology in education.
Michael says, “Thanks to Coursera and the Financial Aid program, I feel that I have done something for my country.”
We are thrilled to learn through stories like Michael’s that Financial Aid is helping those most in need of access to the world’s best education, and we are excited to see those impacts reflected more broadly in our data, as well. As we work to improve the learning experience on Coursera, we are committed to maintaining Financial Aid as an option, and also to making the program even more accessible to learners.
To learn more about our Financial Aid program, visit the Coursera Help Center.
Thank you for being with us on this journey.
Daphne Koller and Tom Willerer
President and Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer of Coursera
What would happen if thousands of people around the world spent an entire day being as compassionate to fellow human beings as possible? Thanks to Wesleyan University Professor Scott Plous’ Social Psychology course, we don’t have to wonder. The wildly popular class, which debuted on Coursera in 2013, culminates with a “Day of Compassion” assignment, for which students from India to Colombia to Australia have volunteered at hospitals, fought sexual abuse, become grassroots activists and even, in one case, saved a life. And the effects have proved to be long-lasting—as a result of the exercise, many students say their own lives have been transformed.
Plous recently appeared on NPR’s “Hidden Brain” podcast to talk about the science of compassion with reporter Shankar Vedantam—and invited radio listeners everywhere to take on the 24-hour challenge. We caught up with Plous to discuss his journey from being an online learning skeptic to an outspoken advocate and to share his hopes for the NPR experiment.
Coursera: You coined the term “action teaching” in 2000. Can you explain what that means?
Scott Plous: In courses that employ action teaching, students contribute to the betterment of society at the same time that they learn about a particular topic. For example, students learning about persuasion or philanthropy might compare the effectiveness of different fundraising techniques by going into the local community and raising money for a nonprofit organization chosen by the class (for some award-winning examples, see ActionTeaching.org). In each of my courses, I include at least one action teaching assignment.
Coursera: You taught our largest single course session (enrolling over 250,000 learners!) and have become the Coursera equivalent of a rock star. But we know you were initially hesitant to develop an online course. Why?
SP: I hesitated for a few reasons. First, I wasn’t sure whether publishers and documentary filmmakers would contribute materials without charge, but, to their credit, McGraw-Hill and others donated free materials that would have cost students a total of more than $1,000 to buy. In addition, I wasn’t sure whether students would do the coursework without receiving college credit. Finally, I wasn’t sure if the course would be well-received by students from other cultures, including people who didn’t speak English as their first language. I’ve now run this course twice and am continually impressed by the effort and ability displayed by learners around the world.
Coursera: Now that you’ve tested the waters with amazing success, what, for you, is the biggest upside to open online courses?
SP: The opportunity to reach a larger and more diverse group of students than I normally would. For instance, in the 2013 session of my Social Psychology class, students came from roughly 200 countries, and about 100,000 of these students lived in countries with emerging economies — places with relatively limited access to higher education and psychology training.
Coursera: The Day of Compassion contest was a resounding success, but it was something that had had been part of your classes for years. What was different for you, as a teacher, about conducting it on such a grand scale?
SP: It was different in two ways. First, students carried out the assignment around the world, which led to a level of cultural exchange beyond what’s typically possible in a traditional college course. Second, students in the online course voted to honor a classmate with a “Day of Compassion Award” that included an expense-paid trip to personally meet the Dalai Lama (in the 2013 session) or Jane Goodall (in the 2014 session). During the award selection process, students also got the chance to read and learn from each other’s work.
Coursera: You’ve said that in order to truly deliver on action teaching, online courses need to "connect to the most urgent and important issues of the day.” What issues do you find yourself talking about most often with your students right now?
SP: The issues I’ve focused on most are peace, social justice, and climate change, but it’s important to note that action teaching isn’t limited to social psychology. Whether a course is in psychology, computer science, creative writing, business, or anything else, there’s usually a way to incorporate action teaching — not as a trade-off at the expense of core concepts but as a way of engaging students even further. For example, after business students learn about topics such as negotiation and conflict resolution, teachers can challenge them to go out and actually reduce a conflict in their life or in the life of others they know. The end result is that students will not only learn in a meaningful way but that the others will benefit, as well. In fact, what Shankar has done with his podcast could be called “action reporting.” He has found a way to improve the social condition even while educating and entertaining his listeners.
Coursera: We’re thrilled that you’re taking the challenge to the NPR audience and excited to see what happens. What are your hopes for what will happen?
