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Lessons Learned from the Wharton MOOCs

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I recently completed a four-course sequence from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School that included courses on operations management, marketing, financial accounting, and corporate finance. I’m happy to say the courses were fulfilling and have provided substantial support to my professional career.

What did I take away from my four Wharton MOOCs? The courses certainly reinforced that I have strong and weak areas. I’m most effective at managing what I call “semi-formal” systems, where analytical techniques and practical applications overlap. I thought Professor Terwiesch’s operations management course hit that sweet spot nicely—it wasn’t as theoretical as some operations research courses I’d taken and not as practical as on-site management training.

I’ve also thought a bit about the rhetoric of the courses and how their presentation argues for or against on-campus programs, reflect on Wharton as an institution, and my personal growth as a result of my studies.

Do the Wharton MOOCs argue for or against attending the on-campus program?

MOOC critics often raise the concern than providing even part of a curriculum for free reduces the likelihood that students will choose to pay for the on-campus version of the program. I don’t believe this critique holds for the Wharton School or graduate-level programs from institutions such as MIT, Stanford, or the University of Michigan. Anyone who has completed undergraduate training in a field knows who the heavy hitters are at the next level, and Wharton is easily in that group for MBA candidates.

Business careers are built on relationships. Corporate finance, especially, is an unforgiving arena where years of exemplary performance can be undone by a momentary lapse of reason that costs millions of dollars. Sharing knowledge gleaned from one’s successes and failures, not to mention acquiring new jobs after the latter, helps analysts solidify their status within the industry and find new jobs when necessary.

These relationships blossom in business school cohorts. Learners who wonder whether they can handle material at the Wharton MBA level can try the MOOCs on their own and, if reassured, apply to the program. Once at Wharton, earning an MBA becomes a team sport. This approach starts with team-oriented development of marketing programs and continues through self-selected study groups.

I suspect, but might be wrong in stating, that the team-oriented approach of a Wharton education and business analysis conflicts with the sort of independent learner who is attracted to MOOCs. I personally prefer to work alone when I can, both so I can gain full understanding of the material and to avoid the “free rider” problem where one group member avoids their responsibilities but earns a good grade because other team members pick up the slack. (I still remember you from 1992, Mark L. at George Mason University.)

Going it alone through the Wharton gauntlet seems a daunting proposition. Some classes don’t allow it and others are made easier through cooperative study and the relationships built up in those sessions. The sort of individual who might complete a MOOC, or a series of MOOCs, on their own might not be drawn to the program, but someone who examines the lecture videos and assignments as a way of testing the waters might be more likely to apply. The program cost and opportunity cost of lost earnings while at school are considerable, so potential applicants could test their mettle in a low-stakes environment before making their decision.

In the end, I believe that individuals who understand the context of MOOCs as compared to that of on-campus learning will be more likely to apply to (and accept offers from) the Wharton School than to competing programs that don’t make their offerings accessible through MOOCs. The difference is slight, but at over $250,000 in tuition and fees per student, you can afford to take a risk to improve the quality of your applicant pool.

How do the course presentations and material affect Wharton’s message?

MOOCs don’t generate revenue, except in a limited sense for Coursera or edX when they can sell a verified certificate, so free courses are promotional ventures for the participating institutions. As with all marketing, one must have a message so the offerings can be “on message.”

Each of the four Wharton MOOCs (operations management, marketing, accounting, and corporate finance) adopted different presentational styles. The marketing course was the most accessible in that the quizzes and exam asked students to recall material presented in lectures and readings. Operations management required us to apply concepts from the lectures and practice problems to the homework, which required a bit more practical application than the marketing course.

The financial accounting class required significantly more advanced applications of abstract concepts to practical problems, but the instructor enthusiastically communicated what could have been dry material in an entertaining manner. Professor Bushee said he walked us through about 80% of the material he teaches in his on-campus class, so I feel I received very good value for my time.

I’ve left Professor Allen’s course An Introduction to Corporate Finance for last for good reason: his MOOC was closest to Wharton students’ classroom experience. The lecture videos documented actual classroom presentations, but unless we formed our own study groups we forged our way through the practice problems and assignments alone.

I appreciated Professor Allen’s approach because it demanded we overcome some of the challenges facing his on-campus students. In essence, he said: “You want to be a Wharton MBA student? Right. Here it is, then.” The concordance broke down when we were given multiple attempts at each assignment and didn’t have to use calculators for the exam, of course, but we were asked to receive the material as presented.

