Saturday, July 07, 2012

this is something new and beautiful: Coursera and Udacity

Just last week, I finished the coursework for Coursera's machine learning class. It was great! I had a really good time with it, and I'm fairly proud of the accomplishment.

If you've been within earshot of me in the past few months, you probably know that I'm really excited about Coursera and Udacity and their ilk (including, but not limited to, edX, Khan Academy, and Duolingo). There are two experiences I'd like to contrast with taking a course on Coursera.

Some years ago, I was living in Atlanta and working a real job. And I went over to the Georgia Tech math department to see about taking some masters-level statistics classes, imagining that they would let me pay them lots of money in exchange for taking classes at the university where I had just graduated months prior. But it turned out that they wouldn't let me do this without being admitted for a full-time degree program.

Fewer years ago, I was starting my PhD at Indiana, and knowing exactly what I was there to learn, I picked out three classes: one on NLP, a computational linguistics class (from the Linguistics department), and one from Stats. I got a mild hassle from the department about my choices: these were all "fun" classes, and shouldn't I work on fulfilling my breadth requirements? I've since finished my IU coursework, and let me say: not all the classes I had to take as a result were very interesting, or even very well taught. Some were downright bad.

But now there are free online courses that are meant to be good, such that you take the ones you're interested in taking, as opposed to expensive in-person courses that may not be good, but you're obliged to take them anyway -- this is huge.

Whether or not you think that teaching in person is going to stay relevant, not everybody has access to good teachers in person. This remains true even for people at universities.

Moreover, online classes lower the barriers to entering or leaving a course to almost nothing. Want to sign up for a class just to try it out? Nothing could be easier! Don't enjoy it, or it's not what you thought it was, or find out you're busy with other stuff? Nothing lost, try a different one! But if you stick it out and put in the effort, then not only have you learned something, but also you get a certificate that says you finished! (maybe these could be OpenBadges sooner or later...)

There are going to be lots of bytes spilled about these things in the coming years, but just to make it clear: I'm jazzed about helping people who want to learn things get access to material about those things. And the World Music class is starting up soon, which my mother and I are going to take! Because why not?