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Steven Frank

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  • 53 reviews
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This final installment of the Computation Structures sequence begins with processor pipelining and optimization, subjects that extend the material presented in part 2 of the class, and then moves on to operating systems, virtualization, parallel processing and inter-processor communication. The capstone project for this course segment is optimization of the Beta processor constructed in part 2. It is a lab like no other. Scoring even a few points requires a substantial amount of work and understanding of processor operation (which you thought you knew, but didn't really) and optimization strategies, which can be challenging to implement. The discussion board lights up with ideas, suggestions, guidance and kvetches. Never will you feel more like an MIT student than when you tackle this immensely rewarding project. The other labs in this segment, while somewhat overshadowed by the Big Kahuna, are outstanding in their own right. One of them has you optimizing a time-share operating system, which, along with the always-excellent lectures, provides a great deal of knowledge about how modern operating systems work. The Computation Structures course sequence teaches computers from the ground up -- from transistors to digital building blocks to processors to the art of optimization. The knowledge you gain is like an adjustable telescope that lets you think about computer operation at whatever level of abstraction is appropriate to the task. The 6.003x course sequence stands as the definitive overview of the technology that powers an ever-increasing fraction of our daily lives -- iPhones, cars, smart refrigerators and, who knows, maybe the shirt you'll soon be wearing all use microprocessors built from digital circuits and interact with users via operating systems and communication networks, and after completing 6.003x, you'll understand their inner workings and appreciate the engineering challenges facing their designers.
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It's really nerdy. It's profoundly math-y. It's quite challenging, often mind-bendingly so. And it is, without a doubt, the best-taught, most comprehensive probability course out there or even imaginable. Over 16 fast-paced weeks, this course covers every major topic in probability and zips through statistics for good measure. The syllabus includes combinatorics, conditional probability and Bayes' Rule, random variables of many types, expectation and variance, covariance and correlation, error and estimation, the law of large numbers and the Central Limit Theorem, Poisson and Bernoulli processes, and Markov chains. There are weekly problem sets, two midterm-like exams and a final, and graded in-lecture exercises. Expect to spend 10 to 15 hours a week on the course. The lectures are given primarily by Prof. Tsitsiklis, but for each unit there is also an ESSENTIAL sequence of (ungraded) solved problems taught by a team of extremely talented TAs. These and the in-lecture exercises, which count for a small fraction of the grade, really provide the intellectual framework for the problem sets and exams. Don't skip them, and even if you got an answer right, read the provided solutions! The rigorous, often abstract thought processes needed to succeed with the material are not natural -- you really have to train your mind to work in new ways, and the exercises and solved problems show the way. The staff is enthusiastic and responsive; while some MOOCs enter a kind of zombie mode after the first couple of sessions, this one retains the energy of a brand-new offering. If I have one modest complaint about the course, it's the relentlessly theoretical perspective. To me, probability problems take on life when they're about batting averages, the spread of disease, and stochastic phenomena in nature. In this course, most of the problems involve cards, coins, and characters named Alice and Bill. You may be charmed by esoteric distinctions between numbers and random variables, but i could have used a little more Moneyball. This, however, is a minor quibble. The material is foundational and supremely valuable across innumerable scientific and technical disciplines. Make the necessary time and devote the required effort, and the rewards will more than compensate.
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Is it possible to bring a hands-on residential course in manufacturing techniques to a hands-off online audience? MIT Prof. John Hart thinks so, and it's difficult to imagine a better effort than MITx 2.008. The course covers machining, injection molding, thermoforming (think Halloween masks), sheet metal work, casting, and 3D printing. There are broad-themed units on variation and quality, cost, the role of robotics, sustainability and climate change, and a wrap-up on the future of manufacturing. Each unit includes a series of lectures with (graded) online exercises and a quiz; there is no final or midterm exam. Substituting for the hands-on lab work are videos mostly featuring MIT's David Dow, who runs their machine shop and knows his tools inside and out -- and as a technical instructor is quite engaging and articulate in demonstrating how they work. There are also videos of industrial-scale manufacturing machines at work, and these are fabulous: auto-assembly robots dancing a spidery ballet, building-scale blow-molders making Hefty garbage bags, busy milling machines carving iPhone cases. You really do get a feel for how these things work, their limits and what can go wrong. The units on cost, variation and quality are extremely valuable, analyzing the economics and complications of scaling production for a mass market. The exercises and homework ranged from easy to quite challenging, and not always in a good way. The best questions required an intellectual stretch; others were needlessly tricky, or offered equally plausible answers (only one of which was accepted), or went clearly beyond the lecture material, or seemed too hard without prior exposure to the material. But the minimum passing score is low and not difficult to attain if you pay attention and think. These quibbles aside, 2.008x is an enjoyable and valuable course with first-rate lectures, eclectic and well-chosen topics, and a lot of cool videos.
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Of longstanding renown in the MOOC world, Stanford's machine learning course really is the definitive introduction to this topic. The course broadly covers all of the major areas of machine learning -- linear and logistic regression, neural networks, support vector machines, clustering, dimensionality reduction and principal component analysis, anomaly detection, and recommender systems. As with every other Stanford course I've taken, Prof. Ng precedes each segment with a motivating discussion and examples. Graded portions of the course include a quiz after every topic and a programming assignment, in MATLAB/Octave, after most of them. The programming assignments are excellent. Although 95% of the code comes to you pre-written, what you write really goes to the heart of that week's topics. Given the breadth of the course, these assignments nicely provide depth and meaningful rigor. The quizzes are very fair and sometimes nicely open your eyes to subtleties of the topic you may not have appreciated. Machine Learning has migrated along with all Coursera courses to their new platform, which offers the benefit of "on demand" scheduling flexibility (you can start whenever you want) but has some unfortunate downsides. Chief among these is the fact that the quizzes provide no feedback (as they used to) and can be taken as many times as you want. With enough persistence, anyone can score 100% in the course. These are minor deficiencies, however, and don't detract from this course's well-deserved reputation. Those who take and enjoy Machine Learning should consider following it up with The Analytics Edge, an MIT course offered through edX. The Analytics Edge is more about applying data analytics, including but not limited to machine learning techniques, to a wide variety of real-world problems. It's a great complement to this course, leading you through the many ways data can be parsed and processed to illuminate, predict and explain.
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Eat your peas! That's the message of this introduction to good programming practice and hygiene, which includes writing specifications, avoiding bugs, designing and running test suites, and creating abstract data types. The course focuses on the Java programming language, which formalizes and exposes these elements to the programmer to a much greater degree than, say, Python. So while this course will teach you Java if you're new to it, think of it as a course in programming principles rather than programming. That means the coding assignments focus on anticipating edge cases and what can go wrong rather than cool functionality, but again, it's about eating your peas. The course materials include 12 "readings" or textbook-like chapters, three programming assignments, and a final exam. Each reading is broken into segments with exercises between them. The final exam draws heavily from these exercises and is not difficult. You'll notice I haven't said anything about lectures. There are video lectures, but in these, Prof. Miller essentially reads the readings -- and since the readings are quite well-written, I suspect not too many students watch the lectures. That's too bad -- the course can sometimes feel more like a great self-study resource than a class, but there's no question that the material is both important and well-presented. Some of the topics dip generously into computer-science theory, but with the practical goal of avoiding traps and achieving efficient coding. 6.005.1 covers the first half of the one-semester residential 6.005 course, spreading it over 12 weeks -- much more time than is necessary, so you'll likely find yourself idle now and then. Overall, another great Course 6 offering from MIT.
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This course is geared toward those with some experience in R who want to progress further, and with particular attention to data-science applications (R is especially well-suited for these). It was produced by Microsoft in partnership with the Technical University of Denmark and is taught by Prof. Anders Stockmarr. He is a great instructor, and the lessons are well-organized and clearly presented. About 2/3 of the lectures treat basic "nuts and bolts" topics in R but quickly progress to more advanced operations relevant to statistics and data analysis. The final third of the course tackles more specialized data science topics -- data manipulation, simulation, linear modeling, and graphics. Tutorial exercises, with answers provided, interleave the lecture segments (often following a righteous suggestion to get some coffee); then, for each unit, there's a quiz and a "lab" that involves actual programming. What is ingenious about the presentation is how, as you learn the topic at hand, you're also nudged along to improve your proficiency with other commands and R capabilities -- but without getting lost or frustrated. As a result, your overall comfort level with R increases substantially over a sequence of relatively short units. The examples are interesting and fun, and the overall workload is not excessive (I completed the course over 8 days).