To me, this difference doesn’t need to be addressed. Teaching styles differ and, because the finance course isn’t part of the fixed core, students can avoid it if desired. The course’s rigorous requirements alert students to the nature of the challenge they face but shouldn’t dissuade serious candidates from considering the program. Do you really want a Wharton MBA who backs away from difficult situations?

How did I benefit from taking these courses?

At the most prosaic level, I discovered (again) that I should ask for help when I need it. Completing many assignments in the accounting and finance classes would have been easier if I’d been willing to turn to the forums for help. Call it a character flaw.

I plan to use the knowledge I gained from these four MOOCs in my own online courses. I’ll adapt some of the analytical techniques from operations management and corporate finance for use in future projects, with the caveat that I’ll only teach what I truly understand and can apply to examples I create independently. The course examples are the instructors’ intellectual property and, though the underlying recipes and algorithms are up for grabs, their illustrations are not.

I’m overjoyed the Wharton School made these courses available, but I’m fully aware that I didn’t receive the equivalent of a Wharton MBA education. The online versions of the classes lacked the rigor of their live counterparts, but I’m now aware of the Wharton School’s offerings and would set my sights on its program if I wanted to pursue an elite MBA degree.

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MOOC Review: Wharton’s An Introduction to Corporate Finance

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I recently completed a four-course sequence from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School which included courses on operations management, marketing, financial accounting, and corporate finance. I’m happy to say the courses were fulfilling and have provided substantial support to my professional career.

I fully expected An Introduction to Corporate Finance, taught by Professor Franklin Allen, to be a challenge. In many ways, MBA-level corporate finance is equivalent to organic chemistry for chemistry and biology majors, dynamics for mechanical engineers, and quantum physics for physics majors. It’s the course that separates students with a firm grasp of foundational material from those who don’t.

That’s not to say that someone who wants to be a marketer isn’t qualified if they don’t ace corporate finance, but anyone who wants to be taken seriously as an elite-level financial analyst must do well in this course and its successors.

Course Overview

This six-week MOOC took participants through the mid-term exam of the on-campus course FNCE 611. There were five problem sets worth a total of 25% of the grade, a business case worth 25%, and a final exam worth 50%. MOOC students had to earn 60% of available points to receive a certificate, based on our best results from three attempts on each problem set, the case, and final. At least, that’s the way things ended up (more on that later).

Each week added skills to our analytical toolbox, starting with determining the object function for corporations, calculating present values, valuing stocks and bonds, using net present value to analyze cash flows, measuring risk, pricing assets, and applying the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM).

I’m familiar with net present value and bond calculations from my work with Excel, but I gained a deeper understanding of the mathematical mechanisms underlying those basic methods from Professor Allen’s explanations. I must admit that I struggle with geometric explanations of indifference curves, production, possibility curves, and other concepts. I knew the course would start with those topics, so I buckled down and did my best with them. The rest of the material came…I won’t say easily, but the insights I gained from that first week helped quite a bit.

Production Notes

One of the alleged benefits of MOOCs is that it allows instructors to move away from the “sage on the stage” paradigm, where the professor lectures from a podium, often with the help of visual aids. In An Introduction to Corporate Finance, Professor Allen allowed the University of Pennsylvania to record his classroom lectures. The reason for this choice is quite simple: his lectures consist of meticulously prepared and explained motivational examples that he works through in detail. I’m not certain how he could have provided the same content without essentially rerecording his lectures in a different format.

As I mentioned earlier, we had to earn 60% of the available points to pass and had multiple, untimed attempts at the weekly assignments, case, and final exam. When the course launched, those terms were 70% or more to pass and a single attempt at each graded activity. I don’t mind admitting that my eyes started crossing and uncrossing when I realized what I expected to be the e-learning equivalent of a harder-than-normal Wednesday New York Times crossword puzzle had turned into a serious academic endeavor. I imagine a significant push-back against these requirements led to their relaxation, but it did water down what might have been a significantly more rigorous test of our abilities.

My commentary might make it sound like Professor Allen is a demanding, unfriendly presenter, but that’s not the case. He adopted a matter-of-fact delivery with an emphasis on clarity, but whenever a student raised a hand or asked a question, he looked at them, smiled, nodded his head, and said “Yes?” His manner indicated the query was welcome because, as he noted in the first lecture, it was likely the questioner wasn’t the only person in the room who needed a point clarified.

