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.
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?
As computers have gotten more complex, even tech literate users have become detached from the basics of how they function. This is what Shimon Schocken and Noam Nisan noticed with their computer science students in Israel. As Schocken explains in this talk from TEDGlobal 2012, the pair decided to have their students build a working computer, from the ground up, so that they would “understand how computers work in the marrow of their bones.” They broke down the process into a series of bite-sized, stand-alone units.
The open-source programming world has a lot to teach democracy, says Clay Shirky.
In this fascinating talk from TEDGlobal 2012, Shirky harkens back to the early days of the printing press. At the time, a group of “natural philosophers” (who would later adopt the term “scientists”) called the Invisible College realized that the press could offer a new way to share and debate their work.
The best thing I did at the inaugural Montreal Mini Maker Faire last weekend was solder my very own LED pin. Ben didn’t want to go anywhere near that soldering iron, and I’m glad I didn’t cajole him into it. He has wonky fine motor skills and I burned myself at least once. A simple little flashing pin took me half an hour, after I’d fixed up all the goopy metal. And even then I kind of got it wrong (I slotted one of the conductors backwards). Still, getting a concrete sense of the labor that goes into making stuff we throw away without thinking, has really been an eye opener. As was sitting around a table with a group of first world mothers and their daughters, and thinking of all the families around the world that actually do this all day for a living.
A sobering thought. Good thing there was a bar right next to the soldering tent.
Kidding. I don’t drink and solder. But there was a bar. Our Montreal Maker Faire was an afternoon event that preceded a music festival at the Olympic Stadium. We overlapped by a couple of hours.
The main tent had some very cool exhibits. Videogames hacked in all kinds of bizarro ways, hooked up to playdough, skin sensors and voice sensors. There was the usual array of 3D printers, eggbots, steampunk, robots and innovative DIY toys. I liked tweletype, an old fashioned teletype machine hooked up to twitter.
On the upper level there were quadracopters, camera obscura, home made bikes, and the Concordia women’s engineering department reconstructed a replica of the brooklyn bridge out of K’Nex.
But Ben’s favourite event was the Quidditch workshop, overseen by the McGill Quidditch team (current national champions!). Here’s the golden snitch, giving the kids a pre game rundown:
The game ends when someone grabs the tennis ball from his tail.
This weekend I went to WordCamp here in Montreal. I didn’t go to both days because Saturday was Ben’s birthday.
It had occurred to me, when I first heard about this gathering of the wordpress community, to see if I could sneak off in the afternoon. But then, over at SkillCrush, I read these wise words from an experienced lady programmer: nothing is ever important enough to miss your child’s birthday.
We had a great day on Saturday, hanging out, playing Little Big Planet and video game shopping. Sunday morning when I headed off to WordCamp, bright and early, I was brimming with healthy ambition. When I saw the number of people struggling through hangovers from the Saturday night social, I had no regrets.
Hangovers notwithstanding, the energy at WordPress camp is so warm and nurturing and fun, I vow to make this a yearly ritual. And hopefully next year it won’t conflict with another one.
In the morning I went to the developer presentations:
At lunch I had a great chat with the developer who has adapted Word Press for Post Media, one of the largest media conglomerates in Canada (National Post, Montreal Gazette). One of the things he pointed out is how little envy there seemed to be at WordPress camps. Unlike other conferences where networking always has a kind of edge, there’s so much work these days for developers, the vibe is open and generous.
In the afternoon I went to presentations that were a little more local, content oriented, and French, so I won’t summarize them here. But at the end of the day I was so impressed with the whole WordPress organization that I found myself trawling through their job postings.
The one that caught my eye, Happiness Engineer. What an awesome job title. If I understand the job correctly, it’s enlightened customer support. Requirements are good writing skills, a working knowledge of HTML/CSS, and compassion for people grappling with information technology.
Maybe I’ll apply. But in the meantime, I have my own little startup here at familycoding, and the job of Happiness Engineer has just been filled.
Yesterday we took a break from python and had some fun with the “x-ray goggles” at Mozilla’s Hackasaurus. This is a great little tool that helps kids learn HTML and CSS by allowing them to mess with what they see in their browser.
X-ray goggles allow you to scan the different sections of the page, see the HTML/CSS code, and change it right there on the page. The first exercise is to download the url for a ”Serious Cat” picture and change the girl for the cat.
Once you’ve done your first hack, you can drop the goggles into your bookmark bar and head out onto the web and mess with other websites.
Ben’s first choice was the official webpage of Lady Gaga :
I thought Usher could use a little serious cat treatment.
It was inevitable that Ben would eventually start hacking my websites:
Fortunately only what’s in the browser gets altered. The actual website is safe.
Imagine a web where cats could learn to code….that could get serious.
This week at Codecademy we started Python.
First off, where is the crazy making syntax! Oh, those first weeks of JS, where every rule was such an affront to my sensibilities as a writer. Semi-colon over use. Periods in the middle words. Capitalization of second words. In the early days, my brain rejected JS like it was a kidney of the wrong blood type.
Python is made for writers and I’m guessing much better made for families. It’s also made for people with a sense of humour. The name of the language comes from Monty Python, which makes it particularly appropriate for my family. My mother went to Oxford, and was once in a skit with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Bragging over. She played the American girl with a nice rack. Still, British comedy was pretty much a side dish at dinner where I grew up.
Python tutorials are known for their cultish flourishes, and use “spam” and ” eggs” as introductory variables. Over at Skillcrush, (an exceptional ed tech startup directed particularly at women), I recently learned that Python is used for sites like Youtube, reddit, and Yelp.
I can’t tell you much more about the language, since I only started learning it yesterday. But in keeping with our theme of comic relief, here’s the funniest thing I’ve seen this week. Yelp reviews read by actors. Just an example of the joy that Python is bringing to the world: