I Took Two Courses on Coursera. Here’s What Happened.

I Took Two Courses on Coursera. Here's What Happened.

I have a confession to make.

I have never taken an accounting class.

My undergraduate degree was in engineering. I never got an MBA or other masters degree. PhD degrees are specialized. There is no requirement for breadth in your coursework. When you’re a PhD student, they let you do it. You can get away with anything.

Nevertheless, accounting is important. It is a critical skill that I’ve needed at times, and I’ve learned all my accounting identities ad-hoc on the street. I thought I should remedy that.

The best way to do that would be to (1) purchase a textbook and (2) read it. Years ago, I did exactly one of those things and not the other.

So, I went searching. I discovered two online courses offered by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—not a bad school for anything. Together, they are supposed to be equivalent to a 3-credit hour accounting course. In fact, if you enroll in their online degree program, they will count passing the courses toward your degree. So I enrolled in both of them.

Taking an online course is a great opportunity to think about what you’re getting when you try to become educated. You’re stripped of certain things and get to critically evaluate how important those things are. And that’s just what I did.


Online learning is solitary. While you have peers, you don’t meet them. There are so many, you can’t really relate to any of them. But I’m okay with this. Learning is something that happens within your own brain. If the material is sufficiently well-explained, you should be able to figure things out yourself.


That brings us to the course content. Oktay Urcan does a great job delivering his lectures. They are short and to the point. I was able to listen at double-speed while still understanding everything, perhaps because, as I’ve mentioned, I already know a good bit of accounting just from needing to understand companies in other contexts. I have attended enough classes to judge the content hosted on Coursera to be equal in depth and rigor to what I would expect in a well-run, 3-credit-hour, masters class that you would pay several thousand dollars to take.


Without evaluation, Coursera would be no different than a Youtube playlist. So, how are the evaluations?

There are multiple choice quizzes that have to be passed. You get a virtually unlimited number of tries to pass them, though.

Additionally, the quizzes come immediately after the lecture you have viewed. That’s good, right?

Not exactly. I was able to binge on the lectures and answer everything immediately. I think there is something to be said for the off-line version of a campus where lectures spread over weeks are tested later on a specific day. You’re more likely to move things into long-term memory if you know you will be tested much later. In Coursera, there were literally quizzes where I would watch a 3.5-minute video, click to the quiz and finish it within one minute. At the end of the module, there might be another quiz on the material, but an entire module could be completed within 30 or so minutes.

On the other hand, the questions were reasonably well designed and tested the material.


The honor code prevents me from disclosing the assignments, but they were something like “find an article about a topic that was covered in this course and write 120 words about it.”

Additionally, you had to offer “peer grading” of other people’s assignments.

In other words, the assignments don’t require you to grapple with the material in any real way or apply it. It seems to exist purely so the course creators feel like they didn’t make something that is purely machine-score. The assignments were pure busywork.

Is this a good way to take courses?

I’m happy with my experience. I wanted to learn some accounting from a ground-up basis rather than in my ad-hoc as-needed basis. I did that.

student photoOn the other hand, I wonder about my classmates. Passing these courses seems exceedingly easy for someone who holds that as their primary goal. This is, of course, true to some extent for in-person classes, but it seems less so. Typical in-person classes have at least one experience with an exam where you have to produce without having reviewed the material seconds beforehand and with no do-overs.

Coursera is a great way to learn, but unreliable as a credential for someone’s learning.

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Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1. ...more →

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23 thoughts on “I Took Two Courses on Coursera. Here’s What Happened.

  1. “find an article about a topic that was covered in this course and write 120 words about it.”

    120 words? I can’t believe that. It takes me more than 120 words to tell you the story that I’m going to have to tell you before I can tell you the story that I want to tell you. Is the exercise forcing you to take a 750 word article and trim it down to 120 words? Something like writing a precis? Something like “Jaybird told two stories. The first was about the background. The second was about the foreground and it was colored by the background in such a way that a funny story was turned sad (or vice-versa).” Quite honestly, I look at that number and I say “surely that’s not a good measure of anything at all.”

