Teaching Four Free Python Courses on Coursera, Reflecting on Specializations

Update: As of January 2017, Coursera has implemented a “pay wall” on the assessments in the Python for Everybody courses. My preference was not to have a paywall but Coursera insisted. As a result, I have made all of the materials and exercises available for free at www.py4e.com – this site teaches Python 3 but the exercises can be done in either Python 2 or Python 3.

Update: As of April 2017, we have unlocked the Capstone (course 5) on Coursera – it is no longer necessary to complete all of the first four courses before joining the capstone.


In interacting with my current students from Programming for Everybody (Python) – (a.k.a. #PR4E), there are clearly a lot of questions about how Specializations work on Coursera.

Specializations are multi-course sequences with a Capstone. All of the courses that make up the specialization except the Capstone remain free. Here are my four free Python courses that cover all the material in my Python for Informatics textbook (now available in English, Spanish, Korean, and Chinese). The first two courses are six weeks long and cover the same material as my 11-week Programming for Everybody (Python) course on Coursera.

You can find all of Colleen van Lent’s free Web Design for Everybody courses here on her instructor page. You can also find all my classes at my Coursera instructor page.

The Specializations and Capstones

The specializations are multi-course sequences that require you to earn and pay for certificates in all of the courses that make up the specialization and then enroll in and pay for the Capstone course. As an example, it costs around $400 to pay for the four courses and capstone certificates for my Python for Everybody specialization. Colleen’s Web Design for Everybody specialization is also around $400. Both specializations have “pay up front” discounts.

A key element of the capstone course is that it is not “new material” – all the material that you need to know is available in the free classes. You are supposed to have already learned the skills in the courses that led up to the capstone. The capstone is more project-oriented with more feedback and a smaller group of students who we know already have pre-requisite information and so are well-prepared to take the capstone. By the time you get to the capstone, you might even know some of the other students in your class. Study groups may have formed and have been functioning for months. Capstones may have industry participation or other benefits.

My Thinking on Specializations and Capstones

When I started with Coursera back in 2012, all I ever dreamed of was to teach one course and have fun with it and engage with people around the world. I chose Internet History, Technology, and Security because I could showcase all my interviews of famous innovators and create a very special course. I wanted to get students who were afraid of technology to the point where they liked technology. This course was very successful with close to 200,000 enrollments since 2012.

I also felt very lucky to be allowed to teach a second course called Programming for Everybody (Python) where I was able to build a dream course that would focus on teaching programming to those who had absolutely no prior experience. PR4E was also a great success, with over 3/4 million students taking the course since 2014. It also was very successfull in meeting my goal of getting people *into* technology even if they were scared or had no experience.

But, from the beginning, there has been a constant demand for more courses. Both online and in my face-to-face office hours around the world there was a constant push for “more courses”. Students did not want to just get a taste and lose their fear, they wanted real skills that they could use to make real changes in their careers.

Moving from “one great course” to “job-applicable skills” is not as easy as it seems on the surface. It requires a willingness to stick to something for more than a few weeks. In college, courses build upon one another – not all courses can be “prerequisite free”.

So if we are to build online activities that begin to move students through 20-30 weeks of course material, there needs to be some structure and some buy in – and an ultimate goal that helps put all the work into some perspective. There needs to be some kind of “graduation” – some kind of light at the end of the tunnel.

Because as you progress through the material in a “curriculum”, the material gets more difficult and the likleyhood of dropout goes up dramatically. So educators build structures to help students make it all the way to the end.

The specializations are that needed structure and the capstone is the light at the end of the tunnel – that graduation – that goal that makes all the effort worthwhile.

And if you imagine that you are going to invest 6-9 months of effort in a sequence of increasingly difficult courses – having to pay for them is a motivational plus in a way. When we think about “paying” for these courses, remember that Coursera has a very active financial aid program that makes sure that we are not blocking access to these courses (including the specialization and capstone) for those unable to pay. For those able to pay, you can pay as you go or pay up front. You can take a course and choose to get the certificate after you know you will succeed in the course.

