Observations about Coursera’s “Fundamentals of EE,” by Don Johnson

October 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Around January of 2014, I finished watching all the lectures for Don Johnson’s Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering on Coursera. While sorting through e-mail from around that time, I came across some observations I sent to a few colleagues, which I refined to share here.

1) As far as I can tell, Don’s course is unique in the set of ECE intro courses. There’s no class at another university that I can directly compare it to. It’s sort of a cross between UIUC’s Analog Signal Processing class (a circuits/signals-and-systems hybrid) and Georgia Tech’s Introduction to Signal Processing class (which focuses on discrete-time signals-and-systems), with information theory thrown into the mix. Don compares analog and digital communication schemes in the context of channel capacity. The course covers both analog and digital processing, with the focus on signals as carriers of information. The scope of the class is breathtaking; the last time I looked at a class and got a similar mind-blowing impression of its depth was MIT’s old Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs.

It’s utterly brilliant. (But, I have to be careful not to equate “something a professor thinks is really interesting” with “something that will gel with undergraduates.” These are not always overlapping sets.)

Don includes a lot of material on Fourier series and transforms and frequency responses, but he doesn’t include anything on Laplace transforms. The Laplace omission makes sense since there’s not a lot of emphasis on generic switched-voltage-source, capacitor charging/discharging examples that typically eat up a lot of the time in most traditional sophomore circuits courses. Don goes into the frequency domain quite early and generally remains there through the rest of the course.

The uniqueness of the course, to me, provides one of the strongest arguments in favor of MOOCs. If you want a standard sophomore circuits course, nearly every EE department offers one, and frankly, there won’t be much difference between the one at Georgia Tech (ECE2040) and its equivalents at Southern Poly. But before this MOOC, the only way to see this material assembled in this particular fashion with this particular vision would be to move to Houston.

2) The sound quality is utterly horrible, and it’s a revelation to me how much that effects my overall perception of the class. The fan noise from Don’s computer is quite evident, and although I don’t know for sure, it sounds like he’s using the built in mic on his computer. From lecture to lecture, or sometimes in the middle of the same lecture, the sound quality will suddenly change, as if someone was experimenting with different levels and noise reduction settings in some audio editing software package. I was alternating between Don’s course and some of Udacity’s courses, and the higher production quality of Udacity’s products is striking.

Magnus Egerstedt’s Coursera course on Control of Mobile Robots (basically a graduate linear systems theory course like Georgia Tech’s ECE6550, with neat material on robots added in) is on Coursera, but it was taped in the fancy recording studios at Tech, so the audio for his course is much better. That said, although the audio in Magnus’s course was mostly noise free, it was encoded at a relatively low level. I like to watch lecture videos while riding on the stationary bike, and with Don’s and Magnus’s courses, that was hard to do, even with my laptop volume control maxed out; but with Udacity’s courses, the sound was loud enough (perhaps they used professional limiting program like the Waves L1?) that it overpowered the sound of the bike.

I can’t remember who said this, but someone once noted that the main key to professional looking video is professional sounding audio.

3) The way the in-lecture quiz questions were handled was absolutely maddening. On Coursera, an introduction to the upcoming quiz question is embedded in part of the preceding lecture segment. In Don’s course they were clearly thrown in after the fact; sometimes, it almost feels like they interrupt what he’s saying mid-sentence. They’re jarring. It would sometimes take me a second or two to realize I was being quizzed, and the audio hadn’t stopped because of an internet slow down. I didn’t feel like they kept me engaged, the way the Coursera quizzes did; I felt like they interrupted the flow, and it was hard to get the vibe back after the sudden interruption. The most bothersome questions were the ones that were thrown in to correct errors made in the main presentation. They’d start with a phrase like “The instructor made an error when writing the node-voltage equations. What should the second equation have been…” Sometimes I wanted to yell at the screen. It sounds like a small, petty detail, but it’s interesting how many small details add up to create a perception, good or bad, of the experience.

4) While Don put together this course brilliantly, I’m not sure Don is the best person to present it in this format. He sometimes tries really hard to sound really excited, and he’s clearly putting in a massive amount of effort, but his voice could send a dozen kittens in Consumer Report’s laser pointer test center into the deepest slumber. He tends to trail off at the end of sentences, so sometimes the start of the sentence is above the threshold of the fan noise while the end of the sentence starts to dip below it. I realize some of that awkwardness probably stems from the unnaturalness of having to talk to an empty room, which I find to be tremendously difficult.