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"So without further ado," Prof. Katsaggelos likes to say at the beginning of a lecture, "let us proceed with this exciting material." He's smiling at the end of that sentence -- as if just maybe "exciting" is a little strong. It is without question interesting and well-presented, however. This course is a comprehensive overview of virtually every important topic in digital image processing. The course begins with a whirlwind review of signals and systems in the digital domain, and moves on to cover motion estimation, image enhancement and recovery, image and video compression, segmentation, and the fascinating (maybe even exciting) topic of sparsity, which has applications far beyond image processing. There are 12 weeks of study, each week consisting of about 2 hours of lecture and a quiz, which includes one or more homework problems implemented in Matlab. For those unfamiliar with Matlab, fear not, a book chapter is provided and it has everything you need. Prof. Katsaggelos is a fabulous teacher. He speaks clearly and engagingly, the lectures are well-organized, and although this is a matter of personal taste, I think he has a wonderful speaking voice. There is no textbook, but downloads of the lecture slides (which are comprehensive) are provided. A word of warning: although billed as a "fundamentals" course, it presumes familiarity with basic principles of digital signal processing and some fairly advanced linear algebra. If circular convolution, Bayesian probabilities, singular value decomposition and linear inverse problems don't ring a bell, then most of the lecture content will sail gorgeously over your head like poetry in a foreign language. HOWEVER, do not shy away from the course for that reason! The quizzes test you at a pretty high level, and even if the math is unfamiliar, you'll still learn a lot about image processing. Prof. Katsaggelos describes the key concepts nicely and provides many visual examples that make those concepts accessible. I would offer two minor caveats. First, while the Matlab problems were worthwhile, they're entirely analytical; I wish there had been more opportunity to play with some of the many free image-processing tools out there that let you apply filters and adjustments using slide bars and the like. Second, the course is entirely unstaffed. If you have a question, you'll have to find the answer on your own or hope for an assist from a fellow student. I should also mention that the new (as of June 2016) Coursera platform is a big step down from the old one for reasons too numerous to complain about here. All that said, this is a great course -- a thorough treatment of a very interesting set of topics.
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No lyrical odes to the wonders of flight open this rigorous introduction to aerodynamics. Instead it’s an abrupt nosedive into the character-building equations. And they keep on coming. Which shouldn’t surprise anyone, because aerodynamics is mostly fluid mechanics and fluid mechanics is bone-breaking math. The course initially tips its hat to aspects of aircraft performance such as vehicle range and cruise analysis, but most of the time is spent on the more fundamental topics of thermodynamics, flow equations, aerodynamic modeling, shock waves, and boundary layers. The course uses a “flipped classroom” model that dispenses with traditional lectures, instead devoting video instruction time to solving problems. The absence of an organizing lecture sequence may seem dismaying at first, but in fact, the approach works quite well. The written materials are clear and complete, if terse, and the highly mathematical subject matter really takes on life only in the context of problems anyway. For those looking for elaboration, the standard Anderson textbook is a useful reference. Each course module includes a series of embedded problems that sharpen comprehension of the written material (with accompanying explanatory videos after you’ve tried them); “sample problems” that are solved in videos and are less “samples” than a key part of the instruction; and several often-challenging “homework” problems that push your understanding to a higher level, and really function more like quizzes. The dedication of the staff, in particular Prof. Darmofal himself, to this course cannot be overstated, nor can its contribution to students’ success. The material is cumulative, so that if you fall overboard early, you’ll drown in the equations – and the staff’s energetic responses to student queries tossed many of us a needed life preserver. When you’ve finished, and can take a wider look at what you’ve learned, you’ll be amazed at the size of your toolbox – how much you can predict about the aerodynamic performance of a wing based on the slimmest description, the range of conditions you can model, the way once- mysterious fluids concepts have become second-nature. If you’re looking for a thorough introduction to the mechanisms (if not the wonders) of flight, sharpen up your math skills – fluency in vector calculus, differential equations and Fourier operations is a must – and get ready for a rough but rewarding ride.
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This foundational course in mechanical engineering explores various indignities (stretching, squeezing, twisting, and bending) to which mechanical structures can be subjected, and their behavior in response. While introductory, the course is not easy (it’s MIT, folks!), but is exceptionally well taught. The first four weeks focus on axial loading (the stretching and squeezing) of bars and trusses. Next you move on to torsion and then bending. Each new unit builds on the previous one, and you see how the new concepts are elaborations of what you’ve previously learned. It all comes together in a final unit on elasticity, and there are two optional units that delve further into material stress concepts. What’s covered in class is analytical, but you’ll also begin studying the finite-element (FE) approach to solving structural problems and learn about the computational “solver” tools that engineers use every day. The FE segments neatly parallel the graded class work, with problems you’ve solved analytically now represented visually in an Akselos window. It’s a blast to see what happens to the structure – how the color-coded stresses change and the structure deforms – as you vary the applied forces and structural properties. These segments also provide a glimpse into the world beyond 2.01, where various simplifying assumptions don’t apply. The instruction is unparalleled. Simona Socrate is articulate, engaging, funny, and teaches with chalk-breaking passion. Yes, the class is taught on blackboards (many, actually), but you needn’t take notes – Prof. Socrate has already taken them for you, in color. She knows where you’re likely to get confused and patiently walks you through the minefields. In her opening video, she promises that the class will be a partnership, that she’ll be there for you – and she means it. The staff does a wonderful job keeping up with questions on the discussion board, but the most energetic poster is Prof. Socrate herself. She answers questions. She responds to concerns. She is known to quote Dante. There are 9 weekly problem sets, your best 7 of which account for 30% of the grade. A midterm quiz counts for another 30%, and the final quiz is worth 40%. All of the graded assignments are very fair – even when challenging, none of the problems go beyond what’s been taught. There are also weekly “recitations” in which a staff member solves example problems from start to finish, and Prof. Socrate sometimes posts videos solving some of the more difficult homework or quiz-prep problems. But in all cases, extensive (and extremely well-written) solutions are provided. These deserve close study – collectively, they would make a great textbook. Anyone with even a passing interest in engineering (and a decent background in basic calculus) should take this introduction to how the built world works. Look around you: every structure you see is still standing because the behaviors and vulnerabilities explored in this course have been successfully anticipated. Beams and bones, bridges and nachos -- the concepts you learn in 2.01x are relevant to all of them.
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The Analytics Edge (TAE) provides a solid, engaging introduction to the techniques of "big" data analysis and machine learning -- and much more. The "much more" is how it extends the nuts and bolts of data analytics into higher-level questions of strategy, i.e., using tools not only to answer questions, but to gain an edge. The course is built around the clunky but powerful R language and, at the end, the use of spreadsheet functions to perform optimizations. Topics covered include linear and logistic regression, classification and regression trees and forests, clustering, text analytics (word clouds!), clustering, data visualization, and linear and integer optimization. Each unit consists of three lecture sequences that teach implementation of a specific technique in the context of two or three illustrative, and very interesting, problems; and a homework assignment where you apply what you've learned to a new problem. The problems are engaging and well chosen -- the real deal, applications of data analytics you've heard of and surely wondered about: Moneyball, spam filtering, healthcare outcomes and spending decisions, how businesses such as airlines segment customers to understand their markets. If this were not enough, it's only the foundation. Where the course really shines is in taking the analysis to the next level and addressing questions of strategy. Say you're a parole board member trying to predict whether a violator is likely to commit a new crime. You use various techniques to finesse a model, yet find that its predictive accuracy is no better than a baseline guess. But wait! Although the overall accuracy may be no better, your model may be tuned to virtually eliminate false negatives -- prisoners you may have thought, wrongly, were safe to release, but weren't, at the expense of false positives (prisoners you could have released, but didn't). If the strategic concern is public safety, overall model accuracy is far less important than its performance along the key strategic metric. Graded course assignments include "quick questions" that accompany the lectures, a pair of problem sets for each unit, a comprehensive final exam, and a Kaggle competition that pits you against your classmates in making predictions from a data set using all you have learned during the first half of the course. Although this is, overall, a fabulous course, there are a few negatives. The problem sets, while interesting, progressive and well thought out, can be tedious -- a lot of the tasks are trivial and repetitive, and it's not always clear what lesson the authors are driving at. And while the community TAs were dedicated (and often heroic) in fielding questions and offering help, the actual course staff was mostly absent -- a sadly common occurrence once a MOOC has had a few successful runs. As a consequence, results for the auto-graded Kaggle competition weren't released for two weeks and, when they came out, there was no explanation about how grades were computed, how the problem should have been approached (our independent variable was not well chosen, given the limitations of the data set), or why some students had weirdly high scores (they cheated, it turned out). The general lack of staff communicativeness also led to grumbling about the final exam, with numerous discussion posts questioning this or that problem. Fortunately, these lapses did not meaningfully interfere with an excellent learning experience, and can readily be corrected.