Conclusion

I personally am 100% committed to making all my courses and material free to everyone. If my goal is to truly “teach everyone” I cannot and will not hide my content behind a paywall.

I think that the approach that Coursera is taking balances free access and pay access in a way that makes sure that all have access to the learning they want. And Coursera and University of Michigan need some way to justify the significant expense in putting out all of this free material. For those who can afford to pay, I hope that you do pay. For those that cannot pay, take a look at financial aid options. And for those who just want to pick and choose courses for a more easy-going pace of professional and personal development, you should be thankful for the effort that Coursera and the University of Michigan have put into specializations over the summer. Because of specializations, the number of free courses available has nearly doubled in the past six months.

It took me three years to get to providing two courses on Coursera. Over the summer, my colleague Colleen van Lent built four completely new free courses on web design and a web design specialization. The pace of creating better ways to learn is accellerating and specializations are just one important part of the mix.

We all fear change – I sure know that I do. But if we know one thing about change it is that the more things change the more things stay the same. I am pretty sure that Coursera now provides more high-quality free courses to the world than the rest of the MOOC providers combined. And we are moving up the value chain from courses that lead to wonderful personal growth to specializations that change your career arc.

66 Comments

  1. Krešimir Mandić says:

    Thank you Dr.Chuck for such clear explanation. I took both of your courses and I will enroll in both specialisations from you and your colleague Professor Colleen.

    I can not state enough how gratefull I am to you personaly and to Coursera for helping me through the most difficult part of my life. I am desperate for a career change (I have colledge degree in economics and turism managemet) for I am having big problem finding work in my surroundings that is flooded with corruption and nepotism, I live in Croatia in City of Knin. I always wanted to get into programming as well as web design/developement but I was to scared, I thought that is too hard, that is for the really really “smart” people, always had a problem to value myself enough. I took yoour PR4E course (july 1) out of sheer curiosity (Coursera was recommended by a friend) boosted by the video on the course page and 3 months later from a guy who was affraid of IT and programming you have sparkled a passion inside me for programming and all things web. I immediately took your IHTS course and finished both courses without a single problem with 100% grade and I am so eager to learn more. When you gave us the news through hangouts office hours about new specialisations I was so thrilled and I cannot wait for the courses to start. So I want you to know that your efforts, your colleague efforts as well as Coursera and University of Michigan efforts are higly appreciated, I cannot state that ehough. So thank you dear professor and see you in class.

  2. Kumar says:

    Thanks Dr. Chuck, for sharing your thoughts and detailed information.

    Your and your colleagues’ efforts to make courses available to many are laudable.
    We are grateful for this.

    Just one thought for your consideration:
    I wish that COURSERA accepts payment for ‘verified signature track’ for the just finished course ‘Programming for Everybody (Python)’.
    This will enable student like my-self to continue with the rest of the ‘capstone’ course without having to repeat the first two. If it is not too late please see if you can get this to us. (Note: I have picture verification for the internet history course). But then it may not be possible, I understand.

  3. Kumar – It is not possible to upgrade a non-verified Statement of Accomplishment to a Verified Certificate after the fact. You took quizzes and did assignments with identity verification turned off. That is the bad news. Here is the good news. We structured the start dates for courses #1 and #2 so that if you did have to repeat them and retained your skills from Programming for Everybody, by October 1, you will have finished Courses #1 and #2 – well before course #3 even starts. The programming assignments are the same and the quizzes are very similar and there is no final exam in courses #1 and #2. Also – as soon as the course opens you can immediately do all the homework and quizzes through the end of the class – there is no more “next week’s material comes out on Thursday” in the new system. Also in the new system, you can sign up without paying for the certification and as long as you do the verification (now free) for all quizzes and homework, you can pay for the certification at the end. So you can see that a *lot* of thought has gone into the new system being very student-centered – I hope this helps.

