I have now completed my MOOC course, Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization, taught by Alberto Cairo. I wanted to write a review so future students of this class know what to expect. I tried to break down my review by topic.
I first found out about the course by visiting Mr. Cairo’s Website, http://thefunctionalart.com, after I had purchased his book to read. I had tried to sign up for the first session of this course taught last year, but it filled up very quickly. I went on full alert to make sure I was able to sign up for the second offering which started last January. Even with a cap of 5,000 students, the class filled quickly, but I was quick and able to enroll.
Mr. Cairo started each week by sending us an e-mail “New message from Alberto Cairo” which had a few notes and a link to the course News and
Announcements forum. In the forum, Mr. Cairo posted detailed instructions for the week along with any recommendations and insights into the assignment. Between Mr. Cairo and Rachel Barrera, his Graduate Assistant for the class, I received e-mails every few days to let us know what the expectations were, informational items, etc. I felt the communication level was just right and both of them answered e-mail questions in a very timely manner.
The lectures were all taught from video. The MOOC philosophy is to keep lectures around 12 minutes or less in length, which works out to about five videos to watch per hour lecture. The reasoning behind this is that our attention span starts to lapse after 15 minutes, so if the class is broken down into smaller chunks, we are more inclined to watch a shorter session on a particular topic as well as retain the information better. For the first week of class, Mr. Cairo’s videos were 2:32 minutes, 6:17 minutes, 12:03 minutes, 8:04 minutes, 9:51 minutes, 14:20 minutes, and 5:35 minutes. His style of lecture is to tell you a story related to the topic. I found the individual lectures very informative, interesting and the time went by very quickly when watching them.
Mr. Cairo gave us a lot of different materials for reading. For example, in the second week of the course, we were assigned the following:
1. Read the interviews with John Grimwade (Condé Nast Traveler) and Steve Duenes/Xaquín GV (The New York Times).
2. Read Data Visualization for Human Perception, by Stephen Few.
Also, each week, Mr. Cairo would provide us links to additional articles, videos, and blogs he put together. They were optional, but again very useful. He also sent us an e-mail each week of links to other interesting materials to read.
Each week, we were required to participate in the discussion forums. Whether it was to post our opinion on a topic or review other classmates assignments, we had to post 2-3 entries each week. At first, I did not think I would like this, but found this to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the class. When reviewing other classmate’s projects and assignments, we had 5,000 different examples to choose from, so there should have been discussions that appealed to everyone. I was very fortunate since the ones I picked were very interesting to read. Since we had a large pool of people from many different walks of life, we had a lot of diversity in why they created the design they did, their personal or professional interest in that topic, and the actual visualization they produced often gave me ideas for projects I was working on at work. Even after I finished my mandatory 2-3 entries to review, I often went back and read others I thought were of interest. For the final assignment we were able to pick our own topic. I frequented the discussion forum a lot just to see the variety of topics and infographics my classmates created. I was a bit frustrated that time did not permit me to view them all.
We had two quizzes early in the class. If you read the materials and watched the lectures, you will have no problem with these.
We had three projects to complete as part of the class. The first was to create a topical interactive graphic. The second was to create a visualization, and the third project was to create an infographic.
I put a lot of time into these projects. I was fortunate in that I was able to tie my third project into a need we had at work for an infographic. So, not only was I learning, but I was able to promote the use of infographics at work.
For the second assignment, I really liked the visualization created by one of my classmates I will refer to as “Jim.” I liked it so much in fact, that I wanted to make a working example for our development team at work. I create a lot of dashboard “templates” for our development team in MicroStrategy, which is our enterprise standard BI tool.
So, using Jim’s data and format, I created a dashboard in MicroStrategy with some tweaks to it.
I have included a screenshot of my assignment on this project below.
I used horizontal stacked bar charts instead so that the viewer can visually see how social security and income tax rate add up to the total and explains visually why the countries are ordered the way they are on the dashboard. I also separated out $100K and $300K percentages into separate visuals.
In addition, I added the flags of the countries. Yes, I know, chart junk!
Now, you don’t see any numbers on the data points in this dashboard. The reason you don’t see them is because they appear when you mouse over a bar where you then see the country, category and the percent value as a tooltip.
I don’t know Jim but want to thank him for providing a great example for me to follow. This will help our team a lot in creating future dashboards.
“Christmas cards do not cause Christmas to happen, but the two are highly correlated in time.”
I know there is a lot of discussion about MOOCs and if they adequately provide a viable learning device right now. I feel a MOOC is really no different from any University course I took when I was in college. You will get out of a MOOC course what you are willing to put into it. I took this course very seriously and set my getting the Certificate of Completion as my goal. To get this, I had to do all of the course work. This class was something I wanted to take to enhance my skills as well as my career. I also took this course because I had read Mr. Cairo’s book, The Functional Art, and wanted to learn more from him. In regards to the readings, I was fortunate that I had already read most of Mr. Cairo’s book and had previously read many of the articles he assigned, such as Stephen Few’s material, so the reading assignments were not as steeped for me. However, I did go out and read a lot of the supplemental materials that I found of interest too.
The lectures were excellent and some were down right fascinating. I loved how Mr. Cairo told the story about John Snow and the 1854 Cholera Epidemic in London. I also loved the story and explanation of how we interpret circles and why not to use them in data visualizations.
When Mr. Cairo offers his third version of this class, I highly recommend you take it if you have the opportunity (sign up early!) I find myself longing for more and hope Mr. Cairo or his counterparts like Stephen Few, Nigel Holmes, Colin Ware or Edward Tufte offer similar MOOC courses.