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I took this course in 2015, when all three of the wide-ranging topics were included in a single session. The focus throughout is on theoretical underpinnings and key devices that have emerged from them. The three segments together represent an online version of the residential 3.15 course and were prepared for MIT students. Prof. Ross has generously made them available through edX, but she did not participate in the edX course itself. Instead, course manager Jessica Sandland, a great teacher in her own right, did an excellent job administering homework assignments and exams, answering our questions, and keeping everything on track. Prof. Ross begins with a thorough foundational introduction, and then moves on to applications and devices. This installment of 3.15, which covers semiconductors, is by far the most rigorous of the three and includes an introduction to diodes, transistors, and photovoltaics. Do not get discouraged! Some of the homework assignments and exam questions come as quite a challenge given the easily followed lectures. For me, a textbook was essential. Fortunately, Prof. Chenming Hu has written perhaps the best one out there and offers it free online. Download and read it. When you finish this course, you will *really* understand semiconductors at a deep working level, from quantum states to band structures to electrical behavior. And know that the next two installments of the course are easier.
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This fifth installment of the UCSD bioinformatics series is surprisingly short -- only two weeks of material, less than half that of most other installments. The biological topic is how we infer which genes orchestrate various processes in a cell. It continues concepts first introduced in part III -- gene duplications and genome rearrangements. Here the primary focus is on clustering techniques to identify genes likely to be expressed and regulated together and, therefore, collectively responsible for a particular biological phenomenon. These techniques, including k-means clustering, the E-M algorithm, and hierarchical and distance-based clustering, are interesting and lend themselves to straightforward coding. There's a fair bit of material covered in two weeks, but still, it's only two weeks, and in my session you had six weeks to complete the assignments. Depending on how the courses are scheduled, this one can readily be taken in tandem with one of the others.
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This is, by far, the most difficult segment I've encountered in this course series (having taken parts I through V). It addresses two fascinating high-level questions in biology: how do we know what evolved from what, and why does T. rex look so much like a chicken? That first question has very practical implications in identifying the animal source of viruses such as the SARS pathogen, but answering it requires a deep dive into the challenging topics of phylogenies and evolutionary trees. Here the hacker track offers up some pretty serious ruts and bumps, with problems that may have you forgetting about the biological dimension altogether as you ponder leaves and limbs and other rarefied artifacts of graph theory that can be pretty tough to turn into working code. Then it's a sudden turn into the world of computational proteomics, which re-introduces mass spectrometry (originally covered in part I) but with newer and hairier twists. Once again the broader biological questions dissolve somewhat in the technical details of analyzing spectra (and more graph theory), but spectrometry is itself such a basic analytical tool for quantitative biologists that you never feel too far removed from the science. Overall, this course segment is tough, but also rewarding once you bend all that graph theory to your will -- and forewarned is forearmed.
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This course begins a six-part series on bioinformatics algorithms that works its way through the excellent textbook written by Professors Pevzner and Compeau. In this first installment, you explore what most people probably think of as bioinformatics: sleuthing through DNA to find patterns and "hidden messages" -- that is, functional areas that direct gene expression or otherwise affect what DNA does and how it does it. How you find such regions without knowing in advance what you're looking for is what this class is all about, and it involves algorithmic and statistical analysis. If you've taken a course on algorithm design (the Stanford MOOC is fabulous), here's where you get to apply those techniques to the life-science domain. The course offers two tracks: a "biologist" track for the computer tenderfoot and a "hacker" track for more experienced programmers. Although it's certainly possible to get a lot out of this course without programming, the heart and soul of bioinformatics is training your computer to do amazing things with biological data. The course is exceptionally well organized and well staffed. Each week's unit has a series of lessons presented in an interactive version of the professors' eminently readable and often entertaining textbook. The lessons contain programming tasks that implement various concepts introduced in the text, as well as a quiz that nicely tests your knowledge at a higher level. Some of those programming tasks are pretty challenging. Those on the biologist track undertake an extensive series of non-programming exercises instead. There are also short lectures which, while useful and entertaining, aren't actually necessary for success; the interactive text is so understandable and complete that it has all you really need. This course has enjoyed well-deserved acclaim and is the definitive MOOC for those interested in bioinformatics.
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The plot thickens in this second of three modules that constitute the online version of MIT 6.004, Computation Structures. In part 1, we descended deep into the gate-level workings of digital circuits. In this installment we jump up a level to programmable architectures: the datapaths and control units that process assembly-level instructions into outputs. This is where you really begin to learn the design and operation of modern processors. Organized around a hypothetical, simulated processor called the Beta, the labs have you coding sorting algorithms in assembler and actually building, on the screen, a working implementation of the Beta from hardware components (which you previously built from transistors on up during the first course module). Building the Beta is a worthy and rewarding challenge requiring attention to detail, careful choices, and some creativity. The presentation, problem sets and labs in 6.004.2x are flawless -- often dazzling to us nerdy types. The lectures are never boring and always understandable, with interesting digressions into the limits of computation, the design of compilers, and the building blocks of computer memory. In addition to instruction sets and basic processor architecture, this module covers stack operation and cache design. Once again, it's about four weeks of material from the residential class spread over 12 weeks of study. This can be awkward in terms of continuity -- re-learning complex topics studied months before in preparation for the final exam can feel like prying the lid of an old paint can -- but if the relaxed schedule means more people with busy schedules can participate, it's a price well worth paying.
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Excellent introduction or refresher, taught by a first-rate professor. The focus of the course is introductory statics. Lectures were well-delivered and entirely self-contained so that no textbook was necessary, although some problems were drawn (with attribution) from the McGill & King textbook on Statics (which I recommend). Professor Whiteman took pains to connect each week's subject matter to real-world problems, and the weekly quizzes provided a good opportunity to really think through the material.
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This wide-ranging, briskly taught introduction to computer networks is now offered as a self-paced course, which for many will come as a big relief: when offered in 2014 over eight weeks, the workload must have been brutal. The course consists of eight units, which cover the Internet and its various service layers, networking nuts and bolts such as packet switching and congestion control, security, and network applications. There's a quiz after each segment of each unit, for a total of 74(!) of them, as well as midterm and final exams. The teaching is excellent, but some topics are just skimmed in the survey-style presentation, and the quizzes and exams often go beyond or outside of what was taught. A textbook or readiness to surf the Internet for resources is well-advised. One unfortunate omission from this version of the course is the famously challenging "Simple Router" lab, which has students writing C code for analyzing packets and forwarding them. Having worked this lab on my own, I can attest to its value as an adjunct to the often painstakingly detailed dissections of packet structure and header contents; this arcane subject matter, while rather dry on its own, takes on life when you actually pull packets apart, put them back together and send them on their merry way. The good news, however, is that the instructors plan to release an entire lab-oriented networking MOOC in the near future, which devotees of this course eagerly await.
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This is a polished, professionally produced introduction to the Java programming language. It's suitable for a wide audience, ranging from those with no programming experience at all to people like me looking to fill a hole in our repertoires. The course is organized progressively, beginning with Java basics and covering gradually more advanced topics. Each unit includes a series of short lectures, most of which are followed by brief programming problems or questions. A problem set, with more in-depth programming assignments, follows most of the lecture series. There's also an optional final project. The instructors are excellent and no textbook is necessary (although beginners may find themselves occasionally in need of a reference -- and there are plenty to be found on the web). The course expects you to install the free BlueJ programming environment, and provides you with downloadable files corresponding to the online programming assignments. This approach not only provides greater opportunity for debugging and program refinement than is possible in a screen submission, but also familiarizes you with a very useful programming tool. For those who care about credentials, note that Udacity no longer offers certificates of completion for those who have not enrolled in the expensive pay version of the course; this class is so introductory, however, that few will suffer as a result.
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This wide-ranging introduction to the mechanical behavior of materials covers a lot of ground: stress/strain behavior at the bulk and atomic levels, principal stresses and transformations, beam bending, column buckling, the behavior of cellular and crystalline materials, creep and stress relaxation, brittle fracture, and fatigue. Prof. Gibson covers these varied topics at a brisk clip but at sufficient depth to provide a working knowledge of each subject. She frequently provides examples from the natural world, showing how animals and plants have developed sophisticated physical structures to resist or tolerate mechanical injury – for example, how woodpeckers avoid brain damage. There are 12 weekly problem sets and three noncumulative exams, each covering one-third of the course material. All of the exam problems are very reasonable and follow directly from the lectures and weekly example problems that Prof. Gibson solves for you. No textbook is necessary (although I found David Roylance's book, Mechanics of Materials, to be an excellent supplement -- it nicely covers all of the syllabus topics). The lectures themselves are clear and well-organized, having been recorded from the live class at MIT. My sole criticism relates to the amount of time spent writing on the blackboards – not just equations and graphs, but whole sentences and explanations. These might be better written out in advance or simply distributed beforehand, with the freed-up lecture time devoted to further elaboration of the very interesting topics.
