Thursday, 19 January 2012

Stanford online classes

I mentioned when I started this blog that I was signed up for some free online classes with Stanford University (sadly, you don't get any university credit for them, but hey-ho).

Actually, I signed up for three in the autumn (or "fall" in Stanford parlance) -- Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Databases.  Unfortunately they started just before my final French hand-in, so I never got properly started.  However, what I saw looked promising.  Well-produced video lectures, well planned tasks and an active support community.

The three mentioned above were the only ones available at the time, but they've since added several other options, and I think they'd be worth checking out for anyone.

Courses are scheduled to run for 8 weeks, and while you're encouraged to stick to the timetable (you'll get a little certificate to print out if you complete it and submit your assignments at the right time) you can follow at your own pace if you can't keep up.

The courses were all scheduled to start this month but the anatomy course (which I'd signed up for) won't be starting until the 8th of March now.  For me, that's a nuisance on two counts.  1: the other courses I've signed up for won't be finished by then (so I can't simply take on another course in the interim) and 2: it's now running during the latter part of the semester, so risks interfering with my studies.  Oh well, as I said, you don't need to stick to the schedule, so I might just have to keep it until I've finished for the year and do it without getting the certificate.

So for those of you interested in signing up, here's what's on offer, courses starting variously in January, February and March:

Computer Science

NB: these courses are being offered free as an experiment to refine the technologies and processes.  Stanford are spinning the technology off as a new start-up, Coursera, who will trying to turn a profit from the courses in the future.  I personally have no problem with this, but I was a bit insulted that they didn't make this clear to me at the start.  What's wrong with a bit of openness and honesty?

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Options for knowing it all

So as well as starting to learn more stuff, I've been trying to plan how to do it in a structured way.

OpenCourseWare is one option, because it gives you a full syllabus, but unfortunately there's gaps and holes where you're relying on a course textbook, so the whole immediacy is lost.  And different suppliers give different quality of materials, and so I'm a bit wary of trying to follow through something, only to find it becomes impractical to use halfway through.
But now MIT have started producing experimental free online courses, with the aim of commercialising them as professional (non-university) training at a later date.  I've signed up for their anatomy course, and a couple of others.  The courses are starting up later this month (frustratingly, they haven't given a precise date) and all the subjects available can be seen on the Anatomy Class page (they haven't set up a single central website, as far as I can see, and I'm not sure why not...).

And then I thought "well, free's all well and good, but what about cheap?"  And how do you get cheap education?  Go to a poor country, of course!  But what if you don't want to live in a poor country?  E-learning.  So I checked out a couple of places in Bolivia.  $4800 US for an online masters -- that's £3066.  Another had a face-to-face masters for 34,300 Bolivianos -- £3172.  For a resident of Scotland, an OU masters currently stands at around £4000, so that's really not much of a saving.  But for a South American, that's an utter fortune!  I also Googled on a few African countries, but they all seem to point to the UK or France for online programmes.  It looks like there's a massive gap in the access to paid-for education across the world.

So maybe it's just as well that there's a lot of free material emerging....

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Continuing with OU freebies

I've watched another couple of OU video "serieses" and it's becoming apparent that a lot of these aren't serieses at all, but rather a 25 minute video broken up into arbitrary little chunks.   You've got to watch all the chunks in order, as they don't make any sense individually.  So why did the OU break them up like this?  Presumably it matches the way the individual segments are referred to in the course materials.  So they've set most of them up as playlists, meaning you can watch all the way through.  But that still means putting up with the odd silly little jingle and idents at the end (which are usually significantly louder than the main video content, making them uncomfortable to watch with headphones on).

But weirder still, while they have various serieses available as "combined" videos, some of these are genuine serieses of individual videos, and many of the single documentaries seem to be only available as fragments....
I think I'm going to get rather bored with these videos anyway, as most are merely a slice of the information given in a full course, and not really enough to actually learn the material.

But there's plenty available on the OU's YouTube channel, anyhow....

Monday, 2 January 2012

In praise of Professor Stannard

So I watched the whole series of videos last night (see previous post).  On another blog I recently blew off a bit of steam about how infuriating some language learning materials can be.  Now the material Stannard presented in the video series was far more complicated than anything you could present in a language course, but it was just so easy to watch.  He covered the questions behind determining the size of the universe, he talked about string theory, he talked about the relativistic effects of "time dilation" and "length contraction".  And I walked away from it happy and contented.  Why?  Did he manage to give me a full understanding of these concepts in these little 10 minute snippets?  Heck no. But he made it OK to not understand.  Not by simply telling me that it was OK not to understand everything, because if he'd told me that, it would have felt like an excuse -- in the past, lots of teachers have told me it's OK not to understand, but I still find myself feeling that its my failure to understand.

But Stannard presented the material in a way that made it clear that most people don't understand it -- you actually believed that he didn't understand it... which is probably true.  There are many, many branches of science where even the experts don't fully understand the concepts that they're dealing with, yet when they teach or write books, there's absolutely no indication of doubt -- it's presented as pure, simple fact.  Every learner gets the same problem -- they don't understand the material, but they believe it's their fault.

So I'd really recommend Prof Stannard's videos to anyone -- they are some of the best science materials I've ever seen.  Here's a link to the entire series as a YouTube playlist.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

It's time to learn... everything.

I've always liked learning, but recently I've started noticing just how much stuff I have previously learnt, but subsequently forgotten.  Someone will start talking about eigenvectors and eigenvalues, and even though I can still spell the words, I have no idea what they mean.  My retired Dad starts talking about the basic equations of Higher Physics and while they look familiar, it's all lost in the mists of time.

Thankfully, access to information is easier today than it has ever been.  My wee brother pointed my Dad at the MIT OpenCourseWare Physics lectures, and he's become so engrossed in them that he's just ordered an old edition of the set text online.

So in 2012 I'll be scouring the net for information in order to better understand the world around me, to relearn things I once knew and to find out things that I never knew about before.

I'm starting off by revisiting a series of short videos produced by the Open University on some physics fundamentals and the philosophy of science by one of the best guys I've ever seen talk on the topic, Professor Russell Stannard.  Stannard's an unusual guy -- an award-winning teacher and science writer, a children's author and a keen sculptor.

Here's the first video in the series of 10 -- you can follow on from that video to the rest of the series on YouTube.  Enjoy!