Coursera: World-Class University Courses Online

My recent favorite site is Coursera.

In a nutshell, they team up with leading universities to create online courses, each comprised mainly of short video snippets of the lectures. You can ‘enroll’ in a course (one of various subjects) and take part in ‘quizzes’ as part of a pre-defined timetable, or you can just watch the videos whenever you feel like it.

Mock timetables are as expected quite efficient and popular in helping people commit to study plans; previous efforts to provide online courses (such as Stanford’s Databases course and Machine Learning course) offered not only a set timetable and a Q&A forum and exercises, but even an auto-checking and -grading mechanism for the exercises, to further incentivize the participant and allow feedback loops. Auto-grading is almost expected when dealing with a technical matter (where the exercises often result in some actual code being written, which can easily be tested) but I would argue than any subject can be formalized into an auto-testable format, at the very least in the form of a multiple-choice test. AFAIK the courses offer either mock credentials upon completion or none at all, so there is little reason to cheat. (Although plagiarism does exist sometimes; see e.g. here)

I’ve always been interested in teaching techniques, and it’s fun to see this huge advancement. This is a step forward from just “let’s put a webcam in the classroom during the lecture and then post the video online”; the snippets are each 5-15 minutes long (short enough to easily concentrate on), and most of the time the video is centered on a dedicated whiteboard displaying slides on which the lecturer can draw (with a special pen), displaying his comments and marks immediately. Pretty much the way I’d want it to be like… (a transcript of the lectures would be good, though, as many people read faster than they listen, certainly when ingesting a new subject which requires reading multiple times).

Coursera certainly aren’t the first in their field — Stanford (and others) had already been offering some form of online courses, Khan Academy is better-known, and Udacity is similar. Slowly but gradually things are changing, and one day even universities in Israel might have to change their arcane ways of teaching everything orally “live”.

On a personal note, I’ve been trying to get to study Andrew Ng’s Machine Learning course on Coursera. Updates on that as events warrant.

So anyway, go on and check it yourself — no excuses now for a bad education other than your own laziness. 🙂