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This was the best chemistry course I’ve ever taken, and I majored in chemistry. One reason is that, although there are plenty of reactions and kinetics, the course is really an exploration of how chemistry serves the process of discovering, optimizing, and ultimately marketing drugs. So Professor Stevens first takes you through the basic business and regulatory framework of the pharmaceutical industry – clinical trials, the FDA, how drugs are protected by intellectual property. The course then covers the basics of pharmacokinetics: what drugs actually do, how the body absorbs, distributes, metabolizes and ultimately eliminates them – and how drug designers use dosing regimens and molecular design to obtain efficacy without harming the patient. From there you dive more deeply into the chemistry of binding and metabolism, and then into the mechanics of drug discovery – the use of automation, combinatorial chemistry and targeting strategies to find needles in the vast haystack of potential molecules that constitutes “drug space.” One aspect of this course that makes it so enjoyable is the way case studies and anecdotes are used to illustrate key class topics. The need for regulation is exemplified by discussion of mass poisonings that have occurred as a result of drug contamination, for example, and to learn how drug candidates are identified and optimized, we follow the trail of Abbott researchers as they develop stromelysin inhibitors to treat arthritis and cancer. The chemistry topics often involve familiar pharmaceutical names – Viagra, Ibuprofen, and Tamiflu all make appearances, adding a level of relevance often missing from courses that dig into the hard science. Professor Stevens is a marvelous teacher. His superb command of the material is no surprise, but he knows exactly where his students may get confused and how to pre-empt that confusion. He is quick with clever, illuminating analogies and visual illustrations, and the lectures are always engaging, never boring. Also, his level of dedication to this course, actively monitoring the discussion board and answering questions personally, was truly heroic. If you have a decent chemistry background and even a passing interest in the world of pharma, you will love this class.
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This innovative, challenging and rewarding course approaches a traditional linear-algebra curriculum from a computational perspective. Students write procedures implementing key mathematical concepts, and apply these to interesting labs that have you changing the perspective of a photograph, dabbling in machine learning, and writing a simple search engine. The lectures are well-organized and the written materials are superb. Note, however, that this is not primarily a programming course -- the point of the programming is to understand and apply the math; those looking for a Python introduction as such might prefer other options. In fact, because solutions to the programming assignments are not provided and code cannot be shared or posted, your coding skills may not improve much. And if you’re new to Python, expect to turn frequently to external tutorials and resources. Those with no prior exposure to linear algebra may also find themselves playing catch-up given the fast pace and abstract focus of the lectures. The course emphasizes proofs at the expense of explained examples and illustrative applications – great for math lovers but maybe not for linear algebra neophytes. Overall, while the presentation moves at a brisk march and the workload is considerable, those willing to devote the time will find the pieces fitting together into a unique learning experience. The course as given was actually only the first 8 weeks of the12-week course taught at Brown, and a mini-course covering the remaining material is planned. Future versions will hopefully cover the entire curriculum in a single session.
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MITx has divided the residential course called "Computation Structures" into three parts, and this is the first. It covers digital circuits, beginning with basic information concepts such as encoding schemes, entropy, and signaling. From there you move on to CMOS, combinational logic, sequential logic, and finite-state machines, and finally to the broader topics of performance measures and design tradeoffs. The course is introductory but, as with most MITx courses, often challenging. What would be taught in 4 or 5 weeks at MIT is spread out here into 8 weeks, with 2 units of material released every other week. That pacing is good and bad -- certainly it would be tough to get through all this material in so short a time, but I suspect most students found the hiatus between material releases a bit awkward. There are lectures, problem sets, graded homework assignments, fabulous labs (more on that below), and midterm and final exams. The lectures, by Chris Terman, are engaging and clear; wry humor runs through the lectures and also the problem sets. Prof. Terman, however, is an off-stage presence. The course is run by ​Silvina Hanono Wachman, who delivers the tutorials, energetically answers questions on the discussion board, fixes whatever needs fixing, alleviates confusion, and does an amazing job at all of this. The labs are a highlight. Students build and test digital circuits using an online simulator, culminating in the design (with healthy guidance) and implementation of a 32-bit arithmetic logic unit. Another lab highlight is programming a Turing Machine simulation, which not only hones your skills with finite-state machines but offers a glimpse into the fundamentals of computability. The final exam was very challenging, with a single chance to answer each question, but also very fair based on the material covered. Overall this is a rigorous, well-organized, often exhilarating and occasionally entertaining introduction to digital logic and design.
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"So, Professor Yerraballi, what are we going to learn today?" asks his senior colleague, Professor Valvano, eagerly. Prof. Yerraballi barely finishes describing the concept of interrupts when he is almost interrupted himself. "Yes," says Prof. Valvano, "but you know me. I like to build things. What are we going to build?" And there you have the heart and soul of this fantastic course, one of the best you will ever take. You build cool projects using a programmable microcontroller and various accessories. You learn how these ubiquitous devices work, how to program them, and how to interface them with other devices. Each of the 16 progressive modules in this largely self-paced course covers a new topic and has you building and programming a new project. The modules start with first principles (fundamentals of computers and electronics, C programming) and move on to more specific but widely relevant concepts: serial interfaces, interrupts, finite state machines, digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital conversion, game design, and the Internet of Things. You build things like traffic lights and musical instruments and games. Beyond the graded labs, Profs Valvano and Yerraballi demonstrate more ambitious projects (such as cars and robots) that can be made using the principles you've just learned, and they provide links to supporting resources for motivated students. In fact, Prof. Valvano's website brims with a vast library of projects and additional materials. He has authored a number of hands-on books on embedded systems that are well-regarded and serve as excellent references for this course. What is truly unique about this class is how the specific learning topics are always grounded in more fundamental concepts, and how they also serve as platforms for broader themes that are emphasized throughout the course: • Design and development processes: how engineers actually plan and execute projects. • C programming: the overview is so comprehensive that, although the class presumes prior knowledge of C, the ambitious student lacking such knowledge could develop proficiency based solely on the course lectures and materials. • Requirements documents and the business side of engineering. • Engineering best practices. The quality of the teaching is superb. The two professors obviously like each other and present very effectively. There are helpful animations and supporting written materials. An excellent project simulator and debugger helps you get the code right before you implement it on the real board. And an onboard logic analyzer and oscilloscope lets you test what you've built and diagnose the errors. In their closing remarks, the two instructors offer some advice for budding engineers. "Be courageous," says Prof. Yerraballi. "Be humble," says Prof. Valvano. They say more than this, of course, but you get the idea. This is a unique introduction to embedded systems, but that's really only the beginning.
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This wide-ranging introduction to Linux is well-suited to beginners who, like me, have almost no knowledge whatsoever of Linux. The course is organized into 18 self-paced topical modules, each consisting of several subtopic sequences. The subtopic sequences, in turn, each contain a series of instructional web pages with text and graphical content, short (each less than 2 minutes) video segments illustrating use of a tool or command discussed in the web pages, a few review questions, and a "lab" that has you perform tasks on your Linux system. The review questions and labs do not count toward your grade, which is based solely on a 30-question final. Although the labs sometimes require some real thought, overall the course is not difficult. With content almost exclusively presented on static web pages, the experience is more like reading a well-written, well-illustrated book with chapter-ending exercises available on the web. I had no problem finishing it up in two weeks. The course emphasizes breadth rather than depth, which is exactly right, in my view, for an introductory treatment. After getting comfortable with the basic features of Linux, and then taking a grand tour through the most common commands and capabilities, you'll feel that you've built a pretty solid foundation for more advanced (that is to say, "advanced beginner") work. There are tons of helpful Linux tutorials on the web, and this course provides the basic grounding to make those tutorials meaningful. The course materials take worthy pains to separately treat the three most common Linux distributions, both in terms of helping you install and navigate your Linux package and for later course topics where the details diverge among distributions. Because of the modular organization of the course, it's easy to skip the distribution-specific segments that don't relate to your version. Neophytes who take this course with the right expectations will find it very useful and easily digested. People who already have basic Linux training may also find it useful on a topical level, but should be prepared to skip through a lot of what they already know.
