Online lectures: Coursera

The fourth and final part in the mini-series about online education.

As tens of thousands of others, my first class on Coursera was Machine learning, led by Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng. It was clear from the beginning that it is a hit.

Professor Ng knows very well how to teach. The lectures were well structured, interesting and the principles of a given topic were communicated effectively. Coursera doesn’t make the same mistake as Udacity; lecutres are usually 10–14 mintues long with an occasional in-lecture quiz. Assignments for the ML course were stimulating and rewarding. Not that taking the ML course will make you a full-fledged data analysit (although some might argue otherwise), but you’ll learn the basics and get pointers to what to learn next.

It’s the same story with the rest of Coursera courses. They are fun and engaging, you’ll learn a great deal and know where to look next if you want to dive deeper in that particular subject.

From the technical standpoint, Coursera is not as advanced as Udacity (e.g. rewinding lecture video is a pain), but they’ve created a great paltform for online education. Plus, they are tailoring it to each course needs.

This, together with perfect content, partnership with top world universities, broad choice of topics make Coursera my online education platform of choise.

For some interesting behind the scenes info, watch this TED talk by Daphne Koller, Coursera co-founder.

Online lectures: Udacity

This is the third part of a short series about my experience with online education.

I took two Udacity courses – Design of computer programs and Intro into statistics.

There are things I like about Udacity and things I don’t. Unfortunatelly, those that I don’t like are the important ones for a online education platform.

The good things are that there are wise people building the platform. Technically, it is very good. I like that they use the Youtube player or the smooth transition between video playback and in-lecuture quizes. In some programming courses, you have a Python interpreter directly embedded in the browser window. They also built relationships with potential employers of Udacity “graduates”. All of this is smart and helpful, yet it doesn’t help with the main problem.

Udacity is not a good place to learn.

In my opinion it is mainly because of the format of the “lectures” – 2 minute videos are just too short and, as crazy as it might sound, I had trouble keeping my attention focused exactly because of this. Two minutes is not enough to pass on any principle. You try to keep it them in your head but the constant video switching suck. It interupts your train of thought.

Also, it doesn’t help that you can’t easily see the code or examples written previously and so you get stuck thinking “Why is it this way? What did the lecturer mean? How is it supposed to work?”. If you are not thinking exactly the same way as the lecturer, you’re going to have trouble following him.

The 2 mintue videos are at the heart of Udacity as you can hear from Peter Norvig in this TED talk, yet I hope they change it, and also improve on the other problems I’ve encountered. Until they do, I’ll prefer sites like Coursera.

Online lectures: Technology entrepreneurship (a.k.a venture-lab.org)

This is the second part in a series about my experience with online education. Some months earlier I wrote about taking a couple of online classes. This second post is about Technology entrepreneurship class.

Spoiler alert – this class was a big disappointment. A waste of time, really.

The promise of venture-lab.org was to form a team and build a company. This fact alone should have been a warning sign, but I was optimistic and eager to try it out.

For the first two assignments, the system automatically diveds students into teams of 10 based on geographical location and language preferences. This worked well. When my teammates were chosen, I sent a first email saying hi to all of them. Just one replied.

The first assignement was that everyone of us should come up with either a best or worst business idea ever. We were supposed to fit it into the business model generation canvas. This was an easy and fun task and was supposed to bind the team together. Unfortunatelly, only one other member (Hi Carlos!) from my “team” participated.

Next, we were given an idea created by some other team in the first assignment and were supposed to create a business pitch. Either a slide deck, a video or a text selling the business to potential investors. Again, as with the first task, only two of us participated. I was starting to get annoyed.

These two tasks, however, were supposed to be just warm-up duties. The “real” would be the next one. We were instructed to create a 3 or 4 person teams (could be from the current teammates or any other enrollees). I sent another mail to my current team, again with no reply but one. Since they have been inactive for the whole course, I decided to post to the forums, looking for a team, advertising my skills. As I should have known, people who responded we’re “business types” looking for a iPhone developer to build their awesome SoLoMo app idea that’s better than Foursquare. I’m not kidding here, this really happened.