  4. Kumar says:

    Thanks Dr. Chuck.
    I agree, that a *lot* of thought has gone into the new system!
    Yes, it definitely helped.
    I am now registering to re-do the courses #1 and #2 to pursue the capstone.
    (and also registering to do the *Colleen’s Introduction to HTML5*, while I am right now finishing the internet History!).
    Best regards.

  5. Damian M says:

    Dr. Chuck,

    First off, thank you for a great course. I look forward to taking the next two.

    On the topic of specializations, with the addition of the python based web design course, are there more specializations planned? I would personally love a Python for Bioinformatics (Biopython) course :)

    Thanks again

    Damian

  6. Ravi says:

    Dr.Chuk

    You are a great professor undoubtedly!!

    We desire a Data Science specialization from you OR Michigan University.

    I dont want talk about JHU Data Science specialization in your blog, But your approach is practical oriented not too academic. So we like that.

    Thank you

    Regards
    Ravi
    Hyderabad, India

  7. John says:

    Dr. Chuck,
    Is it possible to simply take the third and fourth courses without having to retake the first two? I’m at the end of my first career (35 years in T&M instrument business) and I’m just interested in learning, but don’t really have need for certification.
    Thanks, I really enjoyed PR4E, my first real programming class since Fortran in the 70s!

  8. Heartfully thanks a lot to share valuable and easy way to learn Python. I am in Bigdata implementing few applications in Python looking for a path to learn spark individually. This information really helped me to learn Python. Thanks a lot.
    Keep share ur knowledge forever.
    Thanks

  9. I’ve already taken some python courses online, but wanted to experience the Coursera class. I learned quite a bit, and highly recommend it to people like me. I want to move forward with the remainder of the course up to the Capstone. I am a verified certificate earner. What i couldn’t find, was a way to pre-pay for classes 3-4 and Capstone. I could either pay the full course (1-4 and Capstone $461) or one at a time. Can you create a third payment method to earn the Verified Cert but pay for class 3, 4 and Capstone up front.
    -= Bruce

  10. stanley canning says:

    I did enjoy the first course but I wanted to repeat it The explanation given about the different courses at least to me is still very unclear For example the two statements below appear to be contradictory.
    It seems to be implying that four of the courses are free and the last one which is the Capstone (not clear what Capstone is ) costs $400

    Regards
    Stanley

    All of the courses that make up the specialization except the Capstone remain free. All of the courses that make up the specialization except the Capstone remain free.

    As an example, it costs around $400 to pay for the four courses and capstone certificates

  11. Sergey says:

    Hello Dr. Chuck!
    First of all, thank you for PR4E course. It really got me into learning how to program.
    I’m really interested in completing other courses as well as web design specialization, but right now I’m in the middle of another specialization so I just don’t have time. I could not find this information on Coursera, but will these specializations be available later? (I mean like some other specializations on Coursera that open new sessions of their courses each month or two).

    Warm regards,
    Sergey.

  12. Andrey says:

    Hi Dr. Chuck.
    Thanks for your course!

    I’ve just ended Programming for everybody course, and want to continue with your new specialization. How I can do this without getting two first courses again?

  13. peter clark says:

    Dear Dr Chuck, it is entirely your fault that there is such a demand for your courses. I have been learning and training for about 60 years and you are far and away the best communicator/teacher I have ever come across. After taking your initial python course I resolved to enrol in any other courses you offered just for the pleasure of being taught by you (I’ll try Colleen out on your recommendation). Thank you again for making yourself available.

  14. Vipin says:

    Thanks Dr.Chuck. You are an awesome teacher. I completed your Programming for everybody course and earned a verified certificate. It was beginner friendly and very easy to understand.

  15. Truc says:

    Hi Dr. Chuck,

    Thank you very much for what you are doing and I definitely appreciate this. I’ve enrolled in all of the courses for the signature track and would like to know if it’s possible for me or students like me who just took the “Programming for Everybody (Python)” course and received a verified certification (paid) to substitute the first 2 courses in the track with the one we just took? It seems that the first 2 courses cover the same chapters that we covered in the “Programming for Everybody (Python) courses unless these courses will go much more in depth than the course we just took.

