why i usually like books over video

A teammate was discussing the “wonders of learning from video” yesterday.  Which got me thinking.  I generally like learning from books/articles best.  This would be text with illustrations/diagrams, not raw text.  I like reading better because:

  1. It is easier to go at my own pace.  (While you can speed up video, it takes more energy to listen to fast.  And I don’t want it uniformly fast. I want to be able to stop and re-read.  Which is a pain on video.)
  2. I find it easier to find information in text.
  3. I can later search text if electronic.  Or have “physical presence” cues if hard copy.

That said, I’m enjoying some of the MOCC courses online.  Some being the operative word.  A video has to be done right to be good.  (As does a book; it’s just that books tend to go through more editing.)  I’ve noticed that the videos I like tend to be less than 5 -10 minutes in length.  With quizzes or exercises in between or in the middle.  I think the interaction helps.  It is easy to see if I understand what is going on so far.  And to revisit select parts.

Live/in person video doesn’t have the negative side effects that recorded videos do for me.  I think that is because the presenter can adjust real time.  Either by seeing reactions or looking at visual cues or answering questions.  It still feels interactive even if a high percentage is lecture.

When creating documentation

When looking for general information, there are many forms and it is relatively easy to pick the format one desires.  (Although books are more common than videos on specialized topics.)  In a company, the cost to produce internal documentation often precludes doing both.  It’s also harder on the creators to do video because:

  1. Content needs to be searchable (I suppose a video transcription could allow this.)  This is the same reason text in an image should be available in pure text as well.
  2. Producing content for video consumption is very different than merely recording an in person training session.  The focus is different.  The “real time clutter” needs to be removed.  The screen needs to be shown with a different emphasis.  It’s not something to just do on a whim.
  3. Video can’t be watched while on hold, on a conference call, etc.  Granted these aren’t the ideal times to be learning, but it does happen.  Again subtitles could help with this.

What do you think?  How do you balance text vs video for technical content?

coursera saas-class and mitx circuits class feedback

After AI-Class, I blogged with some feedback.  Over the past month or two, I took saas-class and MITx 6.0002x.

How I found out

I found about saas-class from comments at aiqus – the AI-class forum.  I found out about the MITx course via an e-mail from a friend.

Why I took it

Software as a Service is a hot topic and I was curious what they would teach about designing for scalability.  Even before the class started, it was apparent the class was really about software engineering practices using Ruby.  It seemed like a cool way to learn a little Ruby and tools like Cucumber.  It turned out I had a real world friend along with two fellow coderanch moderators in this class.

The MITx circuits class was less work related.  I took a hands on circuits class and was disappointed on the lack of coverage of concepts/how things work.


For SAAS, the main pre-req was knowledge of at least one object oriented programming language.  Check.  I’m a Java developer.  This pre-req was important in the course as it moved too fast for someone who has never programmed before.

For MITx the pre-reqs were calculus, linear algebra and first year college physics.  I did take all these classes.  However, I haven’t used much of them since college so I didn’t really have the pre-reqs in my mind.

