40,000+ Enroll in First Coursera Course


Tucker Balch’s Computational Investing Part I course is Tech’s first offering on the free online learning platform Coursera.

November 11, 2012

Sitting in front of a camera and giving a lecture to students you can’t see is intimidating. This is just one of the things that Tucker Balch has learned about the process of teaching a massive open online course (or MOOC) through Coursera.    

“One of the reasons I enjoy teaching in front of students is because I can see if they’re getting the material, but lecturing online is like diagnosing an illness over the Internet. It’s a challenge,” said Balch, an associate professor in the School of Interactive Computing. “Instead of gauging reactions, I really have to pay attention to the online forums to see if people understand.”

In late October, Balch began teaching Georgia Tech’s first free class on Coursera to more than 40,000 students, ranging from retirees to high schoolers, around the world.

The course, Computational Investing Part I, runs eight weeks and focuses on how modern electronic financial markets work, why stock prices change and how computation can help people to better understand these issues. (Learn more about the course here.)

Balch’s interest in teaching a MOOC began last year after hearing that other institutions were offering them. He approached Rich DeMillo, director of the Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U), about teaching one, and the rest is history.

“I’ve had colleagues tell me that there’s much less support for teaching these types of courses at other universities,” Balch said. “I’m really proud of Georgia Tech for being bold enough to give this a try.”

Although Balch thinks that the ideal teaching environment is still a single professor teaching 20 to 30 students face-to-face, he also thinks MOOCs have a place in higher education.

“For example, teaching these courses allows us to reach a wider audience — including millions of people in India and China,” he said. “And it’s also a great marketing tool to reach high school students who might one day attend Tech.”

Balch selected the course topic because it’s fairly new, and he wanted to be one of the first to teach a course about it. The information taught in this class is based on a class that Balch teaches at Tech, which he has broken into two parts for Coursera. Each week, students view two modules, with each module being made up of four 5- to 12-minute lectures.

“One of the things I’ve learned is that lectures need to be broken up into short chunks of time, because it’s easier for students to process the material,” Balch said.

To keep students engaged, he tries to use visuals, such as pictures, as much as possible. In the future, Balch also plans to integrate interviews with people who work in investing fields (such as hedge fund managers and stock traders) into the lectures.

Students take weekly multiple-choice quizzes and complete optional code-writing projects throughout the course to assess their learning, and projects are peer graded by students in the class.

When it comes to cheating, Balch isn’t as concerned with the issue as he might be with a for-credit course.

“They have nothing to gain by cheating,” he said. “I suppose they could, but that would be like jumping to the end of a good book and skipping the good parts in the middle.”

The estimated workload for students is about five to seven hours per week. At the end of the not-for-credit course, all students receive a certificate of completion from C21U.

Although Balch has taught distance learning courses in the past, one of the things that was a surprise to him about teaching a MOOC is the amount of time he has needed to put into it.

“Multiply your estimate of time you’ll put into it by two,” he said. “I have spent about 15 to 20 hours a week on this course, because it takes time to make my material online-friendly. But I also realize that when I offer the course next semester, it won’t take up as much time, because I’m not starting from scratch.”

On Jan. 28, Balch will offer the course again, and several other Tech Coursera courses will also kick off. For more information about the Institute’s offerings, click here.