Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Free on-line college-level computer science classes.

What do you want to learn today?
Starting last fall, Standford University made three college level computer science classes available on-line for free covering Databases, Artificial Intelligence, and Machine learning. These are actual courses with a set schedule, video lectures, graded assignments and quizzes. Previously lectures and course materials had been made available freely on-line. However, this is one of the first attempts to offer a full, structured course.
I followed along with the database class since I never took a formal class in databases. I was extremely impressed with: the format, the experience, and the potential for change. I was also incredibly impressed with Prof Widom, who appears to have a true gift for being an educator. She makes the delivery of the class seem effortless, which belies the enormous number of hours that must have gone into producing the course materials.
A good overview is Professor Widom's blog post:
There is now a for-profit company, Coursera, that is commercializing this style of on-line learning. There is now for Spring 2012, a much wider range of classes available.
Armando Fox and David Patterson delivered a very ambitious class on Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), that provides a slice across agile software engineering, web development using Ruby-on-Rails, cloud based deployments and many software engineering tools. It aims to take students through a very fast paced, realistic slice of a complete development experience. This is opposed to the traditional method of teaching one technology, one silo, at a time. It's still early to tell, but I suspect students who learn this way will be much more productive developers, much sooner.
Professors Fox and Patterson are developing a book, Engineering Long-Lasting Software: An Agile Approach Using SaaS and Cloud Computing that covers this slice of topics. The book is in the alpha stages now. I recommend reading at least the free sample chapter and preface. They've reviewed over 60 books on agile, ruby, rails, etc. in order to come up with the material for the course and book. The first run of the class was in March 2012. They are going to do a second run in May 2012.
A Computer Science 101 class is to start April 23rd, 2012. The class is taught by Professor Nick Parlante. I've recommended it to a number of people with no previous computer science background. The class will be using a simplified version of javascript and browser tools. I'll be following the feed back from the people I've recommended it to.
Not to be left out, MIT is also offering a free course in electronics via MITX: MIT's new on-line learning initiative. While I'm interested in learning as much as I can about electronics, I decided not to try this course after reading the prerequisites. This appears to be a very formal class in the theory that's very heavy on math and physics. I unfortunately don't have a good math background.
When talking about free on-line learning, it is also worth mentioning the very impressive Khan Academy. Wikipedia's description:
The Khan Academy is a non-profit educational organization, created by American educator Salman Khan. With the stated mission of "providing a high quality education to anyone, anywhere", the website supplies a free online collection of more than 3,100 micro lectures via video tutorials stored on YouTube teaching mathematics, history, healthcare and medicine, finance, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, economics, cosmology, organic chemistry, American civics, art history, microeconomics and computer science."
While this is all very exciting now, it will be interesting to look back five to ten years from now to see what the effects of the wealth of free learning materials will be.

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