Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Now my 11 year old tries Stanford's Computer Science Course

This post was originally published at Forbes.com on 27th June 2012.

A couple of months ago, I wrote about my 11 year old son’s experiences in taking Stanford’s online Game Theory course. It was a challenging course (at or above the level I teach my own MBAs) and while he fell just short of the
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 01:  (L-R) Jason Tanz, New ...
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 01: (L-R) Jason Tanz, New York Editor, WIRED and Sebastian Thrun, Google, Stanford, Udacity attend Wired Business Conference in Partnership with MDC Partners at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on May 1, 2012 in New York City. (Image credit: WireImage for Wired via @daylife)
seventy percent pass grade, he learned a lot and was subsequently able to apply game theory in the field (supposedly for charitable purposes). In the end, his experience taught me quite a lot about how far online education has to go to be really significant.
First, one cannot simply take a standard University course and port it to the online format. This is what the Game Theory instructors experimented with to see how costly the transition might be. But the result was rather bland, highlighting the inadequacies of many University instructions — something that I’m sure the professors involved more than compensate for with lively classroom discussion in the corporeal version of their course.
Second, and related to this, the online format requires us to rethink the pace of lectures and also the rationale for assessment. Assessment deadlines can really help people keep up with continuous learning but if they are unforgiving, as they often are when assessment is also an incentive device for performance, then they can detract from opportunities to learn and master. The Khan Academy has famously moved towards mastery as the chief role of assessment and I think that this is something online courses should build themselves on.
The Stanford course was offered on a platform called CourseRA. But that wasn’t my son’s first preference for online learning. He wanted to do computer science. It wasn’t initially available but no sooner had he finished the exam for the Game Theory course that he immediately enrolled in Computer Science 101. Now this was an introductory computer science course and you wouldn’t think that, in this day and age, an 11 year old would need to learn about the basics of what goes on in computers and networks but that is to mistake the ability to use for the ability to understand. The basic technology behind what he thinks of as a computer is obscure and this course was all about lifting the lid on that box and looking at what goes on inside. Unlike Game Theory where it is obvious how it can enlighten, I can imagine Computer Science introductory courses that may be bland. This one was certainly not that and held is interest throughout its 4 or 5 weeks but it hasn’t yet led to him taking on more of our IT support roles at home.
Computer Science was designed more appropriately for the online space than the Game Theory course. The lecture videos were bite sized and interspersed with learning activities that themselves took advantage of the digital medium. There were some quizzes both most seemed to be well structured coding exercises. And, more significantly, the emphasis was on mastery rather than performance assessment.
In the end, he was able to complete the exercises on time and, in fact, quite easily. So now he has a Certificate of Accomplishment signed by the instructor, Nick Parlante. My only criticism is that perhaps it was too easy for him to do. He got most exercises right the first time (out of 100 possible attempts). That suggests to me that Parlante could make the course more challenging.
As to future adventures, my son did enrol in Udacity‘s “How to build a search engine” computer science course. This is something we were told would be more challenging and it employed an innovative way of presenting lectures (closer to the Khan Academy blackboard style) with interactive quizzes neatly built in. My son did comment that both of these courses have missed an opportunity to work on coding while the lecture videos were playing; a kind of continual worksheet.
Sadly, as of writing this post, I don’t know how Udacity’s course will go. Summer has intervened and my son’s attention has turned to hacking Minecraft rather than formal learning. He is then off the grid at Summer Camp. So it is on a pause for a while and, if it is still permitted, he may continue at Summer’s end. That said, computer science will have competition. Check out Udacity’s video explaining their Introduction to Statistics course. Apparently Lego trumps learning Python! Udacity are trying to get school students from all around the world enrolled in that one. We will likely have two from our household but if you know of a school that wants to enrol a team of students just click here for more information.