Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Meet the pioneers - An interview with David Evans

Udacity’s most popular course so far, CS101, is also the world’s most popular MOOC by enrolment.

  • Can you introduce yourself?

I grew up in suburban Detroit, where my grade school had a teletype terminal which I got a chance to do a little BASIC programming on. I got hooked on programming once the Apple II came out and mostly learned by reading and modifying the code for simple games and graphics programs. I got interested in computer science from reading Doug Hosftadter's amazing Gödel, Escher, Bach, and then taking the wonderful 6.001 course from Gerry Sussman at MIT. I went on to finish at PhD at MIT and join the University of Virginia as a professor. I've been a professor there since 1999, leading my research group that focuses on computer security and teaching courses in introductory computer science, software engineering, computer security, cryptography, and other topics.

  • Can you describe how you got involved with Udacity?

I got an email from +Sebastian Thrun (who I didn't know personally previously) in November 2011 looking for people interested in teaching an open CS course. I'd seen some of the publicity about +Sebastian and +Peter Norvig's AI course, but otherwise wasn't involved in this. A few emails and skype calls later, and I was out at +Sebastian's guest house to meet with the team that became Udacity about doing the course that became cs101.

  • How did you feel at the time, and how do you feel now about teaching the most popular MOOC yet?

Everything was tremendously exciting. Although there is a long history of on-line education, this really felt like a chance to do something new and significant that would have a global impact, as well as to explore a completely new way of teaching. It was also quite scary and I felt there was a good chance of being a spectacular failure. It was great to work with a team to develop a course, and I had great support from the small but growing team at Udacity. Its very gratifying the cs101 has continued to be taken and valuable for many students, as well as the amazing contributions students have made to keep improving the course.

  • What was involved in 'converting your normal classes’ into the Udacity classes?

Part of what is different about cs101 and most of the Udacity courses from other MOOCs, is it isn't a conversion of a MOTE ("Massively Outdated Traditional Education") but a new course designed from the beginning around the open, on-line medium and students. Although I'm very proud of the intro course and associated textbook I've developed at UVa, when we started thinking about doing an open on-line course it became clear that basing it on the MOTE course would not work very well.  The main things that seemed essential for a MOOC are needing to find ways to provide interaction that can be automated (as opposed to my in-person lectures which are much less structured and often driven by student discussions), provide driving motivation that is clear throughout (whereas in in-person classes you have the benefit of a "captive audience"), and escaping the confines of traditional-length lectures (so instead of having to fit each topic into a 50 minute lecture, and design units around reaching a target point).

  • What have been the main difficulties and/or main surprises from your Udacity MOOCs?

Biggest surprise was how much effort, commitment, and community students have shown in cs101.  For cs387, the main difficulty was coming up with questions that can be automatically graded and are at the right level - this was much harder than for cs101 because of the different kind of content.  I made some pretty big mistakes with this, but thankfully most students were forgiving!

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

Its really hard to say, and I think we are just at the beginning of this journey.

I hope (and expect) there will be a continued burgeoning of high quality, open, educational materials.  I hope there will be some major innovation in teaching and production that creatively takes advantage of technology much more than current MOOCs do - this means both moving further away from traditional lectures and assessments, as well as making courses that more dynamically adapt to students.
I hope there will be serious efforts to use data collected from MOOCs to learn about learning and incrementally improve the way concepts are taught.
I hope there will increasingly be ways for people who don't have the traditional university opportunity to develop abilities and records through open resources that will allow them to earn meaningful credentials (or bypass credentials directly toward other goals like employment).
I hope that the availability of MOOCs will put pressure on administrators at traditional universities to consider both how to enhance the added-value they provide through the on-campus, in-person experience, and to consider ways to reduce unnecessary costs and the debt burden on students.

I do have fears that MOOCs can be misused by university administrators as a way to further diminish the fraction of their resources that actually go into teaching, without concern for diminishing the student experience.

  • Have you taken MOOCs yourself?

I'm embarrassed to say I haven't actually completed any other MOOCs.  I taken parts of many MOOCs and went through scripts and draft videos for several of the other Udacity courses, and although I learned a lot from this its very different from actually taking them.

  • Can you share any specific student success stories from your MOOCs?

I love getting emails from students who have taken cs101 and gone on to greater things.
There are several who have been written up on the Udacity blog. A few favorites are:
- Neil: shelf staker to software engineer  
- Mahmoud: From cs101 to international Appstar competition
Francisco: From cs101 to Masters program in Computer Science (I have had the surprise of running into Francisco at an academic conference)
- Brin Bonus: video editor to software engineer
- Udacity student wins grand prize at Google Code-In

Beyond the "traditional" kinds of success, though, I find the most gratifying ones are more personal emails I've received from students who have gotten something meaningful from courses even if not the typical success metric such as the veteran who emailed about using cs101 to help recover from brain damage.

  • Can we expect more from you soon?

I'm focused on my work at UVa now including leading my research group and teaching a new operating systems course in the fall, but I do hope to stay involved in MOOCs and keep involved in continuing to improve cs101 as well as eventually developing new MOOCs.

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