I’m really fascinated by the (fairly) recent boom in new models of online education: Khan Academy, MITx, Udacity, etc. And in fact I registered for, and have started Udacity’s CS 101, Building a Search Engine. Actually I already know how to build a simple search engine, though I’m sure I’ll learn more. Really I’m registered to see how they manage a course on that scale, how these models can impact my teaching, the future (or lack thereof) of the higher ed system, etc. I’m sure lots of others are registered for the same reason. Phil Edwards, for example, is registered for the first MITx course, 6.002x, Circuits and Electronics, for similar reasons.

I plan to report back on my experience with Udacity’s CS 101 here. I have not given myself a set of groundrules like Phil has… instead, I’ll just write. I’ve found that if I give myself too much structure, or try to write lengthy posts, that I never write anything on this blog. So I’ll just write as inspiration strikes. So here we go.

I’m about halfway through Unit 1 of CS 101. (For those of you enrolled, I just watched the video on Grace Hopper and took the first variables quiz.) And so far I’m not disappointed. Far from it, I’m fascinated and compelled. Here are my thoughts so far.

One. I haven’t learned much that’s new to me so far, except that Grace Hopper carries around nanosticks, and a bit about Python syntax. I leaned to write Hello World-style algorithms at age 11, and CS 101 is starting about at that same level. Which is good, since the goal of the course is to introduce CS concepts, and, though the instructor David Evans doesn’t say it in so many words, computational thinking. And that’s fine; I didn’t enroll in this course because it’s all new material to me… I enrolled in it because it isn’t all new to me, and I can therefore pay attention to the mechanisms of the course more closely. I am learning about Python, though, which is a language I’ve thought for a while that I should learn. So that’s good.

Two. The longest video so far has been 5 minutes. Most are 1-3 minutes. That feels about right to me… the 4 & 5 minute-long videos feel long to me. I know that sounds strange, but for whatever reason, some sort of time dilation happens when you watch videos online. Less is more. This is an especially important observation for me today, as I’ve given the students in my Digital Libraries course this video to watch as today’s “reading”… a video that weighs in at a whopping 45 minutes. When I said this to Yvonne about the 1-3 minutes thing, her comment was that most faculty would say that they can’t say anything in 3 minutes… to which the only possible response is, really? Try. David Evans has thus far done a very good job of chunking the content into 1-5 minute segments. Are those segments lacking in some way because they’re not longer? No.

This is more or less what I want to do with some of the content in my Digital Libraries course. For the course last summer, which was entirely online, I made a bunch of videos (very amateurishly), and collected a bunch more, into a YouTube playlist. I’m pretty happy with the content of the videos I made, and have plans for more, but I’m not happy with the videos themselves. They’re too long, for a start, weighing in at mostly 8-10 minutes. For another, they’re too sprawling; I try to cover too much in each video. I suppose this is an argument for more chunking. Clearly I should take some tips from the Udacity instructional designers.

Three. A word on assessments. Assessments of various types are embedded in the course site, in the same space that the video displays. Assessments take two forms: quizzes and writing Python code. The quizzes are single- or multiple-answer multiple choice questions using, radio buttons or checkboxes. These are not factored into the student’s final grade; they’re just self-assessments. While, as I’ve said, the content is so far not new to me, I’m still finding these useful for slowing things down & making me articulate what I know, even if only to myself. As for writing Python code: again, in the same space that the video displays, a Python interpreter appears and you have to write one simple program per assignment, run it, and when you’re satisfied with the result, submit it. It’s then automatically evaluated, which I assume means some algorithm checks that you got the right result. It’s not clear to me if the code itself is checked. Maybe that will become clear later as the assignments get more complex.

Anyway, embedding the assessments in the course site in the same space that the video displays is a neat trick. It makes the experience of the course very clean and seamless, since it’s all right in the same screen real estate. And I’m really curious to know how they embed quizzes into the videos. Yvonne tells me that there are several tools that can do this, including Camtasia Studio, which I have a license for. So I’ll have to experiment with that.

I’ll post this now, before I run out of steam. Stay tuned, gentle reader, for the further adventures of me in CS 101.