Development, Epidemiology, China; Course Reviews

I’ve taken a couple of these online courses now, and seen my wife take a few more, and its definitely been interesting and worthwhile.

PH207x: Health in Numbers: Quantitative Methods in Clinical & Public Health Research from edX Harvard was the most technical, the most rigorously graded, and generally the most recognizably similar to the undergraduate courses of my science degree. The organizers arranged for all enrolled students to have time-limited copies of Stata, the commercial stats processing package, and work in Stata made up a lot of the assessment. The student body had a lot of expertise to share, either from a medical or mathematical background. The lecturers and TAs were also well engaged, with responses to student questions and discussion being incorporated back into the material.

14.73x The Challenges of Global Poverty was an interesting lecture series by two genuine academic superstars of development economics, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo at MIT. The course is more or less an extension of their book Poor Economics, which advocates systematic use of randomised controlled trials in economics. It shares lessons from the research for the worlds very poor across issues like food, jobs, risk and access to even simple financial services. It’s a great book, and I wouldn’t have read it so thoroughly, let alone worked through the extra lecture material, without the structure of a course to fit it around. I’m glad I did work through it, as it included things like an excellent walkthrough of the famous Acemoglu et al paper The Comparative Origins of Colonial Development.
There was an electronic copy of Poor Economics available as part of the course, the reader was a little clunky and didn’t work on mobile devices, but given it was all free complaining seemed churlish. A heartening number of the key papers they mentioned are also freely downloadable. Assessment in this course was multi-choice usual based on a fairly strict reading of the course material. This could be frustrating for certain questions; the reputation of two-handed economists has a truth to it, and it could be seen here as hedging in the questions with qualifiers like might, could or should, as well as in the answers with multi-choice. This works in a short answer or essay question, where the student has a chance to explain their reasoning, but not multi-choice.
This is a translation of an existing undergraduate course, but I got the feeling the assessment was dumbed down: if I were paying for an education at MIT I would expect more too. There was engagement from staff but it didn’t seem to be a huge focus. The huge, global and very diverse student body seemed to overwhelm the usability of the edX discussion boards, which had moments of interest but were mostly dominated by typical Internet discussion dross.
Marie Hicks, far from a thoughtless cheerleader of the medium, has suggested MOOCs can be a “new way that we get our research out into the wild, taken seriously, and used as part of larger intellectual, social, and economic debates”. Banerjee and Duflo have seized on that very successfully. Rehabilitating the lecture as a piece of public performance and education is a heartening feature of the early twentieth century, and a course like this gives rather meatier content than the aperitifs at TED.

STSCHINA-001 Science, Technology and Society in China I sits slap across the middle of a swathe of my interests. Naubahar Sharif does a rapid fire tour of philosophy of science and engineering and history of science in China before discussing innovation systems in more detail. A lot of the MOOC discussion is resolutely US-centric, but this is run out of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. It’s also a short course format – it was only three weeks long, with two followup courses forming a trilogy about the normal semester length. I found this length easier to fit around other ongoing commitments. There are excellent reasons for regional studies to be pursued outside the focus region, but I do wonder how, eg, the chance to learn about China from teachers in China will change the field.
This course also had the challenge of examining humanities material in an online and massive student body. They chose peer graded short essays, two of which I slapped up on this blog. I thought this was a good compromise given the premises of MOOCs, and good on them for trying a different format. I didn’t get much engaging discussion out of the forums for this course, but the assignment marking process did let me see other angles on the topic. A lot of people seemed to complain about it though – it might have been a double shock to someone from a non English speaking background and used to multi choice or short problem questions.

There’s lots of things to speculate about around online courses, their open spirit, the dot-com venture capital hype and greed, the institutions about to truck crash, the young and not so young postdocs already hammered by the structure of the academic labour market, and I’d like to ruminate on all that too, in another post. From a purely personal and selfish perspective, though, these were courses I couldn’t do locally, on fascinating and important ideas, that pull material together in a way a teacher can and a book usually doesn’t. +1 would experience birth of new pedagogical genre again.


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