Irritated by the whole experience, I decided to spend my time more productively and quit venture-lab.org. This experiment was a failure.

There were also other mishaps resulting from the rest of the teammates not communicating, but I won’t go into details as they are not that important.

Another defect of the class was the organization of study materials and video lectures itself. It was just chaotic. I understand that it is the first year and so I hope they’ll improve it.

Yet I believe the whole premise of this course is flawed. You just cannot pick people at random, put them together and think they’ll build a company even if it’s the aim of every single one of them. If this course taught me anything, it was that building a company is all about people. Surround yourself with the right ones.

Online lectures: General Assembly

This is the first part in a series about my experience with online education. Some months earlier I wrote about taking a couple of online classes. This first part is about General Assembly.

The Fundamentals of Entrepreneurship online course is just awesome. Really. It beats reading articles on HN hands down. It’s the best advice on “how to build a company” I came across. The tutors are experienced and give great advice. Lecures are clear, concise and to the point. Even if you already have started a company, sign up for the coures. You’ll find a lot of valuable info about how to make it even better.

My favorite lecture was on building communities and delighting your customers by Alexis Ohanian. I find this topic very interesting and often overlooked. There’s not much information about it on the web and what Alexis shares is of the highest quality. It almost feels like he’s letting you in on some kind of well-kept secret. Alexis recently published a book on this topic, I highly encourage you to buy it.

If you’re not based in the US, you can skip the class on how to incorporate, but otherwise, I highly encourage you to sign up and go through the other lectures.

The downside is that after finishing, you’ll want more. This stuff is so good it’s adictive. If you’re living in NY, you’re lucky. GA offers a lot more in their space. Some classes are live-streamed, but not all of them. For the rest, you’ll just have to move there.

Any tips on acquiring visa?

Beginning my online education

The world of online education is booming right now. It feels like we’re at the beginning of a major disruption of higher education. Although I don’t think this will put the top universities out of business (but they might have to transform to more of an R&D institutions rather than “only” providing education), I believe the less prestigious universities do have a problem.

The whole boom started with the excellent Khan academy. Salman Khan paved the way and inspired other people to provide education through a web browser to thousands of individuals all around the world. I too felt a hunger for new information and reading HN just didn’t cut it anymore so of course I jumped on board. Here are the courses I’m taking:

  • Fundamentals of entrepreneurship at General Assembly – I cannot recommend this course highly enough. If you’re starting a company, spend time going through the lectures. Seriously, it’s the best you can do for your business right now. I’ll blog about this later in more detail.
  • Design of computer programs at Udacity. This course, together with 3 others, starts April 16th, so you still have time to enroll. Udacity should also provide a Distributed systems course later in the year which I’m looking forward to.
  • Technology entrepreneurship a.k.a venture-lab.org. You can find more about it in Chuck Eesley’s blogpost.
  • Human-computer interaction at Coursera. Although it was supposed to start in January, it has been delayed due to some licensing/administrative issues. However Coursera provides a wide range of other topic. I was also thinking about taking the Natural language processing, which started just recently, but that would be overwhelming. I’ll keep that one for next semester.
  • I also visit pyvideo.org often to learn about new technologies and techniques. The quality of speakers at conferences differs widely, but the topics covered are very interesting. Similary, I found Google Tech Talks to be ok, but usually the name of the video is much more promissing then the actual talk.
  • There’s also MITx, but it’s just getting started. There’s only Circuts and electronics course available at the moment. I’ll pass for now, but I’ll keep an eye on them.

These are, of course, all technical. I’m a developer after all. Coursera promises to cover non-IT topics like chemistry or physics later on. For now, you can find a ton of material on diffrent topics on the aforementioned Khan academy.

I’ll report back with my opinions about each of these courses on this blog so be sure to follow me if you’re interested.