I should note that my comments above apply to the first Coursera offering of the class; they may have made improvements in newer offerings.

Categories: Uncategorized

The tyranny of semesters & the trouble with Coursera

October 3, 2014 1 comment

Throughout numerous news reports and blog posts, comments on those news reports and blog posts, and e-mail discussions prompted by them, many legitimate criticisms of methods of teaching and learning outside of the usual on-campus class structure have been raised. But those usualĀ on-campus classes have their own limitations; we are just so accustomed to working around those limitations that they’re barely noticed. Why should these same limitations be mapped into the online space? Why do we keep putting horseshoes on our automobiles?

This leads us to the problem with Coursera: it has the word “course” in its name. I’m not saying the courses themselves are bad — the quality on Coursera varies wildly, but many of them are quite good, and I hope to do a “course” on Coursera at some point — it’s just that the very concept of a “course” is artificial.

Courses, along with time units like semesters and trimesters and quarters, are organizational artifacts borne of the practical need to allocate chunks of time associated with chunks of physical space and chunks of biology called “students” and “professors” and get them to line up in some way those chunks of biology can readily remember, like meeting TuTh at 2-3:30 or MWF 1-2, staring on a certain date and ending at a certain date. Are any of those optimal in any way? Can anyone tell me if there’s any research on whether three days a week for 50 minutes is better or worse for learning than two days a week TuTh? Maybe there’s some material that’s best learned MTuW of WThF. Can anyone tell me? Has anyone even asked?

What about time of day? I have heard rumors of the existence of “morning people,” and there are probably some faculty and students who fit in that category. But for students who are not in that category, I conjecture that an 2:30 PM class is going to be a hell of a lot better for learning than an 8:30 AM class. Has anyone studied that? In all the discussion about problem-based learning and flipped classrooms and clickers or whatever, if someone could show that simply not having class at 8:30 AM resulted in massive improvement in learning outcomes, would we change our scheduling to accommodate that finding? Or would we not even bother to ask the question, given how limited we are on classroom space, and just implicitly state — whether we mean to or not — that we believe that the material taught at 8:30 AM is less import than the material taught at 2:30 PM.

This connects to Lanterman’s Temporal Maxim of Education: Any method of online course delivery is superior to an in-person class that meets at eight-assclock in the morning.

Dear university professors reading this post: Did you stop learning after you finished your PhD? If not, how many things have you learned in the past decade that had specific start and end dates?

Categories: Uncategorized

“If everyone could make a living doing what they love to do, then what could be better?”

While watching the closing comments from the “Future of Education Panel” at Maker Faire 2011, I resonated with the answers to the question, “What is your hope for the future of education and technology?”

Mitch Altman: “I would love to see a world where everyone can truly explore what it is that they love to do. And if everyone could make a living doing what they love to do, then what could be better? That would mean we have a world full of many more people living fulfilling lives. And if we had a world where people could be encouraged to explore who they are and do what they love, then our education system would be tops.

Ben Heckendorn: “Expounding from that point, I grew up in a small town… think if it was 100 a years ago, what I do for a living, assuming they had graphics artists 100 years ago, `Mary’s Cow Powder’ advertisements in newspaper… you would never get out of your small town. You’re stuck there. You can do what you can do in that element, but that’s the limit of your scope. But the internet has opened up the world to everyone. Anything in the world is no further away than your computer. That is a great resource, and we’ve only started to scratch the surface of its potential.”

Jeri Ellsworth: “I’d encourage everyone to go out and become a mentor. I try to help out as much as I can.”

In her closing comments, the moderator Michelle Dobson said: “It’s time that we knock down the four walls of the classroom… The world is now the classroom… students will learn when they can be engaged in their learning; have teachers as facilitators of knowledge, not as the givers of knowledge, the holders of knowledge. We need to have authentic learning opportunities for students to succeed.

I was particularly moved by Altman’s vision: “I would love to see a world where everyone can truly explore what it is that they love to do. And if everyone could make a living doing what they love to do, then what could be better?” That, right there, is what I want my role as a researcher and an educator to be — to help make that world a reality.

Categories: Uncategorized

Almost every article you’ve read about MOOCs is full of s***

December 22, 2013 Leave a comment

I launched this blog two years ago this month with something of a bang. That was just before the launch of Udacity, Coursera, and other corporate purveyors of “Massive Open Online Courses,” catchily abbreviated as “MOOCs.” As is the case with with many blogs, it fizzled out a few months after that; my last post was in March 2012. I’ve decided it’s time to come back to it.

