Last week I enrolled in Rice University’s Introduction to Python Programming MOOC. This was an assignment for my elective in technology enhanced learning but I thought I would take advantage of the task to start learning something which has been on my to do list for sometime anyway. I’m under no illusions about becoming a great coder (or even a functional one), I don’t really have the time or I think the brain for it, but I like the idea of having a grip on the fundamentals if only so I’m a bit better able to talk to someone who does understand how to do it. I began with the introductory session, which sets out the structure of the course, teaching materials. and offers a very basic introduction to Python.
The introduction was very clear, introducing the staff, covering what the course would cover and also critically setting out the course ethos (something I didn’t really expect). The tutors seemed to try hard to establish a relaxed atmosphere to the course, not least by centring the projects on some nerdy pop culture references, the first project for example was titled ‘We Want a Shrubbery’ in homage of course to Monty Python. This is a tricky calculation and of course there is the risk that for some students this sort of obscure humour will just fall flat. For me this reflects one of the issues with MOOCs. Teachers to some extent adapt their style to the class (I quickly learn with a new group of students if they find my jokes funny or just painful), but that of course isn’t possible with these courses. You either take a calculated risk or guess at the type of students you might have (in this case I think they’ve guessed that most would be rather nerdy men) or you go for a monotone neutrality that ought to appeal to, and bore, everyone more or less equally. As one of tutors for this MOOC admitted during the introductory video ‘sometimes we’re lame but we’d rather be that than boring’.
Diving into the basic lessons, the pace was gradual enough for me to follow along without getting too lost. It is supremely useful that you can return, rewind and revisit anything unclear as many times as you want. For me trying to get my head around coding for the first time this is pretty vital. A transcript of the lecture is also avaliable and this is particularly useful as I found the Cousera site rather tedious, continually hanging and with Firefox occasionally failing to respond at all. I also realised pretty quickly that this was going to be far more of a weekly commitment than I’d realised, partly because the classes were more in depth than I expected and because of my basic maths skills which required a fair amount of refreshing.
In the lessons there was a nice use of a digital whiteboard to spell out information as introduced. An advantage of pre-recording these sessions is obviously that a tutor can appear to do a lot of things simultaneously which have in reality been produced separately and combined. This makes the classes feel very fluid and professional in a way real life classes rarely are. Also interesting that one member of the course team had developed a platform called CodeSkulptor specifically for the course (perhaps not so surprising since they’re all coding professors) but a nice surprise. This allows remote access, saving and editing of code via a web browser, and makes the learning and sharing process feel much more fluid and interactive than I had expected. Video instruction gradually introduces this platform and simple expressions, with tests scattered in to the video to help reinforce the ideas asked for. Finally after covering the expressions we were presented with a series of practice exercises to try out and reinforce what we’d learnt.
So the first session was an interesting introduction both to basic coding and to MOOC’s. One of the course tutors prefaced his class by telling us that ‘by the time you’ve taken this class you will know enough to be dangerous’. While I doubt I’ll ever know enough Python to be a danger to anyone (apart perhaps from myself) the smoothness of the all important first session definitely encouraged me to continue with this MOOC.