Online learning in the 2012 Spring semester

The 2011 Autumn semester brought a handful of online classes, and it worked out pretty well for me, as I finished 3 courses and learned a lot. After that success, arguably spearheaded by Stanford, I think everyone was expecting big things to come, and the the number of offered courses, also the number of course offering entities multiplied. I was looking forward to it as well, planning to dig into all different topics, and had to start choosing between all those classes, since I was interested in so many but definitely didn’t have time for all. In the end, the new semester was mostly a failure for me. Fortunately that doesn’t mean a complete failure of things.

First  of all, Stanford offered a lot of new courses, as more and more of their faculty wanted on, but then those courses were delayed by weeks, then months. It was pretty underwhelming and took some wind out of my sails. While I was waiting, I was looking around for other offerings, and fortunately there were some interesting stuff.

MITx 6.002x

MIT’s first offering (that I’ve seen) launched with quite the style, slick new website, corny promo video of two students preparing for and doing their MITx course, and so on. Nevertheless, the topic was interesting, 6.002x Circuits and Electronics. It’s right into the things I like to learn, and it’s engineering perspective (more practical) felt great to match my gaps in electronics education from the physicist point of view (more theoretical). It started great, and evolved a lot during the 14 weeks or running.

When it was new material, it was presented pretty well by Prof Anant Agarwal, it had great tools like interactive circuit design built right into the site, good quizzes, interesting questions. It was going all well, up until almost the end. Here’s the result of my course, ending in a grade C:

Results of the MITx 6.002x course

It all comes down to that I didn’t do the final exam. I could have. I had a whole weekend to do that, or about 4 days. Just it somehow didn’t happen, had “other things to do”, or something.

Right now it feels that all the things that went wrong with this course, can be traced back to handling it as the online version of the offline course (which is actually pretty explicit, denoting the course 6.002x, after the offline courss 6.002). If it was just about the content, it’s okay, but it was also about the teaching methods.

In the beginning I didn’t notice it a lot, but as the weeks progressed, one thing stood out is the number of reviews. Let’s review what you have just seen in the previous video. Then two videos later review it again. That got insanely boring in the end, and while I was managing it by skipping videos that were just reviews, my interest did take a little hit. It’s an online course, if someone wants to review a topic, can just watch the same video again, can’t they? Why not just refer to the previous material via a link or something?

The other thing is that for exams (the midterm and the final) they only left a weekend for, with 24h limitation after you opened the test. For an online course that seems to me again as a mistake, people are from all over the world, indeed they wanted to have a great variety of students from all different backgrounds, why to expect that people are available in a given 4 day interval? Let’s go a step further, why is there even a semester limit? I was doing multiple weeks in one go, then falling behind because not checking the site for a while. In the end, the whole 14 weeks of coursework, with exams and all, could be done in about 6 weeks if I wanted to, beside my daytime job. As soon as people go online, semesters make just as much sense as trying to stick to the same time zones for all the students – not much.

Of course, I’m very grateful for the whole course, even without taking the final exam I learned a lot, that I’m already using in the lab, and it helps me every time I do electronics (which is pretty much all the time). Just thinking that online education in this form is just faster horses, not automobiles, as Henry Ford would say.

It was a successful enough course, though, that it seems now they have extended the experiment into edX, an distance learning initiative. Let’s see what happens!

 Venture Lab

From the new Stanford bunch, Venture Lab (originally Venture Class) was one I was really looking forward to, since there is so much entrepreneurial influence from others in my life at the moment, looks like half of my friends are up to something. It was pretty delayed, I guess partly because they were changing base idea of the course, and partly because they were building a brand new site from scratch for that. Originally it was to teach people about technology ventures (and I had the matching book called Technology Ventures earlier anyway) in the usual online class way. When it launched it became a “lab”, where people form teams and collaborate and actually create new stuff. It was going to be really exciting!

Then when it started, after a first week or two, or maybe even less, it turned out that managing a team, even 4 people, remotely is not such an easy thing. If we were in the same place, and we got together because of the same vision, it might have worked. This way, fragmented both in ideas, in space, available time, skills and everything, it wasn’t working that much. Which is a really big shame, because I really liked the people on the team. I really hope to get back in touch with them again and do something else, though that is unlikely.

Venture Lab class interface

In the end I was just watching it from the sidelines (or still watching because due to the delay its semester hasn’t finished yet), and admiring the people who step by step built up something tangible. I heard multiple teams actually starting companies upon the ideas they came up with for the course. Now that’s some achievement! I feel a little bit that I missed a great opportunity to learn something, learn a lesson in an unusual way.

On the other hand, I did learn something actually: don’t throw good time after the bad one, if it feels it’s time to quit, then just do it. The sooner it’s done, the better everyone can move on to bigger and better things. So this course is not a total writeoff. And I’m still going to watch the videos, read the book, and get on with technology.

