Online CS courses: What does it mean, “willing to put in the effort”?
Sebastian Thrun, who taught the massive on-line AI class with Peter Norvig at Stanford, has left Stanford to join a startup to offer more online courses. Their first course will teach complete novices how to build their own search engine, in seven weeks.
Can you do that? Do we know how to take people from zero to Bing/Google in seven weeks? The phrase that David Evans uses to describe this process is, “anyone who is willing to put in the effort will be able.” I’ve heard phrases like that a lot about CS1’s, and I wonder what it really means. “That student failed because he didn’t put in the effort.” I tend to believe that most CS1’s expect a huge amount of background knowledge, or expect a huge amount of reading and practice by students — that the teacher’s expectation of “reasonable” effort is not the same as the students. If Evans’ class is like the other online classes, with only 20% or so completing the course, maybe it’s aimed at students who probably could have taught themselves the content with a book, but weren’t motivated enough to do it — so only 20% could make the “effort,” because only they had enough prior knowledge to make the required effort “reasonable.”
How do you measure effort? I’m seriously wondering — what does it mean to put in “enough” effort? Are we measuring cognition, or time, or somehow “mental pain”? If you don’t have the prior knowledge, and have to go read lots of background literature, is that part of “enough” effort? Is effort measured in terms of time-on-task? If we don’t know how to measure “effort,” how do we know if our class is demanding too much “effort”?
Evans’s “Build Your Own Search Engine” course, however, will be “targeted to students with no background” in computer science, the Virginia professor says. (Evans is taking a year from his tenured post at Virginia to serve as Know Labs’ vice president for education.)
“The goal is to have a course that anyone who is willing to put in the effort will be able to take,” says Evans.