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Course Review – Udacity’s Introduction to Psychology MOOC

Introduction to Psychology is the third (and final) Udacity course I’ve taken for my One Year BA, and despite all the hubbub over Udacity’s “pivot” with regard to business direction, this and every other course they’ve ever published remains free and available on their web site to start whenever you like. So whatever the company does to try to find its footing revenue-wise, I think it’s fair to keep treating them as what they are: a provider of unique and valuable MOOC content on a variety of subjects.

Psychology MOOC

Artotem via Flickr

While sticking by that “variety” adjective, I do need to note that Udacity’s specialty is in teaching courses with some kind of quantitative/objective subject matter such as programming, physics or statistics. Which is why it was interesting to take their relatively new psychology course from beginning to end since the content it covers is more qualitative in nature.

Anyone who has taken a Udacity course knows the drill, described in these reviews of the Elementary Statistics MOOC and the Intro to Statistics MOOC: long lessons made up lots of short (1-2 minute)  videos with assessment questions popping up dozens of times in every lesson to measure whether or not you have mastered a recently explained topic.

Like those courses, Udacity’s Psychology MOOC is a team teaching effort although this time around the team (made up of Gregory Feist, Associate Professor of Psychology in San Jose; Susan Snycerski, who earned her PhD from Western Michigan University; and Lauren Castellano, a Udacity staffer with an MA in Experimental Psychology from San Jose State) all spend time in front of the camera discussing, debating and (sometimes) acting out dozens of concepts they cover (from the brain to the nature of emotion and intelligence to different types of therapies) in 16 lessons.

Perhaps the varied subject matter lends itself to differing formats for presentation, or perhaps the three instructors are just hams, but Intro to Psychology really made an effort to get away from the “white-board” format that is so prevalent in other Udacity MOOCs. While the familiar fingers dancing across a lightbox still made a number of appearances as terminology was defined and charts drawn, this had the smallest share of the total in a Udacity course yet. The rest of the videos featured on-screen explanation by one or more of the instructors and interviews with experts in areas such as sex and gender, animal psychology or the facial expression associated with emotion.

Lessons within the course also included a number of on-screen performances, the most lengthy being an entire lesson on sense perception organized like a sportscast based on a “Sense-Olympics” where the good sports in Udacity’s office were pitted against one another to see who had the best ability to see, hear, smell, touch and taste. Castellano and a co-anchor explained the brain science behind each individual sense phenomenon. And while a few goofy mock commercials and other skits within the course had a student-film feel about them, the sensory contest concept definitely worked as a teaching tool and demonstrated the instructors’ readiness to experiment with unorthodox teaching structures.

I’ve actually not taken a psych course before, although I’m familiar with many of the concepts taught in Udacity’s Intro to Psychology from the overlap they have with other subjects (including, notably, philosophy). And based on my own sense perception, the course felt like a decent overview of an extremely wide topic that someone with more knowledge than I possess have might find to be more broad than deep.

Freud made a couple of brief appearances in lessons covering topics such as types of therapy, and while I realize he is no longer considered the father figure in the field, it struck me that a longer discussion of his theories would likely fill up a bigger part of a full-semester class on this subject. Similarly, their discussion of a subject I am deeply familiar with, critical thinking, seemed a bit rushed and relatively light. So it might be best to think of this course as offering exposure to as many of the topics that fall under the heading of Psychology as possible without dwelling at length on any specific one.

That said, it was good to have some scientific anchoring for the psychological principles that underlie so many academic fields and so much of our modern conversation.

As just noted, modern philosophy is shoulders deep in discussion of psychological principles such as sense perception (and how we can or cannot use it to anchor our understanding of the “real world”), as well as the nature (including the ethical nature) of individuals and societies. And while I still tend to raise an eyebrow when people try to explain things like political disagreement in terms of development (or lack thereof) for different components of the brain, an understanding of what we currently know and don’t know about how the brain works (which this course provides) is useful antidote for the kind of psychobabble you are likely to encounter the next time you read the newspaper.

One thing I like about reviewing Udacity courses is that they are always available to start whenever you like, which means this review might actually be relevant to someone deciding what MOOC to take next. Like any on-demand course, Intro to Psychology runs into challenges (especially in the discussion area) due to the fact that students are not moving through the material in a cohort. But I continue to be excited about the way they are stretching the boundaries of computer-based learning and look forward to seeing what they come up with next, regardless of where their pivoting takes them.


Editor’s note: This guest post is from Jonathan Haber at Degree of Freedom, who is tracking his progress in trying to learn in just twelve months everything he would if enrolled in a four year liberal arts BA program and using only free resources.  Along the way he is writing reviews of courses he completes, some of which he generously allows us to republish here. To get all of Jonathan’s MOOC reviews, and more, be sure to sign up for the weekly Degree of Freedom Newsletter.


Jonathan Haber (19 Posts)

Jonathan Haber is a Boston-based writer and educational specialist whose Degree of Freedom project is experimenting with whether it's possible to learn everything you would get from a four year liberal arts degree in just twelve months using only free educational resources. You can follow his progress at