He also shone when discussing student life and the history of the Wharton School. In particular, his eyes lit up when discussing the Wharton Olympics, a now-discontinued competition where student teams, each with a faculty participant, ran relay races, threw paper balls into trash cans, and performed other bits of office-related skill in a day that must have been a welcome break from the rigors of the coursework.

I’ve no doubt Professor Allen demands great work from his pupils, but I’m equally certain he wants them to succeed.

Conclusions

Based on my experience in An Introduction to Corporate Finance, I’m not sure I have the skill set and temperament to do this sort of work on a high level. Perhaps I’ve psyched myself out after a poor showing in my undergraduate microeconomics class at Syracuse, but some concepts just haven’t stuck. That’s not to say I didn’t benefit greatly from Professor Allen’s course. I certainly did, and believe I could make a solid run at passing the on-campus version of this class. I’ll go into more depth on why that’s the case in my final, summary post on the Wharton MOOCs.

In the end, An Introduction to Corporate Finance turned out to be a highly challenging and eminently rewarding course. To my knowledge it hasn’t been offered since I took it in Fall/Winter 2013, but I hope it will be soon.

I’ll wrap up my discussion of the Wharton MOOCs with a final post on my overall impressions of the courses and how they represent the school in the online learning milieu.

MOOC Review: Wharton’s An Introduction to Financial Accounting

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I recently completed a four-course sequence from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School which included courses on operations management, marketing, financial accounting, and corporate finance. I’m happy to say the courses were fulfilling and have provided substantial support to my professional career.

Course Overview

Professor Brian Bushee note that his goal in creating his course, An Introduction to Financial Accounting, was to give students the ability to understand information provided in company financial statements. Accounting is a complex and at times arcane practice area, but I thought Professor Bushee did a great job of breaking the topics into manageable chunks and providing detailed explanations of each segment.

Bushee starts out with the standard statement that debits go on the left and credits on the right, but of course it’s much more complicated than that. Some accounts have their balances increased by credits, some by debits, and how some intermediate accounts serve as bridges to relieve the tensions inherent in double-entry bookkeeping. As the course progressed, he described the tools accountants use to document corporate operations for managers, financial analysts, and tax authorities. It might not surprise you that these various audiences don’t always desire the same information.

Each week’s lectures ended with a tour of 3M’s annual report, allowing the professor to demonstrate how the document’s contents reflected the accounting practices taught during the week. I thought these segments provided useful context for the material and helped me get a better handle on concepts I didn’t grasp during the initial presentation.

Production Notes

Professor Bushee spent most of his time switching between a “talking head” single shot of the professor and screen grabs of either Excel or PowerPoint, but he also used computer-animated “students” to be the voice of the viewer. He had his virtual students ask questions that were alternatively probing, wondering, insightful, and (occasionally) stupid. At first I thought the virtual students would be hokey and horrible, but they grew on me quickly. Each virtual student had a distinct personality with likes, dislikes, and preferences based on their background. The students ranged from a grumpy old man to a surfer dude to international students from Hong Kong and the U.K., which allowed the professor to address the differences between accounting practices in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. Their interactions also developed along an internal narrative, which pleased my inner storyteller.

Material was divided into eight main modules, each of which had an associated quiz, plus two exams covering the first and last halves of the class, respectively. We could drop our two lowest quiz scores, which made reaching the passing threshold of 60% much easier. Professor Bushee also offered a certificate “with distinction”, which could be earned by scoring over 90%. I appreciated the possibility of earning a more prestigious credential, but I fell just short of that mark.

I laughed a bit to myself when the professor said that the material on the time value of money would be the hardest because it involved math beyond addition and subtraction. I actually found this material to be the easiest to grasp, both because of my extensive use of Excel and relative unfamiliarity with accounting principles. Accounting is a formal language that is no doubt comfortable to individuals who have spent their adult lives mastering it, but I felt safest when able to retreat to my NPV formulas.

Final Thoughts

Professor Bushee is, like his colleagues who taught the other Coursera MOOCs, an engaging presenter. He also revealed some details about the production process in his 20-minute goodbye video and posted detailed statistics about the course participants’ demographics and engagement levels. I think this kind of information adds substantial value to students who complete a MOOC. Knowing that I was part of the 6% of students who signed up for the course to successfully complete it is worth almost as much as the certificate.

