Lights, Cameras, Teach!: Online curriculum and custom software bring computer science to students worldwide

By Margaret Littman, BA’90
Professors Ákos Lédeczi (left) and Mike Fitzpatrick (JOE HOWELL)

Professors Ákos Lédeczi (left) and Mike Fitzpatrick (JOE HOWELL)

 

Think of the internet celebrities you know, and more than likely people such as the “Chewbacca Mom” or that “Damn, Daniel” kid come to mind. But don’t forget about Vanderbilt computer science professors Mike Fitzpatrick and Ákos Lédeczi.

OK, so unless you were already familiar with them by being on campus, you may not know their names or faces. But millions do. Fitzpatrick and Lédeczi developed an introductory computer programming class that, by one account, ranks as the fifth most popular free online course of all time. They have taught more than 170,000 students in 192 countries and racked up more than 2 million lecture views.

Based on that success, Fitzpatrick and Lédeczi most recently have turned their attention to offering other educators advice on developing STEM courses for an online, global audience.

LESSON 1: PICK A POPULAR SUBJECT

Fitzpatrick and Lédeczi’s famous online course teaches MATLAB, a computer language that’s versatile and relatively easy to learn. It is also used across industries ranging from the natural sciences to finance. “MATLAB is very well-liked and has practical applications,” explains Gayathri Narasimham, assistant director for education and research at the Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning (VIDL).

The idea for the class dates back to the 1990s, when Fitzpatrick first used MATLAB to teach computer-based problem-solving to students who weren’t majoring in computer science. Despite initial resistance from the university about the class, eventually it emerged as a popular offering. Realizing the demand for basic skills in MATLAB, Fitzpatrick and Lédeczi published an e-book designed to teach the program to nonprogrammers. That experience sparked their interest in developing an online course on the topic, and in 2014 they decided to give it a try.

LESSON 2: PREPARE

The duo spent a year converting their classroom and textbook materials into an eight-week online course titled Introduction to Programming with MATLAB. Fitzpatrick had retired in 2011 and was able to devote extra time to working on the project. “No matter what, it is a lot of work,” says John Sloop, associate provost for digital learning. “And it always takes longer than you think.”

Working with a production manager from VIDL, and with outlines based on the teaching of previous classes, Fitzpatrick and Lédeczi practiced their lectures before filming more than 40 videos—about 12 hours’ worth of material.

“The main difficulty in doing the videos, compared with classroom teaching, is the lack of a live audience,” says Lédeczi, PhD’95, professor of computer engineering. “In the classroom you can see the faces of your students and they can ask questions. So, you get immediate feedback when something is not clear or when they are bored. When you do the video, you do not have that, so you are kind of flying blind.”

Still, the team was able to draw on decades of classroom experience to benefit the online students. Fitzpatrick, who is now an emeritus professor of computer science, computer engineering and electrical engineering, started by writing—and then rewriting—a script. He also added his trademark jokes (which consistently scored favorably in student reviews) and worked to get the right pacing.

“You always overestimate how easy it is to explain something,” Fitzpatrick says, joking that his Southern accent helped slow things down. “You may think a 10-minute explanation would be enough, but then it takes two hours because not just one example will work. You have to explain things in different ways for different students.”

Lédeczi admits that he initially thought his partner was taking things too slowly. “But it turns out Mike knows what’s right,” he says. “His teaching experience really shows in the videos.”

Digital ’Dores

Since partnering with the digital-learning platform Coursera in 2012, Vanderbilt has offered several online courses through the service. Current offerings include the following:

  • Android App Development (multipart certification program)
  • Business Essentials for Managers (multipart certification program)
  • Data Management for Clinical Research
  • Online Games: Literature, New Media and Narrative
  • Understanding the Music Business: What Is Music Worth?
  • Leading Innovation in Arts and Culture

Learn more about online courses offered by Vanderbilt.

LESSON 3: AUTOMATE TASKS

Fitzpatrick and Lédeczi knew that if their online course turned out to be a success, they would have no efficient way to grade homework from thousands of students. To address that dilemma they developed an automatic grader that can assess how well students are solving problems using MATLAB. The first two weeks of the course offer basic information and don’t lend themselves to homework. Assignments begin in the third week and continue for each of the remaining eight weeks. Students must solve two-thirds of the problems correctly in each homework assignment to pass the course.

“We have decades of experience in developing software, and not just for our own use,” Lédeczi says. “We were able to design the grader software so it was user-friendly and informative.”

LESSON 4: CLONE YOURSELF

Another potential trouble spot identified by Fitzpatrick and Lédeczi was their ability to help students with their work along the way. Based on feedback from some of the first students to take the online course, they developed a robust network of mentors, kind of like volunteer teaching assistants, who offer help on different continents 24 hours a day.

Given his experience with on-campus student evaluations—something he used to read warily at home with a glass of wine from his wife—and the general nastiness of online commentary, Fitzpatrick was prepared for the worst when it came to online reviews. But that part of internet stardom has been largely enjoyable: Both he and Lédeczi have been pleasantly surprised with the breadth and depth of positive feedback.

One German doctor who needed to learn MATLAB as part of a master’s program in which he’d recently enrolled wrote to say how much he enjoyed the course. “I am almost 50 years old and … I pored over the assignments sometimes for hours,” he wrote. “Even on weekends I received answers to my questions—that’s unusual.”

A new engineering graduate from India wrote to say, “It has been my immense pleasure to take this course and also [to] have such amazing teachers like you. The course has taught me a lot of lessons other than programming, including patience and being humble.”

Despite the success of the MATLAB course and other popular online classes, Fitzpatrick doesn’t see the end of live lectures coming about anytime soon. “Online courses are very good for self-motivated students, but that is a small percentage of all students out there,” he says. “Still, it’s really rewarding to do a class like this and feel like you’re reaching a lot of people—the whole world.”


Margaret “Meg” Littman, BA’90, majored in fine arts at Vanderbilt and is a Nashville freelance writer.



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