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May 10, 2012

Missionaries and Cannibals

I'm currently studying two courses. They're both MOOCs; massive open online courses. The Wikipedia article on MOOCs is rotten and very out of date. They're exciting at the moment because some famous universities, and extremely interesting lecturers, are getting involved in them. This form of study is good for me because it's free, and it's very convenient, and because abilities like google-fu and forum participation are very handy.

It feels extremely disruptive. People keep saying 'oh, but it won't take the place of traditional undergraduate residential study'. And it might well not, if you're a first rate university. But it seems clear that lectures delivered this way have the potential to be far better than the more mediocre sort of university teaching. Credentialing will come; perhaps not for a year or two, but it will come. And at that point, people are going to start wondering what exactly they get for their money with full time residential study.

I'm studying the pilot MITx course from MIT, 6.002x Circuits and Electronics. It's a largely unamended MIT sophomore course; prerequisites are some calculus (I'm rusty but I've found the maths very soothing and easy), and electricity and magnetism, which in theory I did at Cambridge but I didn't exactly pay attention. Anyway, whenever I get stuck I stop, read around the issue, and Google. Try doing that with a real lecturer.

The other course is CS212 from Udacity. I know amazingly little about programming. I think it's mostly an accident of fate, but anyway. Time to sort it out. Unlike MITx, Udacity isn't an established university; it's a for-profit startup. That allows it quite a lot of flexibility in what it delivers and how; and it's doing bite-sized eight week courses (hexamesters, they call them). The introductory course, CS101, was straightforward (though I did get a bit stuck on the bonus hard questions in the final exam). I had a choice of followup courses, but I have chosen to do 'Design of Computer programmes'. The lecturer is Peter Norvig, Google's Director of Research, and the course is jolly good but I'm finding it quite dense; and last week's unit was just a bit too hard for me.

Anyway, all of that was just preamble to what I was planning to say, which is that I'm going to put some course jottings on the blog. I finished unit 4 of CS212 yesterday. Unlike unit 3, it felt like it followed on tidily from what had gone before. Starting with puzzles such as 'I have a 9 pint and a 4 pint container, and a barrel of beer. How can I measure exactly 6 pints', and 'there are 3 missionaries and 3 cannibals, who need to get across a river in a boat...', we developed code to solve first those specific puzzles, and then general puzzles requiring an effective search.

Today: week 9 of MITx.

Posted by Alison Scott at May 10, 2012 07:40 AM


"And it might well not, if you're a first rate university. But it seems clear that lectures delivered this way have the potential to be far better than the more mediocre sort of university teaching. "

This is a common conflation that the government keeps making but there is no evidence at all that good teaching mostly exists at "first rate" universities. Actually, the evidence is often the contrary (see QAA scores in the past): first rate universities often give more research leave so those excellent professors aren't there.And you don't think they were employed for their teaching skills do you?

Posted by: Farah Mendlesohn at May 10, 2012 01:28 PM

That sounds fascinating.

And I agree - for many people the "education" part of university and the "growing up away from home" part of university have become needlessly intertwined. I suspect that things like this will change that.

(I'm not sure if that's actually good though. Moving away from home did me a lot of good.)

Posted by: Andrew Ducker [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 10, 2012 06:44 PM

Farah: you're quite right of course. What free online access to university education might do is start a worldwide discussion about what good university teaching looks like and how to nurture it. There are certainly already lecturers who are becoming big internet stars (in a small way) because of the quality of their lectures. Richard Buckland at New South Wales is one, and Walter Lewin at MIT another.

Posted by: Alison Scott at May 10, 2012 11:53 PM

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