Previously I mentioned that I intended to do a free calculus course through Coursera. That got delayed so I looked around for another option to fill the time…
Udacity.com is part of the growing crowd of organisations providing free online university level courses. Udacity's courses are heavily biased towards computer science. If you want to brush up on your programming skills you're in luck. If you're looking for anything from the humanities in particular, look elsewhere.
One novel twist to the free online education “thing” is the addition of a job placement programme. Their set of courses is quite tightly focused on an area with strong employment prospects. It makes sense that their involvement should not end with the final exam. I'm not sure if they're making a few dollars by acting as an employee/employer dating agency. If they're not, maybe they should be.
Students can complete courses, receive grades, make their profiles public and upload a resume so that employers can find them. If an educational institution is focused on an area with commercial utility and running courses that allow desirable future employees to be identified then playing an active role in the hiring process makes perfect sense.
All courses are self paced so you're able to make your way through the topics and exercises as quickly or as slowly as you like. I certainly appreciated that when I had to take a few weeks off because of a family emergency. While something is lost by not having a group of peers proceeding through the activities together, the flexibility is handy.
While computer programming is my profession I was looking for something a little further outside of my comfort zone. I decided against taking a course on algorithms or software testing and decided to take Introduction to Physics.
The course delivery is somewhat similar to a traditional classroom. An instructor lays out the material, pausing occasionally to ask a question to check that the class is still awake. The tone is informal so its perhaps its a little more like a friendly tutor delivering one on one instruction.
The explanations provided in the videos are very clear and are coupled with easy to understand images and diagrams. The carefully crafted videos are worlds apart from the ad-libbed world of Khan Academy. The lack of umming and ahhing and use of preconstructed example problems instead of having to wait for Khan to come up with an example problem on the spot make the videos feel more well designed. Not to mention shorter.
The video displays in an embedded player. When a question is reached, the page reloads and displays an image from the video with text boxes placed where you should type in your answer. After typing in an answer you are told whether you have it correct or not. The grading can be a little flaky. Little things like supplying too many decimal digits or adding units to numbers can incorrectly cause you to be told that you have the wrong answer.
The replacement of the video player with a picture of the last frame of the video so that text boxes can be added is a little clunky. I can see what they're going for and I don't have a better idea for how to achieve this effect. Perhaps html 5 will come to the rescue. On a slow net connection waiting for the page to reload to essentially display a single text box can be aggravating.
At the end of each unit within the course is a problem set. Personally I think the difficulty of these problems is pitched fairly well. Some are quite simple but they escalate quickly into being challenging. I'm finding it quite pleasant to have to spend some time working through a problem on a notepad, getting it wrong and having to try again. Like most people I suspect, I'll remember more if I struggle for a while rather than cruising through without breaking a sweat.
There are a few of the problems in each problem set marked as challenge problems. They mostly live up to the name. They frequently inspire lengthy discussions in the forums that make for interesting reading. Deciphering the methods used by other students is as educational as solving the problems yourself.
Here is an example of a typical problem so you can see how it works for yourself. Designing a roller coaster.
At the time of writing I haven't quite finished Introduction to Physics. I have less spare time than usual these days so I've progressed slower than I was expecting. I am however enjoying myself and will continue.
If you are considering taking Introduction to Physics I'd suggest first going to Khan Academy and working through the Trigonometry exercises. Trig is used extensively in Intro to Physics. The Khan Academy exercises go well above and beyond what is required but that just means that you can focus on the physics instead of getting hung up on the maths.
Udacity is an interesting mix of old and new. The technology is new(ish) but the instruction will feel familiar to anyone who has ever been in a classroom. They're just automating the old process of “here's how it works, here's some homework.” There doesn't seem to be any bold experiment in teaching apart from maybe the scale at which they are working. While Khan Academy is pushing the envelope with novel activities Udacity is still firmly in the “figure it out and type the answer in the box” camp. What they do have is well thought out instruction backed by challenging problems, a tight focus on a specific marketable subject area and possibly the ability to create a bridge from learning to employment.