In the mean time, hundreds of articles, both pro and con, both enthusiastic and wary, have been penned about MOOCs and MOOCish things. They’ve been written by Pulitzer prize-winning journalists, corporate bosses, politicians, venture capitalists, and university professors and administrators up and down the academic ladder.

Almost all of these articles — both pro and con — are full of shit.

Even the ones that aren’t totally full of shit are at least partially full of shit.

The primary trouble is that even the authors who are most anxious to “disrupt” our current educational system are embedded so deeply in the status quo that they don’t realize how much they are taking for granted. They believe certain things “must be so” that don’t necessarily need to be so, and they suffer from meta-unawareness about what those things are. As Marshall McLuhan quipped, “I don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t a fish.*”

I am reminded of Alan Kay’s words, from The Early History of Smalltalk V:

I took the whole group to Pajaro Dunes for a three day offsite to bring up the issues and try to reset the compass. It was called “Let’s Burn Our Disk Packs.” I used the old aphorism that “no biological organism can live in its own waste products” to plead for a really fresh start… The reason I wanted to “burn the disk packs” is that I had a very McLuhanish feeling about media and environments: that once we’ve shaped tools, in his words, they hum around and reshape us. Of course this is a great idea if the tools are really good and aimed squarely at the issues in question. But the other edge of the sword cuts as deep–that inadequate tools and environments still reshape our thinking in spite of their problems, in part, because we want paradigms to guide our goals… I wanted to stop, dynamite everything and start from scratch again.

I will save the details for future posts. For now, just hop on board, and fasten your seatbelts — and leave the smoldering disk packs behind.

And remember: my posts will be mostly full of shit too.

Because I am one of the fish.

*I misattributed this to quote Alan Kay for years; I only today realized that Alan was quoting McLuhan.

Categories: Uncategorized

The moment you see a headline like this…

You’re an Engineer? You’re Hired: The unemployment rate in the field these days is a super-low 2 percent.

…you automatically know the comments section will be overflowing with unemployed engineers begging to differ.

Where is the disconnect? I fear it may be found in the quote in the article that includes the phrase “especially for young ones.”

Categories: Uncategorized

Welcoming two new horsemen of the Edupocalypse

February 13, 2012 Leave a comment

I’d like to introduce you to two new edubloggers: my Georgia Tech School of ECE faculty colleague Rob Butera, and Ed Booth, a Georgia Tech Computer Science grad who took my Multicore and GPU Programming for Video Games class back in 2008. (I love hearing about what my former students are up to.) Coincidentally, they both touch on similar topics about grading in their recent posts.

Ed has radically titled his new blog The Failure Machine, employing the interpretations of failure formulated by Seth Godin and Eric Ries. Ed asks: “Typical American high schools and colleges accept 70% accuracy on exams as a passing grade. Assuming that exams accurately assess understanding and proficiency…that means we push our students to the next level long before they have achieved mastery of their current material. If this happened in a professional sports franchise, the Major Leagues would be filled with players who struggle to compete. What does this say about how our schools prepare us for our careers?”

Rob has titled his blog No Curve, so you can guess what his first post is about. He writes: “Most of my blog posts will likely be about structural and methodological issues in education, why engineering education is under-research yet also misunderstood, and why the liberal arts have an identity crisis. But I feel this first post on this blog needs to explain the chosen domain name.”

Please drop by their blogs and make comments!

Categories: Uncategorized

Gamifying the Edupocalypse

January 22, 2012 2 comments

A couple of days ago, I attended an unconference-style “catalyst workshop” on Gamification for Education hosted by Georgia Tech’s Center for 21th Century Universities. I have some thoughts on specific topics that were brought up at the workshop, as well as some musings on games-(in,via,through,above,below,whatever)-education that occurred to me after the workshop, which I will address in future posts. But I first wanted to generally frame the discussion.

I automatically become skeptical and nervous when I hear the word “gamification,” since it often seems to imply applying tropes from games to Thing X, Y, and Z without a lot of focus on the particular nature of Thing X, Thing Y, or Thing Z. In particular, I duck for cover when words like “badges,” “points,” “achievements” (to use Microsoft’s term) and “trophies” (to use Sony’s term) start to get piled onto activities like brushing teeth and exercising. Ultimately everything becomes fungible — eat enough low-fat potato chips, get a free train ticket to Boise!

