I have been independently considering two edX courses in mathematics. The first, a course on probability theory drawing from a financial crisis case study, appeared to me plausibly comparable in scope to an actual undergraduate class in probability theory. However, the second, a course on partial differential equations emphasizing Fourier Series, looks like it might be much narrower in scope than an actual undergraduate class in PDEs. Glancing at the program which the latter belongs to, I wonder if it's more akin to the brief introduction to PDEs sometimes given at the end of an ODE class. This, needless to say, has caused me to question the probability theory course as well.

How does the scope and depth of an edX course compare to that of an average undergraduate class? Is the class more comparable to an entire edX program instead of an individual course? Does it depend on the specific program/course? If so, what criteria can be used to decide whether a particular course, such as the two I'm considering, would be sufficient to use as a self-study alternative to an undergraduate class on the subjects?

  • $\begingroup$ When you say as self-study alternative - edX is not for credit, correct? Meaning that it works to know the material but a college won't recognize that? $\endgroup$
    – Burt
    Commented Jan 19, 2020 at 7:17

1 Answer 1


(In before the close!)

I'd say the PDE course looks more like a traditional course than the prob/stats course. Look at the hours expected, for example (~6.5 versus ~1.5), each times 8 weeks.

The PDE course looks like a solid half to two thirds of a semester of a normal, engineering support course. You cover a couple of the 3-4 major equations. And get Fourier series. Looks like a couple chapters out of Kreyszig.

The prob/stats course lists a bunch of topics but it's easy to do that in stats. I could do a 2-3 hour lecture for Six Sigma students and briefly hit a bunch of topics also. Looks like that is what you are getting, plus the case example.

Of course do what is more interesting to you. And if anything the stats/finance course will probably be more easy to treat as an avocation and more passively as a lecture watcher. Yeah...working the problems still needed for real learning. But in PDE course, you'll be absolutely lost without working. In the sexier finance-stats course you can still float along and enjoy it. (Given the very real possibility of distractions, you might see this "bug" of the data analysis course as more of a "feature".) But really...do what turns you on.

In terms of the general questions: you are just looking at the difference of "extension courses" versus traditional courses. This is a difference that is more general than the Harvard source, than Internet modality. Extension courses are, on purpose, lighter than normal courses, and are geared to working professionals. They're not kids looking to get a bachelor's. They want to do a little bit at night to get exposed to something or to help them in a new role they have taken at work.

The PDE course is really a bit "heavy" for an extension course. That finance case study is more what a normal extension course would look like. (I.e. lighter than the PDE course and less mimicking a traditional topic.)


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