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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Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Duolingo: What's next?

Luis von Ahn founder and CEO of the free language learning service Duolingo held an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit today.

Here are the main take aways:

  • User-generated language trees

Duolingo is working on tools to let the community add crowdsourced language trees. An explosion of new languages should follow...

  • Live language exchange

Allowing video calls between students is an area of intense interest but Duolingo is weary of becoming the next chatroulette and hasn’t yet found a way for people who don’t speak the same language to have a good learning experience together.
Luis doesn’t rule out opening the service only to people having made significant progress in their language trees. A confidence rating could also be introduced.

  • Classroom support

A classroom support feature should be added before September, allowing teachers to use Duolingo to track their students’ progress and address their difficulties in class.

  • Cheat sheets

Duolingo is working on cheat sheets that summarize grammatical concepts at a glance.

  • Tablet support

More work is being done on the iOS and Android apps, in particular to make them more tablet-friendly.

Perhaps more importantly, Luis von Ahn again insisted that final translations obtained through Duolingo were more accurate than professional translators and that the language learning service will remain free forever.

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Monday, 27 May 2013

How MOOCs Are Changing Education

A documentary aired on the American program PBS Newshour explores some of the implications of the MOOC revolution while offering a peek behind the scene at Coursera, edX, Khan Academy and Udacity:

As well as interviews with MOOC pioneers Andrew Ng and Sebastian Thrun, the short segment also includes an interview with Susan Holmes, a Stanford maths professor representing the voice of the sceptics: “I don't think that you can give a Stanford education online, in the same way as I don't think that Facebook gives you a social life."

What do you think?

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Friday, 24 May 2013

A review of "A Beginner's Guide to Irrational Behavior"

Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics at Duke University has been offering his “Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior”class online through Coursera. The class started on the 18th of March and the final exam took place on the 15th of May.

According to the course’s page, the goals were as the following:

  1. To introduce you to the range of cases where people (consumers, investors, managers, and significant others) make decisions that are inconsistent with standard economic theory and the assumptions of rational decision making. This is the lens of behavioral economics.
  2. To help you think creatively about the applications of behavioral economic principles for the development of new products, technology based products, public policies, and to understand how business and social policy strategies could be modified with a deeper understanding of the effects these principles have on employees and customers.

As we previously saw, more than 140,000 initially registered for the class, and out of the roughly 6,000 who took exams and submitted the required essay, nearly 4,000 received a statement of completion.

Sceptics regularly point to MOOCs’ high dropout rate as a sign of their low relevance to the future of education. With a ‘graduation rate’ of 2.7%, was the class too hard? Was the class simply not good enough to keep students engaged?

Let’s see...

  • Pedagogy

Divided into 6 weeks, the course content was delivered by Dan Ariely via a familiar format of short video segments peppered with quizzes.
Optional 20 minutes-long videos on specific behavioral economics topics were a weekly opportunity for guest lecturers to share their work.
Students were also required to read between 4 and 6 academic papers each week.

  • Professor’s aura

Dan Ariely is a star professor, the author of best sellers, a frequent TED speaker and enjoys a significant following on social media platforms.

  • Quality and availability of teaching staff

Dan Ariely surrounded himself with a great team for this course. Aline Gr√ľneisen in particular was the public face of the team, acted as the voice of the students during office hours and moderated video conferences between students and guest lecturers.
  • Academic rigor

Two separate weekly quizzes tested the understanding of the material (one focused on the content from the videos, the other on the required reading).
A peer-graded essay and a final exam composed the remaining 2 thirds of the final grade.
The passing grade for the obtention of a certificate of completion was set at a strict 85%.

  • Student body

Although official statistics are yet to be published, judging by the lively discussions in the fora, students in this course were a very eclectic bunch. Some non-native speakers felt however that their essays were graded harshly by native speakers (grammar and writing style were specifically excluded from the peer-grading guidelines).

  • Corporate sponsors

The class was meant as an introduction to behavioral economics and although a lot of real life examples were mentioned, application in the business world was not a focus.
Perhaps the class could have been wrapped up with a week of ‘field trip’ (a mainstay of Udacity classes) with interviews of people actually applying course concepts in business.

