July 2012

Online Learning Comes of Age

By Mary Pat Campbell

Various stabs at online education have been made through the years, but it hasn’t been until recently that the full power of technology has been brought to bear.

A few years back, I reviewed some free, online learning resources in the newsletter of the Management and Personal Development Section, The Stepping Stone (“Stop Paying for Business Education!” October 2008; “Get Your Personal MBA,” July 2009). I covered such items as OpenCourseWare (OCW) from MIT and the Harvard Business Review’s podcasts. For years, such resources have been available, with free textbooks and lectures on video or audio.

But all these resources were missing a key element of education: feedback.

The problem was that there was no good way to check that one actually learned the information, and no good place to discuss the materials. The immediacy of a classroom, with give-and-take between teacher and student, and between the students themselves, was missing. In addition, the quality could be spotty. In the case of OCW from MIT, some of the online resources for classes were a few scattered readings and assignments; other classes had full online textbooks and video lectures. The materials had been originally created for in-person classes at MIT, so one often felt that one was missing something.

So now several free resources have come available this year that have plugged that hole of missing feedback. I will detail four below. I have registered with each of these sites, and have attempted at least a few of the lessons so I could see how they operate. To be sure, as all these sites are relatively new, several things may change between my writing this article and you reading it. I have seen format changes on a few of these sites already. If nothing else, check them out—it only costs your time.


I am listing my favorite first. The beauty of the Udacity courses thus far is that they are relatively easy to fit into a busy schedule, with videos being fairly short, and interspersed with you testing out the concept almost immediately after hearing it. In addition, the courses last only six weeks each (but more on that in a bit). Video quality is high, and there are location shots to pique the interest. But one of the more appealing aspects of the courses is that there is a practical edge to the topics taught.

For example, one of the first classes was CS101, an intro to programming and Computer Science concepts through the language Python. While I have had lots of computer science training, and a plethora of computer languages under my belt, I hadn’t learned Python before. The nice aspect, on top of the standard “Hello, World!” beginner script, was that the course was geared around building an Internet search engine. This wasn’t learning programming for the sake of programming, but programming for the sake of solving a particular problem. One learns the native data structures of Python while learning how to crawl the web. There were assignments that ranged from the very straightforward to the more complicated. Ultimately, for those of us in the first class, we got to enter a competition to adapt what we learned to something beyond. Alas, my entry that scored webpages based on reading difficulty did not place. Better luck next time, I suppose.

There’s an interesting twist to Udacity compared to the others listed below. Udacity is a for-profit endeavor, and while they don’t charge for people taking the classes, they seem to be looking for profit in two places: certification and job placement. The certification aspect was recently announced: they’ve paired up with the testing company Pearson VUE. This was announced June 1, 2012, and there are no tests as of yet. It doesn’t sound as if Udacity is attempting to benefit from the testing directly, but prices the tests according to Pearson’s fees—as they wrote in their announcement.

Again, this is strictly optional and you can still participate in our job placement program without taking a proctored exam. The testing centers allow students to show off what they’ve learned in an environment that ensures academic honesty.

“Each exam will be 90 minutes and will be composed of multiple choice and short answer questions. For the first round of exams, programming will not be included.

“There will be a nominal fee required to take the exams, which will offset the cost of physical testing centers and staff.”

They have already started their job placement program, and it seems that their revenue will come from employers using the pool of people coming through Udacity courses. They recently publicized one of the Udacity students who has been hired by Google.

Since the first class, I’ve signed up for two more: one on writing web applications (I want to adapt my life expectancy calculator to a web app, and ultimately an iPad/iPhone app), and one on software testing. Obviously, these courses have a computer programming slant to them, but they are expanding their course catalog to statistics and physics, and I expect more to come.

How does feedback come in these classes? There is automatic testing of the material—sometimes it comes in the form of multiple choice (sometimes allowing the selection of more than one option), short answer (which is usually looking for a number or something else definitive), or code (they give you an edit window where you can enter or edit code, and you can test-run the code before submitting). The method of submitting homework and exams seems to be changing over time. In the original course CS101, there were deadlines, and you wouldn’t get feedback as to whether your submission was right, until after the deadline. In the next class I took, CS253 Web Applications, you would get immediate feedback on the homework. In addition to finding out if one were right or not (and if wrong, one can always resubmit an amended answer), there were video solutions that one could look at immediately. With the Pearson VUE partnership, the goals of the classes are to teach and confirm for one’s own knowledge before one gets the imprimatur via their standardized exams.

I have found Udacity to be fun, and very motivational in terms of being able to put things to immediate use. It does help that some of the instructors aren’t standard professors, but actual practitioners, such as the creator of reddit, Steve Huffman.

