Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Meet the students - An interview with Feynman Liang

What does it take to complete more than 36 Massive Open Online Courses while studying for a double major? Are MOOCs a good way to land a job at Google?
The Good MOOC interviews Google intern and "MOOCaholic" +Feynman Liang.

  • Can you introduce yourself?

I'm +Feynman. 21 years old. From Bellevue, WA. I'm currently majoring in biophysics at Amherst College and electrical engineering at Dartmouth College.

  • Can you describe what led you to take so many MOOCs?

I first heard about Udacity when I was waiting outside of lecture one afternoon. Curious, I checked out "Programming a Robotic Car" by +Sebastian Thrun on Udacity. At the time, I had just began playing with Python and had no real computer science background. By the end of the course, I had learned about Kalman filters, particle-based localization techniques, A* search, and a whole lot of other exotic computational techniques used in robotics. Hungry for more, I heard about Coursera through the Udacity forums. One class led to another, and here I am.

A big reason why I'm able to have taken so many MOOCs is because I'm fortunate to be in an environment which enables it. College frees me from many everyday obligations, giving me a lot more free time than the average person. In addition, professors and other students provide me with an intellectual community I can go to whenever I have questions about things being covered in MOOCs.

  • How do you compare your brick and mortar classes to MOOCs?

Both have their own pros and cons. I find MOOCs to excel particularly when it comes to lectures and assignments requiring little creativity. For example, professors in college lectures try to talk at the median speed preferred by the class. This leaves the upper tail of the distribution of students bored, and the lower tail lost. MOOCs allow for students to watch lectures at their own speeds and to pause / rewind as many times as necessary (without any annoyance from the professor or other student). Straightforward assignments are also effective when delivered over MOOCs because immediate feedback is provided and oftentimes there is an opportunity to retry. Unlike college, where I turn in a homework assignment and then only pick it up again when reviewing for an exam, I oftentimes find myself submitting the same assignment 3 or 4 times until I see the 100%.

Traditional classrooms are superior to MOOCs when it comes to personalized mentoring and uniform standards, which make assigning creative assignments particularly difficult. Not having someone help you figure your way through an open-ended assignment oftentimes leads to hours reading documentation just because you forgot some silly details. It's also more difficult to flesh out why you're having trouble in a subject, which is why I oftentimes take my MOOC materials to my actual professors and review with them. Additionally, the diversity of students taking a MOOC make it difficult to expect consistent grading of anything without a definitive right or wrong answer. Others taking the course may be a foreign student who just learned English recently, or a Ph.D. in the subject you're studying. This makes it hard to expect consistent feedback on your work and difficult to establish a sense of improvement.

  • Where do see higher education going in the medium to long-term future?

I don't think online resources will be replacing real classrooms anytime soon, but I do think MOOCs will disrupt our traditional conception of a classroom. While there are already electronic tools which supplement traditional classes (Blackboard, Moodle), they have typically been used as a repository for class resources. As mentioned in the previous response, lectures and assignments delivered over MOOCs provide many benefits over traditional assignments, and require almost no effort from the professor once the content is created. By shifting the lecture and homework part of the classroom to an online platform, professors can focus on adding value through personalized mentoring and open-ended projects.

  • There's a fair bit of MOOC skepticism out there (particularly when it comes to retention rates)... Do you have anything to say about that?

It's unsurprising, and I believe there are multiple causes. One of the causes is that students oftentimes sign up for classes simply to explore and get a feel for the subject/professor. I personally have dropped about 20-30% of the classes I sign up for. Measuring retention from the initial group of students who signed up just isn't fair. At a talk Professor +Daphne Koller (co-founder of Coursera) gave at Dartmouth, she presented much more reasonable retention rates when we look at student who completed the first three assignments in the course.

Another reason why retention rates are so low is because the student has to invest almost nothing to be a part of an online class. In contrast, my colleges cost $60,000 USD / year and the opportunity cost of my time spent on online courses is also non-negligible. Thus, loss aversion oftentimes has me (and perhaps other participants) prioritizing other activities over MOOCs (which are free and always available).