How it worked

Area Coursera – SAAS MITx – 6.002 Circuits
What I liked What could be better next time What I liked What could be better next time
Lectures 5-15 minute course snippets.  The videos were a bit jumpy but still possible to follow. I felt like there was too much overlap between the lectures and the book.  I read the book and this caused me to gloss over some of the later videos. Tended to be longer, but still a reasonable range.  Good snippets as well and broken up as needed.  I liked the switch between lecture (powerpoint), human face and demo. Bookmark your place more clearly.  Your position in the lecture sequences was marked but it was hard to see and you had to know what to look for.
In lecture quizzes Quizzes were short multiple choices to make sure you understood the lecture. The AI-class and MITx quizzes tested deeper knowledge.  As did the saas-class exam type quizzes.  Bringing some of that rigor to the lectures would have made it more interesting. These were well thought out exercises.  You could submit as many times as you wanted or see the answers and backfigure from there.  There were excellent forum discussions on the exercises as students posted worked answers. Provide a built in walkthru for the early ones?
Homework I think the homeworks were by far the best part of course.  They were well crafted to reinforce/try/play with the material.  They gave you a sandbox that was big enough to play in but not so big as to flounder around in.  The auto grader which allowed multiple attempts help avoid any perceived ambiguity. The only thing I would change is that the auto-grader was up late for the last assignment. The format was similar to the quizzes in that there were unlimited retries.  The big difference is that the answer wasn’t available until afterwards. The content was more challenging and checked your understanding.  There were also virtual labs where you could build circuits which was really cool.  The homeworks/labs also generated different sets of numbers making it harder for people to cheat. There was some reports that the virtual labs were too sensitive.  I didn’t run into this problem personally though.
Exams The exams were timed multiple choice quizzes.  They were a good way of seeing how much you retained in a quick manner. On the last quiz, I got a longer quiz and then when I submitted “it was gone.”  Going back I was presented with a shorter quiz as if I had never been there.  I would have liked the answers to the first one. While the exams haven’t actually occurred yet, the announcements say they will be like the homeworks except you can only submit three wrong answers (as opposed to trial an error around) and you only have 24 hours from when you start to complete it.  I like this idea.  It’s a natural progression. n/a
Book Choice of e-book or printed book.  On a very beta book.  The book was good though so I don’t mind. The book was only available in certain countries. The book went well with the course and let you go into more detail on concepts/understanding. Aside from being expensive, this book was difficult to find.  I ordered it several weeks before the course and barely got it in time.
Forums The forum was built into coursera.  It was a bare bones forum and organized by “general”, “assignments”, etc.  The forum moderators did create a new forum for study groups when it became apparent that was causing clutter. I didn’t like the forum.  Part of it was the large number of stickied threads for long periods of time.  Part of it was the lack of contrast between read and unread posts.  And I suspect part of it is was the subconscious missing of features I reply on in other forums. I really like the forum.  It is powered by askbot and has a lot of the features I like in stackoverflow – tags, showing tags, hiding tags and voting.  It also has badges, karma and an easy way to see your topics/posts. At the beginning of the course, hardly anyone had enough karma to delete posts including those that contained answers to the homeworks.
Progress Bar If you click on assignments or quizzes, you can see your scores. There was a lot of “click to expand” needed to see all the information at once. A page clearly showed how “done” you were.  It gave a percentage for homeworks, labs, exams and non-credit quizzes in the lectures. Minor, but it would be nice if the homework/lab scores linked to the homework/lab.
Announcements The home page had announcements.  Kind of.  Most things were “announced” in the forums or by editing a paragraphs long text area.  Only a few announcements had a date. The announcements had a feel of the plans were “on display” in the basement of the planning office, where both the lights and stairs had been removed, in an old filing cabinet locked in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard.”Yes.  They were there.  But it took a lot of looking and re-looking to ascertain what was new.Source: Hitchhiker Guide Useful, timely and ordered by date. n/a

My measure of success

For SAAS, I know more than I did when I started the class.  I got to do some hands on development with Ruby and Ruby testing tools.  I got to participate in an online forum with fellow learner.

For MITx, I did learn two and a half weeks of material.  And it was great to see how they did it.  Between being shakey on the pre-reqs and not being at home at all for three of the first five weekends, I had to declare defeat.  This is not the course’s fault and I imagined it would happen.  I wanted to try it out anyway.

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.  For SAAS,  I don’t know my exact score because I didn’t calculate it.  (I’m not clear on exactly how they count the quizzes.)  It think it is somewhere between 85 and 90 though. For MITx, my score is 7%.   Seven percent is two weeks of 100%, one week of partially done and then all zeros.

What’s next?

SAAS will be running a part 2 later in the year.  And a lot more courses are being offered.  See the full list at class central.  I still want to take Human Computer Interaction.  Which conveniently didn’t conflict with SAAS!  I’m also thinking about Udacity 253 – how to build a blog with the creator of reddit.  It seems to cover some of the scalability concerns I was hoping for in SAAS.  That will also let me take a look at Udacity – the third major provider.

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 coderanch.com.  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 ai-class.com. 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