MOOC review: Begin Robotics

Even more pre-study studying!  This MOOC was the first I took on FutureLearn, an endeavour of the Open University which, so far, has been far superior to OpenLearn for me.  I have since taken a further two MOOCs there, and I’ve got at least six more in the pipe-line to finish before my course begins in October.

Course Title: Begin Robotics
Provider: University of Reading via FutureLearn
Price: Free
Level: Introductory
Effort: 12 hours over 4 weeks, commencing on set date
Prerequisites: None
Completion awards: Certificate of Achievement (£49 + shipping) for completing 90% of course content, or Statement of Participation (£39 + shipping) for completing 50% of course content

About the course:
This was my first foray into FutureLearn, and it was a great experience.

FutureLearn has all students start together on a course, but they can then progress at their own rate.  You can access all weeks’ content on the first day, and the course remains open for reference after the last day.  But by starting together, there’s a community of others along the way, with each article, discussion, video, or other step accompanied by its own forum thread. If you’re struggling with something, there’s probably someone else who is, too, and collaboration is available.  (This being about robotics, I spent most of my time sharing links to interesting solutions to challenges encountered in cybernetics.)

The first week of Begin Robotics introduced the glossary of terms used, a brief robotics timeline, and robotics simulations.  This last one captured the attention of most of the students.  A variety of robotics simulations have been programmed by the Reading team to allow you to interact with a virtual robot’s programming to test changes and observe results. The interactive nature of it was great for focusing learning, and the community of students comparing results helped even further.

The second week introduced sensors and actuators, for cybernetic observing and affecting the world around it.  Robotic ‘anatomy’ was a topic of discussion, now that sensors and actuators could give such discussion context.  More simulations followed, of course focused on utilising sensor information.

The third week was about robot-human interaction.  This included haptics, interface, psychology, and more.  The fourth week was about robotic learning, and artificial life.

The best thing about this course was its pacing, combined with its multi-track learning.  A beginner could start this course, and feel that they’ve learned a lot by the end of the course, with each week being more challenging.  A serious hobbyist could likewise start this course and feel that they’ve learned a lot by the end of the course.  The two would have learned vastly different things, and never been bored.

For beginners, though, they’ll possibly be left a bit wanting at the end of the course, however, as there’s no big, “Here’s how to start,” moment for them.  It’s just a lot of great information to keep in mind once they do start.  For hobbyists, though, there are a lot of general ideas and specific solutions to some real challenges, and very much worth the time effort.

The real time effort, however, is nowhere near the estimated 12 hours.  It was closer to five or six, and I completed it in four days or so.  I keep going back, however, to participate in the online discussions, as they’re quite good.

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