If you are involved in or care about education and you haven’t spent a few hours taking a course on Coursera yet, take at least a quick look. I first heard about Coursera a few years ago when they partnered with my alma mater Princeton University. “Take a Princeton University class online from anywhere for free” was the message and that got my attention. I made a mental note to spend some time on the Coursera website but with 3 year old twins and a company to run, you know how that goes.

Then in March of this year, I saw a Wall Street Journal headline that the former president of Yale University was just named the new CEO of Coursera. As a parent who is already thinking a lot about the future of my twin 5 year olds future educations, that got my attention. I started signing up for and beginning Coursera courses. Since I run a business and am obsessed with running it as intelligently as possible (and since I never ended up getting my MBA and in some ways wish I had) the first class I signed up for was a University of Pennsylvania Wharton Business School MBA class titled Introduction to Operation Management. I had a few friends from Princeton who went to Wharton to get their MBAs, they had great experiences, and I thought “How cool to have the chance to take a class by the same professor they had.”  By the way, any person who enjoys learning will find at least one class they are interested in. (My wife has become obsessed with cooking and especially healthy cooking for our children and she found a class titled “Child Nutrition and Cooking” by a professor from the Stanford School of Medicine.)computer-thumb_360

So I started this class on Operation Management and I was hooked immediately. The Wharton professor was excellent. The video lectures were around 15 minutes each and they were crammed with information. I had to pause and rewind the professor frequently as I took notes (I am the kind of person who needs to write things down to really understand and remember it.) The homework each week challenged me. The only problem was that I started the class in May and I still haven’t finished it. Like many people, the challenges of running my own business and spending lots of time with my kids doesn’t leave room for much else. Turns out, this is one of Coursera’s main challenges right now; only 2% of Coursera students who start a course actually finish it.

So that became a goal of mine this fall. Not only take a course on Coursera but finish it. The University of Pennsylvania Wharton Business School offers four courses on Coursera that together constitute what UPenn calls The Foundation of an MBA Series. The four courses are Accounting, Finance, Marketing, and the Operations Management course I had already started. Introduction to Financial Accounting was starting in a few weeks so I decided that would be the class I would really focus on and make every effort to complete. My sister is an accountant, I had never taken an accounting class in my life, and I figured that understanding more about accounting was a good idea for anyone running a business.

Again, I was hooked immediately. The professor was incredible, explaining difficult and sometimes counter-intuitive financial accounting material clearly and in the most concise way possible. The homeworks each week were challenging. I was taking pages of notes. Most importantly, I was learning. Tons. It is a struggle each week to find the time to watch the lectures and understand the material but I am now in Week 7 and I am still up to pace. I am learning a semester’s worth of Wharton Business School material in 10 weeks! One email from the professor congratulated me that I was one of 100,000 students currently taking the class! That email blew my mind. I read some of the discussion boards and saw numerous comments thanking the professor and saying something like “I wish my accounting professor explained the material this clearly.” This too was cool to me - if I was going to invest the time to learn accounting, I might as well learn from the best!

One of my favorite features of Coursera is that I can change the speed of the lectures (.5 speed, 1.25 speed, 1.5 speed, 2X speed.) Of course, I can rewind, pause as well and I often do so it is nice to go back and then watch in 2x speed to get to the info I needed to hear again more quickly. I have taken a bunch of other Coursera courses this fall and some I am able to listen to while driving because they are not as dense as financial accounting and don’t require much viewing. I can learn the material by listening. So in some ways, these classes have become a newer, free version of audio books.

Coursera’s mission is to “empower people to improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in with education.” Who isn’t in favor of this?!? And there is no question that, for me at least, Coursera is living up to this mission. Now if Coursera could just figure out how to put a few more hours in the day...

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