  • Interactivity

In addition to lively forums and regular recorded office hours, the weekly Google+ video conferences with guest lecturers were an opportunity for students to ask their own questions directly to the lecturer.
In reaction to the dissatisfaction of some with the peer-assessment process, Dan Ariely held a special debate on peer assessment via a video conference with students.
There is an ongoing student-led effort to write a collective essay about the course.

  • Technical platform

Coursera’s platform is robust and largely user friendly. The course however ran into technical difficulties with Google Hangout (even between Duke and the Googleplex).

  • Production value

The videos lectures’ deceptively simple style belied real professionalism.

We can only conclude by recognizing that, as long as registration remains free and open to all, even the very best MOOCs will suffer from high dropout rates. There are after all no downsides to registering just to audit part of the course.
Dan Ariely’s class was as good as an online class can be and will probably set the standard for future online classes.

The team has hinted at a possible follow up course. I, along with many others, will be looking forward to that!

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Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Edinburgh University's MOOCs report

The University of Edinburgh, published a report earlier this month on its experience offering 6 MOOCs through Coursera.

As well as providing insights into the university’s motives for organizing the courses, the report also covers lessons learned and discloses data on success rates and users demographics.

“In coming to our decision to offer MOOCs and to join Coursera, we concluded that the greatest opportunities lay in developing online courses within a new educational environment (fully online, open to all regardless of prior qualifications or geographical location, with no fee), and gaining outreach to new audiences. Our Edinburgh MOOCs offered us a route to experimentation with online delivery methods at large scale, and gave us a chance to learn lessons that might be applied elsewhere in our educational portfolio. At the same time, we would reinforce our position as a leader in the use of educational technology in higher education.”

As we’ve seen before (Who’s paying for free online education?), the two main motives put forward by the university are experimentation with emerging practices and publicity.

Even though, the university does not rule out some forms of monetization, it clearly states that its goals lie elsewhere:

“Irrespective of any future revenue received, we have committed to MOOCs as a not-for-profit educational venture, and shall reinvest any income directly back into the courses themselves, through offsetting the costs of part-time post-graduate teaching assistants and further content production.”

  • Organisation of courses

Due to the great autonomy granted by the university to teams running each course, the structures and organisation ended up fairly different: “Some teams decided to follow a ‘typical’ Coursera video-centred structure, whilst others wished to experiment with a design incorporating substantial learner-generated content.”

  • Demographic data

To simplify the signup process, Coursera does not require any demographic information from learners when they create an account. The information produced in the report therefore had to be captured separately with surveys.

The elusive 'average' learner therefore seem to be a 25 to 45 years old anglo-saxon working in IT or education with a stellar academic background:

Sadly the gender distribution is extremely unbalanced with 80% males in Artificial Intelligence Planning and 87% female in Equine Nutrition:

In terms of motivations for taking courses, intellectual curiosity seems to be the main drive followed by the willingness to try MOOCs and seek career advancement:

  • Usage data

The university’s usage data once shows low retention rate. The university seem comfortable with this situation: ”the MOOCs had no barriers to entry and exit, and the option existed to study without active engagement with quizzes or social media; this permits behaviour patterns distinct from those of on-campus degree courses.”

Analysis of the usage data also revealed that relatively few people contribute to the forums 10-20%.

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Monday, 20 May 2013

A bold new development: Udacity's online Masters degree in Computer Sciences

Udacity announced that it would begin offering an Online Master of Science degree in computer sciences in partnership with the Georgia Institute of Technology and AT&T in January 2014.

80% off compared to the in-class degree, the program still comes at $6,000. Prerequisites include undergraduate degrees in related fields and enrollment in the first year will be limited to ensure things run smoothly.

If this all seems a far cry from Udacity’s record in free and open online education, according to Sebastian Thrun, Udacity co-founder and CEO: “While the degree rightfully comes with a tuition fee — after all, to achieve the very best in online education we will provide support services — the bare content will be available free of charge, available for anyone eager to learn. We are also launching non-credit certificates at a much reduced price point, to give a path to those who don’t care about Georgia Tech credit or degrees, but still want their learning results certified.”

Will this announcement herald the beginning of the end for free Massive Open Online Courses or does it go to show that online degrees (free or otherwise) are here to stay?

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