Udacity

This one was also something I was looking forward to, since Udacity was co-founded by Sebastian Thrun, who was an instructor in last semester’s AI Class. Looks like after last semester, he have seen the potential of online communities in learning environment, left Stanford (as far as I know) and came onto this project. They had and will have a lot of different classes, mostly IT related, from robotic cars to building website and programming languages.

I looked at a couple of different courses, and the most amazing thing was, that my friends, one of them programmer but in different area, another one not really a programmer at all, were already taking one of them – CS253 Web Application Engineering, no less! Of course I wanted to join them, collaborate and also challenge each other. Well, in the end, didn’t happen. By the time I got there, it was all over for the semester, and they both kinda dropped it, or procrastinated out of it along the way. That doesn’t smell like success to me, but as long as they are not discouraged, hope we can do something similar next time together, and if I get in on time, would do everything in my power to get every one of us through.

Udacity CS253 interface

It looked good, Reddit and Hipmunk founder Steve Huffman showing you how to build some real stuff for the web? There should be one or two things to learn. If they keep it online, I’ll probably go back and check it some other time.

Next up

Looks like I failed this semester for a couple of reasons. Being busy with real life projects like Ignite Taipei and Future Shorts, as well as actually building stuff, I didn’t have that much time to study anymore. The teaching methods eroded my motivation sometimes. The peer pressure went on, but gone out too quickly as well. Now these things might be fixed next time

By now there are online classes everywhere, and universities are lining up to put online their classes. Can look around on Class Central to see what else is new. This time I looked up some humanities courses for the autumn and maybe check a bit more, cannot be without science, though definitely will try not to overcommit myself.

Now just have to see how this online learning experience will work out, whether the universities and knowledge providers will be able to fix the current deficiencies stemming from not using the Web to its full potential, just as “another medium”. But I think online learning / anywhere learning is here to stay, and the ball is on our court, the prospective life long students.

Adventures into online learning

Last year I tried quite a few new things, and many of those things were quite a bit fun so I will continue experimenting with them. One of such fun thing was a different type of online learning, when I don’t just watch videos and class material already shared at e.g. MIT OpenCourseware and Stanford’s Youtube channel, but I’m actually part of a class, doing real homework, working with real deadlines, taking real exams in the end. And hopefully getting real knowledge too (though that part depends on me more than on the class).

It was possible because Stanford announced 3 online classes for their 2011 Fall Semester: Databases, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence. All three looked very interesting so I signed up for each of them. Since the 2012 Spring Semester will see even more classes, I just take some notes here, how this first truly large scale experiment went.

Stanford classes 2011 fall

Databases

This class was the one I was most hesitating if it’s interesting enough to sign up, but I’m really glad I did.

Database class screenshot
Database class – Relational design theory, the most complicated part, the rest of it was much more straightforward :)

Professor Jennifer Widom turned out to be an excellent teacher, and the material was also very interesting and fun to work with. Their team came up with pretty good infrastructure for the videos, exercises and exams as well. It’s really impressive what they have built in such a short time, under the pressure of tens of thousands of students relying on them (as much as I remember, about 90.000 signed up, though maybe ~30.000 had enough work done by the end to have any score and certificate of accomplishment).

Things were thoroughly explained, the exercises were usually challenging enough to make me think and it was all the excitement of solving puzzles. The exams covered a lot of material, and I didn’t score as high as I expected, though I think almost all the losses can be explained by me not paying enough attention to the questions, or misunderstanding/second-guessing myself.

In the end I had a score of 308 out of 323 (which, looking at the statistics, in the 60-70 percentile). On the other hand, the best part is that I could almost immediately use many of the ideas I learned there about SQL, and the different ways of thinking about databases.

Machine Learning

This one I hesitated about, because I thought there must be too much overlap with the AI class, but actually they had pretty different aim.

Machine learning class screenshot of neural networks section
Machine learning class, there was a lot of math, but with plenty of examples and it made complete sense in the end

Taught by Professor Andrew Ng, this class really went into practical implementations, so could even be called “Machine Learning for the working professional”. Lots of ideas and good explanation how to implement regression, classification, neural networks, and all of these applied to a number of different topics.

From what I’ve seen, some people complained that the programming exercises were too easy, and indeed usually it could be solved in a few lines – for those who mostly already know how to solve it. From experience, my friends who asked me to study a bit together were having much harder time. I’d think more about those exercises as blueprints and guidelines if someone really want to implement some of the algorithms in a real setting.

This class used pretty similar architecture than Databases: 10-18 minutes of videos, 2-4 of those for one class. It was a nice touch that I could speed up the sound, so I was listening to all of these and the other classes at 1.5x speed – somehow that was just the right pace.

