Wednesday, February 20, 2013

CS101: One Year Later


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.



Original Studio
Original Studio
By mid-January, things were making good progress, but we had one serious problem: our venture still had no name!  After rejecting many candidates (“Moon Shot” - we might leave our Moon Lane headquarters one day, “University 21” - legal trademark issues, “7 weeks university” - we might want to run longer/shorter courses some day, etc.), things were getting down to the wire.  It was getting late and we needed a name by the next day.  We were getting desperate enough to even contemplate hiring a “naming consultant.”   

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
In those early weeks, I got more than a few messages from students with earnest tales of woe asking for extensions on the assignments. It helped that my mom was also a student in that first class, so I could respond honestly that my own mother was in the class and wanted an extension, but I wasn’t able to give her one either. [Note: this was in the first iteration of our course offerings when we had deadlines; since April last year, we’ve moved to having open, completely asynchronous courses to allow students to learn at their own pace. You no longer “miss out” on starting courses, but can truly take courses any time, anywhere, at your own pace.]
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
During my time at Udacity, I had an opportunity to work, play, and fence with a host of extraordinary teachers, as well as to meet with governors, cabinet secretaries, billionaire CEOs, university presidents, and legendary technologists.  But, by far the most gratifying has been the chance to meet with students from CS101 who have dropped by our office, or I’ve run into in cafes and airports, and to see the momentous efforts and mellifluous contributions students have put into the class.  It has been (and continues to be) an amazing experience and I’m deeply grateful to the Udacity team for the opportunity and the dedication and effort they put into this. A lot has happened in the year since CS101 launched, but we’re only just at the beginning of seeing what open education can do and learning how to use the on-line medium most effectively for teaching and learning.

- Dave Evans