    Thanks!
    Truc

  16. Truc says:

    Also, I do not see any discounts for the pre-pay option. Thanks!

  17. Carol Gonzales says:

    Dr. Chuck,

    Thanks for the explanation. I was confused about the recent changes to Coursera which appeared to be moving more towards a pay model vs. free education. It wasn’t clear to me that any of these courses were free any longer since when I search for the Python courses it sort of defaults to the Specialization and the only options appear to be pay oriented. The links in your post took me instead to a link where I found I was able to enroll for free once again. I LOVE LOVE LOVE the option of paying for the course later and once you feel more confident in being able to complete the course. Frankly many times I’ll begin a course and then get busy and have to bug out for one reason or another. I took an R Programming course in Verified status previously and had to withdraw. Since I had purchased the verified certificate, I was able to go back in and take the course later and complete it with my verified certificate. I was grateful that I had the option to complete the course later. Guess what I’m saying is that the option to go the pay route later as opposed to up front is a wonderful addition to Coursera. I really enjoyed the Python for Everybody course and I ended up using Python at work as a result. So excited to see that there’s a specialization for this now and that I can continue working with Python and learn even more. I recommend your course all the time to people I work with and online. You made a dry subject highly entertaining. I love the video interviews as well. It turned me on to RaspberryPi and I now own one. Would Love to see a specialization in RaspberryPi home automation or something like that. Maybe even a specialization in how to teach a class on RasperryPi to others. There’s a growing community of RPi users but not as much going on with it inside the U.S. to teach teachers how to use it in a classroom setting. I’m about to retire and one of the options I’m considering is teaching. I did see that Coursera has an Internet of Things specialization that includes both RPi and Arduino. Thats still not what I’d like to see in Coursera…though I do find IoT an interesting specialization. I’d like to see an RPi for teachers made available in Coursera. It appears the RPi foundation teaches classes in England but haven’t yet offered it virtually which is the best way I believe to get the “train the trainers” course out there. Just an idea for you in case you/Coursera want to engage them. Python is something recommended to RPi users to learn…seems like there might be a natural fit there for you/Coursera. Anyway, just wanted again to say thanks for teaching such a wonderful course and I’m looking forward to having more time to take these sorts of courses once I retire. I know I’ll do something with it either at home or perhaps get into teaching myself as a 2nd career/post retirement option.

  18. Ravi – Thanks for the sugestion. If the University of Michigan would pursue any kind of data science spceicialization, I would probably not be involved in those courses. On campus my specialty is getting students ready for more advanced courses. It is really strange when a year after a student completes my course they have gone one to more advanced topics and they come back and ask me an advanced question which I do not know the answer. I am very proud when my ex-students quickly become more skilled using Python than I am.

  19. Stanley – the $400 number is from the specialization page – it is offering you an option to pay for all five certificates at once. Also at that page is the sdiscounted price. You can pay for the per-course certifications as you go – either from the specialization pages or the course pages. If you want to take the non-captone courses for free – you do that from the courses pages.

  20. james jorgensen says:

    Dr. Severance,
    I have taken your python course for everybody and have every intention at some plint for paying for the capstone. but my situation follows. first i would like to express my deepest appreciation to all the people who have worked so hard to provide us with this opportunity to learn new skills online for free and then provide certs. on a pay per basis. i am trying to work through learning python and quite frankly live in a rural community. access to technical courses dont exist and even access to the internet is difficult. the job i work requires some weeks 12 hours a day and 7 days a week. this doesnt leave much time to learn a new skill. i took python for everybody and was in the last two months of the course when; because of time limitations i was not able to keep up with the class and missed alot of material. i will take the course until i fully grasp all of the material and then i would like to get a cert. that shows my competence. i would not be able to do this any other way, and i am so grateful for this opportunity that you have provided.

  21. adamelen24 says:

    Sorry, I didn’t express my question correctly…I mean do I have to accomplish the first course in order to deal with the second one? Will it be repeated some weeks later?

