About a month ago, The New York Times declared 2012 the year of the MOOC. That’s Massive Open Online Course, in case you haven’t come across the term yet.
Given how much time I spent enrolled in MOOCs this year, I kind of knew this already. But for those now dipping their toes into this phenomenon, here are the top 5 things I learned this year.
1. MOOCs are addictive. Like seriously addictive. You think the internet is distracting now. Wait until you’re juggling the demands of the five fascinating Ivy League courses you signed up with through Coursera. I’m kidding, but not entirely. Somewhere around July I found myself wrestling between my Code Year resolution with Codecademy and my determination to complete the Studio Track of Stanford’s Human Computer Interaction course. What began as a five week project soon stretched into something closer to eight weeks as Stanford realized how unprepared most people were for the work involved in field researching, building, testing and peer reviewing a web app. I did it. But by September I was burnt out. Had I not dropped out of Machine Learning after half a video and made a firm decision to bear down, I never would have grocked Python (or learned the word “grock”). So if MOOCs are something that might interest you in 2013, make a resolution now not to become a MOOC slut.
2. MOOCs are an awesome way to meet people in your home town. This is especially true if you live in a tech oriented city. If there isn’t already a meet up somewhere in your town in the subject you’ve become interested in you can probably start one. Or you can start meetups specifically around the course you happen to have enrolled in. Those meet ups will no doubt lead to other meetups. After organizing the first Code Year meet up in Montreal, I met and introduced people who went on to put on the first Montreal Maker Faire. The interests I cultivated through that venture led me to WordCamp Montreal, Semantic Web meet ups, MTL Girl Geeks, MTL Girl Hackers, to mention only a few groups I discovered over the year. Problem was I was so over enrolled in MOOCs, I often couldn’t go to all the things I wanted to.
3. MOOCS are like running. They’re free. They require little expense or equipment. They’re outside the usual parameters of civilized life. You make your own challenges. You feel your strength, endurance, and confidence build. You’ll want to quit right before you reach the finish line/personal goal/personal best. But if you bear down, you’ll learn the effort is really worth it.
4. MOOCS are like a treadmill. They can be a great stepping stone to real life learning. If you’re shy of university life for whatever reason, or you want to try out a subject first to see if it’s for you, MOOCs are great. But at a certain point you need to find an entry point into the complexities of real life learning. That might be a meet up, a project independent of what you’re learning in the MOOC, or, in the end, a classroom course in that subject. If MOOCs are your only source of learning you’re going to get bored.
5. MOOCs are especially great for women. At one point this year, I came across a popular tech ed blog, where it was speculated that the gender ratio of MOOCS were probably not much different from those in regular Computer Science courses. i.e dismally biased towards men. I’m not convinced that’s true. Almost all the people who showed up to my Montreal Code Year meet ups were women. My experience of peer review in the Coursera HCI course is that there were many women in the course. And, while I don’t know the numbers, I feel safe speculating that MOOCs will be a significant factor in restoring gender balance to computer science. (Yes I did use the word RESTORE.)
MOOCS in my experience are a great gateway to equity. This isn’t to say that societies should abandon a commitment to traditional learning. We’re all going to have to be careful to make sure that MOOCs enable low cost high quality learning, not undermine it.
But I’m from Montreal. Here we march in the streets and bang kitchenware to keep university tuition fees low. As a result one out of two Montreal university graduates are first generation (i.e. the first person in their family to go beyond highschool), by far the highest ratio in North America.
The MOOC can be an excellent learning path, and can do much to fill the equity gap, but it will never be a substitute for a deep social commitment to affordable higher learning.
Click on this portrait of the teenage Ada Byron to learn about her contribution to the history of computer programming.
By Andy Robertson
New art forms are polarizing. We love or hate Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde animals or Tracey Emin’s unmade bed but roundly understand that avant garde art has value, the artist trying to challenge us and make us think something.
Video games draw similar fire. Detractors hem and haw that they’re all about shooting guns and wasting time, and worry about the harm they may be doing that we haven’t identified yet.
Python is killing me.
Python is all empty space. And while the basic logic is still there, why do all computer languages have to do things differently?
Mostly, I guess I just resent that it’s hard. Which is probably a life problem, not a Python problem. Why do we always think that life is going to get easier? I’ve been baby stepping my way through, but I’m falling behind. I was on track to finish Code Year on time, and every week my percentage of completion is getting a tiny bit lower. I feel like a marathon runner who’s fading in the last mile.
Must. Get. The. Passion. Back.
Yesterday I was thinking about the programming satori experience that got this blog rolling. I remember how I felt after I got through the Snake Eyes challenge. The world took on this complex, computational beauty that I never would have seen If I’d given up . For the week after that challenge I was thinking in code. I felt enlightened, stronger.
I’m sure Python has something to teach me too. I just have to be willing to re-commit and set a challenge to make up the ground I’ve lost.
One of the advantages of being the mother of a twelve year old is that I have many inspirational Hollywood movies to choose from in this mission. A scene from the Karate Kid remake comes to mind. The one where they visit the Taoist monastery and Jaden Smith learns that the snake is not controlling the nun. By copying its movements the nun is controlling the snake!
There is some profound metaphor in there that I don’t quite understand yet. But I will find some way to make that allegory work.
Because if I’ve learned one thing from a year of learning to program, it’s that it’s usually right at the point when nothing makes any sense that the magic is about to happen.
As the longtime editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, the author of The Long Tail, the proponent of the concept of "freemium," to name just a few of the things that he's known for, Chris Anderson is well-renowned for having his finger on the pulse of trends just as they're starting to coalesce into movements.
So, inquiring minds want to know: What is he obsessed with right now?
Melissa Marshall has a message for scientists and engineers: Contrary to popular belief, the general public is interested in your work and does want to hear the details of your research. The trick is that you must communicate your ideas clearly, because they will start snoring in their seats if you assault them with a slew of jargon and details they’re not prepared to understand.