Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


IMGP6692

The author and his Udacity diploma.

A Whole New U

• May 23, 2012 • 5:00 AM

The author and his Udacity diploma.

One man’s quest to see if Udacity, one of a cluster of new free, online universities, can make programmers of us all.

I decided to go back to school because I was underemployed and mind-achingly bored. I decided to study computer science because I was tired of not knowing how the Internet worked. And I decided to go to Udacity because I was broke.

Udacity is a free university (of sorts) that offers “massive open online courses”—or, MOOCs—to anyone with a decent Internet connection and a little self-discipline. Founded by Stanford roboticist Sebastian Thrun—of the self-driving car fame—Udacity’s first class offerings appeared this February. The way Thrun tells it, he resigned his tenure at Stanford and lit out for the MOOC territory after realizing that his same artificial intelligence course could reach 200 students in an ivied lecture hall, or 160,000 online. The technology that makes this possible—like quizzes that can be graded by robots rather than TAs—is fairly rudimentary and has existed for some time. Missing, until now, were MOOC evangelists: professors who were willing to adapt their material for the masses.

In January, Thrun told a crowd at Digital Life Design, in Munich, “Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again. It’s impossible. I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to the classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill. And I’ve seen wonderland.”

To get a glimpse of wonderland, I enrolled in Udacity’s CS101: Building a Search Engine, with tens of thousands of other students from across the globe. No scrambling for a seat in lecture, no add card to file with the registrar’s office—to sign up, I simply entered my email address. On the screen appeared Dave Evans, a computer scientist at the University of Virginia. Over the next seven weeks, his goal was teach newbies like me enough Python—a basic programming language—to build a mini Google. No coding experience was required, Evans assured his new students. “One of the great things about computing is that you don’t really need a lot of resources to build something that can change the world,” he said.

In video lecture, we covered the history of computing, from 18th century mathematicians to PageRank—the magic algorithm that powers Google—and I began writing code the first week. To build a search engine, I first had to build a “web crawler,” which would scour a web page for links, follow those links, scour the new pages for links, ad infinitum, building a huge corpus of information. It’s a simple idea, and easy for a machine to execute, but computers are only as smart as their programmers. Through Unit 1’s 40-odd exercises, quizzes, and lectures, I learned how to talk to the computer in a language and syntax it would understand. A single missed colon or wayward keystroke, and the program would freeze up or spit out long, red error messages.

I could, of course, spend years learning Python, and CS101 probably doesn’t teach me the breadth of skill I’d want before adding “Programmer” to my CV, but the work required was no joke. Assignments often took me hours to complete, and I’d stay up late into the night sketching out flow charts, tweaking syntax, and hunting for bugs. Programming is, at heart, a logic problem, and nothing felt better than finally solving the riddle and watching the whole answer unspool.

The rigor quickly weeded out the dilettantes. Of the more than 100,000 students who signed up for CS101, fewer than 30,000 made it through the first homework assignment and just one in 10 survived to take final exam.

Attrition rates aside, MOOCs are hot in Silicon Valley right now. No fewer than five sites now offer academic courses, including Coursera (also founded by Stanford professors) and, most recently, edX, a joint venture between MIT and Harvard. Unlike Udacity, Coursera is sourcing lectures from a consortium of Ivy League schools, among them Princeton and Penn. (September’s catalog includes an introduction to American poetry, as well as Greek and Roman mythology.) EdX, with $60 million in seed funding from its universities’ coffers, will make its platform open-source, so that colleges anywhere can borrow, adapt, and use it.

MOOC students don’t receive official college credit, but, as Udacity and Coursera have already shown, edification is its own reward. And the universities get something equally valuable: reams and reams of data about online learners. Already, edX has said it will use its MOOCs to help professors study what works—and what doesn’t—in traditional pedagogy.

After the fifth week of classes, I almost dropped out of Udacity. I had mastered “lists” and “for loops,” and my web crawler was bug-free, but then Evans introduced “hash tables”—which, frankly, are too convoluted to explain here, but involve sorting huge piles of data into “buckets”—and I hit a wall of incomprehension. The more confused I became, the more often I started checking Facebook during lecture. I failed to turn in the weekly programming assignment, and my class average plummeted dismally. Hal, the robot who graded our homework (yes, Hal), was merciless: no extensions, no wheedling an extra point for showing your work. It was either in on time or not; wholly right or very wrong. Despairing, I blew off lectures the next week, too.

When college involves no brick-and-mortar classrooms and no roommates, and tuition is free, and lecture is a video that must compete with Sexy Sax Man Careless Whisper Prank for eyeball time, diligence is obviously difficult. Fail midterms at Brown, and there is a whole army of deans and mental health professionals, plus parents out $25,000, coming for you. Fail your free Udacity course, and you’re another slacker who couldn’t hack it.

Udacity isn’t concerned with students who fall short. Its creators are busy trying to help those who ace every triple-gold-star problem and never miss a quiz—the young men in Lahore, Beirut, and Caracas who haunt Internet cafes and spend hours engaging in jargony repartee about elegant solutions on the Udacity message board. These are the people that Udacity hopes to help recruit to talent-hungry dot-coms like Google and Amazon—and take a cut in finder’s fees. Voilà! Udacity pays its server costs, and students who’ve never seen an ivy leaf find programming work in the States.

I caught a break when Evans announced, mid-term, a change in Udacity policy: our final grade would either be averaged from the weekly assignments or based entirely on the final exam—whichever made us look smarter. My big, fat zero on the Unit 5 homework was suddenly no barrier to a perfect A. For reasons that have to do with perfectionism and other ugliness, this mattered to me. Lifelong learning is supposed to be about slaking a thirst for knowledge and curiosity for its own sake. But who wants to be a C- lifelong learner? I went on a binge, racing through two weeks’ worth of lectures and quizzes, trying to catch up in time for the final.

The exam consisted of eight regular questions, such as writing a program to decide whether values a, b, and c, were identical, and three “gold star” problems, such as tweaking our homemade search engine to handle multiword queries. I made quick work of the first few questions—Demonstrate the Collatz conjecture? Please, kid stuff—but got badly hung up on a gold star problem, where I had to write a program that morphed a misspelled word—say, “stanadrd”—into the correct form, “standard.”

The Friday before the final was due, I spent seven hours slowly tearing my hair out, trying to “hack,” or code, a solution. In the end, I had 60 lines of messy code and a program that only worked half the time. Turning “peter” into “Peter” was easy—it was turning “eter” into “Peter” that I couldn’t crack. On Sunday night, I capitulated, even knowing that Hal would have no mercy, and hit “Submit.”

A week later, an email appeared in my inbox. Hal was pleased to inform me that I’d been awarded a “certificate of accomplishment with high distinction.” Udacity wouldn’t be passing my CV on to Google’s recruiters anytime soon, but neither was I the dumbest kid in the class. My PDF diploma lacked ornate Latin script or a university seal, but looked very official nonetheless. It even had a cute little robot on it. I printed it out at the library and tacked it to the wall above my desk, for the days when I feel like the digital world is passing me by.

Kevin Charles Redmon
Kevin Charles Redmon is a journalist and critic. He lives in Washington, D.C.

More From Kevin Charles Redmon

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.