I just finished An Introduction to Financial Accounting, so Wharton hasn’t had the opportunity to offer it again as of this writing. Professor Bushee indicated that he planned to rerun the course in the future, so it should be available to anyone looking to improve their financial knowledge and gain a better understanding of the accounting practices that help us document our businesses.

Written by curtisfrye

December 5, 2014 at 10:00 am

MOOC Review: Wharton’s An Introduction to Marketing

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I recently completed a four-course sequence from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School which included courses on operations management, marketing, financial accounting, and corporate finance. I’m happy to say the courses were fulfilling and have provided substantial support to my professional career. In this post, I’ll look at the Warton School’s course on marketing.

Course Overview

Businesses can’t survive without marketing, which means companies must establish a strong brand, discover and focus on customer needs, and develop interaction strategies to aid product and brand growth. In their course An Introduction to Marketing, professors Barbara E. Kahn, Peter Fader, and David Bell presented three-week mini-sessions on those broad topics.

Branding

Professor Kahn started with an analysis of branding, from both the perspective of the company and the consumer. I took particular note of her strategies for brand leadership, which measure a brand’s positioning along three axes: product differentiation, operational competence, and customer responsiveness. The goal, she said, is to lead on one axis and offer fair value on the other two. Of course, companies work to mitigate other firms’ advantages, so what represents fair value changes over time.

The remainder of the first unit examined the customer decision-making process, noting in part that too many choices can lead to customer indecision and inaction (a result that also received significant attention in Dan Ariely’s course A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior). This sequence also addressed effective brand communication and repositioning strategies. Professor Kahn’s take on familiar topics such as the brand mantra and elevator speech provided insights well beyond those in the seemingly infinite paraphrases of the same five talking points found online, making Week 3’s hour of video worthwhile within five minutes.

Customer Centricity

Professor Fader’s section addressed customer centricity, which shifts the focus from the firm’s products to customer needs. It’s a subtle shift, but changing to a customer-centric orientation opens firms to meeting and, in many cases, anticipating customer wants and needs. By listening to and observing customers before and during product development, companies can better understand customer motivation and combine their product and market insights with their customers’ insights to create better products.

I also appreciated Professor Fader’s note that you should focus on the lifetime value of your customers rather than just the current sale. If you sell suits and offer discounts to frequent customers, it makes sense to allow customers who are away at an elite MBA program or working abroad to retain their preferred status until they return because of the long-term benefits from their patronage. It also means some clients aren’t worth your time and should be fired.

Go to Market Strategies

The final segment, Go to Market Strategies, examines the process of introducing a product to the public. Professor Bell discusses the role of offline and online interaction, identifying lead users, encouraging the spread of a product or service (“virality”), and targeting one’s message. I thought this part of the course introduced the concepts well, but suffered the most from the time and scope limitations imposed by the MOOC format.

Companies try to establish network effects, by which the value of their product increases as more people adopt it. Facebook would be worthless if the majority of its users stopped sharing information on the site, as has occurred with MySpace. Bell offered excellent background information on finding influential users, targeting messages, and establishing prices, but this general information begged for statistical analysis of social media and other data.

Production Notes

The three professors adopted different presentation modes, which added excellent variety to the course. Professor Kahn presented as if standing at the front of a classroom, but without a podium. With her slides projected behind her on a green screen (or, when appropriate, taking up the full screen), her presentations had a more intimate, seminar-like quality.

Professor Fader appeared in several locations, including a company’s distribution center and a Philadelphia street corner. The editors had B-roll sequences of car and pedestrian traffic to break up the shots, but they re-used the same clips numerous times. After a while I had a side game of counting how many times I’d seen the same guy turn to look at the camera as he walked by.

The final section showed Professor Bell in the classic “talking head” mode, where his upper body or slides filled the screen as appropriate. Bell is a solid presenter, as were his colleagues, so I had no trouble maintaining interest in his material.

Final Thoughts

Every institution balances the desire to share knowledge through MOOCs with the need to preserve the value of their on-campus students’ investment. While I enjoyed An Introduction to Marketing and gained substantial value from the professors’ presentations, I’m left with the feeling that there’s a lot more out there. The good news is that I can apply social network analysis skills I learned from Lada Adamic’s Coursera MOOC of the same name to Facebook and Twitter data. Also, if I look a bit further, I can surely find a textbook on marketing data analysis to further my understanding of that topic.

