As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I recently took the Coursera class Developing Innovative Ideas for New Companies: The First Step in Entrepreneurship (or Developing Innovative Ideas for short) from the University of Maryland‘s Dr. James V. Green. This course is part of the Entrepreneurship: Launching an Innovative Business Specialization. This review is written based on the course as it existed in April 2015.
This review serves three functions:
- For prospective students, should I take this course?
- For prospective employers and admissions offices, what does having completed this course say about a potential employee or student?
- For course developers and educators, what can I learn from how this course is developed and delivered?
This review will contain two parts: an objective description of the course content, structure, and experience, and a subjective analysis of the course’s value to students, employers, and educators.
Developing Innovative Ideas is a four-week course that explores various aspects of entrepreneurship, such as the perspectives, mindsets, and motivations of entrepreneurs and some basic understanding of the customer and the industry. The full description is available here. The course describes itself as:
Explore how to identify and develop great ideas into great companies. Learn how to identify opportunities based on real customer needs. Take the first steps to creating a successful company.
Developing Innovative Ideas is a four-week class, with each week presenting a different overall unit. Within each unit, two “experiences” are provided: the “Studio Experience” and the “Classroom Experience”. The “Studio Experience” is the traditional talking head Coursera production style. The “Classroom Experience” is a filmed lecture from the on-campus version of the class at University of Maryland. Each week concludes with a short quiz consisting of multiple choice and auto-graded free response. The course also supplies the typical discussion forums and an optional book.
Overall, Developing Innovative Ideas can be completed in around 15 to 20 hours of work, depending on how one watches the videos. The total video time is around 15 hours, but much of that is in the less efficient Classroom Experience videos which overlap and repeat the more efficient Studio Experience videos; watching only the studio experience cuts the video time down to around 5 hours. The quizzes are non-trivial and will take some time each.
Developing Innovative Ideas covers four units:
- Introduction to Innovation and Entrepreneurship. An overview of what entrepreneurship is, what innovation is, and how entrepreneurs make decisions and analyze opportunities.
- Entrepreneurial Mindset, Motivations, and Behaviors A look at what motivators entrepreneurs, how they frame problems, how they evaluate risk, and how they make decisions.
- Industry Understanding. A look at how to analyze an industry, how to frame one’s innovations in terms of that industry, and how companies succeed and fail based on their understanding of an industry.
- Customer Understanding and Business Modeling. An examination of where market needs come from, how to identify them, and how to best take advantage of them.
The content of Developing Innovative Ideas is typically presented as a talking head alongside some bullet point PowerPoint slides, although other visuals are used frequently as well. For the Classroom Experience, the presentations are usually lecture-based with audience interaction. The audience for the material is clearly future entrepreneurs: this isn’t a class for researching and analyzing entrepreneurship, but rather a class for learning to actually be an entrepreneur. This class in particular covers the early life cycle of a new innovation or business: identifying the innovation in the first place, evaluating its position in the market, and setting up a preliminary business plan.
There is one type of assessments in Developing Innovative Ideas: quizzes. Total, there are five quizzes in the course: one each week, and an additional quiz at the end. The quizzes are made of both multiple choice and free response, although the free response is auto-graded rather than peer graded. The free response quizzes aren’t just completion quizzes; I once got a question wrong according to the autograder, and then got it right after following up and revising it. However, little information was provided as to how these autograders work, so I am not sure how complex their analysis was; I suspect (although this is just conjecture) they do not operate according to much more than a keyword search. While I had one question marked wrong, I know other questions would likely have been penalized by a human grader.
There are no knowledge or ability prerequisites for this course. However, interest in actually starting a business could be described as a prerequisite; without that interest in personally participating in the subject matter covered by the class, the class is not likely to be engaging.
For Verified Certificates ($50 at the time that I signed up), students complete the Coursera two-phase authentication: a typing sample is submitted and a picture is taken of the student immediately after completing the assessment. Assuming that these are adequate in ascertaining the student’s identity, they are nonetheless not difficult to circumvent. It would be trivial to collaborate with someone else on the assignments or even outright submit someone else’s work. This verification only assures that the student was present when the work was submitted.
If the student is not enrolled in a Verified Certificate, there is no identity verification at all.
For the most part, Developing Innovative Ideas is presented in the traditional talking head style. The Classroom Experience departs from this style a bit, but the videos are so much longer while covering the same material that it is difficult to consider them an option. Even then, Developing Innovative Ideas operates under a rather traditional lecture model.