  22. Andy Becker says:

    Hello Dr. Chuck,

    I just want to express my thanks to you for the awesome introductory course PR4E! Now I want to specialize like many else.

    Coursera crashed, so I prefer saying thanks on your blog :)

    Keep on the good work!

    Best regards,

    Andres Becker

  23. Guillermo0591 says:

    Hi Dr. Chuck,
    Thank you for the PR4E course, I complete the honor code, I don´t have money to pay the specialization in python, Dr.Chuck my question is…. Have you student aid to complete the specialization? I´m very interested

  24. Adameen24 – Yes once the courses start, they will run every 8 weeks.

  25. Guillermo0591 – You can apply for financial aid through Coursera. I am not involved in that process.

  26. Guillermo0591 says:

    Thanks Dr. Chuck you rock!!

  27. Leo says:

    Hi Dr. Chuck,
    I have received a verified certificate for Programming for Everyone and would like to enroll in the specialization. You’ve mentioned that with the certificate I don’t have to take the first two courses and may just start with the third. Do I still need to pay for all four? The website gives me an option to either pay for all the courses or pay for the first and continue as I progress. Will there be an option later to start paying for the third one without the first two?
    Thank you.

  28. Leo – We are working on the transition. For now just go to the third course using the direct link above and enroll for that class and pay for the certificate. Coursera will run a special process (give us a while on this) and then “poof” you wil be credited for the first two some way. I won’t actually make the magic happen. Coursera will make all the magic happen and will be sending you email about this. So just check your email. But if you have a verified certificate from Programming for Everybody you do not need to pay for the first to courses in Python for Everybody.

  29. Jim McNamara says:

    Dr Severance,
    Thanks for the clear explanation of free courses and capstone – very useful. Also thanks for the fascinating “Programming for Everybody” which I have just completed – again, clarity of explanation throughout. At 75, I’m a bit old for capstone but I will continue with your Python journey.

  30. Robert R. says:

    Dr. Chuck,

    Thank You.

    I completed the PR4E course with a certificate. My hope is I can take the first two courses on the specialization track for free, as a review, and then start paying on the third course.

    -RR

  31. j b mullis says:

    I’ve reviewed everybody’s questions and your answers above and have a pretty good idea of where I need to go. Through a fluke my payment for a verified certificate did not go through before the deadline so I took the course without a verified certificate, no big deal. At the time it was the only course offered so I didn’t see the need for the verified certificate. Now you are offering a specialization which I am interested in taking. I don’t mind repeating the material already covered and considered it to get the verified certificate.

    My issue with the program now is that I will need to fork over $160 instead of $49 for the same material, seems odd. Guess the question is if someone retakes the Programming for Everybody (Python)’ with a verified certificate will that be considered acceptable or is that only for someone who has just finished it.

    All of that said, it was a great course and I would love to continue on with you.

  32. Gabrielius says:

    Good day Dr. Chuck,

    I have enrolled in the Programming for Everybody course, which starts on the 5th of October. I have also paid for the certificate. But now I am a little bit confused. In the latest email I‘ve received I can see that there will be some changes implemented and you are offering a new course (Getting started with Python) with a new specialization. So I would like to know if I have to cancel my previous enrollment (with a refund) and enroll in this new course? Or can I stay with the old course and you will give me all the credits for the new one when I’ll finish it?

  33. Saurabh says:

    Hi Dr. Chuck,
    Thanks from this wonderful idea of specialization.
    I have received a verified certificate for PR4E. I will be enrolling for the 3rd part i.e Using Python to Access Web Data, will this part require any prerequisites except the knowledge from PR4E.

    Also Will I be able to do the Capstone part if I pay for the individual parts from the course section?

  34. Dele Ogundahunsi says:

    Dr Chuck, I can not thank you enough for the privilege to take your course; Python, which is a step towards one of my dear goals (being able to write functional programs and apply it to my field). I finished the course on signature track via generous financial aid. I wish to move on to next stage and I want to ask whether I am qualified. I mean does my financially aided verified certificate qualify.
    Thanks a million times.

