Friday, 31 May 2013

A review of Udacity's CS101 - Introduction to Computer Science

Udacity announced today that 314,159 students had enrolled in CS101 - Introduction to Computer Science making it its most successful class so far... and the biggest MOOC ever.

Taught by David Evans, a computer science professor on a sabbatical from the University of Virginia, CS101 is an asynchronous course aiming to turn anybody into a Python programmer in 7 weeks.

Does David Evans manage to teach computer code from scratch in 7 weeks? Does CS101 deserve its success?

  • Pedagogy

The goal of CS101 is clear from the start. Students will learn how to build a search engine in 7 weeks.
The pedagogy is pure Udacity. The course is mostly made up of short video segments of David Evans scribbling on screen or introducing some directly on a computer terminal with frequent quizzes and programming assignments.

  • Professor’s aura

Unlike Sebastian Thrun or Peter Norvig, David Evans isn’t a start in the field.
The course does start with encouragements from Google cofounder Sergey Brin though.

  • Quality and availability of teaching staff

David Evans’ teaching style grows on you as you progress through the class and Udacity’s teaching assistant are a very dedicated and energetic bunch.

  • Academic rigor

As with all Udacity courses, exams can be re-taken at will. However, some programming assignment really do pose a challenge.
The most arduous problems are identified from 1 gold star to 3 gold stars and different certificates of completion are available depending on students’ achievements (certificate of accomplishment, certificate of accomplishment with distinction and certificate of accomplishment with highest distinction).

  • Student body

Large is the first thing that comes to mind. With tens of thousands of active students from 168 countries, there is always somebody in the forums coming up with an unexpected approach.

  • Corporate sponsors

Although CS101 does not have corporate sponsors as such the course ends with a ‘field trip’, which a provide a chance to watch interviews experts such as Mozilla engineers, Duck Duck Go founder Gabriel Weinberg and Benetech founder Jim Fruchterman.
Besides, the course is a stepping stone for more advanced Udacity courses with clear corporate backing such as Introduction to Parallel Programming (Nvidia) or Functional Hardware Verification (Cadence Design Systems).

  • Interactivity

The size of the class guarantees that somebody will always be there in the forums to help out with a frustrating piece of code.

  • Technical platform

The browser-based IDE (Integrated Development Environment) had its limits and I resorted to using Codecademy Labs for testing purposes.
Although Udacity has had a controversial user interface redesign since CS101’s first run, the platform still offers a convenient way of progressing through the course videos, submitting programming assignments and interacting with other students.

  • Production value

The look and feel of the course would be very familiar to anybody enrolled in the Stanford AI Class. The biggest improvement as far as production value is concerned is that the professor’s hand is now see-through.

Udacity’s CS101 - An Introduction to Computer Science is a great course. It uses concrete Python programming challenges to introduce computer science principles and does deliver on its promise. After 7 weeks, although unlikely to be a threat to Google, you will have programmed a search engine.

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