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2012-06-04

Udacity Transfer Student

I switched schools yesterday. I transferred from Portland Community College to Udacity. Majoring in Computer Science, naturally.

It was remarkably easy to do. No muss or fuss about admittance or transcripts. I went online, looked at the price of four online classes from the community college:

I selected the classes and clicked drop.

Then I signed up for four very similar classes I want to take (or will once they open up) on Udacity and Coursera. I may do as many as six. All for free!

This past year, I have been taking classes online from the same community college. Generally two classes per term, since I was working full-time, a mixture of business and computer science.

Don't get me wrong. These classes have been good. I've learned a lot. Their web platform is the pretty decent Desire2Learn. Some instructors have been helpful, some have been distant. But as I said, I learned a lot. Mission accomplished.

Also during the past year, I have been messing around with MIT's Open CourseWare and Stanford Engineering Everywhere. These courses have been good too.

But all these initial forays into online learning brought a vague sense of disquiet. There was something missing. Something hard to pin down. Or something that was hard to pin down. The possibilities of browser learning are so vast. And these first attempts were so small. After my first course at Udacity, the shortcomings became blindingly obvious:

  1. Not built for the browser: These courses were designed for learning in the flesh, a combination of lecture, small groups, and independent work. But learning via the browser has unique possibilities, possibilities I did not even suspect before I took my first Udacity class.
  2. No feedback: These courses let you self-grade your homework. And that's about it. As with Math, CompSci is a subject that lends itself to self-evaluation. But there is more than evaluation than success or failure. While my solutions worked, I knew there were much better solutions. I could see the better solution provided in the solution examples. But there was no explanation of how the better solution worked or why it was better.
  3. No peers. To explain things to each other in person. To talk about which instructors were good, which bad, which classes to take next. To commiserate, to drink, to flirt.

These missing elements are absolutely crucial. And like Stanford and MIT's attempts to throw their classroom learning online, the current online classes offered by public universities and for-profit universities mostly suffer from the same shortcomings. They try to replicate the classroom experience online. They don't embrace the browser as an opportunity for a new kind of learning.

Udacity features short, interactive assignments that provide immediate feedback. They have excellent discussion boards, that are genuinely helpful and interesting.

So far Udacity seems to do it best. But the distance between it and the others is relatively small. The true gulf lies between the old classroom learning online and this new browser learning.

In addition to the problems that browser learning solves, it also features plenty of unique advantages. For one, with browser learning, the course material is far superior: do you want to take a course on web application programming from someone who built a webstore for the local bikeshop? Or do you want to take it from the creator of Reddit?

Also, did I mention browser learning is free? And likely to remain so forever, except perhaps for some limited fees for certification. The costs of browser learning are a pittance compared to the costs of classroom learning. Endowments, grants, and sponsorships will handle them easily.

In many ways, I feel fortunate to have taken the path I did. For it has turned out to be, against all odds, nearly optimal. I got a Bachelor's and Master's in History from a classroom university. It was a good education. The classroom university was, after all, originally created to teach written and verbal argumentation, and it does that very well. For written and verbal argumentation, the browser is not going to displace the classroom university anytime soon. But it will be a supplement and partial replacement.

For technical subjects like math and computer science, the situation is quite different. Especially for the lower levels, browser learning will be the dominant path, and classroom learning the supplement.

Perhaps not for all universities. The rules are (as always) different for rich universities. Browser learning may not replace the classroom learning there, for cost is much less of a motivator. But for online courses at poor state universities and for-profit colleges? I can tell you from firsthand experience: Udacity is already better.

This coming summer term will be the first time it will be possible to take a full course load in Computer Science, in a browser, at a single university (Udacity). And all the browser universities are adding courses in computer science faster than any single person can take them. Soon, the offerings of Codecademy, Coursera, and edX will all be just as extensive and excellent as Udacity.

I'm going to be one of the guniea pigs, one of the first to get a Bachelor's in Computer Science from a browser university. Or if not a Bachelor's, whatever the profession settles on as the functional equivalent.

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Problems Yet To Be Solved

Shortcoming #3 is a biggie:

  1. No peers. To explain things to each other in person. To talk about which instructors were good, which bad, which classes to take next. To commiserate, to drink, to flirt.

The discussion boards are good, but no replacement for the camaraderie and give-and-take in classroom universities. But maybe the students themselves, not the institutions, are best suited to address this particular shortcoming. Enter the colloquium. The dictionary definition is,

colloquium: an informal gathering for discussion

In the academic context these often take the form weekly gatherings at a bar for informal discussions between students or colleagues of a certain field.

If you are down for coming to a colloquium in Portland for local browser university students, leave a comment or shoot me an email and we'll get something rolling!

Also, if you want to start or have started a colloquium in another city, please drop me a line. I'd love to link to it and talk about how you set it up!

Edit 2012-06-14 Updated cost to four courses, i.e. a full load. Minor style tweaks.


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