Lists of Book Lists

I love book lists.  There is really no wrong way to create the list; breadth of topics are just as interesting as a narrowly focused list.  We love to list things in general: top forty songs, top 100 books of all time, top 5 favorite movies, etc…  There are infinite ways to enumerate objects and for lovers of lists, or those interested in meta-listing, I highly recommend Umberto Eco’s The Infinity of Lists, which is a beautiful collection produced in collaboration with the Louvre.

My current book backlog.  I quickly made friends with the library...
My current book backlog. I quickly made friends with the library…

One can learn much from a list of favorites. Reflecting on my favorite books, I detect a theme of satirical, skeptical, and distrustful attitudes toward authority: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Catch-22, The Castle, Atlas Shrugged, and Slaughterhouse 5.  Ironically, my time in the military strengthened this feeling.

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Innovation and The Future of Programming

Bret Victor is one of the best presenters I have seen.  With very simple slides, he delivers powerful messages.  I first learned about Bret by watching his Inventing on Principle presentation, which was inspiring in its own right. But his recent “The Future of Programming” delivers another faith-shattering punch.  You should go watch it.  Seriously.  I’ll wait.

Continue reading “Innovation and The Future of Programming”

Fantasy and Science Fiction MOOC

Week 1 of a revolutionary Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, is complete.  The Coursera (and Udacity) experience is blowing the lid off of the traditional liberal-arts education, this class included, and I encourage everybody to take a class on either site.

Last year, Sebastian Thun taught an online Artificial Intelligence class to over 500,000 students and subsequently went on to launch Udacity.  It’s not surprising then, that the initial courses from Udacity and Coursera are computer science related.  I believe the english class that I’m taking now, is the first literature course available en masse on either site.

Yet these computer science courses have already proven to be successful, but FantasySF (as it’s known on Twitter) is a different type of course, one that involves subjective discussion.  Unlike in AI, there is no optimal path for which A* to find.  The novel aspect of this course is its structure, which is the same week-to-week for ten weeks:

  1. On Thursdays, a new unit starts with an introductory video from the professor.
  2. The student has five days to read a novel and then write a 270-320 word essay.
  3. Once the essay is submitted on Tuesday, the student is sent five random essays to grade (1-3) and provide anonymous feedback by Thursdays.
  4. On Thursday, feedback is received from the peer evaluations and the cycle starts over.

Now consider the demographic of students: ranging from 12 – 81 and consisting of students from all over the world!  At any time, students can interact with each other on the Forums, which had something like 4000 posts in the first day.  The interaction was so great, that real-life meetups, blogs and book clubs on other websites like Goodreads have spawned.

The professor provides a few insightful videos for each book and has already added an impromptu recording based on Forum discussions.  I’m posting my essay here along with the student feedback.  I found the feedback constructive and spot-on and I have no idea who wrote it.  Even a self-admitted non-native english speaker learned a few new words 🙂

And while I completely disagree with Andrew Hacker’s op-ed, it’s refreshing to take a class with thousands of classmates who want to learn.  For the record, algebra is definitely a class everyone should take…

I’m very interested in where this rabbit hole leads (guess what Book 2 is…) and I’ll continue to post about this experience.  There are certainly things that aren’t working with this format (as evidenced by thousands of disappointed posts on the forums), but hey, we’re still in beta!

Coursera and Udacity are college killers

 

I’ve decided to enroll in Coursera’s Fantasy and Science Fiction course, which starts tomorrow.  Coursera and Udacity have been in the press more and more and full supporter of online education.  I think it will be this decade’s disruptive technology.  Now, I attended college and I’m now enrolled in a graduate university (online, actually I should be studying…) so I’m fully incorporated into the legacy system, but the King is dead, long live the King!

I’m a big fan of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and the anecdote about the removal of grades has always resonated with me.  These online programs are the realization of Phaedrus’ vision; they encourage those who want to learn, not those who think they must.

This movement is particularly exciting in the light of increasing student debt.  If I’m a 18-year old, I’d be asking myself why should I go into a mountain of debt to attend college when the chances aren’t very good that I’ll get a job?  Well, good question, but at the moment you should probably still go to college 🙂 Mainly because online education is in an experimental phase at the moment and it may be too risky to bet a career on it.  Plus, there are limited offerings…

Apart from pragmatism, it’s important to realize that college is a service. Students pay with the expectation of learning.  Online courses have flipped this model much like buying music online has.  The album is a program’s course of study.  The consumer no longer wants to take required classes when there are bite-size individual courses available, for free.

Universities won’t be going away any time soon, especially for professional tracks like doctors, lawyers and PhDs.  Given the University system in the U.S. right now, college is not for everybody and it shouldn’t be pushed on every high school student.  In fact, I think I’d be a fan of colleges that encouraged a year or two off after high school for travel abroad or a year volunteering. (Again discounting those who plan to stay in school for 8+ years).  If we truly value education, and not the diploma, these new systems are to be welcomed, not shunned.