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Surely there is no better venue for a course about Thomas Jefferson than the campus of the University of Virginia, which he founded late in his life. This compact class consists of seven units that each include lecture segments totaling about an hour, readings, and a tour of places and institutions central to Jefferson’s life or its study today. These tours are no mere travelogue – Jefferson’s life and philosophy are so intimately associated with his Monticello estate and the “academical village” he designed for U.Va. that to experience them, in well-produced videos with insightful commentary, connects you to the man even as reading his letters and other writings connects you to his mind. Professor Onuf is a wonderful teacher. His lectures are absorbing and well- delivered, often passionately so. The most compelling feature of this course is his focus on Jefferson’s ideas rather than dates and events. Prof. Onuf covers Jefferson’s vision of America’s revolutionary promise and later Americans’ evolving views of Jefferson; the political philosophy that informed Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence; his heterodox views on education (primary purpose: to sustain the American experiment) and religion (deeply suspicious of organized “priestcraft”); and Prof. Onuf does not shy away from Jefferson’s provocative views on race and slavery. The readings, usually Jefferson’s own words in letters and public documents, nicely complement the lectures; they are short and very well chosen. Students who take this class will acquire, in a short time, an understanding of Jefferson – the man and the mind – that has real staying power. Everyday encounters with politics, education and even architecture will have you contemplating Prof. Onuf’s rhetorical question: “Is it Jeffersonian?” This brief, enjoyable immersion into the essential Jefferson packs an outsize pedagogical punch.
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Part I of Stanford’s course on algorithms, taught by Prof. Tim Roughgarden, begins by laying out the criteria by which an algorithm can be judged -- its complexity in time and space, and how well it scales to large input sets. The class then turns to divide-and-conquer algorithms, graph algorithms, and data structures such as heaps, binary search trees, hash tables and Bloom filters. The class is not introductory -- programming ability and basic familiarity with the concepts presented is assumed. As it happens, all of the topics in this class (and its successor) are covered at a simpler level in the excellent MIT 6.00x online class, which should be considered a prerequisite for this one. I would have been quite lost without that introduction, and certainly never felt as if I was covering the same ground again -- this class delves far deeper. Prof. Roughgarden is a fabulous teacher. His presentation is so articulate and so engagingly down-to-earth that you can lose sight of how complex the material actually is. Fear not, however, because the challenging weekly problem sets will have you scurrying back to the slides and maybe the lectures as well to deepen your understanding. The final exam has a few difficult problems but by and large is easier than the problem sets. Besides the problems, there are weekly programming assignments that have you coding up one of the algorithms discussed that week. You can use whatever language you want -- you’re given a dataset and asked to submit results. In a couple of cases, the datasets are so large that your programming environment may crash, as mine did, resulting in panicked discussion-board postings a lot of ad hoc advice. It was unnecessary. Yes, coding algorithms in the real world means figuring out how to accommodate the limits of your system, but such strategies are not covered in this course and solutions can be elusive. Just getting the algorithm to work right is challenge enough. This is a computer-science course and there’s plenty of math – proofs galore, probabilities, topologies and much more. But it’s never math for math’s sake. Prof. Roughgarden always introduces topics with a statement of motivation – how a mathematical construct can describe or model real-world systems, the sometimes-surprisingly practical applications of abstract graph algorithms or esoteric data structures. The syllabus progresses through a diverse series of topics but the unifying theme is identifying a job to be done and figuring out how best to do it – and more importantly, understanding the elastic limits of “best.”
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This class picks up where 6.00.01x leaves off, applying the programming skills you've learned to some important topics in data science -- simulations, probability and the use (and misuse) of statistics, the interpretation of experimental data, graph problems, optimization, and machine learning. As in 6.00.01x, the lectures are first-rate and the textbook is not only the best computer-science primer I've ever read, but the best I can imagine -- it's readable and clear, and frequently witty. I've found it to be an excellent reference and refer to it often. Although the topics in 6.00.02x concern "data science and computational thinking," the heart of the problem sets is still programming; so if you're afraid you've left the challenging world of classes, inheritance and recursion behind last semester, you can rest easy -- they're back.
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This wonderful introduction to the dynamics of mechanical systems – rolling wheels, swinging arms, spinning amusement-park rides – picks up where standard physics intro courses leave off, and introduces an engineering approach to the analysis of physical systems. Unfortunately it’s only the first half (six weeks) of the live class taught at MIT, but it covers the key foundational topics in dynamics: kinematics, equations of motion, velocity and acceleration in 2D and 3D frames, moments of inertia, and imbalance behavior. Prof. Gossard is an excellent teacher and brings a welcome human touch to a subject where students can easily get lost. He knows exactly when you’re likely to get confused and how to pre-empt it. He’s also articulate, funny, and warm. When he says he chose a carousel problem because he likes going to carnivals, you want to go to one with him. The course consists of a series of video lectures, graded problem sets and two exams. The lectures were filmed during the live class, which Prof. Gossard teaches using chalk and a series of busily moving blackboards; there are no slides. To take effective notes, therefore, you’ll need either a quick pencil or skill with the Windows snipping tool. Prof. Gossard frequently engages students , and without the social context of a live class, these interactions can sometimes drag a bit (particularly since the students’ responses are generally inaudible). There are consolations, however: the camera often alights and lingers on the classroom hotties, surely by inadvertence, as well as the occasional hippopotamus-like yawn. Prof. Gossard and the staff (particularly the tireless Christina Jaworsky) were supremely dedicated to this course and students’ success in it. They deftly managed some video challenges, Matlab malfunctions and problem-set glitches. Prof. Gossard added “office hours” videos that addressed or reinforced topics that had prompted questions on the discussion board. All in all, a short but well- focused, well-run and well-taught introduction to some fundamental concepts in mechanical engineering.
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This introduction to computational engineering simulation is in many ways 3 courses rolled into one: an introduction to the problem-solving steps engineers use to model physical systems, including the steps before and after the simulation; an overview of finite-element analysis and the finite-volume method, including brief but meaningful summaries of structural and fluid mechanics; and the "hands-on" part, where Prof. Bhaskaran teaches you how to use ANSYS to solve engineering problems. ANSYS is an enormously powerful tool but it's fussy and often non-intuitive; this part of the course gets down into the weeds of menu selections and mouse clicks, like a training class for Excel or Word. But the great thing about this course is how it teaches you not only how to work the tool, but how the tool works. There are 4 core modules covering heat conduction, solid mechanics (a bicycle crank and a rocket nozzle flange), and computational fluid dynamics. Two optional modules have you modeling an airplane wing and a wind turbine blade. Supplementing the instructional videos in the flange segment are interesting comments and perspectives from a mechanical engineer who uses ANSYS to design rockets. Bottom line is that this course is a heck of a lot of fun -- the colorful pictures and animations that ANSYS generates, and the ability to manipulate them in 3D, provide a hands-on understanding that is unsurpassed. (You can see that the bike crank is safe because under load, the blue and red stresses penetrate only slightly into the thickness of the bar.) And I found the compact overviews of solid mechanics and fluid dynamics to be well-delivered and surprisingly comprehensive for the problems at hand. (Finally I really understand the concept of a boundary layer.) The in-lecture questions and homework assignments require understanding of the concepts and facility with the ANSYS tool, but are not difficult. Obviously this course is ideally suited to engineers in training or those who haven't used FEA or CFD, but anyone who likes playing with cool tools that plumb the physics of mechanical and fluid systems and turn their behavior into dazzling images will have a blast.
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Advanced Transport Phenomena picks up where the introductory course, The Basics of Transport Phenomena, leaves off, covering additional topics that are also treated in the optional (but excellent and reasonably priced) textbook -- van den Akker & Mudde, "Transport Phenomena - The Art of Balancing." This course covers convection, radiation, laminar flow, and fluid momentum. What that means practically is that you'll study reactors, friction in pipes and Couette flow through channels, non-Newtonian fluids like mustard and whipped cream, humidity and the wet-bulb temperature, and viscosity. Like the first course, this one features problems that cover the material but are interesting in their own right -- computing the temperature of the Earth, modeling why deserts get so cold at night, making chocolate sprinkles, the aforementioned whipped cream, and painful intestinal gas(!). But this is not a mere extension of the intro course into additional topics. It is very tough -- note that word "advanced" in the title. Throughout this class you'll use "microbalances" over small system regions to generate a profile of how things change over space and time, and it can be quite challenging to figure out what quantities and regions to model. There are more equations and formulas than last time around, and again, the challenge is not so much in their number as how to choose and combine them. Figuring out how to think about a problem, and then puzzling through unexpected zigs and zags in the mechanics, can sometimes feel like a graduate-level enterprise. And of course you're expected to have fluency with all of the material you learned in the first course. Don't be put off, though. The lectures and tutorials are excellent, the staff is responsive and dedicated to students' success, and you'll learn quite a lot. The effort is more than repaid by the problem-solving toolkit you'll develop, in only six weeks, across a variety of important chemical engineering topics. Call me old fashioned, but when a man's wife asks him, "Honey, how big a square-profile conduit do we need to change the air in our kitchen three times an hour?" he should be able to respond, without hesitation, "What kind of interior conduit roughness are we talking?"
