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David F Carr
David F Carr
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Udacity: Creating A More Engaging MOOC

Udacity cofounder and online education pioneer David Evans sees powerful potential in platform's unique project-based approach.

Inside Eight Game-changing MOOCs
Inside Eight Game-changing MOOCs
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David Evans has been the first instructor for hundreds of thousands of students pursuing their education at Udacity, the massive open online course (MOOC) platform whose unique style he helped define.

His Introduction to Computer Science course was one of the first two developed specifically for Udacity, along with an AI for robotics class taught by CEO Sebastian Thrun, drawing on examples from his work on Google's self-driving car.

A faculty member at the University of Virginia, Evans returned to teaching there in January following a year-long sabbatical to work with the Udacity team. He said the university supported him in his enthusiasm for the project, but it does not have a relationship with Udacity the way it does with Coursera.

Those who complete Evans' introductory programming course may not be quite ready for robotics engineering, but they will have built their own simple search engine in the Python programming language, which they learned along the way. For example, string manipulation functions are taught in the context of creating a web crawler that finds all the links on a web page, and the introduction to arrays is tied to the problems of organizing and sorting data. Udacity provides a code editor and interpreter, built into the Web experience, which allows students to write and test their own code and submit it for automated grading.

[ Students aren't the only ones who stand to benefit from MOOCs. Read MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins? ]

The project-based approach taken by many Udacity courses is driven by interesting problems for students to solve, Evans said, something that's often lacking in a traditional academic setting where you have more of a captive audience. He and the course designers from Udacity started with the understanding that they would need to work hard to keep students engaged, and they rarely present more than five minutes of video lecture before offering a quiz or programming exercise.

Online video sites like YouTube indulge our short attention spans with limitless choices, until "anything more than a minute starts to seem like forever," Evans said. Online courses exist in that same environment. "It's a very different medium from sitting in a traditional lecture hall."

David Evans
Udacity instructor University of Virginia professor David Evans. Photo: Cole Geddy

Thrun is the bigger computing star on many levels, and the concept for Udacity came from his previous experience teaching a free online Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course with Google research director Peter Norvig. That offering enrolled about 160,000 students in 2011 and is still available today on Udacity, complete with the original (slightly less polished) videos. But Evans' CS101 course is the most popular offering on Udacity, partly because it's more accessible to beginners. You'll see his smiling face at the top of the home page and the top of the course listings page.

Evans also developed a Udacity course in cryptography, which is one of his specialties, but part of what makes his basic computer science course compelling is the enthusiasm he brings to it. "For me, it's really the most exciting computer science class," Evans said.

Computer science is also probably more suited to this form of online instruction than a subject like poetry, according to Evans, because with programming it's possible to present students with "an open-ended creative problem that you can grade automatically." For example, students who are challenged to define a function that will produce a given output given a specified input, and they can each come up with their own solutions, which may be substantially different. As long as they all give their function the same name, the course software can still grade their work by passing it a series pre-defined test cases.

Evans is proud of the stories Udacity is accumulating of MOOC students who have gone on to get programming jobs they never would have landed otherwise -- including a retail clerk and a high school math teacher.

The former retail clerk, Neil Sutcliffe, had been working for a Wal-Mart subsidiary in the U.K. He doubled his salary without the need for a bachelor's degree because what he learned in the class -- combined with Evans' emphasis on the idea that part of computer science is learning how to use new tools -- equipped him to further self-study in C# and ASP.NET and start creating games, which he used to sell his skills to a new employer. "I've always been interested in programming, but never found a course that taught you by doing, and never found that next step," he wrote in a Udacity blog post.

Udacity has also seen its share of setbacks, such as the recent announcement that San Jose State University suspended a program to offer credit-bearing courses in partnership with Udacity because of low pass rates. However, Thrun argues the results were partly a factor of serving remedial students who either weren't currently enrolled or had previously flunked the on-campus version of the course.

Although he wasn't involved in that experience, Evans said he hopes it won't be the end of efforts to find a scalable way of offering entry-level and remedial courses online. That's a worthwhile goal that could have a huge impact, he said, but it's not an easy one. "It's not surprising to me that it wasn't a complete success the first time it was tried."

I asked Evans for an interview after sampling his lessons on Udacity because I found him to be an engaging instructor and wanted to hear his thoughts about how to produce a successful MOOC. Having also attended classes on Coursera and edX, I was impressed by the presentation style of the Udacity courses. While these three online course platforms are often lumped together as purveyors of MOOCs, Udacity is playing a significantly different game by producing its own courses in its own studio.