In the end I had 79.25/80 for the review questions (forgot to go back to the last one to correct it) and 800/800 for the programming exercises. The best result, though, is that now I’m thinking a lot what data do I have that can be hacked on with the tools I acquired.

Artificial Intelligence

This one was the first class that was advertised, and the most popular, probably because both of the topic and the lectures.

Artificial Intelligence class screenshot
Artificial Intelligence class with its myriad of videos, low tech presentation and interesting topics

If the other two courses were pretty similar in setting and tech, this one was very different from them in almost all respect. There were two lecturers, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig; they were using short, <1 minute to 4 minute videos hosted on Youtube, and up to about 30 of them for each class. Instead of using slides and tablets to “write” on those, they used actual paper and pen, and occasional printouts.

The low-tech presentation was okay most of the time, and it was easy enough to follow what’s happening, but the first couple of classes (before they got the hang of it) was pretty hard to see sometimes.

The teaching skills were not really equal: Professor Thrun explained things really well, I enjoyed his classes a lot and was a quite easy to follow, and his enthusiasm is very contagious. This probably explains what he did after the classes finished – but let’s come back to this later.

Professor Norvig on the other hand, was pretty difficult to follow, jumping between topics and explanations, often felt like he was (probably unintentionally) making things much harder than they really are. Some times the quiz questions asked about things that was said in a rather misleading way or it wasn’t explained yet. On the forums plenty of people complained about it, and I was a bit upset too (how can they make those score count into the final result if they doing it so badly?), but in the end it felt I was often just excusing myself from thinking deep enough about the given problems. It’s Stanford after all, don’t look for shortcuts just fight through.

It was interesting to see how they covered most of the Machine Learning class’ material in 2 lectures, and many of the topics were a bit rushed as well, since there was just so much to say. On the other hand, I had enough initiation to loads of topics and ideas to have a feeling where to follow up if I wanted to.

With score of 95.6% I was apparently in the top 25%, which means there was a really tough crowd taking this class. I have plenty to think about as well, and more hacking ideas.

Future

Of course learning does not stop here, I think it is just an amazing beginning to explore the real potential of online learning, now that someone did this experiment.

More Stanford classes

Apparently the success surprised a lot of people, both at Stanford and outside. Now they have announced about a dozen new classes for the 2012 Spring Semester at Stanford. This time not even just computer science but a lot of other interesting things. They are slightly delayed, supposed to have started this week (I have my note paper prepared) but now will do gradually in February-March. I still haven’t decided which ones to take, 3 of them last time took up a considerable amount of time, but there are just way too many cool ones:

  • Technology Entrepreneurship, this I definitely going to, that’s where my future leads so let’s see what can I learn at this stage
  • Making Green Buildings, architecture is awesome, and I like high tech designs, curious what they can teach
  • Cryptography, this is an all time favorite topic
  • Probabilistic Graphic Models, looking at the schedule there are too many good topics covered, lots of interactive computing and physical-computational world connection
  • Design and Analysis of Algorithms I, algorithms are like puzzles, and there’s never enough of them
  • Game Theory, something to understand the world a bit better and make better choices
  • Natural Language Processing, covered a little in the AI and ML classes, just enough to get me all excited about its power
  • Information Theory, being a physicist, I got a little of this, but just enough to see how powerful it can be and get me hungry
  • Model Thinking, I used to say that complex planning is my favorite past time, this apparently can make me better at it
  • Human-Computer Interaction, this can be very useful, these days technology enables so many new things in the topic and has a lot of hacking potential
  • Anatomy, having a lot of medical doctor friends, I’d definitely would love to know more about this most amazing machine of ours, the human body.

Of course I can only take a couple of them, I just hope the videos will be available for the rest afterwards, so I can catch up with the interesting courses later on.

Udacity

Another development is about Udacity, an online university which was reported a few days ago: Professor Thrun apparently gave up his tenure at Stanford to start this initiative. He must be indeed very convinced about the future of the project to do this. And I think if anyone then he can follow through. Their first courses are Building a Search Engine and Driving a Robotic Car, both of which he has plenty of experience (he was on the team building Stanley, the self-driving car that won the 2005 Darpa Grand Challenge). I’m very curious of what will this become.

Khan Academy

Of course there’s one more big name in the online learning scene, Khan Academy, which is probably aimed at different audience, but also a much wider audience. I had a lot of fun with these other projects, so I want to see more what they are capable of. Salman Khan is also a very passionate speaker and that enthusiasm did rub off me somewhat.

Afterword

If someone wanted to learn by themselves they could always do that. Now, however, it feels it is easier than ever, and one can learn much higher level things than before. I can only wish that the society can become more educated and this more clever and resilient this way. Let’s see what I can do about that too.

(Edit: Just a little bit more about about the changing role and importance (or rather lack of importance) of universities, by Matt Welsh. This link is not agreement or disagreement but food for thought.)