Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Whole New U

Kevin Charles Redmon / May 23 2012

I decided to go back to school because I was underemployed and mind-achingly bored. I decided to study computer science because I was tired of not knowing how the Internet worked. And I decided to go to Udacity because I was broke.

Udacity is a free university ... that offers “massive open online courses”—or, MOOCs—to anyone with a decent Internet connection and a little self-discipline. Founded by Stanford roboticist Sebastian Thrun ... Udacity’s first class offerings appeared this February. [snip].


To get a glimpse of wonderland, I enrolled in Udacity’s CS101: Building a Search Engine, with tens of thousands of other students from across the globe. [snip]. On the screen appeared Dave Evans, a computer scientist at the University of Virginia. Over the next seven weeks, his goal was teach newbies like me enough Python—a basic programming language—to build a mini Google. No coding experience was required, ... . [snip].

In video lecture, we covered the history of computing, from 18th century mathematicians to PageRank—the magic algorithm that powers Google—and I began writing code the first week. [snip]. Through Unit 1’s 40-odd exercises, quizzes, and lectures, I learned how to talk to the computer in a language and syntax it would understand. [snip].

I could, of course, spend years learning Python, and CS101 probably doesn’t teach me the breadth of skill I’d want before adding “Programmer” to my CV, but the work required was no joke. [snip].


Attrition rates aside, MOOCs are hot in Silicon Valley right now. No fewer than five sites now offer academic courses, including Coursera ...  and, most recently, edX, a joint venture between MIT and Harvard. Unlike Udacity, Coursera is sourcing lectures from a consortium of Ivy League schools, among them Princeton and Penn. (September’s catalog includes an introduction to American poetry, as well as Greek and Roman mythology.) EdX, ... , will make its platform open-source, so that colleges anywhere can borrow, adapt, and use it.

MOOC students don’t receive official college credit, but, as Udacity and Coursera have already shown, edification is its own reward. And the universities get something equally valuable: reams and reams of data about online learners. [snip].


Udacity isn’t concerned with students who fall short. Its creators are busy trying to help those who ace every triple-gold-star problem and never miss a quiz ... . These are the people that Udacity hopes to help recruit to talent-hungry dot-coms like Google and Amazon—and take a cut in finder’s fees. VoilĂ ! Udacity pays its server costs, and students who’ve never seen an ivy leaf find programming work in the States.

I caught a break when Evans announced, mid-term, a change in Udacity policy: our final grade would either be averaged from the weekly assignments or based entirely on the final exam ... . [anip].

The exam consisted of eight regular questions, such as writing a program to decide whether values a, b, and c, were identical, and three “gold star” problems, such as tweaking our homemade search engine to handle multiword queries. [snip].


A week later, an email appeared in my inbox. Hal was pleased to inform me that I’d been awarded a “certificate of accomplishment with high distinction.” Udacity wouldn’t be passing my CV on to Google’s recruiters anytime soon, but neither was I the dumbest kid in the class. My PDF diploma lacked ornate Latin script or a university seal, but looked very official nonetheless. It even had a cute little robot on it. I printed it out at the library and tacked it to the wall above my desk, for the days when I feel like the digital world is passing me by.

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