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.

67 Comments

  1. Sandra Britz says:

    So many times during the most recent module of Python for Everyone (Accessing the Web) I have wanted to thank you very much for your
    utter generosity with your knowledge, your enthusiasm and yourself, “Dr. Chuck”. You are inspiring to your hopeful teachers, I am sure.

  2. Seraphim says:

    First, many thanks Dr Chuck. Your courses made me go back to coding by learning amazing Python!

    I am about to take your final “Using Databases with Python” with verification, but I am not prepared to pay for the whole Specialization.
    However, I would really like to do your Python capstone, advertised as €90 on its own. Unfortunately, for reasons beyond my comprehension, it is *impossible* to only pay for a capstone, unless someone pays for the whole Specialization! Here is the reply from coursera:

    “I am afraid that in order to join the Capstone, you need to earn Course Certificates for all requirement courses in Python for Everybody Specialization and you need to make payment to get Course Certificates for these courses. The system will automatically allow you to join the Capstone in case you earned all Course Certificates for the first 4 courses in Python for Everybody Specialization:
    https://learner.coursera.help/hc/en-us/articles/206718133-Capstone-Projects

    This is a real pity, because it stops people from practising their Python skills with what looks like a promising Capstone, unless they pay the total €378. I have no idea why this is the case, but I have given up asking Coursera for a good explanation!

    All the best,
    Seraphim

  3. I don’t make the rules about the capstone. I am sure part of the logic was motivated by revenue goals. Another key to the capstone is that we are not going to be teaching any new material – the capstone will be more flexible and dynamic compared to the regular courses. So we really want to make sure that folks who take the capstone are (a) well prepared technically and (b) understand the culture of online scalable courses. We really expect students in the capstone to be contributing to the course and that does not scale to the 100,000s of students – so the capstone needs to be kept relatively small to function well. So while the requirement to take all four courses and pay for certificates might seem like a bummer – there is just no way to run the capstone with as many students as the rest of the courses that rely so heavily on peer and auto graded assignments.

  4. Johan van Duijnen says:

    When I finished the first Programming for Everybody (Python) course in may this year, I went through the rest of the book, but there was no course to force me to programme all the exercices. I have learned in the last 6 weeks (web access) much more than I could on my own. So, I was very pleased to hear that dr. Chuck decided to extend the course with the rest of the book and for this reason I’m willing to pay for a course I enjoy as much as these python courses. And when searching I found there is much more to learn about Python (object oriënted progr., recursion) that dr. Chuck could teach in a way that makes is understandable for everyone. My background is CPA and CISA.

  5. Eric says:

    Hi Dr Chuck,
    Thank you for the awesome series. I have one suggestion (more like a wish from me).
    I really like the programming assignments in your interactive Python page. I hope you can include more challenging problems (like riddle, puzzle kind of programming exercises) on the course. Those challenging exercises will give us more challenges and more motivations to better ourselves. Maybe you can set those exercises as optional, or even better, give a mark of distinction on the course certificate for people who complete both the normal exercises and the challenging exercises.

    I really love your courses and the spirit of MOOC! Thank you

  6. Sentekin Can says:

    Dear Dr. Chuck,
    Thank you making learning a fun thing. I am taking Python specialization course to keep my mind busy learning. kind of a substitute to solving cross word puzzles. You are helping older generation in a way probably you never intended to.
    Thank you for all,
    Best regards.

    PS: Course Material Link is broken. Is there a new link? Substituted “Spring2016″, but didn’t work:
    http://open.umich.edu/education/si/coursera-programming-everybody/winter2014/materials

  7. Robin White says:

    I have been thinking that free course was the best but when I took the course in the school like this http://www.thedevmasters.com it totally makes me change. I think the benefit of taking paid course is that you can have your personal instructor. When you are completely stuck on it, you can ask your instructor whenever you want and get the best solution as soon as they can.

  8. Franz Calvo says:

    I’m immensely enjoying the “Capstone: Retrieving, Processing, and Visualizing Data with Python” course. Creating visualizations with force layout graphs (such as D3 algorithm) is something I have been dreaming about for some years. From Texas, thank you Dr. Chuck!

  9. martin says:

    hi Dr. Chuck,
    loved your first two courses and really want to start the third one. Even though you say that the course can be taken for free (and yes, the first two I did take for free) it seems one now has to pay for following “Using Python to Access Web Data” on Coursera. Is that something that is intentionally so? Are there other ways to continue with the course outside of Coursera in that case?

    thanks,

    Martin

  10. Martin, Coursera made the decision to put up the pay wall in front of assessments. I did not like the idea but was given no choice. The good news is that you can do all of the interactive exercises for free at http://www.py4e.com – it also contains all the course material, links to the book and is converted to Python 3.0 (although you can do the exercises in either Python 2.x or Python 3.x).

  11. martin says:

    I did indeed find the courses on your website and have started the third course. I really appreciate you donating your time and effort and making this available. Thank you for that. I like the way the course is set up. I would imagine that your student enjoy your classes as well. I was not interested in the certification process anyway so this is a great solution. Thanks again.

  12. Sankalp says:

    Hello Dr. Chuck,

    Your material is great to start Python from scratch. I just have 1 quick query: – I am not interested in certification or specialization, but just wanted to take the course to learn Python. Is the material you made available on py4e.com same as what you offer on coursera, other than the exception of the capstone project? Are all the 17 topics that you provide on py4e.com same and exhaustive as what you offer on Coursera?
    Again, thanks a lot for all the material!

  13. This actually contains the material from all five Coursera classes including the Capstone. The Capstone class is just working through Chapter 16 – which I do on http://www.py4e.com. The scope of http://www.py4e.com is the entire book as is the scope of the Coursera class. The lecture videos cover the same topics but are an independent recording. There are a few more peer-graded assignments and discussion prompts in the Coursera course. But in terms of content covered py4e.com and the Python for Everybody specialization cover the same material at the same level of detail. But you only get a LinkedIn certificate on Coursera.

  14. Ronan says:

    Thank you Dr Chuck. I completed all the Python Cpourses and the Capstone. I absolutely loved it. However I never recived mey certificate in the post. I was really looking forward to it.

  15. kumar says:

    Hello Dr. Chuck.

    I have taken all your courses in the past. I want to repeat your python course as a refresher and also as you have changed to python 3.0. I want to use your free course at http://www.py4e.com

    But the link for the assignment is not working.
    Can I access this please?

    Thanks for making the free courses still available.

    Best.
    Kumar.
    +

  16. Kumar – I think this was a bug – that is now fixed – could you please check again and let me know.

  17. Dito says:

    I think first time I learn a programming language is in this course (course that use python 2.7)
    every programming logic and some basic of programming code make me know more about programming
    now I start learning other language
    Thanks for creating course in coursera

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