But, it all comes down to societal trust (see, I’ve been reading Liars and Outliers).  Those expensive pieces of paper are certificates which affirms that said upstanding university has certified that the indebted has completed a vigorous course of study.  Employers that trust that organization trust the graduate.  While there are certificates available in this new model, that trust is not yet developed.  Although I think it helps that institutions like Stanford, Princeton, and University of Michigan are the ones leading the charge.  In order to replace the existing system, we’ll need a new benchmark of trust.  Maybe a more rigorous interview process or building portfolios of work?

What’s the difference in student X who completed the coursera Princeton Computer Architecture class and those who did so at Princeton, besides $38,650 a year?  Well, right now, I think a lot still.  But from the pedagogical stance, I think the answer is not much.

I disagree with Mark Edmunson’s NY Times op-ed in that communities can form online.  It’s obviously not the same and nothing is like listening to a record on vinyl.  But the product is simply too expensive to be worth it at the moment.  And for those of us who made life-long friends in college, well 20-year-olds are good at making life-long friends, no matter where they are.

So, I’m signing up and I’ll see how it goes.  I’m midway through my database class, so if the course-work is too much, I know which one I’ll drop (not the database class).  But I think it will be interesting and even more so since English classes are built around interaction.  If you prefer to see a breakdown by “term,” you can go here.

 

Teacher leave them kids alone!

It was announced at a conference that over 2 billion jobs will disappear by 2030.  Now, this just wasn’t any conference, it was an event that routinely addresses “ideas worth spreading.”  And the speaker wasn’t just any speaker, it happens to be a futurist at Google.

The tag line of losing over 2 billion jobs is certainly an attention getter, as was the speakers point.  However, the desired take away is not the loss of jobs but the upcoming developments in five specific industries that are on the verge of revolution.  One such industry is one that I’ve mentioned before: education.  And the speaker claims that teachers jobs’ are on the line.  Recently, there has been further progress to this future in the form of another MIT project: MITx.  MITx is a free, evaluated course that when passed, bestows a certificate from MIT.  The courses are taught at MIT level with MIT standards, however they are completely free.  The first course is on electronics and circuits, but more courses are soon to follow.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology - Buildi...
Yeah, I went to MIT... online.

How does this eliminate teachers?  The idea is that one teacher / professor creates the “perfect” course, which is forever recorded.  Then students wanting to take that course, can replay it as often as they can Downtown Abbey.  There even could be TAs that grade submitted material (or that could even be automated…), but anyway, that course would never be taught again.  Therefore, teachers are replaced with “course designers” and of course, not all teachers will be eliminated, we just need to keep enough of the best around to record the courses.

There are some issues that have still yet to be resolved.  For example, all of these courses are at the higher education level.  While Khan Academy targets high school topics, I don’t know of any K-12 courses, yet.  Another argument is the lack of interaction from a virtual environment, more specifically, the lack of face-to-face interaction.  Which, I was initially concerned about in my online courses.  However, through the use of 90’s style (it’s an antiquated courseware backend) forums, all of the students can ask questions which are answered by other students / the professor.  Compared to actual classes, I’ve felt there is more interaction as everybody benefits from the reading the posts and the best part is that it is asynchronous and recorded, i.e. one can go back and review the questions.

The final barrier for this education reform is how to recognize knowledge learned.  Which, is a problem that is not really solved even in today’s system, as we still use SATs to predict college potential.  Open courseware is to college as home school is to primary education.  I feel home school is more accepted now, especially if a student aces the SATs. So, what’s the difference between a student who studied for 4 years with open courseware and one that studied at a brick and mortar university besides the $150,000 of debt?

No Grades, No Glory?

Cover of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle M...
Cover via Amazon

Very interesting article here by Matt Welsh (Google Engineer and ex-Harvard professor) on whether the university system is obsoleted by the proliferation of free and very high quality courses.  He has three major points, all valid and one of them I found strikingly similar to an idea proposed in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  This is the idea of grade-less courses.

Pirsig describes the current university system as “grade-motivated” not “knowledge-motivated” and Matt makes the argument that it would not be fair, in today’s system, if all the students received an A as it would not discriminate amongst the students.  Assuming, of course, that all the students learned the material equally enough.  How would an external entity then know who was the “best” student?  Yet there are grade-free universities, and have been for some time.  Two randomly selected programs are St. John’s University in Annapolis, MD and Yale Medical School.  In Yale’s case, I think the idea is that removing the anxiety over constant performance measurements (tests) and stress over fluctuations in G.P.A., enables the student with the freedom to actually learn the material and study for study sake.  Plus, medical students have to pass the board exam anyway so what to do in the case where a student passes all the university’s test but fails the boards?

With online courses there are many different course offering in multiple disciplines, but I feel that those courses which are computer science related seem to be the most successful, as evidenced by the 160,000 students that completed the intro to ai class.  (Although this could be familiarity bias on my part).  Most self-respecting hackers have the zen-like quality of a “beginner mind” and a desire to keep learning, even if the topic is not computer related.  Maybe it’s hacker ethos, but it could be that the classes are free 🙂  So take a free course on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (I would love to see one), but don’t forget to buy the book!