The assessments used in Developing Innovative Ideas are interesting. While the autograded multiple choice fall prey to the typical trial-and-error approach, the autograded free responses may provide some more rigorous assessment. At the least, there are steps in place to ensure students actually answer them with the right keywords, although I am unsure if it goes far beyond a simple keyword search. Trial and error is still plausible here as feedback is given after submitting the quiz, but the retake at least involves trying to put some things in one’s own words.
Aside from the lectures and the quizzes, there are not a lot of other activities in Developing Innovative Ideas. Discussion forums are provided, but they’re more for interacting and networking amongst peers than for participating in discussions with instructors. The discussion boards are structured to give students to give students a chance to network with people in their same geographic area or industry, as well as to find collaborators for new ideas. Toward that end, Developing Innovative Ideas may present a useful networking opportunity, though I’m not sure how effective that is in practice.
Overall, Developing Innovative Ideas is a class for prospective entrepreneurs to learn the first steps to take, and toward that end, it is very good. The information it presents is non-obvious but accessible, and it goes to an adequate depth to get students ready for the next courses.
For Prospective Students
Developing Innovative Ideas is absolutely a class for prospective entrepreneurs. If you don’t have much interest in starting a business, it won’t appeal to you; but then again, if you don’t have an interest in entrepreneurship, you probably wouldn’t even bother reading a review of the course. The course’s material is accessible to novices, so few if any prerequisite skills are required. On the flip side of that coin, though, the material is so accessible that experienced entrepreneurs might find it boring or unimportant.
Take this course if:
- You have an interest in starting a business, but aren’t sure how to identify a good idea.
- You have an idea, but aren’t sure how to go about transforming it into a full business.
- You work for a company involved in innovation and development (even if it isn’t a entrepreneurial start-up) and want to contribute to that side of things.
Don’t take this course if:
- You’re an experienced entrepreneur; there likely isn’t much new here.
- You don’t have a personal interest in starting a business or contributing to your company’s innovation.
- You’re looking for feedback and insight into the business plan or idea you yourself have; you aren’t likely to find much aside from your peers on the forums.
For Prospective Employers and Admissions Offices
With regard to identity verification, the identity verification for the Verified Certificate is trivial to circumvent. Thus, a Verified Certificate in Developing Innovative Ideas should carry limited clout for that reason alone. The remaining analysis will infer that the student did complete the certificate themselves.
With regard to assessment, the assessments in Developing Innovative Ideas do require a bit of effort, although they can largely be accomplished via trial and error. Even the free response questions, given the apparent simplicity of the autograder and the feedback provided after wrong answers, can easily be gamed into a good score. Overall, passing the assessments in the course is not indicative of mastery of the course content.
With regard to content, the course does cover some excellent information regarding starting new businesses and innovating within current businesses. If I could trust that a person completing the course had actually mastered the material, the material itself is certainly valuable for an applicant to have.
Based on the issues with identity verification and assessment, simply seeing a Verified Certificate for Developing Innovative Ideas on an applicant’s resume or application ought not carry much weight. However, an interviewer should absolutely press on the skills covered in the class a little to conduct some assessment themselves. While simply having the certificate isn’t meaningful on its own, if the applicant is able to answer a few questions about the topics covered in the course, then it should indicate that they have mastered the course content and count as a major point in their favor. In other words: evaluate for yourself whether the applicant mastered the material, knowing that if they did, then the skills they acquired are valuable.
It is also worth noting that while assessment in this course is a bit lacking, the later courses in the specialization are a bit more rigorous, and mastery of these skills is required to understand and succeed in later classes. So, the course on its own might be of limited value on an application, but the specialization of which it is a part is certainly more valuable.
For Course Developers and Educators
There are three main things in Developing Innovative Ideas that I’d like to see more courses do:
- Vary the viewing experience. While I didn’t take advantage of the Classroom Experience much, I did enjoy it the few times I used it. It could have been made more efficient, and the overlap with the Studio Experience could have been limited, but it was definitely interesting to see the different types of understanding that could be offered by efficient parades through the raw course material and more casual discussions with a live class.
- Introducing a specialization. Developing Innovative Ideas is a great introductory class to a specialization, and having already taken the latter two classes in the Entrepreneurship specialization, it does a great job of setting up the overall thought processes and skills for the specialization as a whole. It would be easy to try to put together a class that covers everything, but the extent to which Developing Innovative Ideas understands its function in its specialization improves both the class itself and the rest of the course sequence.
- Auto-grading free response. As I mentioned, I’m doubtful as to the effectiveness and accuracy the autograder that evaluated free response exercises. However, the idea is a promising one. I can imagine leveraging machine learning to train a grader on human-graded essays, then turning it loose on essays out in the rest of the course. I don’t think that’s what happened here, but it would be worth exploring.
For more information, please see the course web site. If I’ve left out anything crucial to understanding this course, let me know below!