Friday, 14 June 2013

A review of Udacity's CS253 - Web Development

Following on from Udacity’s successful CS101 course, CS253 - Web development starts from the basics of how the web works and goes through everything necessary to build a blog and scale it to support large numbers of users.

  • Pedagogy

The goal of the course is explicit right from the start and CS253 delivers on it. From hashing passwords to secure logins and cookies, you learn to make a fully-functional blog using Google App Engine.
The pedagogy is very ‘hands-on’ and pure Udacity. The course is mostly made up of short video segments of the instructor scribbling on screen or introducing some directly on a computer terminal with frequent quizzes and programming assignments.

  • Professor’s aura

Steve Huffman is the co-founder of Reddit and Hipmunk. Enough said.

  • Quality and availability of teaching staff

CS253 was Steve Huffman’s first experience teaching a course and it sometimes showed. The office hours were often used to go back over points that had been slightly overlooked during the video lectures.
As usual, Udacity’s teaching assistant are a very dedicated and energetic bunch.

  • Academic rigor

As with all Udacity courses, CS253 is asynchronous and exams can be re-taken at will. However, some assignments were really challenging and unlike with other MOOCs (CS101 included), there is a strong expectation that students will use the resources available on the internet to complete information given in class.
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 thousands of active students, there is always somebody in the forums coming up with an unexpected approach.

  • Corporate sponsors

Although CS253 does not have corporate sponsors as such, the course ends with a ‘field trip’, where Steve Huffman shares in more details his experience at Reddit.
The last section of the course also includes interviews with Reddit lead engineer Neil Williams and Udacity engineer Chris Chew (Udacity runs on the same technical platform as the blog built as part of the course).

  • Interactivity

Even though the course is asynchronous, a teaching assistant is still devoted to it. Besides, the size of the class should ensure that there remain sufficient activity in the forums to answer any questions.

  • Technical platform

The recommended method for putting the blog online is Google App Engine. While this can certainly be a challenge for beginners, its graphical user interface is much more intuitive than Heroku or other such services.

  • Production value

In keeping with Udacity’s style.

Udacity’s CS253 - Web Development is a very good course but will pose a significant challenge to students whose sole computer science background is Udacity’s CS101.

On the other hand, CS253 teaches very little about template engines, CSS and JavaScript so a follow up course would be welcome.

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