Daily Archives: September 6, 2015

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.


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.