Online Education with Coursera

21 Jun

I think it’s pretty safe to say that my readership doesn’t come anywhere near that of Jeff Atwood or Joel Spolsky, but I do awant to apologize nonetheless for the utter lack of content over the past few months. That said, I am going to comit myself to writing at least one post a week for the duration of the summer (for something a little more intense, see Alexey Komissarouk’s blog post, so we’ll see what interesting things come out of it. Should be fun.

So this first one is going to be a review of my experience with taking an online course with For those of you who don’t know, Coursera is a quickly expanding online education platform that serves up online courses from places like Stanford, UC Berkeley, Princeton, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania (ya, I though you’ve heard of them).  All signs point to them adding more resources from more schools.

Given that I have some spare time this summer when I am not at work, and given that I can only take so many courses during a school year (plus the fact that Yale doesn’t offer CS courses in certain areas), I decided to give it a shot. I’ve tried online learning in the past, and I usually have lost interest/have not stuck with the course all the way through, mostly because there is no one mandating that I do the work, and it is all too easy for my mind to wander while watching a video.

This time was different.  I took the Software as a Service course offered by UC Berkeley professors David Patterson and Armando Fox.  Essentially, the course teaches web development with Ruby on Rails, teaching key concepts like Agile development, behavior/test-driven design, and service-oriented architecture.  In one month, I learned more about web development than I was able to do all year, and I had a number of lingering conceptual questions fall into place.  David and Armando are great professors and deserve kudos for putting together a great course (this is the second iteration of SaaS), and a lot of my learning resulted from the thoughtful way in which they prepared the course materials, but more importantly, the platform Coursera created led to a much more engaging and ultimately educational experience.

The first thing that sets Coursera apart from other online education resources like MITOpenCourseware, KhanAcademy (as a side note, you should watch Salman Khan’s commencement speech at Rice), and others, is that these are real courses.  yes, MIT provides all of the course materials (including exams and answer keys) to go along with videos, but Coursera provides all of that, AND they have the participation of the professors who created the courses, answering questions by email and on forums. And oh yea, did I mention it’s free?

I think the reason Coursera is and will continue to be successful is that they took a traditionally static online education model and made it dynamic.  Through forums that are actually tended to by volunteer TAs, questions that are actually answered by professors, and homework assignments that are actually graded by an autograder (for a programming assignment or quiz) or a real person, they added a level of human interaction and reality that has thus far been lacking in free online educational platforms of this scale.  That the video lectures are posted week by week, rather than all at once, that my homework assignments have [real] deadlines — each of these contributes to an experience that strikes a balance between being serious and enjoyable.

So that’s my take. What are your thoughts?

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Posted by on June 21, 2012 in General, Programming


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