In each course I signed up for, I had a particular goal in mind, which made it more likely for me to come back. The way the videos are set up, and the record of what one has and has not watched, makes it very easy to watch in bite-sized pieces over a week. When one runs into a problem, the discussion forums are very helpful, though the organization of these do make it a bit difficult to find the information you want.

For the professional, I believe of all the sites, this one is the most easily fitted into a busy schedule while still allowing one to see concrete progress.


Ever wanted to take a real MIT class? Are you really sure? Because the one class thus far offered through MITx, Circuits and Electronics 6.002x, looks like a full semester course, and has all the trappings.

The first offering ran from the beginning of March to the beginning of June 2012, about the length of a full college semester, and had a midterm as well as a final exam. The course has an online textbook that is of standard college textbook material. There was homework and online labs as well.This class was also not for complete beginners. While there was some review material available for assumed knowledge, such as linear algebra and calculus, there was the assumption that you knew what you were getting into. There are loads of videos and quizzes, and the course comes with an online electronics lab, to put together standard circuits to complete assignments. The amount of time needed to keep up with the class felt like the normal amount needed for a regular college class, and ultimately, I did not have time to spend on this. I didn’t make it to the midterm.

There are several nice features to this course. First, you can adjust the video playing speed, to 0.75x speed if you need it slowed down, up to 1.5x speed if you want to zip through. Running alongside the videos is a text transcript, which may help non-native speakers of English as well as those who may have trouble listening to someone with a slight Indian accent. Similar to Udacity, the videos are interspersed with quick quizzes to check understanding.

There has not been an announcement of new courses past this first sitting as of yet, but there has been an announcement that Harvard and MIT are pairing up to extend this idea farther with their new project edX. Unlike Udacity, edX is a non-profit effort, and so far doesn’t look like they are interested in replacing college credentials. This site is primarily for those interested in learning.


Coursera, like MITx, feels like regular college courses transferred to the online sphere. There are regular assignments, deadlines, exams, grades, and so forth. Similar to MITx, it has speed controls, so you can slow down or speed up the lectures. There are subtitles in a variety of languages that have been transcribed. The videos come in relatively long chunks of about 10 – 30 minutes, and they are straight lectures. The feedback comes through assignments and quizzes, and there are discussion boards for each class as well. So far, they have not had quizzes interspersed with the lectures, but there are quick-verifying quizzes after the fact.

The courses being offered are a wider variety than the other sites currently, covering not only math and computer science topics, but also areas such as sociology and pharmacology. It seems all the instructors are regular professors currently working at a variety of universities. The courses look like an adaptation of their regular lecture classes to online form, though pared down from a full semester. The length of classes varies, some as little as four weeks and others up to 10 weeks long.


Of all the sites listed here, I find Codecademy the weakest. For one, there are no videos, though some may find this a relief. But the all-text-driven nature of the site may be off-putting for those who would like extra assistance. In addition, there has been some sloppiness in the lessons and answer-checking themselves. I do not know if they have a formal review process, or simply wait for user complaints to find issues, but this is a site that needs a lot of potholes filled.

Codecademy focuses solely on coding, and currently has lessons on Javascript, jQuery, HTML, and CSS. The lessons are mostly organized into “tracks,” with sub-lessons being bite-sized chunks of only a few paragraphs at a time. A Javascript interpreter window is to the side, and one can write, rewrite, and test code within the lessons easily. In addition, each sub-lesson has its own Q&A forum, which makes it easy to get help. Unlike Udacity, where one has to search on tags for one’s particular topic, the help is right where you need it, and you can see that usually someone else has asked what you need to know. I certainly used it quite a bit when I found my code being rejected, only to find there had been a bug in the code-checking. (Yes, the code-checking got fixed, but it did get to be annoying).

Two of the features of the site are promising, though: they open the creation of new lessons to anybody (I’ve been thinking of doing something on floating-point arithmetic) and they’ve got some interpreters you can use as part of the site to do independent testing of code … or for whatever purpose you wish. I used it to test Python code I used in my first Udacity course, as well as to solve problems in Project Euler (check it out! http://projecteuler.net/ I’m user meepbobeep, and have only solved 39 problems thus far … it’s a great way to test one’s coding prowess.)

Mary Pat Campbell, FSA, MAAA, is a VP of Research at Conning in Hartford, Conn. She also teaches online seminars for FSA exams with The Infinite Actuary, and has had a long-standing interest in online education. Mary Pat has been coding since 1982, and is always up for learning new languages. Mary Pat Campbell's email is marypat.campbell@gmail.com.