Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Course Analysis: MIS496A

The class that this blog was originally created for has ended! This was one of the best classes that I've taken at this University so far. Thanks to my tendency to morph class assignments into interesting personal projects, here are some of the things that this class has allowed me to do:
  1. Start a gaming blog!
  2. Make some cool QR-code posters for my club.
  3. Get the idea for how to run our club's awesome Facebook group.
  4. Get an internship with Riverman Media for next semester.
  5. Make my first seriously-designed level.
  6. Design an impressive infographic resume.
Of course, none of these things are what made this class so great. After all, I wasn't the only student who loved this class. So in this post, I'm going to analyze this past semester and figure out why exactly we found this class so enjoyable.

The Significance of Facebook

Given that the full name of this course is "Business Intelligence: Web and Social Media Analytics," it wasn't much of a surprise in the beginning of the semester when we were told to join the class's Facebook group and to start tweeting using the hashtag #MIS496A. I'll admit that I initially thought this was all some kind of gimmick to make the class seem more interesting, but the reasoning behind it is pretty strong: you cannot understand social media unless you use it.

Unlike many other technology-based courses at this University, this class did not have a listserv, or any other such means of contacting your fellow students for help on assignments. If a student wanted help, the most common thing to do was to post on the class' Facebook group, which was the preferred method of communication because Facebook automatically sends you emails whenever someone posts in the group. This was much more personal and engaging than a listserv because you weren't just talking to a bunch of faceless email addresses.

Furthermore, listservs often have very strict rules that demand that all conversations be explicitly about the course material, and conversations that overstay their welcome are frowned upon. But in our Facebook group, the atmosphere was much less rigid. We were actually encouraged to start tangentially-related conversations, such as sharing opinions of articles, giving feedback on a classmate's work, and posting things that others might find interesting or entertaining. It allowed us to find all kinds of interesting applications to the class material, and it showed how off-topic conversations can be a valuable tool, rather than an obstacle, to the educational process.

Creating a Community

By the end of the semester, this class felt like a surprisingly strong community. While the use of social media sites definitely helped create this feeling, most of it was the result of how Dr. Ram expertly managed the classroom.

During her lectures, she frequently sought audience participation, to the point that it made students feel comfortable interrupting the lecture at any time. She would attempt to memorize everyone's names and then use us in her examples during lecture. This made us much more aware of the other students in the class, and it even led to the creation of some running jokes, such as how Taylor is the proven center of the universe.

Equally important to the class' sense of community was the frequent project presentations and feedback sessions. It was during these presentations when we got to know our classmates better. The final set of projects helped the most in this regard, because they yielded the most personalized and creative work. By this point in time, much of the ice had been broken, and students felt comfortable enough to critique each other's work and have fun while doing it.

As a communication tool, social media only helped strengthen the bonds of this community. Many students have become Facebook friends, allowing them to stay connected even outside of class. Once you pass this threshold, when your interaction with a group of people starts to surpass the original context of that group, that's when a community starts to feel powerful.

Great Architecture!

It's also worth noting how perfect our physical classroom was for this class. The room was designed in such a way as to make everyone feel as if they were within reasonable speaking distance from each other while making the room feel fairly spacious. I had another class this semester which had about the same number of students, but the room we got was about three times the size, and everyone sat at least ten miles away from each other. This class simply wouldn't have been the same if we had a similarly terrible room assignment.

Course Material

The community and atmosphere were probably the biggest reasons why many of us loved this class. It was like no other class that we've taken before, and it went a long way towards keeping us engaged.

But when I look at the core of the class itself, at the lectures, the assignments, exams, etc., I have to say that I feel a little dissatisfied. It certainly wasn't bad (it was actually pretty good), but it wasn't great.

A big part of this class was skill-based, with the goal being to build our business and data analytical skills. The online marketing campaign served as great practice, because its individual deadlines each demanded more and more depth in our analysis. The information network analysis report, on the other hand, felt oddly limiting. We were told to simply "analyze the data", with little context, no goals to achieve, and no problems to identify or solve.

The bulk of my dissatisfaction, however, comes from some of the side material that was covered in class, such as monetizing social media, which we almost never saw or used again. Perhaps we could have instead found a way to apply these concepts directly to our business analysis projects, where in addition to analyzing data we could try analyzing some of the different strategies of the companies that use social media.

