Duke to offer free online data-analysis courses through Coursera

June 26, 2015 | by Jeni Baker

Launching this fall, “Specialization in Data Analytics for Business” will help everyday professionals make the most of Big Data

Duke University will soon begin offering free online courses aimed at teaching non-technical professionals to analyze and effectively utilize business data.

Daniel Egger

The courses are made possible through support from Coursera, an education-platform company which partners with the world’s leading universities and organizations to offer online courses that anyone can take at no charge.

The four-course “Specialization in Data Analytics for Business” is being developed and will be led by Daniel Egger, Executive in Residence and Director of the Center for Quantitative Modeling, and postdoctoral research associate Jana Schaich Borg.

Using two popular software programs – Microsoft Excel and Tableau – learners will learn to perform fairly sophisticated data-analysis functions during the courses’ practical modules.

Jana Schaich Borg

Making information actionable: “This is the future”
Understanding and knowing how to effectively use information is vital to success in today’s business world, the Duke team says.

“Anyone working in business these days has to understand the impact of Big Data and data analytics,” Egger says. “This is the future, and organizations that don’t respond to the opportunities and competition associated with data analytics will go out of business.”

Many companies recognize that analyzing data and acting on the information gleaned gives them a significant competitive advantage in an increasingly data-heavy corporate landscape, says Schaich Borg.

“Data analytics isn’t just about figuring out what the data say, it’s also about knowing which questions to ask and translating the answers into clear action items that people can understand,” she says.

“Our goal is to empower learners to use data analytics to inform business decisions – from asking questions and figuring out which data can provide answers to extracting those answers and communicating the stories they tell.”

It’s about seeing the data related to your business and extracting practical value from it, says Egger.

“Understanding what information means and what can be done with it can help businesses do things like solve problems, be more operationally efficient, retain customers better, market their services more strategically, hire and manage employees more effectively, and generate more revenues from people who visit their websites,” he says.

Data analytics for non-techies: Accessible and user-friendly
To make the course content accessible (and less intimidating) to people with a wide variety of knowledge and skill sets, Egger and Schaich Borg are designing it to be easily mastered by learners with only a high-school-level math proficiency and practical familiarity with the basic functions of Microsoft Excel. Learners will not be required to perform or understand computer coding.

“Because almost everybody in business already uses Excel, we probably increase by tenfold the number of people who can take these courses,” says Egger. “The content builds on Excel basics to get to the advanced data analytics you can do with it – functions that most people don’t know it can do. And because Excel is familiar to so many people, there’s a much faster learning curve.”

The first course, Introduction to the Data Analytics “Business Ecosystem,” is scheduled to launch in September 2015. The course will give learners an overview of data mining and data analytics, including types and models of data analysis and key ways data can be used.

The second and third courses – Using Data in a Business Context: Exploratory Data Analysis and the Role of “Descriptive Analysis” and Using Data in a Business Context: Predictive Data Analysis and Communicating Analytic Insights – are slated to launch in October and November 2015, respectively.

During these two courses, learners will learn to use Excel and Tableau to perform a range of data-analysis functions.

The fourth course, Managing Industrial-Size Data Sets, is scheduled for a December 2015 launch. The course will examine the use of databases, “which is where we go when we have so much data that we can’t work with it in Excel anymore,” Egger says.

Although there is a fee for learners who take the four-course series for certification, anyone with an Internet connection can take advantage of the information at no charge. The materials will also be used in courses at Duke with registered Duke students.

Sharing Duke expertise
When it comes to offering Coursera courses about data analytics, Duke is a natural fit.

“With its longstanding commitment to interdisciplinary research and team building – not to mention global experts in math, statistics, computer science, engineering, and multi-modal data integration – Duke is a recognized leader in this area,” says Schaich Borg. “It’s a terrific environment for learning how to bridge the gaps between deep knowledge, data, and meaningful action.”

In addition, for seven years Egger has been teaching Master of Engineering Management (MEM) learners many of the same topics the Coursera courses will offer.

“Between the Information Initiative at Duke and the MEM Program, Duke has an ideal background for this,” Egger says. “Offering these courses is another great example of how the university is invested in practical problem-solving and providing educational resources to people outside of the Duke community.”

The Duke data analytics courses will be available at coursera.org beginning in September.