Monday, 24 June 2013

Meet the pioneers - An interview with Peter Chapman

Udacity’s most popular course so far, CS101, is also the world’s most popular MOOC by enrolment.
The Good MOOC interviews Peter Chapman, Udacity's original assistant instructor for CS 101: Introduction to Computer Science and CS 262: Programming Languages.

  • Can you introduce yourself?

I grew up in northern Virginia and attended the University of Virginia where I graduated with a Bachelors of Arts in Computer Science and Cognitive Science. I was an early employee at Udacity and notably the first assistant instructor for CS 101: Introduction to Computer Science and CS 262: Programming Languages. I now attend Carnegie Mellon University as a PhD student in the Computer Science Department working on software security. Although I've moved on from Udacity, I still try to stay involved with online education most recently as the technical lead for the largest hacking competition ever held, picoCTF 2013.

  • How did you get involved with Udacity?

At the University of Virginia I worked with David Evans on web security and applied cryptography. By the end of my third year I had finished the vast majority of my course requirements and began eagerly anticipating a relaxing semester wrapping up my undergraduate thesis and visiting potential graduate schools. David had been contacted by the nascent Udacity to be one of the first instructors; knowing my plans, he invited me to join him in Silicon Valley. Three days later I signed the offer letter and a month later I was in California working on CS 101. I was still enrolled at UVa for the next four months and even found the time to finish my thesis and visit schools.
Looking back, the timing was perfect.

  • How did you feel at the time, and how do you feel now about having been TA on the most popular MOOC yet?

As we prepared the course through January and February, our sole focus was on the launch deadline. I never had time to think about the impact the course was going to have; it didn't exist yet! But once we launched, I personally felt the success in the forums. We had new questions and comments coming in every few seconds. The course had a life of its own. For the first couple of weeks I regularly stayed up to 3-4 AM answering questions and fixing bugs all while preparing next week's lesson and homework. It was quite a crunch, but as a company we got a pipeline down and started getting sleep. Everyone celebrated their "First Saturday Off" after launch. I think mine was around week 5.

However, it wasn't until after the course ended that I got a true sense for the scale and impact of what we had created. I spent an afternoon reading through every survey response we received. I realized that we fostered an educational community (inside jokes and all) that taught more people how to program in a few weeks than I could ever teach in my lifetime. It's amazing.

I now go most days without thinking about the course, but periodically I'll see a news article or get recognized on the street and remember that CS 101 and Udacity are still teaching students valuable skills every day.

  • How do you see MOOCs and higher education going in the future?

(Disclaimer: These views are strictly my own.)

I believe close cooperation with universities will dominate the MOOC ecosystem for the next couple of years. The recognition and legitimacy an established institution supplies to a MOOC is very valuable. Unfortunately, universities tend to be slow and the courses and degrees take months to complete. Due to their nature, it will be years before we can really gauge the success of these joint ventures. For that reason, I think we'll see less innovation in the fundamental format of the MOOC as they integrate with university programs and requirements. However, I do hope to see lots of new technology to better allow students to connect, discuss, and study together in MOOCs. I've seen small-scale experiments with in-person meetups and video-based study sessions, but I would like to see something better integrated into the courses.

That being said, I believe the long-term future is less about certificates and degrees, and more about creating a skillset and portfolio. The Udacity Showcase and Mozilla's Open Badges are a start. I personally had a lot of fun working on picoCTF, which is quite different than the standard lecture-based MOOCs. It is a mash-up between a web-based video game and online competition designed to teach very difficult and technical skills without a lecturer.

  • Have you taken MOOCs yourself?

Although I did do a few sections of every course Udacity had offered while I was there, the only MOOC course I've finished is Udacity's CS 387 Applied Cryptography.

  • Which were your favourites?

My favorite course is definitely Udacity's PH 100 Introduction to Physics. It's tons of fun and Andy is a great teacher, but I'm pretty biased since Andy and I are good friends.

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