Learning Through Storytelling—Michael Dedrick, Udacity Instructor

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Jean Luc Godard said, “Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.” And while a quote from the French New Wave Film director might be an unusual place to start a blog about one of Udacity’s instructors, Michael Dedrick would, no doubt, agree with the sentiment.

“Storytelling is key to all aspects of teaching and working in tech,” says Michael. “From the portfolios, you create while searching for a job, to the curricula you create while teaching a class, everything is a story. Your portfolio tells your story to employers. It shows how you created the work. And, ultimately, you hope your story is more engaging and more pleasing to the employer than the stories told by others who are competing for the same job!”

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Designing a New Path – Melissa Hui, Udacity Instructor

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Some people have such an innate understanding of a subject that being in their very presence makes you feel like you’re learning something, almost through osmosis. Udacity Instructor, Melissa Hui, is one of those people. Talking to her is a revelation. Melissa is the founder and principal of Context Leap, an agency specializing in employing human-centered design to help organizations manage culture transformation, empower leadership, and discover how to work in more productive, creative, and innovative ways.

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Meet the Instructor, Ortal Arel of the School of AI

Udacity’s AI Programming with Python Nanodegree program was updated this week, with additional Python lessons, a new project where students will learn how to use a pre-trained image classifier, and a new visual calculus lesson. As these changes go live, we’d love to introduce you to the program’s instructor and Curriculum Lead, Ortal Arel.

AI Curriculum Lead Quote

Hi Ortal! Can you start by telling us a little about your background? What did you do before becoming Udacity’s Curriculum Lead for the AI Programming with Python Nanodegree program?

I’ve always had a passion for math, and teaching science and engineering. I studied electrical and computer engineering as an undergraduate, where I became interested in pursuing graduate studies in intelligent algorithms for embedded systems—such as mobile devices. I received my PhD, then I began teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in signals and systems, logic design, and applied cryptography at the University of Tennessee.

Was there a particular moment that really sparked your passion for AI, when you knew it was what you wanted to do with your career?

My initial fascination with the world of AI started with my research in embedded systems. I worked on the design and analysis of intelligent algorithms for high speed digital architectures. Learning more about intelligent algorithms led to a passion for Machine Learning (ML) and Deep Learning. I’ve been increasingly amazed with all the ML applications being applied to help better society, like those used in healthcare systems, in agriculture, in automated driving, and more. Prior to the emergence of machine learning as a discipline for addressing challenging data science problems, signal processing was the prevailing approach. Given the many mathematical similarities between the analytical tools behind signal processing and machine learning, I was able to fairly quickly learn about the recent advances in ML and AI.

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Gundega Dekena: From Udacity student to Assistant Instructor in 4 classes

Gundega Dekena began as one of Udacity’s star students. Now, she is an Assistant Instructor for Programming a Robotic Car and Intro to Computer Science at Udacity, interacting tirelessly with students and enhancing the learning process. In conversation with Dekena, she shares the inspiring story of how she became a part of the Udacity team.

From Student to Assistant Instructor in 4 Classes

Dekena has been with Udacity, beginning as a student in the first Artificial Intelligence (AI) class, October 2011. She recalls, “I took the initial AI class; I saw it as an awesome opportunity because of the added interactivity. It exceeded my expectations.” Last year she wrote about her experience taking all three online computer science courses on Fortnightly Mailing.

While the AI class exceeded Dekena’s expectations, she also exceeded Udacity’s expectations. In addition to being an active participant on AIQUS, the class’s forum, she also helped to modify its software, OSQA. Since then, she has been suggesting features for the Udacity forums, which also run on OSQA. Most notably she suggested enabling LaTeX, a document markup language, in the forums, on the wiki and on the course site so that mathematical formulas would display more clearly. This has been especially beneficial for Udacity’s more advanced courses that use long equations.

Similar to many Udacity students, Dekena is a self-taught programmer. Aside from a few courses in high school and a semester at her University, where she learned BASIC, she has been learning on her own as a means of finding employment.

When Dekena took Udacity’s inaugural Programming a Robotic Car course, she worked hard as a student and proved to be an amazingly helpful peer, so much so that Udacity recruited her as a volunteer to help write supplementary notes for the course. Her ability to digest and articulate complex materials from this course helped Udacity create class documentation to benefit all students.

After working with us as a volunteer, we couldn’t bear to lose her and hired her as an Assistant Instructor. In this way, more students can benefit from her instructional prowess. As an Assistant Instructor, Dekena values the opportunity to not only help teach, but also to learn from a vast student body at Udacity: “What I like most about being an Assistant Instructor is the exposure to tremendously talented and smart people from all over the world. I like being able to learn from some, and to teach others.”

On Teaching

Assistant Instructors at Udacity fulfill a lot of needs, not only for students, but also for each other and the company at large. They coordinate with professors and video editors to keep course content interesting and challenging for students. Assistant Instructors also ensure that the technical side of things runs smoothly. More apparently, they monitor the forums, and make sure that student’s needs are met by answering questions, responding to bug reports, and clarifying any confusion around lectures or quizzes. Additionally, Dekena is working to develop new courses for Udacity.

Udacity Assistant Instructors are the beating heart behind that which sets Udacity apart from other online universities – they keep content alive and running. They are also a supremely endearing group of enthusiastic computer science gurus.

As a lover of learning and a proven mentor, Dekena is optimistic about any student’s potential to better understand computer science. “Anyone can learn anything. It is just a matter of how much effort one is willing to put in. There are character traits and affinities, and also physical capabilities that can make the learning process easier or harder, but it is possible.”

To students just starting to master computer science, she encourages them to, “Be persistent. Be curious. Enjoy yourself! There is great satisfaction in finally solving a problem that you have been stuck on for a long time.”

Changing Education

Dekena is a natural Udacian. When asked what impact she thought Udacity was having on our global student body, she answered, “I think we are giving students around the world a first glimpse of the future – ‘University Reloaded.’ We work across the borders that governments, politicians and religious fanatics have put up. Students from countries that would never otherwise have a chance to learn from passionate and knowledgeable teachers like Sebastian Thrun, Westley Weimer, Steve Huffman and others, no have the chance to do so. People should not suffer because they were born in the wrong place and at the wrong time.”

For Udacity, the time for changing education has arrived. Our Assistant Instructors are here to support every student’s endeavor to change their life through education. As Dekena notes, “We cant’ fix the world instantly, but we can do something that helps change it for the better.”