Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): Udacity

hen30xjvWelcome back to our series on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Today we are taking a look at one of the largest platforms in the field, Udacity. In case you missed it, we’ve already looked at the MOOC phenomenon in general and what to expect when enrolling in an MOOC. We also looked at one of the other big players in the space, edX.

Udacity is on a mission to bring ‘accessible, affordable, engaging, and highly effective higher education to the world.’ Quite a lofty goal but when your organization is built around the belief that ‘higher education is a basic human right’ it makes perfect sense. Udacity was founded by Sebastian Thrun, David Stavens and Mike Sokolsky who are Udacity’s CEO, President and CTO respectively. Stavens is a computer scientist graduate of Princeton and Stanford and part of the NASA’s Mars Rover team while Sokolsky is an electrical engineer and Stanford robotics researcher.

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However Thrun, a Google Fellow, Stanford Research Professor and former director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL) is in some ways the father of Udacity. It all began with a Stanford University experiment in which Thrun and another professor named Peter Norvig offered their ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’ course for free online. More than 160,000 students enrolled from 190 countries in that initial course and Udacity was born in the wake of the experiments success.

The name Udacity comes from the company’s desire to be “audacious for you, the student,” something that offering free courses certainly shows. As of this writing, Udacity offers 22 active courses largely in the computer science and web development realm, but the catalog is diversifying and offers several mathematics courses, introduction to physics and one business course called How to Build a Startup. It looks a bit like a one stop shop for launching your own web or software company if you were so inclined.

Signing up is easy and only requires your name and email, or you can click to sign up with Facebook or Google credentials. As soon as you’re logged in, you’re presented with a snapshot of the overall course catalog divided into Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced courses which acts as a ‘getting started guide,’ but you can easily browse all courses to find one in particular.

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Each course has a summary page to give you a taste of the subject matter and a look at the course instructors before signing up. For my test run I checked out Introduction to Physics, taught by instructor Andy Brown, an MIT graduate. I have to say, Andy’s intro video is well done and much more exciting than some others.

Signing up for the class takes one click on the aptly named ‘Take Course’ button. From there you are launched immediately into the first lesson which starts with another intro video from Brown. The course itself is a series of videos broken up by short quizzes after each section. Unlike the previous course I showed you from edX, this is an online only course and there are no videos of classroom lectures. Instead each lesson video is essentially a voice over as Brown explains and demonstrates concepts through a sort of digital whiteboard.

This course in particular is unique in that Brown has paired his lessons on basic physics principals with a discussion of the people who conceived of and proved them. For instance, the first lesson focuses on principals discovered by Archimedes, so you get a brief lesson on who Archimedes was and what his major contributions to math and science were. Brown also sprinkles in interviews with Enrico Giusti, Curator of the Garden of Archimedes, a museum dedicated to this legendary physicist.

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Skipping between these ‘chapters’ of each lesson is very simple, and each chapter has its own area for discussions where students can ask questions and a section for ‘Instructor Notes’ if clarification is needed. A drop down menu lets you jump between lessons and also contains problem sets, learning resources and even the course’s final exam.  This kind of quick navigation makes it simple for users to jump around within the course or come back afterwards to reference particular lessons or proofs. However, on the first read through it’s not only easy, but recommended that you simply follow along as the Udacity interface carries you from one lesson to the next.

One difference between the Udacity and edX interfaces is the discussion section. As I noted above, Udacity has discussion areas attached to each video in each lesson. This allows you to be incredibly granular in your discussion or questions by attaching them to the specific material you are struggling with. However, this also divides the discussions and makes them harder for students to find and participate in. EdX swings in the opposite direction, with one discussion forum for the entire class that spans all topics and questions. It seems to me that Udacity’s model is the equivalent of raising your hand in class, which is dependent on an attentive professor while edX’s model is closer to a discussion section course with a more broad focus. Just like the real world though, both models are useless without strong student participation.

Udacity has a strong and growing course selection and a very streamlined interface. I believe that as their course catalog grows, and the Udacity staff gains learning’s from student feedback, they will likely expand their interface to accommodate more customization by professors to fit their course material. In the mean time however it is quite simple for most anyone to pick up and use immediately. Udacity has done a great drop of keeping the barrier to entry as low as possible to make it quick and simple for any prospective student to get started.

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