Coursera's CS101: A (Complete!) Course Evaluation

Cross-posted at Inside Higher Ed

I did it! I made it all the way through a MOOC, submitting the final assignment in Coursera’s Computer Science 101 this afternoon.

I seem to have a penchant for signing up and dropping out of these massive online classes. I never made it too far in the CS 101 course offered by Coursera’s rival Udacity. Oh, I have the best of intention when I enroll in all sorts of open education opportunities, and I start courses with a fair amount of enthusiasm. I follow along for a week or two, and then, for a variety of reasons – life, the universe, and everything – my commitment fades away.

But I swore I’d stick this particular Coursera class out to the end, and honestly I have to say that that’s what got me through – a commitment I made to myself. It wasn’t the design or the content or the pedagogy or the platform. It was me and my refusal to quit. I tried to be more organized. I added “homework due” to my calendar and purposefully scheduled time to work on the class. All this sounds like a “no-brainer” when it comes to taking a course, but it’s been incredibly easy for me in the past to ignore the requirements of MOOCs as my participation isn’t mandatory, let alone noticed.

When I tuned in to the last lecture by Stanford CS professor Nick Parlante today, I was actually a little surprised that we'd reached the end of the course. I wasn’t really paying attention to the length of the “semester” (6 weeks in this case), and as such I wasn’t really making a mental map of how much and how far I had to travel to make it from beginning to end. The class was enjoyable and the time in it passed quickly. But I can't help but wonder about my uncertainty about the duration and direction in classes – I felt this before in Udacity. I wonder if it contributes to my feeling lost and rudderless in these MOOCs.

When I wrote my (admittedly partial) course evaluation of Udacity’s CS101, I said I liked its project-based focus and the short duration of its videos (2–5 minutes in length). I didn’t mind the frequent quizzes. And I liked the instructor, University of Virginia professor David Evans. I said I “wasn’t sure” about the level of difficulty, the forums, or the “robot-grader.”

I am sure about those those latter elements now: robot-graders can be incredibly frustrating, and forums can make for poor learning communities.

In many ways, my evaluation of Coursera’s CS101 is similar to my evaluation of Udacity’s introductory CS course: I liked the professor; I didn’t mind the homework.

I did really miss the project-based focus that the Udacity class offered (it had students work towards building a search engine). The Coursera class felt very much like a traditional lecture-based class, just one broadcast online. Indeed, some of the videos were Professor Parlante’s lectures at Stanford, although most of them involved him talking into the camera, sharing a split-screen with his lecture notes. That’s a different filmic techique than the Udacity CS101 lectures, which were shot over-the-shoulder so you can see Professor Evans write and code. The videos for the Coursera class were much longer than Udacity’s too – 20+ minutes of lectures sometimes. (Ugh.)

One of the questions I had about the Udacity CS101 class was what exactly constitutes an introductory computer science class. I admit here to no disciplinary knowledge of what that should be, and perhaps there’s no right or wrong answer. But for me the Coursera class struck the right cord. It covered a lot of fundamentals: bytes, bits, networking, security, variables, strings, Boolean logic. It tied these concepts to manipulating images, sound, and spreadsheets. It covered a lot of material over the 6 weeks. A survey course, sometimes I felt it ran through too many topics too quickly. Maybe that’s a good thing though: I want to learn more now.

Professor Parlante noted in his final lecture that there isn’t a clear “next step” for me. At least, there isn’t a Coursera CS102 for me to enroll in. He made some suggestions of what to pursue next: working with spreadsheets, perhaps, or HTML5. Perhaps an introductory programming class. My first thought when he said that? Perhaps it’s time to try Udacity CS101 again.



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