Course Title: CS50 Introduction to Computer Science
Provider: Harvard via edX
Price: Free
Level: Introductory
Effort: 10 – 20 hours per problem set, 9 problem sets and a final, self-paced
Prerequisites: None
Completion awards: Verified Certificate available for USD$90

About the course:
A lot of people view this course as the gold standard in introductory computer science MOOCs.  Having been through it now, I’m afraid I have to disagree.  It is an amazing course, though, and the one best placed to get you into the middle of useful coding as quickly as possible.

The structure of the course follows what you might expect of a university course translated to an online MOOC: each week has a very, very long lecture, followed by shorter bits from teaching assistants highlighting important concepts, and then there’s a problem set which is a series of challenges which ostensibly can be solved using the techniques introduced that week.  There is an exponential increase in difficulty from week to week, because both the material covered is more difficult, and the amount of documentation relating to solving the challenges is reduced.  This is meant to foster habits of independent study to resolve such challenges in the future.

This structure is the first relative weakness of the course.  (Relative to the MIT CS introduction course using Python.)  The MIT course imagines education looking more like the web.  The Harvard course spends countless resources trying to make the web ape its own institution.

As a former trainer, the most important thing about educating people is keeping them awake and interested long enough to learn, so it’s really about entertaining.  The lecturer, Professor David Malan, is extremely entertaining on stage.  The format is fundamentally outdated, however.  There could be a hundred clips where there’s currently a 105 minute video, each collated, indexed, and cross-referenced.  A build-your-own lecture series could take the place of an impending Sander’s Hall nap.  MIT did this beautifully in their latest foray into CS as a MOOC.

The languages “taught” are fantastic.  They start by giving a few rules-of-thumb in Scratch, and pretend that they’ve therefore taught it.  They next spend several weeks on C, and this is an impressive tutorial for the language … for any language.  They then give a small grounding in Python, and then a cheat sheet for SQL, JavaScript, and maybe a few others.  Really, I think they’d do better by having a hard limit on two languages, because everything beyond Python was literally worse than having no experience at all.  Students are expected to meaningfully interact with those other languages, without sufficient preparation.  In solving PSets, students already know those topics, or they luck into trying the correct technique the first time, or they end up chasing their own tails for hours and hours before giving up and asking on a public forum for help.  I spent many hours answering questions in the CS50 subreddit to alleviate some of the pain of such students.  (An example is that they expect students to use object-oriented programming techniques, but never discuss what an object is, let alone what object-oriented programming is.)

I would disagree that it is an introductory module.  It may be introductory if you’re on campus at Harvard, and can stop in and chat to a staff member for twenty minutes, and you’re literally spreading this across a third of a year.  If you’re doing this on your own, you’re going to have to come with a pretty strong intuition of why computer programs don’t do what you expect, and how to troubleshoot to figure out where it all went a bit wrong.  (The tool created to understand this in C is fantastic.  Because of this, they don’t teach how to figure out how to do it when learning C, and therefore students have no concept of basic troubleshooting techniques once the module moves away from C and that tool is no longer available.)

If you survive through to the victory lap of the final (which is really just whatever personal project you want to make a video for), you’ll be ready to take on any formal CS education.  I doubt you’ll be prepared for properly undertaking independent study, however, because the theory behind the coding is often ignored.

The real time I put into this was between 4 and 12 hours per PSet (typically on the lower side), so maybe 60 hours, plus another two hours each “week” watching lectures.

I’d recommend people interested in CS and coding take this module … but only if they also undertake the MIT or UBC introductory modules.

A couple of months ago, I predicted a score on my EMA between 93% and 95%.  I’m pleased to have outperformed the prediction, and achieved a 98%.  My OAS for the rest of the module had been 97%.  It’s gratifying to see these two numbers so close, as it means my tutor was well calibrated to the overall module requirements, which means I can be confident when I rely on her recommendations going forward.  (Listening to her recommendations definitely helped in this score.)

It is all downhill from here, though.

Course Title: Learn to Program in Java (DEV276x)
Provider: Micosoft via edX
Price: Free
Level: Introductory
Effort: 6 — 10 hours per week, 4 weeks, allegedly self-paced
Prerequisites: None
Completion awards: Verified Certificate available for USD$99
tl;dr: Take the University of Helsinki Java courses, instead

About the course:

No.  Just no.  Don’t even think about taking this course.  Run away.  Invent your own rules for how you think Java might work, and use those instead, because they’re sure to be more useful than this course.

I apparently signed up for this module on the day it opened, but I’m not really sure how that happened.  Anyway, the discussion forums were filled with people enthusiastic about what they were there to do.

There was no syllabus stating what the structure of the course was.  There was no course news, no updates, no welcoming letter, nothing telling you what to click on first.  The first week’s instructions, however, made it clear that the IntelliJ IDEA was an absolute necessity for the course.  (It’s not.  Feel free to use whatever IDE you enjoy.  They do at one point discuss how to set up a new project in IntelliJ, but they skip most of the difficult steps, and get another step wrong.  I learned much more about Java following the IntelliJ instructions for setting up a new project than I did in the first two weeks of the Microsoft course.)

After a few days, several of the students had finished the first week, and even though the course description said it was self-paced, there was no second week.  Some people asked in the discussion forums when the content would become available.  Other students were asking for help on things.  Some for clarification.  There was no response from anybody associated with the course’s presentation.  They had hit a button to upload a third of the course, and run away.

One step up in seriousness was that response was necessary, because much of the documentation is wrong.  Some of it over-simplifies things by saying this-or-that doesn’t exist, when it does, or you can’t do this-or-that, when you can.  Other times, the script-reader’s information is just incorrect, and other times the questions they quiz with have 0 correct answers from which to choose.

Another step up in seriousness is that the course is completely uneven.  The script-reader reads a mind-numbingly patronising script which insults the students’ intelligence.  Then the documentation and quiz questions expect the students to have a much higher degree of understanding than what was just discussed.  (Some courses claim this is a feature encouraging outside study, but this is a different beast entirely.)  Many times, there’s no indication of a correct answer in the script or the documentation, and it can’t be learned practically by experimentation.

I refer to the “instructor” as a script reader, because that’s what she’s doing.  I have no doubt that she does understand the subject content, but she’s just reading a script, and not teaching.  Worse, it’s clear that she didn’t write the script, because she often stumbles when something is wrong, not being clear enough, or she’s simply struggling with it not being the right way to present something, but she just ploughs on through it regardless.  One (patronising) committee wrote the script, a different person read it, a different team wrote the documentation, and someone else wrote the questions, and clearly none of these people ever met each other.

There were at least two questions which showed that the person who wrote the questions had no idea how iterative loops worked.  One had a question with zero right answers, and another with two right answers.  And, of course, there’s no way to get them fixed, because nobody from the presentation is there.

Anyway, when the second week was finally released, randomly nine or ten days after the course opened, and there was still nobody to answer questions, and the documentation was worse than ever, I finally just bailed.

To sum up: No.