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

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

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

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03777380301448750379 bingbing lai

    I love you, david!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07570360364610822238 Mustafa Eid

    Thank you David, Thank you Udacity, you guys really are changing lives.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11930966833227330475 Robert Hustwick

    Congratulations on a great year and hopefully many more!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17763040267657180371 Ramon Royo

    Thanks Dave and everyone else at Udacity, I took the CS101 course half a year ago and I really enjoyed it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05148693695758278924 Nasser Khelloufi

    Teacher please stay at Udacity !

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01924921993816775900 Thalles

    Thanks for all guys!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07701469291848839810 Fabian David Arias

    Thank you very much!, I certainly would love another course from Dave. This is absolutely a new experience.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08938391663854369365 Susana

    I totally LOVE you guys!!! Thank you soooo much for all the effort!! Btw, I think you are the best MOOC out there. You allow full flexibility for students to learn at their own pace and your courses are really well-structured to facilitate learning. Other sites have lots of courses, but the quality does not compare to Udacity's. Well done Udacity!! Well done!!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07335223580112994013 daveh70

    Congratulations to Dave and everyone at Udacity for a great first year. I too am hoping to see more courses from Dave. Anyone who can't wait can read Dave's book "Introduction to Computing", which mainly uses Scheme: http://www.computingbook.org/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05679784223709875069 Melissa Sezto

    Dave Congrats! I hope all is well with you and your family!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02983002170123749209 Devavrat Ravetkar

    This is going to be one of the most memorable posts :) Thanks so much for sharing the memories Dave and for all the work that the entire Udacity team has been putting in… you guys rock! m/ P.S. 'Udacity' does sound awesome 😉

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03145854962183203305 RITESH SALUJA

    Thanks Prof. Dave for teaching us such a nice course!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00915353217158740477 Kim Ng

    Has it been one year already? Congratulations Udacity. Thank you so much for a wonderful online learning experience. Best regards to you Dave and wishing you well in future endeavors.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00250022113182435666 David Evans

    Thanks, everyone, for the kind comments! Time flies, especially in open education, but it also seems like a really long time ago.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16659943580506416726 Anne Bergsman

    I fondly remember taking (and finishing) both of those first 2 classes and meeting David and Peter when I dropped by the office during a trip to the Bay Area. It felt like meeting rock stars. Happy Anniversary Udacity!!!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04728596152563442156 William van lith

    Thanks for this great course. It was a great experience taking this MOOC :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17951062986583600774 Carol Engler

    Wonderful….thanks so much! I have posted it on many sites. I am looking at the marvelous picture of your daughter and rapidly developing ideas on how worldwide education reform can happen…with a MOOC platform…and how, with these babies and toddlers, we can possibly expect the educational system that now stands….to meet the needs of kids who will know way beyond the 3 r's even before

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11670941142239617339 Muhammad Omar

    Thank you Sir, Now I'm different from what I was.Honored to be a pioneer student of Introduction to AI CS101

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14863047912086259110 Claudio

    Those first two courses an year ago were the best of all. Taking the new courses, I still miss those good times.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12266417393198810901 Unknown

    Great! Stay on the right side of the force, young jedis…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18283012168623272075 William Colmenares

    Happy anniversary Udacity and thanks David, I was one of the 94.000 taking the course at that time and it really really changed my life (my first MOOC also). I see learning now so differently and want to pass the good news around. In fact today in my facebook somebody thanked me for let him know MOOCs (he is taking one on Physics). Thanks again.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05619107196476010602 Saurabh Hooda

    Interesting journey :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14474572511385835609 SundayMorning

    Congratulations! And thanks David.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17664071636172086792 Swayambhu

    Love you Team Udacity! Can't weigh hw much I'm in debt to u all! :')

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16212976105211328264 kader

    we all love you and love udacity thank you

  • http://binaryandbetween.wordpress.com/ binaryandbetween

    prof dave… havent taken ur class,took the first offering of prof thruns class from udacity and love it, nonetheless I know you are an awesome teacher.. so continue to rock.. and btw ..the name "Udacity" is just perfect! ….also, when are you visiting india(kerala/kochi) next? :)

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00250022113182435666 David Evans

      Thanks, b&b! Would love to visit Kerala and Kochi again, its a beautiful place. But, I don't get much time for travel these days, so don't know when I'll be back.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10941064113144614350 Tony Valsamidis

    Thanks for sharing this, David. I really enjoyed being one of the first students on this course.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01505829881328926935 Sam Hill

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01505829881328926935 Sam Hill

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01505829881328926935 Sam Hill

    Dave, This course has opened my eyes to a whole new world of opportunities. I found a passion here. Because of your course I went back to school earned my GED and am now in my first semester of college–i'll always be grateful for that! I love what you and the good people at Udacity have done and I really hope this is the beginning of a revolution in this country's education

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00250022113182435666 David Evans

      Thanks, Sam – that's terrific! Congrats!The revolution is just beginning, I am sure…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17689611761892759843 yogi

    Thank you so much for the background story. I was in the initial class and think it is the best of the free online programs. I was just wondering if you knew Sebastian Thrun from another venture?

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00250022113182435666 David Evans

      I didn't know Sebastian before this (I did, of course, know of him, both from AI class and earlier from his research).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16873207998658595139 Ron B


  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12682490422944203719 Kundan Kumar

    Thank you Udacity, You have truly revolutionaries the way of learning.Presenting opportunity for masses to have access to quality education and changing lives of millions. Happy Anniversary and to Congratulations Team Udacity!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09810237921257978654 Florian Löhden

    Udacity is amazing thank you for this great chance

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05528882968763382576 Nick Xu

    You are the sunshine! I love udacity very much! It seems a best dream come true

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07042532810184555435 shahensha

    You area awesome Professor David. I was in my senior year when you offered the course. Even though I initially assumed that the course won't help me much, I was wrong. That feeling when I and my friends would discuss passionately about the course, Udacity, Professor Thrun, etc was amazing. I miss those days.Learning Computer Science from a small school in India was initially

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00250022113182435666 David Evans

    Thanks so much, Zeeshan! That's terrific. I hope you enjoy your time at Indiana University and wish you great success.

  • Eslam Gamal Khoga