Udacity cofounder and online education pioneer David Evans sees powerful potential in platform's unique project-based approach.
I asked Evans for an interview after sampling his lessons on Udacity because I found him to be an engaging instructor and wanted to hear his thoughts about how to produce a successful MOOC. Having also attended classes on Coursera and edX, I was impressed by the presentation style of the Udacity courses. While these three online course platforms are often lumped together as purveyors of MOOCs, Udacity is playing a significantly different game by producing its own courses in its own studio.
Coursera and edX partner with universities and distribute content they create (edX is itself a partnership of MIT and Harvard). As a result, the production values are a lot more variable. You're more likely to see video of a regular classroom lecture, or extended PowerPoint presentations with voiceover. Some of the Coursera MOOCs I've attended have been excellent, and others definitely would have benefitted from some basic video editing. Coursera and edX also offer courses on a defined schedule, with modules typically released on a weekly basis and exams and homework that have set deadlines. In contrast, Udacity courses are self-paced.
Udacity's approach has its own tradeoffs. So far it has created only a few dozen courses, whereas Coursera offers hundreds through its rapidly expanding family of universities. Coursera and edX also offer courses in a wider variety of disciplines, not just technology and mathematics.
Udacity courses have a distinct polished look, usually featuring a few minutes of on-camera lecture from the instructor, followed by sketching on an electronic whiteboard to illustrate concepts, with the instructor's voice in the background. The sketches are created using Autodesk SketchPad Pro, but instead of having the drawings appear as the work of a disembodied instructor (Khan Academy style), the Udacity producers capture the instructor's hand in the act of drawing, using an overhead video camera pointed down at a tabletop touchscreen display.
As Evans recounts in a blog post about the production of his first course, one surprise was that "my hand had become magically transparent!" It turned out that his left-handed drawing style meant he often covered up one bit of content while he was drawing the next, but the editors figured out a way of merging the video from the camera with the video from the camera result to make sure students could always see important content through his semi-transparent hand.
The basic template for a Udacity class was set prior to the founding of the company, with the earlier AI class from Thrun and Norvig. Thrun is a Google Fellow, the creator of its famed self-driving car and currently a project leader for Google Glass, the wearable computer with the heads-up eyeglasses display. He is also a research professor at Stanford University. After years of teaching an on-campus AI course, Thrun and Norvig challenged themselves to create an online experience of comparable quality. Their videos were also shot with an overhead camera, although they did their sketching with pen and paper rather than electronically. From the beginning, they incorporated the concept of quizzing and otherwise engaging students frequently rather than simply delivering long lectures.
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