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The plot thickens in this second of three modules that constitute the online version of MIT 6.004, Computation Structures. In part 1, we descended deep into the gate-level workings of digital circuits. In this installment we jump up a level to programmable architectures: the datapaths and control units that process assembly-level instructions into outputs. This is where you really begin to learn the design and operation of modern processors. Organized around a hypothetical, simulated processor called the Beta, the labs have you coding sorting algorithms in assembler and actually building, on the screen, a working implementation of the Beta from hardware components (which you previously built from transistors on up during the first course module). Building the Beta is a worthy and rewarding challenge requiring attention to detail, careful choices, and some creativity. The presentation, problem sets and labs in 6.004.2x are flawless -- often dazzling to us nerdy types. The lectures are never boring and always understandable, with interesting digressions into the limits of computation, the design of compilers, and the building blocks of computer memory. In addition to instruction sets and basic processor architecture, this module covers stack operation and cache design. Once again, it's about four weeks of material from the residential class spread over 12 weeks of study. This can be awkward in terms of continuity -- re-learning complex topics studied months before in preparation for the final exam can feel like prying the lid of an old paint can -- but if the relaxed schedule means more people with busy schedules can participate, it's a price well worth paying.
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MITx has divided the residential course called "Computation Structures" into three parts, and this is the first. It covers digital circuits, beginning with basic information concepts such as encoding schemes, entropy, and signaling. From there you move on to CMOS, combinational logic, sequential logic, and finite-state machines, and finally to the broader topics of performance measures and design tradeoffs. The course is introductory but, as with most MITx courses, often challenging. What would be taught in 4 or 5 weeks at MIT is spread out here into 8 weeks, with 2 units of material released every other week. That pacing is good and bad -- certainly it would be tough to get through all this material in so short a time, but I suspect most students found the hiatus between material releases a bit awkward. There are lectures, problem sets, graded homework assignments, fabulous labs (more on that below), and midterm and final exams. The lectures, by Chris Terman, are engaging and clear; wry humor runs through the lectures and also the problem sets. Prof. Terman, however, is an off-stage presence. The course is run by ​Silvina Hanono Wachman, who delivers the tutorials, energetically answers questions on the discussion board, fixes whatever needs fixing, alleviates confusion, and does an amazing job at all of this. The labs are a highlight. Students build and test digital circuits using an online simulator, culminating in the design (with healthy guidance) and implementation of a 32-bit arithmetic logic unit. Another lab highlight is programming a Turing Machine simulation, which not only hones your skills with finite-state machines but offers a glimpse into the fundamentals of computability. The final exam was very challenging, with a single chance to answer each question, but also very fair based on the material covered. Overall this is a rigorous, well-organized, often exhilarating and occasionally entertaining introduction to digital logic and design.
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This course is geared toward those with some experience in R who want to progress further, and with particular attention to data-science applications (R is especially well-suited for these). It was produced by Microsoft in partnership with the Technical University of Denmark and is taught by Prof. Anders Stockmarr. He is a great instructor, and the lessons are well-organized and clearly presented. About 2/3 of the lectures treat basic "nuts and bolts" topics in R but quickly progress to more advanced operations relevant to statistics and data analysis. The final third of the course tackles more specialized data science topics -- data manipulation, simulation, linear modeling, and graphics. Tutorial exercises, with answers provided, interleave the lecture segments (often following a righteous suggestion to get some coffee); then, for each unit, there's a quiz and a "lab" that involves actual programming. What is ingenious about the presentation is how, as you learn the topic at hand, you're also nudged along to improve your proficiency with other commands and R capabilities -- but without getting lost or frustrated. As a result, your overall comfort level with R increases substantially over a sequence of relatively short units. The examples are interesting and fun, and the overall workload is not excessive (I completed the course over 8 days).
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This final installment of the UCSD bioinformatics series covers two very important classes of tool (algorithms for read mapping, including the Burrows-Wheeler Transform, and hidden Markov models) that address two fascinating questions in computational biology: how do we locate disease-causing DNA mutations and how can we identify the function of a protein from similar proteins despite the cumulative effects of evolution? The six-course UCSD bioinformatics series is now offered under Coursera's new platform, and the courses have been reformatted a bit. The biggest change is that those following the "hacker track" (now called "honors track") and tackling the programming assignments will also have to complete a peer-graded set of "bioinformatics challenge" exercises at the end of the course; in previous sessions, only those following the no-programming "biologist track" were required to complete the challenge exercises. While it adds to the workload, this change is very worthwhile -- it exposes you to databases and tools that computational biologists routinely use in the areas covered by the course. Another change is that the course is now fully self-paced; although you sign up for a particular session, new sessions start every month and your work will carry over through multiple sessions. The idea is to try to place you with a cohort of learners for grading and discussion purposes. One consequence, however, is that course staffing is sporadic; staff may be available to respond to your questions or may not be. The programming problems, particularly the later ones in the course, are pretty challenging, and no online textbook materials are provided for the hidden Markov model unit -- you have to rely solely on the lectures, which for me were sometimes hard to follow. The instructors' excellent textbook is really helpful here. Although I found the course to be a superb learning experience and eventually completed all of the programming and peer-graded exercises, there was no way I could have done so in one six-week session with a full-time job.
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This brief introduction to cloud computing concepts focuses primarily on deployment issues -- the costs and benefits of migrating to a cloud and the do's and don'ts of migration. As such, it will be of interest primarily to business managers rather than engineers or IT managers looking for more technical content or consumers interested in the mechanics of cloud operation. The course is organized into 3 segments: an overview with a useful overview of different types of cloud architectures (primarily SaaS, PaaS, and IaaS), a survey of the advantages and disadvantages of these cloud models, and finally, the economics of cloud migration and deployment pitfalls to avoid. There is overlap and some repetition between the second and third parts, and unfortunately a lot of the information, which is certainly worthwhile, is presented in the form of lifeless checklists. In fact, the lectures, while clear and well-articulated, come across like a cloud provider's white paper read out loud. What this course desperately needs is some in-depth studies of use cases to give context to the general principles and guidelines set out in the lectures. There are graded "knowledge checks" that supplement most of the lectures, 3 quizzes (one for each segment), and a final exam. The knowledge checks often frustratingly lack any basis in the lectures to which they supposedly relate, so you wind up guessing among plausible answers. The quizzes largely repeat the knowledge checks and the final exam largely repeats the quizzes, so there isn't much challenge in these. Still, despite the flaws, this course provides a short, useful overview of cloud architectures and deployment issues.
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I dropped this course. While the topics in statistics are well chosen and the problems interesting, particularly for those in the life sciences, the course itself had many problems. First, it is completely unstaffed, and I mean completely. This is problematic for any course, but particularly here, where the material was beset by technical problems. For example, a heavily used R function is unavailable in current R implementations, so you have to ignore a good chunk of the code patterns you're given and substitute new code -- not too hard for me, since I've programmed in R, but no fun for the less experienced. The discussion board included complaints about auto-graders rejecting correct answers. Etc. There were no staff responses. In terms of content, I found the lectures to ramble somewhat, and since the content is covered in chapters from the course textbook provided online, I started following that instead. But at least as presented, these chapters are often disjointed -- for example, discussing new topics as if they'd been previously introduced. When I found myself turning to Wikipedia for enlightenment, I decided it was time to bail.
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This terrific offering from MIT is unusual in being organized around applications rather than content -- each of the 8 weekly units introduces a different tool used by quantitative biologists, and each week's course topic serves both as a vehicle for hands-on experience with the tool as well as an engaging subject for learning. The tools are Matlab, ImageJ, PyMol, the StarMapping genetics simulator, and the Python and R programming languages as used by biologists; and the topics include population modeling, equilibrium kinetics, molecular modeling, genetics, and disease prediction. These diverse topics are taught by an equally diverse ensemble of instructors, both professors and grad students. In some cases, the instructional videos are drawn from other MIT courses, and there are also "faculty perspective" videos that address larger questions in biology. Half of the graded assignments are "workshops" that give you limited answer attempts, and the other half are "exercises" with unlimited attempts. Those familiar with programming in Matlab and Python will find those assignments pretty easy; newcomers will be challenged. But the progressively organized materials assume no prior background and skeleton code is always provided; you're never just thrown into the deep water. What really makes this course are the varied and interesting topics, with no overall organizing principle or constraint, and the quality of the instruction and materials, which are, as is typical for MIT, first-rate.
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This course is now part of Coursera's "Business Strategy Specialization," and its contents appears to have been spread over two of the courses that now make up the specialization. My experience is with the original format,which covered analysis of industry structure, firm capabilities, competitive dynamics, and determining competitive positioning and firm scope. Prof. Lenox is an excellent teacher, and unlike many business courses, this one neither shies away from the underlying microeconomics of business enterprises nor overemphasizes it -- that is, the presentation isn't quantitative but it's solidly grounded in theory. Prof. Lenox is especially good at tying abstract concepts to real cases, and each week's case study further focuses the material on historical business situations. This is truly valuable because concepts such as SWOT and Five Forces analyses can easily become arbitrary exercises in speculation unless you see how they're used in practical decisionmaking. I found the final project particularly worthwhile, and had fun using Coursera as my case study.
