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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.

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