Does Your CS 101 Enrollment Exceed 200,000?

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Udacity MOOC Courses
Udacity MOOC Courses

Udacity’s Computer Science 101 course enrollment exceeds 200,000!   The Udacity MOOC university-level Computer Science courses are free, scalable, interactive, collaborative and motivating.   The Udacity MOOC model of educational delivery is arguably more effective and egalitarian than the traditional brick and mortar campus.   The MOOC will flourish.   Will traditional campuses survive?

If I taught high school Computer Science today, I would flip my classes, enroll my students in Udacity’s Computer Science courses, become “teacher as facilitator and coach of learning”, and happily forgo the staid, utilitarian role of “teacher as purveryer of content and keeper of the status quo”.

Why walk when you can fly? Why baloney when there’s caviar? Why stroll the mall when you can hike Kanasnakis Country?

Why spend time and effort to physically attend costly, inconvenient, low tech lectures when you can effortlessly manipuilate a multimedia, virtual, polished production at leisure with little if any marginal cost?

Why interrupt speakers with questions that others may have already resolved when you can iteract on your own schedule through forums and remotely though dyadic and group video meetings?

I love movies. I was rivetted by my first really “authentic” 3D movie experience, Avatar. I cannot imagine anyone presently duplicating that experience physically in real time in live theatre.

Avatar Filight Lessons
Avatar Flight Lessions

The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) delivery leverages technologies of the Internet and offers effectively “free” univeristy courses that now enroll millions of students worldwide!

Are teachers prepared to abdicate their traditional roles as vessels of cured content pouring sacred, scarce knowledge and hallowed wisdom into scalps of not-always-eager student charges? Are teachers prepared to morph into collaborative coordinators and techy facilitators of strategies and resources and curious communities? Therein lies the present challenge and future education to educators at all levels!

Enrollment in UDACITY CS 101 has surpassed 200,000 students. Has UDACITY found the key to successfully teaching the Computer Science MOOC online? After viewing bits of the UDACITY CS 101 course, I found it more exciting than other MOOC courses that I have examined. The UDACITY CS 101 introduction to computer science is the most exciting Computer Science MOOC that I have seen yet and more exciting than most Face-to-Face (F2F) courses taught on campuses today.

There is the marginal cost of Internet access and computer technology which pales compared to costs of traditional brick and mortar campuses. The MOOC is doing more to equalize opportunity to quality education than all the NGO projects in history because … it is cheap, convenient, scalable and … now … interactive and collaborative … and thus … effective! A MOOC may not be necessarily more effective than physcial, real time instruction. The day may come when we witness a Michael Jackson of teaching, someone with the money and student fan base that would make real time education as compelling as a rock concert. In the meantime, MOOC education is rapidly strutting it’s stuff. It will supplement and perhaps replace traditional eduation … and it will happen fast … really fast!! Udacity is the cream of the moment, but it is only the beginning.

One Sunday morning (18 November 2012) while watching my favourite talking head televison program, Fareed Zakaria GPS, Fareed aired an interview with MicroSoft’s billionaire founder Bill Gates about American education. In passing, Gates commented that, while early MOOCs only offered videos of traditional ledtures, Udacity engages students through interaction and collaborative tools such as bulletin boards. This was the first that I had heard of Unacity, but having examined it’s courses and pedagogy, I am quite certain that Computer Science teachers will hear much about Udacity in the future.

I reproduce below the portion of the Zakaria-Gates interview that is relvant to this discussion, but read the full transcript of that GPS episode here.

GPS Zakaria Interviews Gates 11 November 2012
GPS Fareed Zakaria Interviews Bill Gates 18 November 2012

ZAKARIA: How transformative or disruptive do you think these — what are called MOOCs, which many people, many viewers would have seen, which are these MIT courses or Stanford courses that you can just watch the whole course?

GATES: Well, it turns out once you graduate from college, the number of people who pine for (inaudible) long lectures, I’m in that market, but it’s very small. So then they made them free and still it was a very small set of people who benefited from those courses. Now it’s been added in the last couple of years, which is causing this change in energy is two things. They don’t just have you sit and watch a lecture for 30 minutes or 60 minutes. They do a few minutes and then they engage you. So like the Udacity (ph) Physics Course.