The Wharton School’s An Introduction to Marketing provides a solid conceptual framework for marketing in the connected economy. I found this course to be the easiest of the four Wharton offerings through Coursera, mainly because the quizzes called for students to recall main points from the lectures and readings rather than perform difficult analysis. Even so, I got a lot out of the course and recommend it without reservation.

MOOC Review: Wharton’s An Introduction to Operations Management

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An Introduction to Operations Management

I’m lucky that MOOCs (massive open online courses) came along when they did. I’ve had the opportunity to sample content from a wide variety of institutions and topics either for free or, if I wanted to receive a slightly spiffier “signature track” (from Coursera) or “identity verified” (from edX) certificate, a small fee.

I recently completed a four-course sequence from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School which included courses on operations management, marketing, financial accounting, and corporate finance. I’m happy to say the courses were fulfilling and have provided substantial support to my professional career.

Course Overview

I started the sequence by taking Professor Christian Terwiesch’s course An Introduction to Operations Management. This course combined analytical techniques from operations research and process management, with specific movies showing students how to identify bottlenecks, evaluate the effects of potential changes to a process, estimate customer wait time, and build production errors and rework loops into our process models.

Terwiesch starts out each module with a conceptual overview of the topics to be covered before moving to detailed analysis in Microsoft Excel. I spend many hours in Excel for my writing and online course development projects, so I had no trouble following him as he worked through the formulas. I assume students of an MBA-level course, even one offered for free, will bring some spreadsheet skills to the table, so I believe anyone approaching the course in a serious manner could follow along easily.

I haven’t seen a syllabus for the full intro to operations management course at Wharton, but the professor noted that he covered about 60% of the material in his book (co-authored with G. P. Cachon) Matching Supply with Demand: An Introduction to Operations Management. The most recent (third) edition runs at least $96 used from Amazon, but the publisher created a custom ebook students could buy for $30. I purchased a previous edition of the book for reference, but I got along just fine with the free materials provided through Coursera.

Production Notes

This course is offered in the MOOC-standard format of switching between a “talking head” single shot of the professor and screen grabs of either Excel or PowerPoint. Professor Terwiesch is an engaging speaker who has tremendous command of this course’s material, so he was able to cover the topics efficiently while explaining concepts and applications clearly.

Material was divided into five main modules, each of which had an associated homework assignment, and a comprehensive final. Each homework was worth 10% (with essentially unlimited attempts) and the final exam 50% (two attempts allowed). The passing threshold was set at 50%, which I thought was too low. It’s hard to strike a balance between enticing students to stay and challenging those who do, but for future sessions the professor might consider raising the bar to 60% so even a student who misses a homework would have to score at least 20% on the final to earn a certificate.

Final Thoughts

As with the other Wharton courses I took through Coursera, I found An Introduction to Operations Management to be engaging and interesting. Professor Terwiesch is a solid presenter who comes across well. Even though his production values didn’t extend beyond good video and audio quality, he held my attention with well-executed movies of appropriate length for each topic.

Wharton has re-run this course through Coursera at least once since I took it, though future sessions haven’t been announced as of this writing. If you work in a manufacturing or customer service-oriented firm where knowing the heartbeat of your operations would help you improve your business, or if you’d like to sample Wharton’s MBA courses, I highly recommend taking An Introduction to Operations Management.

Book Review: MOOCs, by Jonathan Haber

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Title: MOOCs

Author: Jonathan Haber

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-0-262-52691-3

Length: 227

Price: $13.95

Rating: 90%

I purchased a copy of this book for personal use.

MOOCs, or massive open online courses, offer free classes to anyone with internet access and a willingness to learn. As author Jonathan Haber notes in his recent MIT Press book MOOCs, this educational innovation is working its way through the hype cycle. First touted as an existential threat to traditional “sage on the stage” lecture-based learning, the media has inevitably turned to highlighting the platform’s flaws. How MOOCs evolve from their freemium model remains to be seen.

Haber is an independent writer and researcher who focuses on education technology. This book is based in part on his attempt to re-create a philosophy undergraduate degree by taking free online courses and, where necessary, reading free online textbooks. In MOOCs, Haber captures the essence of the courses, both through his personal experience as well as his encapsulation of the history, current practice, and impact of MOOCs in the social, educational, and corporate realms.

MOOCs as a Learning Environment

The allure of MOOCs centers around their ability to share knowledge with students who might not be able to attend MIT, Georgetown, Stanford, the University of Edinburgh, or other leading institutions. Students can watch videos on their own schedule and, if they’re not concerned about receiving a Statement of Accomplishment or similar recognition, they don’t have to turn in homework or take quizzes on time or at all.

