Caltech: Principles of Economics for Scientists

Caltech: Principles of Economics for Scientists

Overall Course Rating:  6/10

Completion Date: September 9, 2013
Platform: Coursera

—— Lectures ——
Antonio Rangel definitely teaches one of the most math-heavy introductory economics classes I’ve ever experienced. The lecture material covers the typical first-year microeconomics topics, but Rangel does not shy away from diving into the nitty-gritty calculations and reasoning.

I loved Rangel’s lectures overall. His excitement echoes through in his lectures, and the videos are almost all under 10 minutes in duration, making them very easy to watch. Problem set questions are are mostly given via video as well (similar to quizzes on Udacity), which is helpful for more complicated questions.

You can also be confident that lectures are real Caltech quality because Rangel emphasized that the same videos were concurrently being used to teach the on-campus students at Caltech. The difference being, actual Caltech students had dedicated office hours and direct access to the professor and TAs.

Be aware, Rangel does have an accent, and I highly recommend watching the videos with subtitles, otherwise some parts may be slightly difficult to understand.

—— Assignments and Exams ——
Almost all graded assignments were difficult. Partially because of the subject matter, but also because unlike many other MOOCs, you were only given one attempt per quiz/problem/exam. In addition, most questions required you to make connections based on lectures and apply calculations and formulas. Do not expect to ace assignments by rewatching lectures and regurgitating back the same information.

However, all students should get 100% on the quizzes because the answer videos were accessible before attempting the problem. I’m not sure if this is a drawback of the course’s implementation style, or if it is a constraint of Coursera’s platform. Regardless, quizzes account for the smallest percentage of the final grade.

One HUGE drawback was a lack of close revisions of questions and answers. Because of this, graded questions and answers frequently had to be revised mid-week to adjust for errors. Despite these errors, I don’t think it will be a problem for future classes if the same/similar questions are used again since most errors should have been caught by the first cohort of students.

—— Additional Intangibles ——
You will likely get lost in this course if you are not comfortable with calculus. (If something like this doesn’t look intimidating, then you’ll be perfectly fine.) I haven’t had a calculus course since freshman year of college, and my lack of familiarity (particularly with integrals) really showed in this course. If you still want to try, Rangel usually shows the “easy way” very briefly before diving into explanations of the more accurate “hard way”.

The biggest problem this course encountered was technical difficulties. An entire graded portion—the lab exercises—had to be scrapped due to technical problems. I was originally looking forward to this portion as it was intended to be a “market trading activity” where students competed against peers for their grade. It was originally required every week, but after two attempts, the labs never came to fruition. Hopefully future classes will get to experience it.

Distribution of Statements of Accomplishment also experienced technical issues. I finished my final exam in April, but did not receive my Statement of Accomplishment until September. The positive point is that Rangel was very engaged in helping all students who earned a certificate, get it.

—— Conclusion ——
For me personally, this was one of the more difficult MOOCs I’ve taken to date. Again, this might just be because I have not used calculus in roughly 10 years. I would recommend this class to any math or science major who wants to learn microeconomics. By the end, you will probably have a better understanding of microeconomics than the economics majors around you.

It is worth noting that this class will be offered again, NOT through Coursera, but rather through edX starting January 7, 2014. This makes me a little hesitant to recommend the course because my primary complaint about its initial offering would be the technical issues. Now, the course team will have to adapt to the edX platform, and I’m not sure what new technical issues may arise from the switch.

—— Personal Recommendations ——

  • Recommended for math or science students who want to learn microeconomics
  • No resubmissions on graded assignments makes it harder than the average MOOC
  • Review your calculus first (derivatives and integrals)

Too Much Online Teacher-Student Interaction?

I’ve been loosely following UC Irvine’s Microeconomics for Managers course on Coursera, but last week, our dear Professor Richard McKenzie wrote the following to us in an email:

Because of disagreements over how to best to conduct this course, I’ve agreed to disengage from it, with regret.

Unlike most other MOOCs, McKenzie was the key factor in keeping students engaged. Typical MOOCs keep students involved via regular quizzes and assignments; neither of which are a part of this class. Instead, McKenzie emailed the students nearly everyday with thoughts and reflections on the discussions happening on the forums.

While I enjoyed his “Economic Epistles”, clearly someone did not. Whether it was UC Irvine or Coursera is unclear, but information points to Irvine. What is clear is that it is difficult for students to stay engaged after McKenzie’s “disengagement”.

Query, Is it possible for there to be to much teacher-student interaction in an online class?

Forcing McKenzie to “disengage” is a very disappointing move. MOOCs have made it possible to reach a previously unfathomable amount of students, but it has also created a strong disconnect between the student and the teacher. McKenzie was one of the few professors proving that it is possible to maintain some semblance of a teacher-student relationship even when the class comprises 10,000+ students.

I strongly support such engagement from the professor, and it motivates students to participate on the forums. This class was a unique opportunity for anyone in the class to collaborate closely with experts in the field, and an opportunity for your voice/opinion to be heard.

The typical “interaction with an expert” for a MOOC happens between students and TAs, which is great for learning, but just does not have the same effect as interacting with the professor. A few students may have been burdened by the flood of verbose emails and consider it spam, but they have the option to disable these emails. Whether they know how to or not is a different matter.

My personal hypothesis is that UC Irvine was offended by McKenzie’s close interaction with students. With such a close relationship, Irvine loses a bit of leverage in getting students to apply to its MBA program rather than take the online classes. I can only assume McKenzie crossed the line by organizing a meeting with classmates in the local area.

Either way, the departure of McKenzie leaves me with a bad impression of UC Irvine’s online and distance-learning initiatives. Their only consolation is, at least it’s doing better than Georgia Tech’s class. Perhaps someday Coursera or UC Irvine will disclose the specific motivation for replacing McKenzie in the online class, but until then, I have only my own conjectures.