Sunday with Zin: Coursera

Hello I am Zin, and I love to learn! And the Internet may be full of crap and nonsense but it is also full of wonderful ways to learn and I just discovered a new one!

Way back in March I heard about Khan Academy, and I still do a few math review exercises every day just so I remember how, and sometimes look at a video on History or Art! One of these days I am going to try Physics (again – oh, how many times I have tried to study Physics!) or maybe Chemistry and if I go slowly enough I might get somewhere! It is a very good place to catch up on the stuff you either missed in high school, or have forgotten about!

But now I have discovered Coursera! It is another FREE online classroom, this one more about college-level and career-development courses in many disciplines! Like Computer Science, Business Management, Life Sciences, Humanities, etc etc! There are 33 participating universities! And these are real universities, like Duke and Wesleyan, not the ones on matchbook covers and in strip malls!

I am right now in Week 2 of “Design: Construction of Artifacts in Society” which lasts until mid-December. It is meant to present a design methodology, so it cuts across mechanical, product, and system design by talking about user “gaps” and the most effective way to go from a need to a product! So far the examples have been an ice cream scoop, a scooter, and an urban cart! I am having some trouble with the logistical aspects of the course (I did not know I would need a camera, and I am not sure I actually want to build an artifact) but I am very much enjoying the video lectures! The text is downloadable as well. There is something about a video lecture that is so much more absorbable than a textbook alone!

The teacher also does practical examples, like observing his son scoop ice cream to show how to determine important user needs (he runs the scoop under hot water twice to warm it up; what if the scoop could be designed to hold heat better? He holds it awkwardly, what if the handle were contoured? And it is funny to watch his teenage son who perfectly captures the “awww, Dad, you are so lame, do I really have to do this?” affect of the good-but-trying-not-to-show-it kid). He visited an ice cream shop to observe them, but they were not happy to see him! They would not let him film the employees scooping! I am surprised, I would think a store would be happy for the publicity!

It seems this is a real thing, too, not just some thing someone made up to overcomplicate the issue! It is a whole process, and right now we are on Defining User Needs. There is an entire methodology for determining and phrasing and categorizing and prioritizing those needs! And the most interesting tidbit I discovered: a focus group is less time-efficient than one-on-one interviews for determining user needs! Maybe not for other things, but in this, it is!

The other thing I found interesting is the different types of user need, and they can be graphed by how well they are met by user satisfaction! Some are “linear needs” and the better the design meets them, the happier the user is, which is what you would expect, yes? But some needs are “must-haves” and if they are met, the user does not even notice them, but if they are not met, the user will be intensely dissatisfied! And some needs are “latent” and they are things the user does not even know s/he needs but if they are met, the user will be very delighted! So there are ways to make your user miserable, and ways to make your customer very happy, and it is a matter of prioritizing! I love this kind of theory!

There are more than 5,000 students from all over the world taking this course! We have a forum set up for us to discuss issues and ask questions and communicate with a TA (we can not email the professor directly, since there are just too many of us). Considering it is free, it is quite remarkable!

I am not sure why these schools are offering these courses! The best I can figure is that it is a test-run for distance-learning, sort of like a survey but more practical. They can see where people get lost, what happens that goes too fast, and because it is free, they do not have to give refunds if students are unhappy!

Most new classes begin in September or January, but there are new ones just about every week. Introduction to Astronomy, How to Reason and Argue, and Drugs and the Brain are coming up in the next month: Go see if there is something you would like to learn!

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