Friday, 24 May 2013

A review of "A Beginner's Guide to Irrational Behavior"

Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics at Duke University has been offering his “Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior”class online through Coursera. The class started on the 18th of March and the final exam took place on the 15th of May.

According to the course’s page, the goals were as the following:

  1. To introduce you to the range of cases where people (consumers, investors, managers, and significant others) make decisions that are inconsistent with standard economic theory and the assumptions of rational decision making. This is the lens of behavioral economics.
  2. To help you think creatively about the applications of behavioral economic principles for the development of new products, technology based products, public policies, and to understand how business and social policy strategies could be modified with a deeper understanding of the effects these principles have on employees and customers.

As we previously saw, more than 140,000 initially registered for the class, and out of the roughly 6,000 who took exams and submitted the required essay, nearly 4,000 received a statement of completion.

Sceptics regularly point to MOOCs’ high dropout rate as a sign of their low relevance to the future of education. With a ‘graduation rate’ of 2.7%, was the class too hard? Was the class simply not good enough to keep students engaged?

Let’s see...

  • Pedagogy

Divided into 6 weeks, the course content was delivered by Dan Ariely via a familiar format of short video segments peppered with quizzes.
Optional 20 minutes-long videos on specific behavioral economics topics were a weekly opportunity for guest lecturers to share their work.
Students were also required to read between 4 and 6 academic papers each week.

  • Professor’s aura

Dan Ariely is a star professor, the author of best sellers, a frequent TED speaker and enjoys a significant following on social media platforms.

  • Quality and availability of teaching staff

Dan Ariely surrounded himself with a great team for this course. Aline Gr√ľneisen in particular was the public face of the team, acted as the voice of the students during office hours and moderated video conferences between students and guest lecturers.
  • Academic rigor

Two separate weekly quizzes tested the understanding of the material (one focused on the content from the videos, the other on the required reading).
A peer-graded essay and a final exam composed the remaining 2 thirds of the final grade.
The passing grade for the obtention of a certificate of completion was set at a strict 85%.

  • Student body

Although official statistics are yet to be published, judging by the lively discussions in the fora, students in this course were a very eclectic bunch. Some non-native speakers felt however that their essays were graded harshly by native speakers (grammar and writing style were specifically excluded from the peer-grading guidelines).

  • Corporate sponsors

The class was meant as an introduction to behavioral economics and although a lot of real life examples were mentioned, application in the business world was not a focus.
Perhaps the class could have been wrapped up with a week of ‘field trip’ (a mainstay of Udacity classes) with interviews of people actually applying course concepts in business.

  • Interactivity

In addition to lively forums and regular recorded office hours, the weekly Google+ video conferences with guest lecturers were an opportunity for students to ask their own questions directly to the lecturer.
In reaction to the dissatisfaction of some with the peer-assessment process, Dan Ariely held a special debate on peer assessment via a video conference with students.
There is an ongoing student-led effort to write a collective essay about the course.

  • Technical platform

Coursera’s platform is robust and largely user friendly. The course however ran into technical difficulties with Google Hangout (even between Duke and the Googleplex).

  • Production value

The videos lectures’ deceptively simple style belied real professionalism.

We can only conclude by recognizing that, as long as registration remains free and open to all, even the very best MOOCs will suffer from high dropout rates. There are after all no downsides to registering just to audit part of the course.
Dan Ariely’s class was as good as an online class can be and will probably set the standard for future online classes.

The team has hinted at a possible follow up course. I, along with many others, will be looking forward to that!

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