    That paragraph right there? 120 words.

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  2. Your final point has a ready fix. An honest final exam, to be given/proctored at scheduled times. If you just want to take the course for your own edification, you take it just as you did. If you want a credential to go with it, you take the exam (if it’s proctored*, I’d expect the exam to involve a nominal fee to pay the proctor).

    *Proctoring is not necessary, just an option. I’ve taken finals for distance learning classes that were an honest to Buddha challenge. I was given a week in which to download the exam, and once it was downloaded, a 24 hour timer started for me to complete the exam and upload it back to the course website. Since the exam was a 24 hour take-home, the questions were tough and involved.

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    • I’ve had take-home exams that were 24 hours long in undergrad and law school. In many ways, they were harder then the sit in a class room for three hour exams.

      Though because I am a misfit who dances to the beat of a different drummer, I never stayed up for the entire 24 hours. I usually completed them in about 8-10 hours. Maybe 12. But the culture of American educations seems to be that if you are given a 24-hour exam, you stay up for 24-hours. Or at least you say you do. I always wonder how much time people are honestly working during this 24-hour time period.

      I also wonder why I’m such a weirdo who never could do the performative “I pulled an all-nighter” song and dance.

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      • I pulled all-nighters in the Navy, because something went to hell. In college, I considered having to pull an all-nighter to be a sign of poor planning. I never did it. I had classmates who wanted me to, but I was married, and darn it, doncha know, the wife wants me home in time for bed.

        So yeah, I had 24 hours, but I did them in about 8. Got a good nights sleep, then spent another few hours checking over my work before submitting them.

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        • When I was in graduate school the first time, I had an apartment-mate who would buy assorted sorts of speed so he could pull all-nighters. What I remember about it is that once or twice each semester, I had to live with being shaken awake at 2:00 am because it was necessary that we rearrange all the living room furniture right now. It seemed a fairly small price to pay for a roommate that washed his share of the dishes and wasn’t afraid of a vacuum cleaner.

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      • I’ve pulled plenty of all-nighters (it doesn’t help to have anxiety-induced insomnia), but I’ve never stayed up 24 hours to finish a 24 hour exam. 15 or 16, sure, I can envision that – especially if I had work or needed a nap in the middle of my useful working periods. 24, no way.

        Generally it took me maybe 8 and that was with breaks.

        I always figured the 24-hour thing was to give everyone maximum flexibility, not so anyone would literally spend the whole 24 hours working on the exam….

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        • I pulled all nighters to write papers (and when I was a TA, to grade all the papers by the time I promised)–24 + hours. I’d start the night before, finish in time to get to school/class. Go to the rest of my classes, and then in the evening collapse on my bed. In a weird way, it feels nice to stay awake ca. 36 hours and then lay down and be able to fall asleep almost immediately.*

          The reason for the all nighters, at least when it came to writing papers, was primarily procrastination on my part. But a strong secondary factor was the fact that in college, I had only a typewriter. So I had to make sure my very first draft was passable enough (and typo-free enough) to earn the A.

          But I never pulled an all-nighter to study for an exam. I also never had a “24 hour take home exam, like Saul had. I had take home exams, but never with the time-stamp on it. The professors always assured us we should take only the same amount of time it would have taken us to do the exam in class. A bunch of BS, in my opinion.

          *I realize I’m fortunate and that others weren’t in a position to do that or had too severe insomnia. Also, I kind of “planned” my all-nighters so that I could come straight home and didn’t have to work the next night.

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  3. I think it also depends on the subject. I took one of my basic physics classes in what was, for the mid-80s, the rough equivalent: I got a set of lecture notes and examples, worked through the examples, did a few sets of homework that were turned in and then took the tests (which were proctored, in that some poor grad TA who sat in test room waiting for students to come in, handed out the test sheet and collected it when I was finished). This worked very well for me since it was the sort of material I learn easily and it did not require any sort of discussion or give and take with others.

    I think it would a truly awful way to take a design class or a class in any field where collaboration with fellow students, or discussion with them and the instructor is an important component of learning.

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