Introducing MOOCs: Udacity

19 Apr
Udacity seems to be heavily focused on computer science, programming, and similar tech-focused fields. If you are interests in humanities or social sciences then Udacity might not be your best choice, but if you want to learn how to write code or how to program, then Udacity could be a good choice for you. Udacity was the first of the MOOCs, and it made big news when it started. The identity of Udacity’s founder certainly didn’t hurt: Sebastian Thrun is very well-known in the tech field, and his research in robotics is one of the driving forces behind a potentially revolutionary technology, the driverless car (here is a writeup in the New York Times). He also has worked on Google Glass and has won numerous awards and recognitions for his research, including being names #4 on Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2012. Of course, as a university professor he has written textbooks on robotics as well.
Udacity’s mission statement claims that “Our mission is to bring accessible, affordable, engaging, and highly effective higher education to the world. We believe that higher education is a basic human right, and we seek to empower our students to advance their education and careers.” So far, they seem to be doing pretty well: Udacity’s classes are free (or affordable when offered for college credit), engaging, and high quality. Udacity is really at the forefront of a revolution in education, something that Sebastian Thrun evangelizes often.
Despite a strong start, Coursera has overtaken Udacity in publicity and in the number of courses offered. But Udacity has two big advantages that are keeping it competitive. First, the courses offered are very focused: they all have to do with tech stuff, such as programming, statistics, mathematics. This is not the place to go if you are looking to learn political science, history, or literature. I’ve taken about half of Udacity’s Intro to Statistics class, and it seems to be pretty good. There is a big fan base, too. Big enough that the courses have been translated into dozens of different languages, greatly increasing the number of students that are able to take the courses. Udacity is still going strong, and getting funding, too.
Aside from intellectually curious people who simply want to learn many things, Udacity is also focusing specifically on job-based skills with large companies acting as partners:
“Udacity has developed partnerships with companies such as NvidiaMicrosoft and Google, helping to develop online classes that sharpen specific technical skills such as parallel programming, thereby broadening the pool of potential job candidates for these employers.”
This is a huge benefit, as many companies complain they cannot find enough employees with the proper skills. Udacity could help to train a new generation in programming and computer science. But the cooperation isn’t only with companies. Some universities are also entering into official cooperation with Udacity, such as San Jose State University, which allows students to take a Udacity course for college credit.
One aspect of Udacity which sets it apart is the schedule. While some MOOCs (such as Coursera) offer courses with specific start and end dates, with lectures being released on a weekly basis, “students taking Udacity courses can start any time and take lessons at their own pace with no deadlines hanging over them to complete the course within a required timeframe.” This can be a benefit if you are highly motivated and you have a large chunk of free time. For example, more than once I’ve thought about locking myself in my room for two days and doing an entire course (I almost do that every weekend, actually!). However, if you are the kind of person that needs more structure, then Udacity’s format won’t be very effective. There are no strict deadlines in Udacity courses, and there is also an ever-changing group of students, so it lacks the sense of community that exists on the forums on Coursera. The other downside to the open schedule that is for the people who choose to spread it out over a longer period of time, as ” there is a certain momentum to learning that gets lost the more time separates one lesson from the next.” In general, Devavrat Ravetkar provides an excellent summary of the advantages and disadvantages of these different models, and I recommend looking at his brief analysis.
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One Response to “Introducing MOOCs: Udacity”

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  1. Introducing MOOCs: Alison | Young Cosmopolitanist - August 10, 2013

    […] put, Alison is not as pretty or visually attractive as Udacity or Coursera. The website looks cluttered, having too many links leading to too many places on the […]

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