An Okay Difficulty Curve

All of the best classes that I've taken were fairly challenging courses. I remember these classes because they were able to push me to a level that initially seemed impossible or impractical. At the end of the course, you're left with an incredible feeling of accomplishment, as if you had just overcome a major obstacle.

Of course, these courses also had some of the best teachers I've ever had, because creating the great difficulty curve for a course is a very challenging thing to do, and it's something that often takes years to perfect. When badly done, overcoming a difficult course can instead feel like you just averted a train wreck; you're left feeling more stunned than accomplished.

I find that the level of difficulty for most classes is determined mainly by four factors:
  1. how challenging it is to learn the material,
  2. how deeply one is expected to understand the material,
  3. how much work is required in order to fulfill all of the assignments and projects,
  4. and the pacing of the class, or how quickly one must accomplish all of the above goals.
The first two factors determine the "meat" of the class. It's what people come for and it will ultimately determine whether or not the student walks away satisfied. Meanwhile, the other two factors must compliment and aid the first two, but they alone cannot fix a broken class.

From this perspective, the first half of this class was fairly well done. The material was fairly easy to grasp, and this ease was balanced out by the challenge of trying to master our advertising and analytical skills. However, the amount of work demanded by the reports was a little high (like that one assignment where we needed to write a report, make a powerpoint on the report, and then make a video on the powerpoint), but what hurt the overall project the most was the rapid pacing. The speed was disorienting at first, and it caused quite a bit of anxiety. Fortunately, the pacing slowed down a bit during the second half of the marketing project.

While the first half of the semester was bordering on too difficult, I found the second half to be too easy. We never went too deeply into much of the material, and the bulk of our time was spent working on projects that were interesting but ultimately not very educational (I'm still not sold on the importance of infographic resumes, even after a game developer told me how it helped him get a job).

This class doesn't have the same kind of polished difficulty curve that one would expect from a class that has been repeated for several years, but it's not bad for the first run.

A Teacher that Cares

This is an easy trait to overlook, mostly because we tend to not notice it until it has gone wrong. I've taken classes that have been put together so carelessly and sloppily that every problem left unsolved with the course is a constant reminder of how little the teacher cares about the class. There's nothing more demotivating to students than when they suspect that their teacher simply doesn't care. But when students can feel that their teacher truly cares about their education, it can often give them the extra amount of motivation necessary to pull through even the toughest of obstacles.

While I didn't see anything happen in this class that was as inspiring as Stand and Deliver, Dr. Ram really deserves some recognition for taking her work seriously and for putting a lot of effort into this class. Good teachers are too hard to find, so if you're reading this, Dr. Ram, thanks for being an awesome teacher.

So now that this class is over, it's probably about time I finally changed the tagline. Rest in peace, old tagline:


  1. Well looks like you ahd fun in this course of the semester. How many other courses did you have?

    in my university we usually interrupt the lectures anytime we want, if we don't understand. maybe it's just because we study math and physics so it's likely that we won't get a certain part. but yes, when you have a great lecturer, you are much more enthusiastic about studying, and it helps very much. so my point is, I know the feeling :)

    are you having an examination month now?

  2. I took 4 other courses this semester, not counting this one.

    I have this one teacher whose lectures are just these really long monologues, and whenever someone interrupts to ask a question, it feels like something's happening that isn't normal. Asking questions in that class is very hard, not only because the material is so complicated that you have trouble wording your question, but because it feels like the lecturer has built some kind of barrier around him and his monologue that you often don't have the energy to try and get past.

    No, we have all of our exams in one week, and each exam lasts a maximum of two hours. How does it work in Israel?

  3. by the way, about the CV, look:

    we have our examinations between the semesters, meaning the the first attempt is at the month immidiately after the semester, and the second attempt right after it(you may go to both, or just one of course. the last attempt you take is what counts). our examinations vary in length - the shortest tests are 2 hours, the longest I've had so far war around 5~ hours. since the protocol doesn't allow tests over 3 hours without breaks, it always starts as 3 hours, and during the test we are told that we get more time..