Coursera: educating the world

Coursera is an open online learning platform, bringing free education to the world. They offer high quality online classes from well known schools and universities. Seven weeks ago I started a class called “Functional Programming Principles in Scala” because it seemed like a good way to refresh my knowledge about functional programming. Now the class has finished, so it is time for a little reflection.

Course format

Like real life classes Coursera’s classes have a start and end date. Each week new lecture videos are published, accompanied by a an assignment that is due for the next week.

It was my experience that having this rhythm of weekly work packages and deadlines is a great way to counter the procrastination tradition among students. Every week I’d spend between 4 and 8 hours on the lectures and assignments. Note that one should not underestimate the amount of work an online course like this requires.

The lectures come in a series of short videos of 15 minutes each, which sums up to about 1.5 hours a week. It is not necessary to watch the entire lecture content of the week in one go: I tended to split the weekly work load over a couple of days.
Each lecture video also pauses sometimes to answer a short quiz (just like in a real class), followed by an explanation by the teacher. This allows you to take the time to think about the problem yourself before the answer is given. This is an advantage to a traditional class room as every student can go through it at his or her own pace.

quiz

The assignments are published every week and allow you to apply the concepts of the weekly lectures in an example. They are automatically graded with penalties when you miss the deadline. Because the whole system is automated, you get very fast feedback on your assignments (usually within 5 minutes).

At the end of the course, all students that completed the course successfully, receive a certificate. While this might seem silly to some, it is my belief that we should celebrate our successes: it is what enables to us to move forward.

Functional Programming Principles in Scala

The content of the functional programming course is of a really high quality. In the given time slot of 7 weeks, students get an overview of all the basic techniques used and applied in Scala.

I especially liked the fact that the teacher also explains the more academic principles on which the techniques are based. Sometimes we tend to forget the amount of research that was required to enable us software engineers to do what we do on a daily basis. I found it refreshing to return to the mathematical roots of programming IT systems.
Furthermore, it enables students to get a better understanding and apply the same fundamental principles in other languages that are similar to Scala.

Research

For those of us that also have a interest in research and education, there exists a very interesting talk about the roots of Coursera and the way they are using it to research the human learning process.

Daphne Koller is enticing top universities to put their most intriguing courses online for free — not just as a service, but as a way to research how people learn. With Coursera (cofounded by Andrew Ng), each keystroke, quiz, peer-to-peer discussion and self-graded assignment builds an unprecedented pool of data on how knowledge is processed. (TED.com)

Conclusion

For me Coursera is a great initiative and is well executed: it is very easy to use and has great content. So I’m expecting it to continue to grow at an incredibly fast rate and I encourage everyone to try it out for themselves. The functional programming course is really good and I’m personally looking forward to the follow-up course about Reactive Programming.
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