  • What is your college professors' reaction to you taking MOOCs?

The professors I've talked to about MOOCs are generally surprised by the depth the online courses cover. Most are fairly indifferent; neither overly excited or antagonized by the competition.

  • Which are you favourite MOOCs so far and why?

I've really loved:

  • Design of Computer Programs (+Peter Norvig, Udacity)

    This class was surprisingly difficult for being labelled CS212 (though I think Udacity has now moved it into the advanced section). The class taught me how to decompose complex problems into a procedural solution, and then how to write that procedural solution using minimal and concise Python. I've never had the problem of not being able to complete a programming assignment after taking this class.

  • Probablistic Graphical Models (+Daphne Koller, Coursera)

    Again, a really tough class. This one starts with an assumption that you understand basic probability theory and calculus. Through the 12 weeks of the class, you develop a deep understanding of PGMs, which are used throughout artificial intelligence and machine learning.

  • MITx - 6.002x Circuits and Electronics (Anant Agarwal, EdX)

    I really enjoy Agarwal's lecture style, and how he uses analogies and intuition to teach not just electronics, but LTI system theory. I took this class right before I started my electrical engineering classes at Dartmouth. This class covers many concepts core to engineering, and is perhaps one of the best produced MOOCs available (after all, it is the debut MOOC for edX).

  • Are there any courses you're looking for but don't exist?

I wish there was more formal mathematics classes available in a MOOC format. Harvard Extension School and MIT's OCW have some good content, but the community surrounding a MOOC really make learning much more fun. I'm especially excited for Wesleyan's Complex Analysis MOOC.

  • Did you take your MOOCs all on your own or did you create informal study groups with some of your friends from university?

I started completely on my own. Over the last two years, I've tried numerous times to get my friends to take them with me. Only one friend from back home, Andrew Tsai, has actually taken a serious commitment to it. Perhaps it's because everyone else I ask are people I go to college with and are already busy with real classes.

  • Keeping in mind your best MOOC experience so far. How would you improve on the course?

Find some way to centralize all my classes and keep track of deadlines. Neither Coursera, edX, nor Udacity currently offer a centralized location to keep track of your due dates. What would be awesome would be a tool which aggregates due dates across the three sites. I smell a possible hackathon project...

  • How has your MOOC experience been received at Google?

I put it on my CV, but when I talked to my recruiter she told me that it's about as impressive as "Relevant Coursework". For technical interviews, they really don't care about your background or CV, just that you can write working code in a limited amount of time. My certificates of accomplishment didn't impress during the recruiting phase; the most useful impressive part was the skills I developed from taking MOOCs.

However, my co-workers and managers have a very different response. Oftentimes, they are familiar with the professors teaching the online classes and are impressed with my grasp of the material. I distinctly remember getting into a discussion about Buttersworth vs Chebyshev filters one day at lunch; something I would have never done had I not taken Digital Signal Processing with Paolo Prandoni and Martin Vetterli. MOOCs give me something to connect over with other people at Google, which is actually a quite valuable thing to have!

  • Are some of your colleagues at Google also finding time to take MOOCs?

As far as I know, it's still largely unheard of. Most people I talk to are surprised that colleges are releasing all these classes for free and are generally very excited about the opportunity. My manager told me he would check Coursera out after I told him about it. So far, I've only met one other person who's actually taken classes on Coursera. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), they are an intern as well!

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Monday, 26 August 2013

Meet the students - An interview with Ronny De Winter

Massive Open Online Courses hold the promise of worldwide access to high quality education for free. MOOCs also allow the highly experienced and highly qualified to stay on top of their game.
The Good MOOC interviews Belgian IT consultant +Ronny De Winter  to find out how.

  • Can you introduce yourself?

I am an IT consultant living in Belgium, working as an independent contractor. In most of my contracts I take the role of project leader for large projects. I am 50, married,  and have two children of 17 and 19.

  • Can you describe what led you to take MOOCs?

Knowledge workers and IT professionals in particular need to constantly upgrade their knowledge. Life-long-learning has been a mantra since the day I left school with an engineering degree. In my early career I worked as an employee for a large company that had its own education center with plenty of opportunities to follow courses during work hours or immediately after (5pm). They often worked together with the major education institutes in the neighborhood. I was able to complete a postgraduate degree ICT in 2000 via a consortium of large companies and a few major universities. Courses were given in real time starting at 5pm, often by video conference.
Company education centers still exist today, but they are more and more relying on self-study packages. As an independent contractor I didn’t have access anymore to these private ‘schools’ but I continued with self-study courses: reading books and playing with new software development technologies and occasionally following a short (expensive) course on a specific topic.
In the beginning of 2012 I discovered Coursera and followed the first online version of UC Berkeley CS 169.1x Engineering for Software as a Service (now on the edX platform). This was a very positive experience for me and the start of a MOOC addiction. Since then I follow Coursera courses regularly, often several in parallel (up to 5 when I am not working on a contract). Until today I successfully finished 16 courses, mainly on topics related to IT technology, MBA and innovation.

  • How do you compare your memories from university education to MOOCs?

Compared to my experience with university education, MOOCs offer several advantages but there are also some disadvantages. For the life-long-learner with a family and a job, MOOCs are a game changer outcompeting traditional universities. First of all MOOCs easily meet my schedule: I learn at times that suits me best, at my own place, and adapt the speed of learning to align the complexity of the material with my current knowledge and available time. Second MOOCs allow me to put together a study curriculum of largely diverse courses given by top institutes, which goes far beyond the flexibility that a traditional degree offers. And last but not least it is free, not that I don’t want to pay for good education but the very low threshold encourages me to follow courses which I would never take otherwise. MOOCs still cannot compete with regular universities on interactivity with other students and staff. The access to a faculty and ambience of a campus are not easily replaced by a virtual community.

  • Where do you see higher education going in the medium to long-term future?

The disruptive nature of MOOCs and open courses will have their influence on higher education. I see higher education evolving from traditional class teaching toward a blended form of learning. Especially the entry level courses, now given in large rooms for big audiences, will be replaced by MOOCs. For such large groups one can provide better, faster and more personal feedback via MOOC infrastructure than in a large auditorium with hundreds of students. Education staff can then spend more effort in coaching smaller groups of students on more advanced topics.
Universities combined with MOOCs will speed up further globalization of education. More opportunities arise for European students to study on American universities and vice versa. For developing countries that lack high-quality education institutes new possibilities open up for their students to participate in the best courses on earth. However adoption of the developing world will be slower than for the life-long-learning professionals, there is still a lot of work to do on bringing basic level education to large populations in these countries.
I don’t see MOOCs replacing traditional university degrees pretty soon, it will take a long time for industries to accept the MOOC qualifications and the campus faculties cannot easily be replaced by virtual ones.

  • There's a fair bit of MOOC skepticism out there... Do you have anything to say about that?

Completion rate of today’s MOOCs versus enrolled students is around 7%. This looks like a low figure but it isn’t. For a course with 100 000 students this means that 7 000 complete the course successfully, for a professor in a traditional university it takes years of teaching to get these results.
Due to the low entry barrier (zero cost, no time, no id) a lot of people enroll without the intention of completing the whole course, often just to browse as a first experience in a knowledge area they are not familiar with. The student prerequisites are not checked upfront. Literally everybody can enroll.
My personal completion rate is above 80%, close to traditional education I would say. I don’t think MOOCs should worry much about retention rates. The only issue I see is when MOOCs want to do team exercises; it is very difficult to form student teams when only 7% will complete the course.

  • Which are you favorite MOOCs so far and why?