Coursera and edX partner with universities and distribute content they create (edX is itself a partnership of MIT and Harvard). As a result, the production values are a lot more variable. You're more likely to see video of a regular classroom lecture, or extended PowerPoint presentations with voiceover. Some of the Coursera MOOCs I've attended have been excellent, and others definitely would have benefitted from some basic video editing. Coursera and edX also offer courses on a defined schedule, with modules typically released on a weekly basis and exams and homework that have set deadlines. In contrast, Udacity courses are self-paced.

Udacity's approach has its own tradeoffs. So far it has created only a few dozen courses, whereas Coursera offers hundreds through its rapidly expanding family of universities. Coursera and edX also offer courses in a wider variety of disciplines, not just technology and mathematics.

Udacity courses have a distinct polished look, usually featuring a few minutes of on-camera lecture from the instructor, followed by sketching on an electronic whiteboard to illustrate concepts, with the instructor's voice in the background. The sketches are created using Autodesk SketchPad Pro, but instead of having the drawings appear as the work of a disembodied instructor (Khan Academy style), the Udacity producers capture the instructor's hand in the act of drawing, using an overhead video camera pointed down at a tabletop touchscreen display.

As Evans recounts in a blog post about the production of his first course, one surprise was that "my hand had become magically transparent!" It turned out that his left-handed drawing style meant he often covered up one bit of content while he was drawing the next, but the editors figured out a way of merging the video from the camera with the video from the camera result to make sure students could always see important content through his semi-transparent hand.

transparent hand

The basic template for a Udacity class was set prior to the founding of the company, with the earlier AI class from Thrun and Norvig. Thrun is a Google Fellow, the creator of its famed self-driving car and currently a project leader for Google Glass, the wearable computer with the heads-up eyeglasses display. He is also a research professor at Stanford University. After years of teaching an on-campus AI course, Thrun and Norvig challenged themselves to create an online experience of comparable quality. Their videos were also shot with an overhead camera, although they did their sketching with pen and paper rather than electronically. From the beginning, they incorporated the concept of quizzing and otherwise engaging students frequently rather than simply delivering long lectures.

In November 2011, Evans received an email from Thrun asking if he would be interested in creating an introductory computer science course for the company he was hatching. Evans had no inside connection -- Thrun apparently sent the same invitation to a large number of computer science instructors -- but he did have the interest. A few emails and a Skype chat later, Evans found himself flying to San Francisco to meet with Thrun and co-founders David Stavens and Mike Sokolsky. At that meeting they hit on the idea of developing a search engine as a framework for the course, and to prove it could be done, Evans wrote a first draft of the code at the airport while waiting for his flight home.

After arranging to take a sabbatical from his work for the University of Virginia, Evans went to work in the guest house at Thrun's home in Los Alto Hills, which served as Udacity's initial headquarters and studio. In addition to creating a couple of his own courses for Udacity, Evans recruited several other instructors to flesh out the computer science course lineup.

For Web development he recruited Steve Huffman, a former University of Virginia student who co-founded the social news site and more recently the travel search site Hipmunk. Evans also pulled in University of Virginia professor Westley Weimer to teach a course in programming languages. In keeping with the concept of working a project into the course format, Huffman built his course around creating your own blog software, and Weimer had his students develop a Web browser.

"What is really important in this -- and [it's] hard to find in faculty -- is that they come to this with a fairly open mind about trying things in a different way," Evans said. Many experienced professors have been teaching the same material for so long that they can't imagine teaching it any other way. Asked to create an online course, he said, "their first instinct is to say, 'Sure, just put a camera in the back of the classroom.'" Because they know the material, they don't think they should have to prepare.

In reality, Evans explained, online courses need to be heavily scripted and require a lot of preparation. In a regular classroom, an instructor typically wants to take a more unscripted approach, leaving room for interaction with the students. "When you're lecturing in a studio with no audience," Evans pointed out, "that tends not to go so well."

Evans, who had never taught an online course prior to his experience with Udacity, said one advantage of the format is the potential to invest a lot more resources in one class than you could with a traditional university class. An example is the ability to incorporate more high-profile guest speakers than you could get to come to your classroom.

Online course producers are just at the earliest stages of exploring the possibilities, Evans said -- rather like the first experiments with movies, which were produced by recording performances of plays on a theater stage. "Udacity has moved a few steps beyond that," he said.

Also the author of an open Introduction to Computing textbook, freely downloadable under Creative Commons license, Evans doesn't see himself as part of a movement to reshape higher education. "I do think it's better to make things more accessible and available [particularly as an employee of a public university]," he said.

While he has no concrete plans to do more with Udacity, Evans does feel he left some unfinished business behind: development of a coherent curriculum. That was one of his original goals in going to work with the company that got lost in the rush to build a course catalog rapidly. "I'd like to see courses that build on each other to lead students through a carefully designed curriculum."

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.

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