complaining about a free online class

I took ai-class and am currently taking saas-class.  In the forums, I feel like there as been an inordinate amount of complaining.  In ai-class, it was about the grading of homeworks/exams “not being fair.”  In saas-class, it is about being expected to learn Ruby and having deadlines.  And technical issue during the quiz.

Both classes are free and you don’t get university credit.  Which means any grade you get is just for you and has no impact.  So why all the discontent?  If you get something wrong without actually being wrong or mis a due date, your “grade” goes down, but not your knowledge.

In college, I liked taking my liberal arts classes “pass no credit.”  As a good student, I wasn’t worried about failing.  Knowing I’d get a “pass” let me enjoy learning and not having to think about the grade.  That’s the feeling I get in the classes online now.  Enjoyment learning.

I bought the book so none of these classes was free per se.  But it was the absence of a grade that counted that mattered.  In a way this is similar to why coding on your own is different than the coding you do at a job.


stanford’s ai class final feedback

I just completed the “final” for Stanford’s free online course – ai-class.  Ironic to post this the day after Stanford dropped their bid to come to New York.  It was taught by two Stanford professors – Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun.  I’ve sprinked my impressions througout the description.

How I found out

I found out from a student on the Stuyvesant high school robotics team.  There was also an article in the New York Times in August.

Why I took it

The topic sounded interesting.  I went to graduate school online and participate in the online forum  I know that I enjoy learning while having the opportunity to discuss (or read discussions) from my classmates.  And I was very curious how the experiment in a massively distributed class would work out!  It went well.

How it worked

Area What I liked What could be better next time
Lectures 1-4 minute video segments.  Makes it easy to watch partial lectures at a time.  Great for busy people! I live in a good bandwidth area.  If I didn’t (or was traveling) a downloaded version or text dump would help.
Quizzes I loved the interactivity as you went.  When I was in college, I actively participated in lectures and it helped me learn.  I missed that in online classes and you completely nailed it!  I have no problem with asking things that haven’t been covered yet – it makes you think.  I also liked how later in the course, the professors started sharing if a quiz was meant to be easy or hard so you knew if you were overthinking. The only thing that bothered me on the quizzes was the tab order being broken, but this was fixed.
Homework Built well with what was learned in class.  It helped me realize what I didn’t understand as fully and also to understand better. Would have liked some more programming/application.
Midterm I liked that it could be printed because I was out all day Saturday and was able to do part of the exam on the go.  I liked that it was over a weekend since there was less than a week to work on it.  Effort != duration.  I don’t reliably have 3-4 hours during the week to do it. It was easier than I expected.
Final I liked that the questions were harder than the midterm in that they required more understanding. On the midterm, I found the PDF to be equivalent.  On the final, I felt like there were some tips/pointers in the online version that were not represented in the PDF.
Programming The two programming assignments was fun. I also did some programming to calculate values, check answers and just play with some of the concepts. It would have been nice to have more of these.  Or even link to the programming assignments for the “real” class.
Forums There were two forums: reddit and aiqus.  I started on reddit because I already used reddit for other things.  I then switeched to aiqus when links for each lecture/question started appearing on Making aiqus the official forum earlier would have helped.  While it was well moderated, I feel like it was running into a limitation of the stack exchange (I presume) software.  In particular, during the exams, the large # of closed questions drowned out discussion.  I would have also liked to see some more discussions like we had in grad school rather than “how do I solve #1.”  One way to faciliate that is to have an official question of the week linked to from the course.  For example, “how could we apply X to Y” or “discuss stanley; the robotic car”.
Progress Bar The stie has a tab where you can see your progress.  You could see your score on the quiz/homework/exam along with what % of the week’s lecture you have completed. The biggest thing I would change is to provide a list of what you get wrong. (I was informed you can expand the score to see this. I guess minor usability thing since I missed it). I want to know which questions I got wrong way more than I want to know my score.  I had to rewatch each homework question to find the things I got wrong so I could learn why.
Announcements The home page had announcements like corrections and due dates.  Having due dates prominent helps.  And even though scores don’t matter, the course is heavily cumulative so you can’t really fall behind.  Plus discussions vary on the progress of the course. Some corrections were posted on the home page and some were not.  Others were quietly made on twitter/facebook/in the question itself.  Would be nice to have this centralized.
Office hours I didn’t participate. I can’t possibly have feedback on something I didn’t look at!

My measure of success

I know a lot of things I didn’t before the class started.  That is *much* more important than the score.  While I did buy a used copy of the 2nd edition of the textbook, the class itself was free (and buying the book was optional.)  When I started, I figured I would try it and see if I wanted to stay with it.  Every week I learned a lot and it was enjoyable so I stuck with it. I enjoyed learning the theory.  In particular liked how it applied to robotics and language processing.

How I did

I’d like to repeat the part about learning being the important part here.  When one says that someone often chimes in “oh, that’s just because you didn’t do well.”  So I’ll share that my average is in the mid 90s.  (Not including the final which isn’t due yet.)

My comments to the upset people

  1. If you got something wrong, don’t make excuses. Getting it wrong is about learning. Even if it about communication.  Even if the “communication error” was at the Stanford end.  In the real world you communicate with people or unclear and ambiguous.  It’s a valuable life skill.
  2. Making mistakes it good.  Especially in a situation where it doesn’t matter.  I like to say that I’d rather make mistakes on CodeRanch than it work because the effects are smaller. Same thing here.  This doesn’t count towards your job or degree/GPA.  The only thing that matters is what you learn.  Getting something wrong makes it memorable.

What’s next?

They ended the class with a little humor such as a quiz question “did you understand?” (yes is the correct answer) and a homework question asking how Stanford did in the  2005 DARPAUrban Challenge (they won – an accomplishment the instructions should rightfully be proud of.)

A lot more courses are being offered next semester.  See the full list at class central.  I signed up for Human Computer Interaction and Software as  Service.  Two might be too much but I’m not clear on how much they overlap since the # weeks isn’t specified.

Other opinions

A lot of people wrote comments on the web.  My favorites:

  1. a perspective from Association for Learning Technology
  2. Seb Schmoller’s weekly comments