Online Learning

I love learning new things. I love learning old things, too. Lifelong learning should be a part of any technologist’s career, especially as the pace of technological change increases, and the average time employees spend at a specific company decreases. In the past, self-directed learning to expand one’s knowledge base was limited to reading books and industry periodicals, attending industry conferences and seminars, or enrolling in classes at a reputable college. With the advent of online learning, however, there are some interesting new ways to keep up with the latest and greatest technology, or finally get quality instruction on the older, more permanent things.

Over the past year, I have spent time exploring several of the new modes of online learning. The topics have ranged from ancient Roman architecture to iOS application development. Here are some of the classes I’ve tried, with a brief description of each. Every one of these is completely free.

iTunes U

  1. Hannibal, Stanford University. This is the full set of lectures from Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program, ARC 123, featuring Patrick Hunt, from the fall semester of 2007. It is a recording of a physical class. It includes 8 audio lectures spanning over 13 hours. Dr. Hunt is an engaging speaker, and this audio series was a thoroughly enjoyable way to pass my drive-time commute.
  2. Roman Architecture, Yale University. 24 full video lectures from Diana E. E. Kleiner covering over 26 hours from (I think) the spring semester of 2009. For this class, the video is crucial to understand the concepts being discussed. The visuals being presented on-screen by Dr. Kleiner are the heart of the discussion. Like Hannibal, this is a recording of an actual class. She also gives good instruction on how to supplement the information presented by exploring ancient Rome (ca. A.D. 320) via Google Earth.
  3. iOS Application Development, Stanford University. One of the most popular classes in iTunes U, this is a video recording of Paul Hegarty’s CS193p class at Stanford during the fall semester of 2011. The materials include 19 lectures (over 26 hours) and the slides. Mr. Hegarty is a great instructor, and this course includes a nice mix of lecture and demonstration with a few decent guest lecturers thrown in along the way. I was also able to find the detailed homework assignments online.
  4. Introduction to Old English, Oxford University. This course is from Dr. Stuart Lee at Oxford University, 2009, and is available in both audio and video recordings – again, recordings of an actual on-campus class. Both come with the accompanying slides. The five lectures cover about 3.5 hours. Dr. Lee is an obvious enthusiast and does a great job of introducing the Anglo-Saxon language through historical documents, modern film clips, and humor.
  5. Developing iPad Applications for Visualization and Insight, Carnegie-Mellon University. CS 05-499/899 with Professor Aniket Kittur, spring semester 2012, is the basis for this course. As of March 8th, there are 13 video lectures available covering 15 hours with slides and homework assignments. The materials are released shortly after each class happens on campus.

The common thread of these iTunes U courses is that they are recordings of actual classes, and you are basically auditing the class, albeit on your own time and schedule (which is nice!). While this is still a good way to learn, there is no interaction with the course or instructors, and no way to receive a grade or credit. In other words, there is no way to check or gauge your understanding of the materials presented. The next examples all break from this model in one or more ways.

Khan Academy: Math.

Salman Khan has become well-known in the education community for inventing the “flipped classroom” via his free online math tutoring site Khan Academy. This site was built to teach math concepts – from addition to advanced calculus and differential equations – by presenting a short video lecture explaining each aspect of the topic, followed by any number of instantly-graded drills to ensure understanding. The site has been used in grade schools to supplement, and in some cases replace, the traditional math curriculum. The students watch the short lectures for homework, and then work on the drills in class where the teacher can help fill in any gaps in understanding (hence the “flipped classroom” moniker). Today, the Khan Academy covers thousands of topics across mathematics and other subjects including sciences, business, arts, test preparation (for the SAT, for example), economics, history, and government.

Hillsdale College: Constitution 101.

Hillsdale College is currently (spring semester 2012) offering a free online course on the U.S. Constitution and other founding documents. It is similar to the iTunes U courses in that it is a collection of video lectures, but this is not video of an actual class; they are made for this online course. It is now in the third of ten weeks. Each week consists of a lecture (usually around 40 minutes) and downloadable reading material, both released on Monday; and a recorded video Q&A session which uses questions submitted by the online community after the main lecture, released on Thursday. Each week also includes a multiple choice quiz which is instantly graded upon completion.

Udacity (beta): CS 101 – Building a Search Engine.

Udacity is a new venture by Sebastian Thrun (formerly of Stanford), David Stavens, and Mike Sokolsky, who all “believed much of the educational value of their university classes could be offered online for very low cost.” They are officially still beta, but offered two classes so far this year (20 February 2012): Building a Search Engine and Programming a Robotic Car. I’m enrolled in the former class, and I must say that I am very impressed with the technology as well as the course content.

First of all, each unit is broken into 30 or so short lectures (2-6 minutes each), most of which have a short check-for-understanding activity immediately following (multiple choice question, fill in the blank question, or write a short snippet of code). The video is of a hand writing on a white board, but such that the hand appears behind what is being written. It sounds weird, but it looks like magic and is surprisingly effective! The check-for-understanding activities are instantly graded. All code is written in a Python editor and interpreter embedded in the browser, so the student never leaves the context of the Udacity web site. Each week’s unit is followed by seven or so homework assignments, some of which are questions but most of which require more advanced programming using the concepts learned in the lesson. There is a deadline for homework submission, and it is graded only after the deadline.

The web site supports a vibrant discussion group for each class, and teaching assistants moderate the groups and help out as needed. Each week also features an “Office Hours” video in which the teacher and assistants answer some of the more common or interesting questions from the discussion group. The pace of the course content is fairly rapid, but these support mechanisms seem to be well-equipped to help a determined student keep up. There are reportedly over 90,000 students from around the world enrolled in these two courses.

Even as beta, Udacity is really nice. My degree was in computer science, and this is (so far) as effective a way to teach programming as any that I’ve experienced.

I have yet to find any full-length courses on systems architecture or strategy offered for free via iTunes U or elsewhere. A search on “systems architecture” in iTunes U gives no results. A search on ‘strategy’ in iTunes U will yield dozens of hits, ranging from business to game strategy. I narrowed the search to “product strategy” which yielded only about a dozen matches, but these were all collections of short topics, each only a few minutes long.

Even so, I love the wealth of both formal and informal ways to learn online. We truly live in amazing times!

Do you know of any quality, full-length, free online training resources for architects or strategists? Let me know below!

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