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Surely there is no better venue for a course about Thomas Jefferson than the campus of the University of Virginia, which he founded late in his life. This compact class consists of seven units that each include lecture segments totaling about an hour, readings, and a tour of places and institutions central to Jefferson’s life or its study today. These tours are no mere travelogue – Jefferson’s life and philosophy are so intimately associated with his Monticello estate and the “academical village” he designed for U.Va. that to experience them, in well-produced videos with insightful commentary, connects you to the man even as reading his letters and other writings connects you to his mind. Professor Onuf is a wonderful teacher. His lectures are absorbing and well- delivered, often passionately so. The most compelling feature of this course is his focus on Jefferson’s ideas rather than dates and events. Prof. Onuf covers Jefferson’s vision of America’s revolutionary promise and later Americans’ evolving views of Jefferson; the political philosophy that informed Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence; his heterodox views on education (primary purpose: to sustain the American experiment) and religion (deeply suspicious of organized “priestcraft”); and Prof. Onuf does not shy away from Jefferson’s provocative views on race and slavery. The readings, usually Jefferson’s own words in letters and public documents, nicely complement the lectures; they are short and very well chosen. Students who take this class will acquire, in a short time, an understanding of Jefferson – the man and the mind – that has real staying power. Everyday encounters with politics, education and even architecture will have you contemplating Prof. Onuf’s rhetorical question: “Is it Jeffersonian?” This brief, enjoyable immersion into the essential Jefferson packs an outsize pedagogical punch.
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Having learned to sequence genes in the last course segment, this installment focuses on how to compare them -- an often-difficult task because a meaningful comparison must consider the possibility of mutations, sharply increasing the complexity of the task. How do you "align" sequences that have unlimited potential for variation? The solution is to be found in "dynamic programming," a powerful technique that is well-presented here. The text and programming assignments are more challenging than those of the earlier course segments, but they are taught clearly and progressively, and the staff is fabulous (I'm talking about you, Giampaolo Eusebi!). Graph theory can be esoteric and abstract, but when anchored to interesting problems in biology, it becomes a lot of fun. The course also covers rearrangements within genes and genomes, leading to ways to compare, say, human and mouse genomes, and more kinds of computational graphs. The questions addressed in this course segment continue to be interesting biologically and now are more challenging computationally. It's all good.
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This second installment of the six-part bioinformatics series focuses on sequencing. Gene and protein sequences are the axis around which all of biology turns, and the scale of the Human Genome Project gives a sense of how central a role computational analysis plays. What this course covers is well captured by the "exploding newspaper problem" -- how do you reconstruct the news from a newspaper that's been blown to smithereens? How can you reconstruct a huge DNA molecule from the short segments that can be generated and read? These are problems in graph theory, and this course provides a great introduction to what might otherwise seem esoteric and abstract by grounding theory in the practicalities of biology. As in all courses in this series, there's a "biologist" track and a "hacker" track, and for the latter, the programming assignments can be considerably more challenging than those in Bioinformatics I. But they're fun -- it's very cool to see how graph theory works a kind of magic on problems whose scale makes them seem hopeless. Once again, the interactive textbook is excellent and the lectures, while worthwhile, are not essential. When most people think of bioinformatics, they probably think of gene sequencing, and this course is a great hands-on intro to the topic.
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I had the privilege of taking the beta version of this intense three-week introduction to control theory. It's a hands-on experience that covers the basics of control -- i.e., keeping a system operating at a desired setpoint using feedforward and feedback strategies. The course takes a discrete-time approach to avoid differential equations, but the math is still far from trivial, and discrete time is what today's digital controllers use. The first week builds the necessary mathematical foundation of sequences, difference equations and natural frequencies. The second and third weeks get into the meat of control theory, culminating with an exploration of Proportional plus Sum plus Delta (PSD) feedback, the discrete-time equivalent of the well-known Proportional plus Integral plus Derivative (PID) feedback paradigm. Students (reversibly) harvest a propeller arm from an inexpensive drone and combine it with an Arduino controller to create a programmable control system. A series of excellent user interfaces allows you to vary different control parameters and see the effects on the propeller -- does it hold steady, does it oscillate, or does it fly out of control? A terrific simulator ties the math directly to its control effects, allowing you to enter a difference equation and see how well controls an animated helicopter as it changes height. There were no lecture videos in the beta course, but the written materials were so good that I wonder whether lectures are even necessary, and the professors, Jacob White and Joe Steinmeyer, were incredibly dedicated -- fielding innumerable questions, fixing minor glitches, and taking a heroic interest in students' progress and understanding. It's amazing how much we covered in three weeks, though when it was over, many of us were eager for more -- and hopefully, down the road, there will be more.
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This course covers the ways in which music can be analyzed, represented, changed, and categorized in digital form. Topics covered include Fourier analysis, sinusoidal decomposition of music, harmonic and stochastic representations, sound transformations, and extraction of audio features from music for purposes of classification and retrieval. The course emphasizes not only programming various signal-processing functions in Python, but also the use of very versatile and just plain cool applications such as Audacity, Sonic Visualizer, a variety of spectral modeling synthesis tools, and Essentia. The programming and most applications require a Linux environment, but the course staff has heroically assembled a downloadable image that can be launched in Virtual Box (which is free), and which has all applications pre-loaded and ready to go. Each week, Prof. Serra presents lectures in three formats: a theoretical overview of the mathematical and physical principles, “demo” lectures that illustrate operation of the various tools and applications, and programming lectures that introduce the code underlying resources you’ll use that week as well as useful background for the programming tasks. The theory lectures are excellent, compressing a lot of technical detail into accessible, understandable nuggets. The demo and programming lectures, which are more free-form, are useful but sometimes ramble a bit. In terms of grading, the first six weeks feature computer-graded programming assignments; weeks 7 through 10 have peer-reviewed assignments that involve analysis and manipulation of music clips. There is also a weekly quiz. And now, some cautionary notes. First, there’s quite a bit of (interesting!) math and, particularly as the course progresses, some real Python programming challenges. Familiarity with the fine points of Python array operations is essential. Second, there were problems related to grading. For code submissions, the auto-graders were very fussy: you thought your function returned true or false, but the grader expected a default boolean and unbeknownst to you, your function returned a NumPy boolean and was marked wrong; or you returned an array in the right format, but unbeknowst to you, the grader expected 64-bit ints and yours were 32 bits. The weekly quizzes varied in difficulty but often had at least one question whose “correct” answer was ambiguous or seemed to contradict the lectures. And while some of the topics such as the discrete and short-time Fourier transforms have obvious and widespread importance, you may be forgiven for asking yourself, when all is said and done, how relevant a lot of what you’ve learned is to the experience, understanding, or organization of music outside some very specialized contexts. Still, learning to unpack a flute solo into its harmonic and breathy components, or to gain insight from spectrograms that at first look like a Jackson Pollack viewed through a screen door, is quite rewarding -- and playing with sounds is just fun. If you’re ready to make the commitment and can tolerate a few frustrations, you’ll get a lot out of this course.
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This terrific course, taught by professors at Delft University, covers the basics of heat and mass transfer -- through pipes and membranes, in and out of tanks, falling from the sky and sailing through the air. It's really a solid introduction to the principles underlying chemical engineering. The instruction is uniformly excellent: the professors present a unit of theory followed by problems they solve step-by-step, and then you're on your own for a graded problem set covering that week's material. There's a final exam at the end. Although any course involving differential equations cannot be categorized as easy, the instructors teach from first principles and anticipate areas of likely confusion. The problems they have chosen for the course are engaging and fun -- thermal baths in Iceland, the Three Gorges Dam in China, painting the Eiffel Tower, the formation of acid rain, and ground contamination due to landfill leaching. Each unit begins with an entertaining video illustrating the subject matter in a practical context. (The visit to a waste-treatment plant is not to be missed.) The staff is incredibly friendly, responsive, and dedicated to students' success. Although all necessary materials are provided, students should consider picking up the recommended textbook (van den Akker & Mudde, "Transport Phenomena – The Art of Balancing"), which is unusually well-written and, like the course, emphasizes interesting problems rather than dry abstractions. This course covers about half of what's in the textbook (which obviously goes into greater depth), and a further MOOC, covering more of the material, is slated for release in Fall 2016.