GATES: PH-100 is that great example where he makes physics fun and you’re always thinking, oh, do I understand that or not? Let me go back over this. And so that interactivity piece is new and it’s clearly phenomenal. The other thing is that if you have a lot of kids taking the same course, you can use collaborative tools like bulletin boards for their reviewing each other’s work, answering each other’s questions. And the leverage of the paid staff is extremely high, because of instead of working one on one, they just review this peer- to-peer engagement, making sure it’s not going off course, that it’s not, you know, incorrect, so the students are getting high quality. And, so, it’s very promising. But we have to admit the last two times people thought technology would change the space, it didn’t happen. And so far the courses have mostly been taken by, you know, a very fairly elite set of people. So I’m a huge believer in it. The foundation is funding a lot of activity.

ZAKARIA: And it does feel like the answer. I mean given the picture you’re describing is one where education is really important. There is going to be a huge pressure on costs and public funding, and all of that is drying up and here you have this innovation, this innovative technology that can allow you to achieve scale and get these courses out. That’s going to be inevitably the way – the place we go.

GATES: I agree. But, again, the status quo is very powerful in education, and so going to a university and saying, hey, these online courses are so good, we don’t need you to do lectures anymore, so all of your tenured – non-tenured staff who do lectures, you’re out of that business because that will just keep improving online. You’re more for these counseling sessions and the lab sessions. There is very few universities that are at such a tough place that they’re willing to kind of go, wow, we’re, you know, going to – going to do it over. And the ones at the top are not going to change. In fact, you know, they probably don’t need to. We need, you know, some sort of state schools that say, OK, there’s a crisis out there, and so we’re going to adopt these new techniques. And we’re just barely seeing that.

Early MOOCs were poorly produced videos of standing heads delivering traditional lectures to a room of dutifully attentive students, but there are two educationally disruptive characteristics in even those MOOCs that are changing delivery of education forever.

  1. A MOOC is open to all. Most MOOCs have been “practically free”. The cost of Internet access and computer technology are marginal costs already borne by most homes in the developed world and rapidly becoming available everywhere else.
  2. A MOOC is scalable. Stanford University’s Introduction to Artifical Intelligence, registered 160,000 students. That is when we knew that technology and globalization would conspire to make the MOOC a paradigm shift in teaching and learning.

The Udacity MOOC adds two planks that make their MOOC courses compelling.

  1. A Udacity MOOC is interactive. Brief presentations are interspesed by quiz questions immediatley followed by commentary on the correctness of responses. This is an established, effective teaching strategy, as evidenced in the earlier but very effective “page turner” Kjell Java Tutorials.
  2. A Udacity MOOC is collaborative. Udacity currently uses forums with great success. One can imagine more intimate interactiion through online dyadic and group video calls.

Udacity’s MOOC courses, in keeping with MOOC traditions of MIT, Standford, etc, make all resources freely and immediately available on the web: presentations, interspersing quiz questions and solutions, problem sets, final exam questions and solutions! When you follow the links below to each course, you will find two tabs: “Enroll” and “Preview the Class”. Click the tab “Preview the Class” and you will find all of the resources, organized by unit, in the right column.

Udacity offers Introduction to Physics (PH 100), Introduction to Statistics (ST 101) and How to Build a Startup (EP 245). The rest of their MOOC courses flesh out an impressive feast of Computer Science fare.

Udacity computer science courses use the Python computer programming language as their language of instruction.   Python is the language du jour.   It doesn’t have the wealth of teaching resources of C/C++/Java as yet, but it is a great teaching language.

Nnotice that Artificial Intelligence (CS 373) – Programming A Robotic Car is an advanced course. High school robotics is fun but does not replace the profoundly important foundation of a high level OOP language and algorithmic development. Robotics done properly is an advanced, mathematics intensive discipline.

Udacity’s Beginner’s Course:

Udacity’s Intermediate Courses:

Udacity’s Advanced Courses:


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About the Author:

Gerry Donaldson was Calgary’s first high school teacher to use a lab of personal computers. Born and raised in Calgary, Gerry taught Computer Science, including AP and IB Computer Science, for 30 years before consulting and teaching with the Department of Computer Science at the University of Calgary.
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