The response to my blog post on a 4-year university computer science curriculum made entirely of Coursera’s free online courses has been overwhelming, primarily thanks to the reddit community of /r/programming. The members of /r/programming generated well over 400 comments, almost all of which were a positive discussion on the curriculum or online learning in general.
There were a number of valid criticisms of my curriculum. First, a few people thought that I should move Probabilistic Graphical Models to the 4th year and move Machine Learning to the second year. I had picked PGM as one of the available math courses and underestimated the difficulty of this course after reading the syllabus, leading me to put PGM in the 2nd year, and for ML I overestimated the difficulty. Swapping these two courses makes sense.
Commenters on reddit and on the blog wrote that there wasn’t much math in the curriculum. I didn’t see other fitting math courses on Cousera, but I’m sure Coursera will pick up more math courses which could then be added to the curriculum, or could replace a few of the later CS courses that would be considered optional in most university curriculums (some of the image processing courses, perhaps).
Others pointed out that MIT’s OpenCourseWare has an excellent selection of material available for the online student – which is true, there are 2100 courses and counting (although, some of those 2100 courses are different instances of the same course) – but the OpenCourseWare courses largely don’t have recorded lecture, and none appear to have online quizzing, online homework grading, forums, or peer grading, all of which are aspects of the other massive online open courses such as Udacity, Coursera, or EdX. That’s not to diminish OpenCourseWare, which is an amazing effort and in many ways could be seen as the mother of all the MOOCs that exist today. Redditor bstpierre777 used OCW to create a matching set of electives for my curriculum.
Saylor’s computer science curriculum was brought up in a few comments. Honestly, I’d never seen Saylor before. They have (as of October 2nd, 2012) 267 courses available in a variety of subjects and they offer curricula for various subject matter, including Computer Science. I think that’s awesome! A quick look at a few of the Saylor courses makes me think that the Saylor approach is very self-directed; there are no video lectures by a professor, but instead suggested readings, homeworks and tests that the student completes at their own pace. If you’ve taken a Saylor course I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
I think the classes are only part of a complete education. The people you meet in the course of your education (however you get that education) are just as important as the content of the classes. Top tier schools will not lose students to MOOCs because their selection processes create a cohort of smart, talented students that will interact with each other for the rest of their lives. When I attended RIT I lived in Computer Science House, and that community was as valuable as the classes at RIT.
That’s not at all to say you couldn’t get the same experience and value from online learning. The forums for the classes I’ve taken on Coursera have been active with a very high signal to noise ratio (although, some of that signal is answers to homeworks and quizzing, which facilitates both checking your answers and cheating). It’s easy to think that a MOOC like Coursera could have a forum for students in the same “year” of their curriculum, a forum that exists beyond a single class. The forum members would form a graduating class, and while they may never meet in person, it’s not clear that they need to.
I’d like to thank everyone who read the post (and thanks to @jessicamckellar for suggestions, edits and proofreading). I had over 30,000 unique page views from the reddit link and my posted netted 2111 upvotes on Reddit. Online education is clearly a hot topic and I’m excited to see where it goes next and happy to have contributed to the conversation.