SP: First, I hope listeners will give the exercise a try and see what happens. As the podcast suggests, many people find the experience transformative. Second, I hope listeners send their stories of compassion to Shankar, who has promised to showcase them in a future podcast (Shankar can be reached through NPR and is also on Twitter @HiddenBrain). Finally, I hope teachers in elementary school, middle school, high school, and college will try a Day of Compassion assignment with their own students. This year, students at Wesleyan University, where the exercise was first developed, will participate in the 15th Annual Day of Compassion, and I’m eager to read their reports!
Our mission is to provide universal access to the world’s best education. As we work toward long-term sustainability, we are continually iterating on our platform and course formats. We wanted to let you know about one upcoming change that will affect some courses starting in January 2016.
When you enroll in certain courses, you’ll be asked to pay a small fee (or apply for Coursera’s financial aid program) if you’d like to access graded assignments or earn a Course Certificate. You can also choose to explore course videos, discussions, and ungraded assignments for free, but you won’t be able to submit graded assignments or earn a certificate.
In order to provide universal access to our paid offerings, we introduced financial aid as part of our first certificate product. We remain fully committed to our financial aid program. This year, we have already provided over 100,000 learners with access to Course Certificates through financial aid. In the coming months, you’ll notice further improvements to make our financial aid option more visible to learners who aren’t able to afford the graded course experience fee.
We are on a mission to change the world by providing universal access to the world’s best learning experience. To do this, we also need to have a business model to support our platform, our partners, our content, and everything we do for learners.
We welcome your questions and thoughts in the comments section of this post, and we will continue to provide updates on product changes in the coming months. We hope you continue to enjoy all of the fantastic content on Coursera, including the exciting new courses and Specializations that launched this fall, and we wish you success as you pursue your goals.
Thank you for being with us on this journey.
President and Co-Founder of Coursera
If you’ve started exploring Coursera’s new Specializations, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve reintroduced start dates and soft deadlines for some courses on our new platform. We’ve received some great questions about this change, and you’ll find a few answers below – along with a little Coursera history lesson.
The philosophy: Why do we need start dates and deadlines?
Coursera’s earliest courses followed a standard academic schedule, with weekly deadlines and quarterly or annual sessions. As our community grew, however, our learners and partners pushed us to challenge traditional structures. In 2014, we began rebuilding our platform to cater to a wider range of teaching and learning styles.
The first courses on the new platform offered content “on demand,” with no deadlines and or fixed schedules. While this flexible format had many benefits, we lost something, too. Tools like forums and peer grading weren’t as effective when everyone completed work at a different pace. And, as it turns out, most of us need at least a little structure to learn effectively.
Most of us are like Calvin*. We need a deadline!
With sessions on the new platform, we’re working to balance structure and flexibility. Sessions run about once a month, so you’ll never wait long to join a course. And you’ll receive credit for all work submitted before your session end date, even if you miss the occasional weekly deadline. If you don’t finish the course in one session, you can transfer to the next and pick up where you left off.
In short, we’re aiming for just enough structure to sustain motivation and build community. We hope to see you in an upcoming session – and we hope the new format improves your Coursera experience!
The logistics: Sessions Q&A
Will all courses now have start dates and deadlines?
No and yes. Some courses will run with sessions, and others will remain “on demand”. Both formats, however, will offer suggested deadlines. In on demand courses, you can turn off or adjust deadlines if the suggested schedule doesn’t work for you.
Check the course enrollment page to see which format a course uses:
What if I miss a suggested deadline or don’t finish the course in one session?
No problem. There are no penalties for missing deadlines. If you fall behind in an on demand course, you can adjust the suggested deadlines, or turn them off. If you fall behind in a session-based course, you may need to transfer to the next session, but your record of completed assignments will transfer with you.
How can I find courses that are on demand or have sessions starting soon?
Type a keyword in the catalog search bar at the top of the Coursera home page to find courses on a topic you’re interested in. Then, use the availability filters on the left-hand side of the page to find courses that are on demand or have active sessions open for enrollment or have sessions starting soon.
Can I join in a session after the start date?
Session enrollment closes a few days after the start date, so if the session just started, you’ll still be able to enroll. Enrollment for the next session will open as soon as enrollment for the previous session closes, so you can sign up for the next session if you miss the window.
What can I do while I’m waiting for my session to start?
As soon as you join a session, you’ll be able to preview the first week’s videos and assignments. All remaining content will become available on the start date, so you can feel free to work through the first week right away, and dive into week two when the session begins!
Where can I go if I have more questions?
Visit our Learner Help Center to learn more about sessions, deadlines, and other Coursera features.