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Will four learning modules, one of which is background material, make you a C++ programmer? Nope. But this short course offers a nice introduction, particularly if you already have some exposure to C. The course covers the basics of C++ data types, input/ouput, control statements, and simple classes. Written materials are provided and the lectures, which are very good, emphasize the practical points. Not everything is taught from first principles, though, so if you're new to C-style programming, you may find yourself facing unfamiliar terminology now and then; fortunately, there are plenty of tutorial resources on the web, including ebooks. The assignments could use some improvement: the quizzes are easy and the small amount of actual programming is unfortunately peer-reviewed, which is not well suited to the subject matter. Microsoft should consider providing coding windows that allow you to enter code and have it compiled and executed -- that's the way most programming courses do it, and it would improve the effectiveness of this otherwise worthwhile introduction considerably.
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This compact introduction to corporate finance lives up to its name -- in 6 weeks it really does cover the key foundations of the subject. The course begins with the basic topic of risk and return, then moves on to diversification, the cost of capital, project evaluation (starring the all-important concept of net present value), and winds up with an overview of corporate value creation. For such a short course, the mix of basic principles and quantitative analysis is nicely balanced. (The math-averse need not fear anything too fancy.) Prof. Estrada is an excellent teacher -- dynamic, articulate, engaging, and confident. He could doubtless make any subject interesting, but the topics he covers in this course have intrinsic appeal for a broad audience; no one will fall asleep during the lectures, which are accompanied by readings from Prof. Estrada's excellent textbooks and short weekly quizzes that put the material into practical context. This worthwhile introduction to corporate finance won't make you a CFO but will certainly help you start thinking like one.
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This course is now part of Coursera's "Business Strategy Specialization," and its contents appears to have been spread over two of the courses that now make up the specialization. My experience is with the original format,which covered analysis of industry structure, firm capabilities, competitive dynamics, and determining competitive positioning and firm scope. Prof. Lenox is an excellent teacher, and unlike many business courses, this one neither shies away from the underlying microeconomics of business enterprises nor overemphasizes it -- that is, the presentation isn't quantitative but it's solidly grounded in theory. Prof. Lenox is especially good at tying abstract concepts to real cases, and each week's case study further focuses the material on historical business situations. This is truly valuable because concepts such as SWOT and Five Forces analyses can easily become arbitrary exercises in speculation unless you see how they're used in practical decisionmaking. I found the final project particularly worthwhile, and had fun using Coursera as my case study.
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This wide-ranging course covers three largely independent technology subject areas and, importantly, key devices that have emerged from them. Prof. Ross begins each topic -- semiconductors, photonics and magnetics -- with a thorough foundational introduction, and then moves on to applications and devices. The semiconductor unit, by far the most rigorous, includes an introduction to diodes, transistors, and photovoltaics. Photonics takes you through lasers, LEDs, liquid-crystal displays, and optical fibers. Magnetics begins with a review of what you learned in freshman physics and chemistry but proceeds to the design of storage devices, some familiar (like disk drives) and some more exotic ("spintronic" media). Prof. Ross's lectures are excellent -- clear, articulate and easy to follow. They represent an online version of the residential 3.15 course and were prepared for MIT students. Prof. Ross has generously made them available through edX, but she did not participate in the edX course itself. Instead, a course manager did an excellent job administering homework assignments and exams, answering our questions, and keeping everything on track. The biggest surprise, for many, was the difficulty of some of the homework assignments and exam questions given the easily followed lectures. While you could always thread back from the answers to a topic covered in lecture, following that thread when actually trying to solve the problem was often quite challenging, even occasionally mystifying. For the semiconductor unit in particular, a textbook is essential. Fortunately, Prof. Chenming Hu has written perhaps the best one out there and offers it free online. In sum, this is a well-presented, well-organized introduction to key topics in materials technology that emphasizes device applications without short-changing the fundamentals.
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Although this course picks up where Part 1 left off in terms of topics covered, it's a whole different experience in terms of difficulty. Whereas Part 1 stressed concrete concepts like sorting, searching, and asymptotic analysis, Part 2 soars into the esoteric world of graph theory, NP completeness, and proofs. The algorithms are not so much harder to code than in Part 1, but the data sets may tax the limits of your system -- you may have to find some tricks to simplify the processing in order to get an answer, and those tricks are not really part of the course; you're on your own, with the help of your fellow students. As in Part 1, Tim Roughgarden is an awesome teacher. In fact he's so unpretentiously articulate, and so down to earth, that you may sometimes lose sight of how complicated what he's talking about really is. Don't worry, though, the problem sets and programming assignments will ensure that you've really grasped the material. When you've finished both parts of this course, you'll really have canvassed the landscape -- not only of specific algorithms, their structures and performance limits, but of some foundational questions in computer science.
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This excellent introduction to marketing is taught by three eminent professors from Wharton in separate modules. It is not structured as a comprehensive overview of basic marketing concepts from A to Z; rather, the course provides a focused treatment of three highly "actionable" areas, which collectively cover a solid range of practical, contemporary marketing challenges. Barbara Kahn gives a broad overview of branding principles and strategies; Peter Fader covers "customer-centric" marketing methodologies that analyze the customer base and actively exploit its heterogeneity; and David Bell describes up-to- the-minute go-to-market strategies that directly confront the challenges of competition in an online world. (His take on how traditional businesses can cope with customers who shop in person and buy online is especially compelling.) The lectures are crisp and professional, and the optional readings are all interesting and well chosen; it would be a mistake to skip them. The exams are not difficult if you've studied the material. Overall a valuable and highly enjoyable course.
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This excellent course provides an “end-to-end” introduction to databases – how they’re organized and how to use them. The breadth of topics covered is quite broad, and the lectures moves briskly from the mind-bending heights of relational algebra and set theory to the nitty-gritty details of query formulation. The latter is really programming, and here the lectures lead you through “demos” in the how-to style of a corporate training seminar. The course covers quite a few different programming paradigms and languages: XML, JSON data, SQL, XPath, XQuery, XSLT, and OLAP. You’ll take a pretty deep dive into each of these, and there are plenty of exercises that allow you to develop a working feel for them. But the course also covers database design theory and more general concepts such as transactions, constraints and indexes. The class is demanding and there’s plenty of work. There are exercises, quizzes, a midterm, and a final exam. The exercises are divided into mandatory “core” sets of problems and an optional set of “challenge” problems. You can pass the course without doing a single challenge problem, but it would be a mistake – by and large they’re not substantially more difficult than the core set, and they really fill out your knowledge of the subject matter. If all of those somehow fail to slake your thirst, there are ungraded extra problems as well. You can submit answers to problems and quizzes as often as you like, with no penalty, though the quiz questions change with each iteration. On the midterm and final, however, you only get one submission. The lectures are truly first-rate. Professor Widom is invariably lively, articulate and engaging, even when leading you through the technical thickets of the programming demos. Downloadable course materials include clean and marked slides as well as demo files, which have all of the code discussed in the lectures. A great advantage to this course is that there really is no need to purchase a textbook – everything you need is provided. Staff support, on the other hand, is slim to nonexistent. If you post questions, they will likely be answered, if at all, by a talented classmate generous with his or her time. Given that most participants are unfamiliar with at least some of the material, you’ll find the discussion board to be a lively place.
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MITx has now split its introduction to computer science and programming into two consecutive seven-week courses. This first installment teaches basic programming skills and algorithmic thinking using the popular Python language, taking students through the rudiments of program design, Python semantics, and debugging. More advanced topics treated toward the end of this course segment include tree structures and a serious introduction to object-oriented programming. The course is extraordinarily well designed, beginning with the textbook – John Guttag’s “Introduction to Computation and Programming Using Python” is well-written, eminently understandable, and filled with sample code sequences that make the rubber meet the road. Prof. Grimson’s lectures are clear and well-organized, although they sometimes recapitulate rather than supplement or clarify the textbook’s presentation. The video segments are broken up by progressive “finger exercises” that have you turn what you’ve read and heard into working knowledge. Each week also includes a problem set, which is usually a programming task that creates something entertaining – a game or, most challengingly, a web “scraper” that retrieves news stories based on combinations of keyword triggers. The programming assignments are also progressively organized so that you’re writing code modules that perform specific tasks within a template, not an entire program from scratch. The autograders are excellent, providing feedback that helps you find the bugs. The introductory nature of the course notwithstanding, it isn’t easy, nor is everything you need always in the materials provided; you may sometimes find yourself searching the web for techniques or resources (of which there are plenty out there). I didn’t spend much time on the discussion boards, but from what I saw, staff support seemed disappointingly minimal. Overall, though, the positives far outweighed any negatives in this superb entry-level course.
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Very enjoyable introduction to some basic concepts in modern philosophy, and to philosophical ways of thinking. The instructors, who changed from week to week, were invariably engaging and their lectures interesting and clear. My wife and I would enjoy the lectures over dinner and take long walks discussing the issues they raised.