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Coursera: Data Analysis complete

14 March 2013

I just finished an 8-week online data analysis course that challenged my brain more than has been done in a very long while. I wrote about this course on my personal blog some weeks ago. Now that I’ve completed it I’ve realised that discussing it definitely belongs here in my science blog.

I took it via Coursera, a relatively new online source of free, compressed, university-level training. The quality of educators involved is very high. My course in data analysis was taught by Jeff Leek, a Ph.D. and associate professor in biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University.

coursera

The course was much harder than I expected. I mentioned that after my first week, but it got really difficult later on. I had to learn a whole new statistical programming language (R), build on a lot of stats I took at uni many years ago, and learn many advanced numerical concepts besides. Moreover we learned how to know when to use different techniques; it becomes an art as much as a science.

We had to do an online multiple-choice quiz each of the eight weeks, and two lengthy written peer-graded assignments. The assignments were quite practical: for example, use Samsung phone accelerometer data to predict, from phone sensor readings, whether the person holding it is sitting, walking, standing, etc.

It will be a few more days before I get the score for the final assignment but I did well enough to know that I’ve passed already regardless of that grade. I’m hoping (though not expecting) to get a pass with distinction.

One of the best parts of the Coursera platform is that there is an extensive discussion forum for each course. It was like having a virtual study group of thousands of people around the world to bounce ideas off of, discuss the lectures, brainstorm how to tackle the assignments, and chat and bitch about the difficulty. There were plenty of people who felt entitled and complained about errors or things that were unclear. I was of the opinion that those people needed to think about how they were taking a detailed course of great complexity from a globally-recognised expert over the internet for free.

I’m planning to take another Coursera course later in the year; topic is to be determined. I recommend it highly, but caution those who think it will be a simple pastime.

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