Udacity CS046 Revived

In 2013, at the height of the MOOC hype, the president of San José State University and the CEO of Udacity struck up a partnership, to bring modern technology to crufty old higher education. Three courses, on “developmental” (i.e. remedial) math, college algebra, and statistics were produced, with predictably poor results. But there was a fourth course that did much better—CS046: Introduction to Java Programming. Udacity's business model has long since shifted to corporate training, so it was time to set the course free.


Dear reader, mentally transport yourself back all the way back to 2011. Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun of Stanford University offered a free online course on artificial intelligence. Over 160,000 students enrolled, and over 20,000 students completed the course.

Sebastian Thrun subsequently founded Udacity and declared it to be a better mousetrap than traditional college education. I am a college professor who is painfully aware of the limitations of traditional college education, so I perked up.

But then it took a turn for the weird. Thrun and our university president, Mohammad Qayoumi, got together. Next I knew it, I found myself in a conference room being lectured about the limitations of traditional college education (of which I was painfully aware), and about a directive to establish a graduate MOOC program. Our faculty couldn't figure out how this was going to work. Georgia Tech had more courage than we did, and I hope it's working out for them and their students.

Next, I found myself in a conference room discussing “high risk” courses on a MOOC platform. Remedial algebra. Statistics. The kind of courses that many students fail the first time around. And (ouch) Computer Science 1.

I don't know how to teach remedial algebra or statistics, but I taught Computer Science 1 for many years and wrote one of the commonly used textbooks for the course. I loved the idea of a MOOC, not necessarily as a replacement for the course but as an addition to it.

Why not a replacement? At San José State, I did not think that all of my students have the determination to complete an online course on their own. Much of my teaching has nothing to do with the subject matter but with motivation and the grit to stay on course.

I spent a large number of my waking hours of Spring 2013 in the Udacity studio, recording the MOOC course, and working with fellow Udacians who recorded many of the exercises, explained to me the rules of the game, and edited endless videos.

The single most important lesson they taught me was: Shut up after two minutes. Then it's time for a question.

That is truly good advice. I participated in some MOOCs by other providers where they let the professor drone on for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes before there was some activity, and I nearly lost the will to live.

And in Computer Science 1, we are blessed with the fact that the best question is often: “Fix this program”. Udacity's autograder wasn't up to quickly developing hundreds of autograded programs, so they just used my CodeCheck. I really liked the fact that, rather than saying “do this because otherwise this bad thing would happen”, I could talk for two minutes, have students run into the open knife in a coding exercise, and say: “Hey, you just had this bad thing happen, and here is how we are going to fix it!”

In remedial math and in stats, the professors worked with Udacity to develop engaging courses, but with weak asssessment—mostly multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions. That didn't cut it. Failure rates were higher than on campus. But in CS046, online failure rates were lower and the passing online students vastly outperformed the on campus cohort on programming tasks. No wonder, with all that practice.

All this time I thought that the development effort was a lot of work for a course at a single university. So, we wanted it to be useful for high school students taking the AP CS exam as well. I think that worked. Several hundred thousand students enrolled in the course, many of them from high schools.

Pretty soon, the Udacity folks realized that in college education, a large part of the effort has nothing to do with the subject matter but with instilling motivation and the grit to stay on course. And they pivoted to corporate training. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But CS046 is no longer offered. (You still can take it, as of today, by first registering for another course, and then googling for the right URL, but who knows for how much longer.) That's always a pitfall of corporate/university partnerships. Universities don't get to pivot to a different group of customers.

But it's all good in the end. Udacity had put all the videos onto Youtube, where they remain today. The programming exercises are still graded by CodeCheck. I put together a set of web pages with all the videos (over 600!!!, but all blessedly short) and activities at http://horstmann.com/sjsu/cs046. It's not quite the same thing as being in a course management system. There is no state, so students have to remember where they left off. (Kind of like in a printed book way back when.) On the positive side, there is no state, and no need to register and do the entire course. If you want your students to just follow a few segments, tell them where to start and stop, and have them have at it.

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