Most videos are 5-10 minutes in length, though some courses that present complex content can have videos that stretch to as long as 45 minutes. Production values range from a professor sitting in their office and facing a camera (often with PowerPoint slides displayed at least part of the time the professor speaks) to videos including animations and location shots that take significant time and budget to produce.

MOOCs offer three general grading policies: quizzes and tests with multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank questions, computer programs submitted to an automated grader (very common in machine learning courses), and peer grading. There’s no possible way for professors to grade essays or computer programs from thousands of students, so they have to rely on objective mechanisms and peer grading to carry the load. Objective tests are acceptable, but many students dislike peer review even in cases where it’s clearly necessary.

Institutions sponsoring MOOCs go to great length to distinguish students who complete a MOOC from their traditional students. Certificates or Statements of Achievement stress that the holder is not a Wharton/Stanford/MIT student and that the certificate conveys no rights to claim such status. Most MOOCs also use much looser grading standards than traditional courses. For example, students are often allowed multiple attempts at homework or exams and the total grade required to pass a MOOC is often in the 60-70% range. These relaxed requirements make certificates easier to earn and probably increase retention, but the end result is a much less rigorous test of student ability.

Controversies

As with any disruptive technology, MOOCs have generated controversy. The first question is whether, despite their huge enrollments (some courses have more than 100,000 students registered), the courses’ equally huge drop-out rates. As an example, consider the following statistics from the September 5, 2014 session of the Wharton School’s course An Introduction to Financial Accounting, created and taught by Professor Brian Bushee (which I passed, though without distinction):

Number of students enrolled: 111,925

Number of students visiting course: 74,599

Number of students watching at least one lecture: 61,130

Number of students submitting at least one homework: 25,078

Number of students posting on a forum: 3,497

Number of signature track signups: 3,953

Number of students receiving a Statement of Accomplishment: 7,689

Number of students receiving a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction: 2,788 (included in total receiving SoA)

The ratios that stand out are that only 54.6% of enrolled students watched at least one lecture, 22.4% submitted at least one homework, and 6.87% of students earned a Statement of Accomplishment. That pass rate is fairly typical for these courses. While the percentage seems miniscule, another MOOC professor noted that, even with just 5,000 or so students passing his online course, his 10-week MOOC cohort represented more students than had passed through his classroom in his entire career.

Another concern is who benefits from MOOCs. Students require internet access to view course movies, at least in a way that can be counted by the provider, so there is a significant barrier to entry. Surveys show that the majority of MOOC students are university educated, but there are still large groups from outside the traditional “rich, Western, educated” profile. So, while many students appear to come from richer, Western countries, the courses do overcome barriers to entry.

Finally, MOOCs raise the possibility that courses from “rock star” professors could replace similar offerings taught by professors at other schools. For example, San Jose State University licensed content from a popular Harvard political philosophy course taught on edX with the intention that their own professors would teach to the acquired outline, not their own. The philosophy faculty refused to use the content and wrote an open letter to the Harvard professor complaining about the practice. A similar circumstance led Princeton professor Mitchell Duneier, who created and taught the vastly popular Sociology course offered by Coursera, to decline permission to run his course a second time. Coursera wanted to license his content for sale to other universities, which could save money by mixing video and in-person instruction. Duneier saw this action as a potential excuse to cut states’ higher education funding and pulled his course.

Conclusions

Haber closes the book with a discussion of whether or not he achieved his goal of completing the equivalent of a four-year philosophy degree in one year using MOOCs and other free resources. He argues both for and against the claim (demonstrating a fundamental grasp of sound argumentation, at the very least) and describes his capstone experience: a visit to a philosophy conference. His test was whether he could understand and participate meaningfully in sessions and discussions. I’ll leave his conclusions for you to discover in the book.

I found MOOCs to be an interesting read and a useful summary of the developments surrounding this learning platform. That said, I thought the book could have been pared down a bit. Some of the discussions seemed less concise than they might have been and cutting about 20 pages would have brought the book in line with other entries in the Essential Knowledge series. It’s hard to know what to trim away, though, and 199 small-format pages of main text isn’t much of a burden for an interested reader.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Gamification: Game Design and Addiction

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I’m the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews, a site I founded in February 1998. I recently reviewed Natasha Dow Schüll’s book Addiction by Design, which makes many points relevant to my post on the ethics of gamification. The full text of my review appears below.

addictionbydesign

Title: Addiction by Design

Author: Natasha Dow Schüll

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Copyright: 2012

ISBN13: 978-0-691-12755-2

Length: 444

Price: $35.00

Rating: 89%

I purchased this book for personal use.