My favorite MOOC platform is Coursera, especially those courses that combine sound theoretical concepts as background with practical exercises that make me feel how the material is used in practice. I prefer well-structured courses with a more or less fixed workload of about 8 hours per week so that I can plan my studying well in advance. The weekly cadence helps me to stay in touch for 6 to 12 weeks and move forward. I don’t need the certificates for my professional career, however I am always happy to receive one, it gives me the good feeling of “yes I did it!”. A few Coursera courses I completed that fit in this category: Machine Learning (Stanford University), Leading Strategic Innovation in Organizations (Vanderbilt University), Interactive Programming in Python (Rice University), Operations Management (University of Pennsylvania), Software Engineering for SaaS (UC Berkeley).

  • Are there any courses you are looking for but don't exist yet?

More advanced courses will come when MOOCs further mature. It is difficult to find 1000 or up to 100000 students for a MOOC on an advanced topic, As such it is easier to start with introductory courses. Give it a few more years and the MOOCs will reach a far bigger audience, making it easier to also teach the advanced topics.
For example I have been waiting for a Coursera course about Android development for several months already.
What we also see happening is companies starting to deploy MOOCs. I wouldn't be surprised if Google appeared on the scene with an Android MOOC, or Apple with a MOOC on iOS.

  • What tips can you give to fellow students to get more out of MOOCs?

As for any kind of project being well prepared and have a worked out schedule is crucial to be successful with MOOCs. I investigate the course outline, prerequisites, syllabus and suggested workload per week carefully before enrolling. During the first week of the course I estimate, measure and evaluate effort versus return, decide after the first week if I want to continue and complete the course, I do not continue if I’m not fully engaged.
Don’t unroll in too many courses simultaneously, study few subjects deeply instead of many courses superficially. Most of the courses are repeated after the first enrollment, if your schedule does not allow it to take that additional course just wait for a next enrollment.
I make use of the course discussion forum to enhance my learning experience and get answers to questions but often this is a big time consumer.
First enrollments in new courses are sometimes a bit experimental, less structured, buggy, and delayed here and there. This can be fun and engaging, however if this annoys you or if you don’t want to waste time with it wait and participate in the second enrollment.

  • How can MOOC developers improve the learning experience and success rates for the students?

In the answer to the previous question I give several hints to MOOC developers: basically a very clear and not too complex structure: weekly cadence, fixed workload of about 8 hours per week, always have milestones on the same day of the week, ie deliver new lectures every week on Friday, deadline for homework always on Monday (giving people a long week including 2 weekends), a hard deadline one week after the first soft deadline with a penalty of 20% (allowing some slack but not too much). A clear syllabus with overview of all lectures, homeworks, quizzes, exams, ... with an indication of the needed effort for each (allows careful planning for busy people!). Providing a social community for students, not only during the course via the discussion forum, but also after the course has finished. Recruite TAs for a next enrollment of the course from the best students of the previous enrollment. Have a short quiz to check the prerequisites for a course, give advice on how to cover the prerequisites (ie via other MOOCs).  
A more exotic feature: during the course show an individual student's progress versus the full student population.

And perhaps the most challenging one: form virtual student teams and organise team exercises.

As my homework for the Coursera Pennsylvania Design course I did some exercises for the design of a course planner for people following several courses simultaneously. For the User Needs I interviewed several experienced Coursera students about their course planning needs and made the results available.

  • Can you elaborate on how you apply knowledge gained from MOOCs in your professional life?

The act of learning for me is at least as important as applying the learned knowledge in a specific professional setting. I have a broad project management profile, I know a little about a lot but not a lot about anything specific. Combining knowledge from different areas allows me to envision the important risks and opportunities in projects and take the right decisions, going into more details when needed. These learning skills also let me dive quickly into a new setting, a skill that is highly appreciated in today’s fast moving world.  It improves my adaptability and flexibility in everything I do.
Taking MOOCs in combination with a family and professional life asks for structure, discipline and perseverance, virtues a project manager needs to be successful and deliver results.

  • Any final words?

MOOCs are exploding and are changing education all over the world. Don’t wait to adopt it. Students, universities, teachers, embrace it, learn from other’s experiences.
MOOCs are very young and still in their infancy, the best is yet to come!

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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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