The clearest — and hence, most terrifying — articulation of the Omega Point of gamification I’ve seen is Jesse Schell’s DICE 2010 keynote, which was likely the tipping point after which the syllables “game-uh-fa-cay-shun” were on the lips of every Mad Man from New York to New Delhi, each one hoping to unleash their inner Skinner. Although Schell’s speech was widely heralded as a blueprint for a brave new cyberworld, and excitedly embraced by a slew of societal actors as a novel way to bring people around to their cause (whether that cause is buying soda or riding a bicycle), I found myself recoiling in horror. If you haven’t seen the talk, and don’t have the full 28 minutes, 19 seconds needed to see it in its entirety, just start at the 20 minute mark. By the 23 minute mark you’ll have an urge to voluntarily douse your keyboard in whiskey and set your computer on fire. By the 27 minute mark you’ll have an urge to involuntarily douse your computer in vomit and set your hair on fire. To be fair, it’s not entirely clear to me whether Schell was saying that his predictions were a cause for celebration, or whether he was merely pointing out that these things are coming, and encouraging his audience to be the Gamifiers instead of the Gamified.

But my visceral revulsion to a future in which every action is recorded, with some actions rewarded, along with questions about which specific powers would want to reward which specific behaviors, is secondary to the critique my colleague Ian Bogost made of Schell’s talk. All this chatter about leaderboards and progress bars neglects the true potential of “games,” which is to get people thinking about the underlying behavior of specific complex systems, whether those systems are dental, defensive, or democratic, and whether the subjects are cavities, castles, or countries. Bogost calls this procedural rhetoric:

Procedural rhetoric affords a new and promising way to make claims about how things work… video games can make claims about the world. But when they do so, they do it not with oral speech, nor in writing, nor even with images. Rather, video games make argument with processes. Procedural rhetoric is the practice of effective persuasion and expression using processes. Since assembling rules together to describe the function of systems produces procedural representation, assembling particular rules that suggest a particular function of a particular system characterizes procedural rhetoric.

Another way to understand procedural representation is in terms of models. When we build models, we normally attempt to describe the function of some material system accurately… Models of all kinds can be thought of as examples of procedural rhetoric; they are devices that attempt to persuade their creators or users that a machine works in a certain way. Video games too can adopt this type of goal; for example, a flight simulator program attempts to model how the mechanical and professional rules of aviation work. But since procedurality is a symbolic medium rather than a material one, procedural rhetorics can also make arguments about conceptual systems, like the model of consumer capitalism in Animal Crossing…

In response to Schell’s presentation at DICE 2010, Bogost wrote:

…games are not primarily comprised of incentives and rewards in the first place, not even the more unusual ones Schell presents in his talk. The heart of games is not points, but process. Games have the capacity to persuade us because they can depict perspectives on how things work, and they can give us insights into the complex and often ambiguous connections between them… the most ironic example Schell presented in his talk at DICE is that of the Ford Fusion dashboard. The growing plant in the dash holds promise not because it offers an incentive to drive in a fuel-efficient manner, but because it reveals the combinations of mechanical, electrical, and combustive processes that lead to fuel-efficient driving.

The Fusion driver does not jump with Pavlovian delight upon seeing a lively fern, but noodles with intrigue over the combinations of traffic patterns, driving, techniques, topology that lead to different results. She might ask questions like “Why does driving a certain way have an impact on fuel consumption,” and “How are neighborhoods and cities designed to encourage and discourage such driving?”

The sentence about “Pavlovian delight,” or I should say the lack thereof, is classic Bogostese. (I’m going to see how many times I can employ variations of the phrase “noodles with intrigue” over the next week.) My wife and I recently bought a Nissan LEAF, so questions such as those mentioned in that paragraph are particularly on my mind. There’s a gauge on the LEAF that tells you how economically (and hence, I suppose, ecologically) you are driving. Unfortunately the car doesn’t provide much feedback into exactly what factors go into that gauge — as far as I can figure out, the LEAF thinks I am driving most economically when I am at a stop light, and least economically when I am pressing the break or accelerator pedals, which I refer to as “driving.”

Wow — there’s actually a company called Badgeville, which calls itself “The Behavior Platform.” Ah, look here! “Reward customer and employee behavior with smart gamification techniques.” Excuse me a moment, I need to go score some Pepto-Bismol…

Categories: Uncategorized