July 27th 2011

CS50 OpenCourseWare

I’ve been ‘attending’ Harvard University’s free online Computer Science class, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. I hope to plug some holes in my CS understanding, left from sometimes inadequate self-teaching and an academic background too focused on the end-user understanding of computers. Having had almost no direct contact with a foreign academic systems (except for a couple of University of Texas workshops and seminars held here in Porto), let alone Ivy League, here are some remarks after ‘attending’ the first couple of weeks (meaning watching four videotaped lectures and doing a couple of ‘problem sets’):

  • Organization: it’s mentioned 700 people are taking the CS class in-site, but I have no idea how many more are taking it online (for a [obviously high] fee you can actually get graded). Dozens of staff provide service to just that one class. Plus all the extra seminars people can attend (or freely download videos of), such as A Crash Course in Java or Using the Vim Text Editor. Comparison to my own experience as academic instructor — all alone with sixty students in a small room — is headspinning.
  • Dress-code: the utter lack thereof. Students come on stage wearing shots and flip-flops, exactly the kind of clothing items a high-profile portuguese university attempted to ban while soliciting students to denounce colleagues. Only shows that what University should be all about is knowledge, ideas, and creativity; not suits. Rigorous dress-codes send the very wrong idea presentation is more important (I haven’t seen any portuguese college soliciting students to rat out plagiarists — which would still be wrong). Presentation has a certain amount of importance, of course, (I often find myself wearing a polo shirt just to look a bit different from most students — ‘more teacherly’, if you will), but very tiny indeed — if it’s hot outside, by all means skip the socks.
  • Colloquialisms and rhythm: the instructors’ speech is very free-flowing, sometimes even low-level curse words pass by. But that doesn’t mean the teaching is by any means dumbed-down, by the contrary, the rhythm at which new information is passed on to the students is much more unrelentless than anything in my own academic experience.
  • Notes: the lectures’ notes are provided to the students so they don’t spend their time writing down stuff instead of paying attention. In my teaching, I’ve often interrputed students writing down stuff I say, an habit so embedded in some students they often don’t even look to something I’m showing. I always give out some links that I hope work as notes, but perhaps I should systematize this.
  • Giving (Free / open-source) software in a virtual appliance, such as a VirtualBox VM: what a great idea! Not really practical in my video editing classes, but a good way to ensure students do their exercises in the ‘same’ computer in Multimedia Lab, for instance (of which usage of some open-source tools is part of the syllabus).

So yeah, I’m enjoying it.

This piece of retro advertising is almost perfect (-ly wrong) on so many levels. And I love the texts — “For responsible work” / “Porto Cigarettes — the base of your decision”. It only lacks one thing: booze. (via Pedro Quintas)