Natasha Dow Schüll, an associate professor in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, explored the allure of food in mass quantities in her documentary Buffet: All You Can Eat Las Vegas. In her new book Addiction by Design from Princeton University Press, she examines how machine and game design facilitate addictive behavior.

Human Side of the Equation

Schüll begins by describing the human cost of gambling addiction by profiling several individuals, all of whom have driven themselves and their families into difficult situations because of their gambling. One woman interviewed by the author has structured her daily routine to visit a circuit of gambling establishments, including casinos and grocery stores with video poker machines. The small footprint, low operating costs, and revenue generation capacity of machines means that table games such as blackjack and craps have been squeezed into increasingly smaller spaces. Mirroring this trend, the typical problem gambler has changed from a middle-aged man who bets on sports or blackjack and waits ten years to get help to a 35 year-old woman with two kids who plays video poker and seeks help after just two years.

The financial windfall generated by problem gamblers is staggering. One study by Tracy Shrans indicated that gamblers who follow the industry’s “responsible gaming rules of conduct” (e.g, setting time and money limits, understanding the odds of the games, and not gambling when you’re lonely, angry, or depressed) generate just 4% of gambling revenue. A slew of studies, notably work published in 1998 by Lesieur (cited p. 16), estimate that problem gamblers generate between 30-60% of casino revenue. Part of gambling’s attraction is the possibility, however remote, of winning a significant amount of money, but the varied reward schedule plays a significant role as well.

Entering the Machine Zone

The effectiveness of a varied reward schedule holds true across the animal kingdom. Rats that press a lever and receive a food pellet every time will press only when they’re hungry, but rats rewarded on an irregular schedule, where they have no idea when the next food pellet will drop, will press the lever until exhausted. When the rewards come not from food but from direct stimulation of the endogenous reward system, the effects are even more pronounced. In her Great Courses video series Understanding the Brain, Jeanette Norden notes that rats with wires inserted into their brains, allowing them to stimulate their pleasure centers by pressing a lever, will forgo all other activities — including but not limited to sleeping, eating, and sex — to press the lever. She described the scene of an exhausted, filthy rat collapsed on the floor of its cage, reaching with its last bit of strength to press the lever just one more time.

According to Schüll’s analysis, the analog for humans appears to be entering the “machine zone”, where the player is engrossed in the game and their interaction with the machine. Unlike poker and other table games that provide experiences mediated by other humans and offer occasional thrills, machine gamblers are able to maintain stimulation for as long as their bankroll allows. The rhythm of their interaction with the device induces comfort and, most importantly, lets the player escape from the world for a time. Game designers have capitalized on this trend by offering multi-line video slot machines with as many as 100 payouts. The result is that most spins pay something, but the majority of spins pay less than the player wagered. Rather than a singular win or loss, these fractional payouts provide a smoother ride down as the built-in house advantage grinds away at the player’s bankroll.

Nevada is arguably the most libertarian state in the U.S., so it’s no surprise the gaming industry bases its arguments against limiting game design and player tracking on the grounds of personal responsibility. Schüll implies, but never as far as I could tell directly states that the games’ design promotes addiction. She probably couldn’t do so because of legal concerns and the inherent difficulty in proving such a statement, which is fair enough. That said, if there ever is such proof, it’s likely that the self-exclusion policies in other gambling jurisdictions such as British Columbia, Canada, and Australia would be replaced by stricter rules.

Conclusions

Schüll goes beyond the basic “reward schedule” addiction analysis so common in the literature and casts the role of casinos and their visitors in terms of the social theories of Weber, Levi-Strauss, and Foucault, mirroring the theoretical underpinnings of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society. (Though this publication and the program have similar names, we are not affiliated.)  I thought her analysis added value to the book, but the sections didn’t feel tightly integrated with the rest of the narrative. Schüll wrote the book over several years and the book’s cohesiveness might have suffered a bit because of it. Important life events take priority, of course, and despite some small shortcomings Addiction by Design is a detailed, useful, and readable analysis of machine gambling and the players on all sides of the game.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created over a dozen online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com.