A year ago Udacity launched with its first two courses: CS101: Building a Search Engine and CS373: Programming a Robotic Car. In this blog post, David Evans, now back at the University of Virginia after his year long sabbatical at Udacity, reminisces about his experiences with CS101. Dave remains a valuable education advisor to us and CS101 remains Udacity’s most popular course, with over 265,000 students enrolled. The course continues to evolve, and several new units will be released on March 11!
Two Novembers ago I received a remarkable email out of the blue:
A few emails and a skype chat later, I found myself on a plane for San Francisco to meet with Sebastian, David Stavens, and Mike Sokolsky, the founders of the venture not yet known as Udacity.
At the time, the venture was a 5-person team fresh off the remarkable success of running an AI Class, operating out of Sebastian’s guest house in Los Alto Hills. The opportunity to teach an open introductory computer science class was enthralling and eye-popping. Although I’d spent ten years developing an introductory CS course and teaching at the University of Virginia, it quickly became clear that to reach a broader audience it would be advantageous to develop a new course on this new medium.
Over the course of several conversations during that first visit we settled on the idea of basing the course around the motivating project of building a search engine. To convince myself and Sebastian that code for a web crawler would be simple enough in python to teach in an introductory class, I wrote a first draft of the code at the SFO airport while I was waiting for my return flight. For the next three weeks, I was on a planned trip around India with my wife, and spent much of the travel time working on the plan for CS101.
On returning to California in January, I had two big surprises. The first was that my hand had become magically transparent! On my first visit, I’d recorded a short trial using the same setup Sebastian and Peter Norvig had used for the AI class. Unfortunately, I’m left handed so all you could see in the video was my arm covering up the writing. Katy Reichelt, Udacity’s intrepid video editor, had figured out a way to make my hand semi-transparent so you could see the writing underneath.
The second big surprise was that instead of launching the course in August as planned, the course needed to be ready to launch in February! This seemed impossible, but I had a secret weapon: Kathleen Mullaney had joined as the producer (something I never thought I’d have in all my academic teaching!), and she handled the formidable task of keeping me (and Sebastian) in line and on track with her grace and charm.
Most of CS101 was recorded using a makeshift studio in the basement of Sebastian’s guest house, between his wine cellar and liquor cabinet. Unlike Udacity’s current sound-proofed studios, one could hear the plumbing loudly in the studio so we put a “Recording in Progress – No Flushing!” sign on the bathrooms upstairs. Kathleen stuck post-it notes around the recording set-up reminding me to smile as frowns could be heard in the recording. For the promo shots, also recorded in the basement, I stood on a stool owned by Sebastian’s son.
Kathleen had the brilliant idea of going through Latinate words in the dictionary and seeing if there were any we liked. It went something like this,
Kathleen: "anxiety" Group: hmm...probably not so good Kathleen: "audacity" Me: "Udacity!" Group: “nah, why would we want to be a city, uda sounds like something a cow would have, etc." Kathleen: "auspicious" Me: "Uspicious!" Kathleen: "Maybe Udacity wasn't so bad after all..."My best decision in building CS101 was to recruit Peter Chapman as Assistant Instructor. Peter has been a terrific assistant coach for my introductory computing course the previous semester, as well as a superstar in my research group, and had fortunately finished all his degree coursework a semester early to be able to devote his full and considerable energies to CS101. Peter took on the daunting task of writing grading scripts for CS101 and keeping our first group of 94,000 students happy. Peter’s world domination plan notwithstanding, he still proudly owns the Udacity record for the highest in-video retention rate for any video.
The day before launch, no one had seen anything resembling a working site, and I was dealing with the realization that we would probably need to delay the launch. The engineering team, Mike, Irvin, Alvin, and Matt, were working furiously to get a site up and ready. Miraculously, things came together on the last day and everything worked although not flawlessly, but certainly better than anyone expected. It was thrilling to see the site traffic ramping up and people posting anticipatory messages waiting for the classes to start, and more than a little terrifying to wonder what students would think of the class.
|Udacity Launch Party|
|Many things happened in the last year, including our newest and youngest Udacian (Dave’s daughter): here preparing for her "Building a Quantum Holodeck" course|
- Dave Evans