May 2013

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Short version: the Interactive 3D Graphics course is now entirely out, the last five units have been added: Lights, Cameras, Texturing, Shader Programming, Animation. Massive (22K people registered so far), worldwide (around 128 countries, > 70% students from outside U.S.). Uses three.js atop WebGL. Start at any time, work at your own pace, only basic programming skills needed. Free.

That’s the elevator talk, Twitterized (well, maybe 3 tweets worth). I won’t blab on and on about it, just a few things.

First, it’s so cool to be able to show a student a video, then give a quiz, then let them interact with a demo, then have them write some code for an exercise, all in the browser. Udacity rocketh, both the web programmers and video editors.

Second, I’m very happy about how a whole bunch of lessons turned out. The tough part in all this is trying to not lose your audience. I think I push a bit hard at times, but some of my explanations I like a lot. Mipmapping, antialiasing, gamma correction – a number of the later lectures in particular felt quite good to me, and I thought things hung together well. Shhh, don’t tell me otherwise. Really, it’s not pride so much; I’m just happy to have figured out good ways to explain some things simply.

Third, I wrote a book, basically: it’s about 850 full-sized pages and about 145,000 words. It’s free to download, along with the videos and code. I think of this course as the precursor to Real-Time Rendering, sort of like “Star Wars: Episode 1”, except it’s good. I should really say “we wrote a book”: Gundega Dekena, Patrick Cozzi, Mauricio Vives, and near the end Branislav Ulicny (AlteredQualia) offered a huge amount of help in reviewing, catching various mistakes and suggesting numerous improvements. Many others kindly helped with video clips, interviews, permission to show demos, on and on it goes. Thanks all of you!

Fourth, I love that the demos from the course are online for anyone to point at and click on. Some of these demos are not absolutely fascinating, but each (once you know what you’re looking at) is handy in its own way for explaining some graphics phenomenon. The code’s all downloadable, so others can use them as a basis to make better ones. I’ve wanted this sort of thing for 16 years – took awhile to arrive, but now it’s finally here.

Fifth, working with students from around the world is wonderful! I love helping people on the forums with just a bit of effort on my end. Also, I just noticed a study group starting up. I’ve also enjoyed seeing contest entries, e.g.,  here are the drinking bird entries, click a pic to see it in WebGL:

 

What’s making a MOOC itself like? See John Owens’ excellent article – my experience is pretty much the same.

A close-up in the recording studio, my little world for a few weeks:

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OK, this post is most definitely non-graphical, but I need to rant a bit.

While I wait for the last few elements of the MOOC I worked on to be released, I’ve been reading various opinions on MOOCs. Here’s the one theme that drives me crazy on a number of levels:

One of the dirty secrets about MOOCs — massive open online courses — is that they are not very effective, at least if you measure effectiveness in terms of completion rates.

That’s from a NY Times article, which is otherwise fairly positive. I’ve seen this opinion expressed a number of times elsewhere, and it’s meant as a serious critique or a dismissive gesture. From what I’ve read, it’s true that the completion rate is around 5% to 15%. However, it’s an apples to orangutans comparison to equate this with completion rates at colleges. Here are just a few obvious explanations.

The barrier to entry is low: “So, people who pay, or whose parents pay, $500 to $5000 per course are more likely to complete that course than those who pay $0? Shocking!” Say I have two computer programs I could use for a task. One costs $0, one costs $5000. I’ll certainly look at the $0 option first. If I paid $0, no big deal if I stop using the program. $5000, and I definitely am committed to use the program in a serious way, I want to get my money’s worth so I’ll make sure I need it and use it. But, really, this kind of misses the point. No one’s really weighing today’s MOOCs vs. traditional college curricula, for one obvious reason:

You’re getting just knowledge, not course credit or a QPA, nor even any parties: There’s a huge group of people ages 18-22 that go to college. They’re all there to get a degree, along with an education. Take away the degree aspect and most parents are not interested in plunking down the cash. Even alternatives such as Hampshire College produce an elaborate transcript for their students and some “proof of learning”. Take away the “meeting other students” aspect and that removes a significant aspect of the college experience for students: no dorms, no sports, no clubs, no parties, on and on. Comparing MOOCs with colleges is just silly. The main question that should be asked is “how do various MOOC techniques fit in with college education?” Flipped classrooms is the obvious one, and so how else can college education be improved? We don’t make every faculty member write their own textbook for each course they teach. What improvements can be gained by sharing more elaborate forms of media and interactivity for education? Articles such as this help.

Students who finish want to be there: That’s the dirty little secret of MOOCs. People are taking them because they want to, not because they have to. The main motivator is, “I want or need to know about this subject.” Since sign-up is free, there’s then all the things that will whittle down that number: “I was just curious what the course looked like” (there’s a huge percentage, maybe 40%, that never take a single class), “I thought it’d be fun, and it was at first, but then it got hard”, “I already knew most of the material”, “I learned the bits I wanted to know and never bothered to complete the course”, “the lecturer was boring/the course disorganized/the materials poorly presented/etc.”

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. The completion rate is a distraction and misses much of interest. It makes for an attention-grabbing fact but not much else. If you think about it, it would be downright bizarre if a free course open to all had a 90% completion rate. That would be the most amazing course ever, that it would be so compelling to almost everyone that signed up for it.

A MOOC can be thought about in another way. What if you told a professor, “every student taking your class is there because they want to be there, they want to know what you have to teach them”? That would be a dream come true. My humble course has 22K signups currently (many “name-brand” MIT, Stanford, and Harvard-backed online courses have over 100K students). Say just 1100 (5%) complete the course, and just 220 (1%) really loved the subject. 220 inspired students? I’ll take it! Heck, I’ll take 22. That may well be more truly inspired students than many teachers get a chance at in their careers. That’s a major reason many professors are excited by MOOCs and push to get their courses online through their universities. Getting messages from students such as, “in my country I think we don’t have schools making this kind of Course” is certainly fulfilling for me.

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