  35. Absolutely – all verified certificates qualiy. I need to clarify that.

  36. Yes – with a verified certificate from a previous PR4E, you will seethat Coursera counts you as already passing courses and have “already paid for” courses 1 and 2 in the specialization. Let me know if this is what you see. SO you start with #3, payy for it and the rest through the capstone and then you have the specialization.

  37. You should not cancel your enrollment in the old course. When you get he refund just go into the specialization and enroll in the first two courses. Coursera will automatically unenroll you from the October 5 session after things are all set up for you to enroll in the specialization courses.

  38. j b – We wil lno longer be teadhing the 11-week course. So the only folks who can convert their certificates are those that have already earned a verified certificate from a prior course. I fully understand the $49 to $160 transition – it does mean that those who paid for the earlier course are getting a 65% discount on those first two courses :)

  39. Robert your strategy is a perfect one. You will have credit for the courses and can retake them for review.

  40. Jim – You are not too old :) The capstone is the payoff – you get to see everyone else’s creative work. That is half the fun of it.

  41. Richard Boyer says:

    I audited the first two courses over 11 weeks. Are the first two in 6 week format abbreviated in any way from the 11 week course or identical in presentation, the difference being all the units are offered at the start?

    Also, I felt the Teaching Assistants did a great job and were invaluable to keeping students engaged when issues arose. Thanks goes to each.

    Thanks, RB

  42. Everything in the first two courses is identical to the 11-week course. Same book, same slides, same lectures, same assignments. Just split in half between Chapters 5 and 6.

  43. j b mullis says:

    Dr. Chuck,
    Thanks for the info. I guess I will enroll in the whole specialization. The first two of course will be a review for me so won’t take up much time. That part doesn’t bother me, just the cost difference. Anyway you have another enthusiastic student.

  44. Patricia Medina says:

    Dr. Chuck, I did not take the “Certified” version of the course and had no idea it would have a consequence for further courses. I did my best and got a good grade. Is there a chance to be wiaved the requirement to take the “certified” version to be admitted in the October course? And one more thing: will the level of difficulty be similar to #PR4E? LOVED #PR4E and felt very proud of my learning.
    Thank you!

  45. Patricia, There is nothing that can be done. In the old software, unless you paid for the certificate yuor identity was not verified. So there is no way to go back and give you a certificate. The good news is that the first two courses of the specialization have exactly the same homework as that prior course and you don’t have to wait each week for new material. Once you are enrolled and the course starts, you can zip in and move through the material as fast as you like.

    Or if you do not want a certificate – you can pick up where you left off take courses #3 and #4 at no charge.

  46. Patricia Medina says:

    OK, got it, thank you! I do not need certificates. Can you comment on the level of difficulty? About how many hours per week will Course #3 and #4 intail?

  47. Courses #3 and #4 are more difficult than Courses #1 and @#3 – we move form the basics to more real-world applications and they are by nature more comlpex.

  48. srinivas says:

    Hi Chuck,

    Thank you for the new specialization course.
    I am facing a problem while enrolling to the program. I don’t see any support in resolving the issue.
    I am sorry to bother you about this. If you have any idea, Can you suggest who can help on this.

    Thanks & Regards
    Srinivas

  49. giuseppe says:

    Dr. Chuck, D.ssa Van Lent, University of Michigan and Coursera,

    Thanks so much !!

    Your works is something extremely valuable.

    giuseppe citerna

  50. Edie says:

    Dear Dr Chuck,
    I took your Programming 4 Everybody course last year and found it to be really helpful. Now that I am looking into enrolling for Using Databases with Python I am very disappointed to see the option to enroll for free has mysteriously vanished from Coursera’s Enroll dialog. The change must have happened in the last week or so, as last week I was still able to enroll for free on a course which was part of a specialisation. Today that is no longer possible. I was wondering whether you know anything about this sudden and unnanounced change in Coursera’s policy. If this is really the case, will you be offering your courses on a genuinely free platform?
    Thank you very much for your great work.
    Best regards,
    Edie

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