Category: education

Starting a new MOOC series on Robotics!

I’m super excited to be taking a new MOOC specialization on Coursera taught by Dr. Vijay Kumar of UPenn’s GRASP lab. His team has produced some of the most spectacular advances in quadrotor applications I’ve ever seen and this comes at a time when I’m looking for more fun projects to work on. His talks have been a great inspiration to the aspiring roboticist and an encouraging sign for the near-future of robotics that lay at the intersection of computer science and the real world.

The demonstrations (linked above) of robot sensing and applications of swarm intelligence learned from hive-insect behaviors have been truly fascinating. It’s kind of humbling to see how much nature has provided us meaningful behaviors that we are now applying in our robots. Evolution may be slow, but when it comes to artificial intelligence and autonomous agents, biology is as much an inspiration as the mechanical-electrical bits.

Quite scary to think of how this technology could be used if in the wrong hands. Worst-case-scenario thinking provides ominous support to those at the Future of Life Institute and major figures increasingly signing on to the notion that AI in the wrong hands is an existential risk to humanity. (imagine: organized autonomous killing machines). But it’s also very clear through the demonstrations today that robotics has a bright future in positive applications.

So, with that in mind, I’m excited to take these courses because they appear to be a fairly comprehensive survey across the foundations of robotics and a unique opportunity to engage with fellow academic-hobbyists that want to get started in one of the cutting edge applications of computer science to the real world.

The courses include:

  1. Aerial Robotics
  2. Computational Motion Planning
  3. Mobility
  4. Estimation and Learning
  5. Perception

These courses are nice little reminder that for-profit Coursera hasn’t abandoned the segment of those who just want to learn and care not for a piece of paper. Many thanks to UPenn for continuing to produce such well produced MOOCs and whoever the media team was that produced Dr Kumar’s content.

I can do my part and encourage anyone ranging from the curious to serious hobbyists that want to gain a more solid academic foundation from one of the leading minds in robotics today, go take these MOOCS! Starts February 15th and looks to be ending sometime in June(?).

Here’s Dr Kumar’s trailer:


Life with a Makerbot Replicator

TL;Dr: There’s a learning curve, but I believe that the increasing availability of content creation tools, the network effects of content creation and sharing communities, and the sheer utility of being able to make anything you can think of, will inspire more to seek out the skills necessary to participate. For a tinkerer like me, the simple joy of turning idea into matter, or something more purposeful, like replacing a broken knob or a missing shower curtain, are all are fun opportunities to make rather than buy what I need.

Today marks three years since I got my first 3d printer, a Makerbot Replicator. Since then, I’ve printed hundreds of hours worth of things and designed a few of my own for practical or artistic purposes. It’s mostly a hobbyist’s tool now, but I’m convinced that the creation of items via 3d printer will become a mainstream experience in the near future.

As any hobby, it has it’s challenges, but it’s also highly fulfilling and focused on the act of creating. I’ll often find myself preferring to choose a home made solution over a purchased product. It’s not always economical–at prices around $50/kg, the raw material is not cheap, but that amount can go quite a long way when you’re printing small things in plastic. Whether it’s a fun trinket, or a useful tool, 3d printed objects have a wide range of applications in everyday life.

I keep my Replicator at home, so I’ve had it available whenever I feel the creative urge. I’ll admit, there are long periods of time when it’s gathering dust, for those times when I do have it, I’m quite glad that I do. Other times, it’s just a cool conversation piece in the living room. And it’s (mostly) a lot of fun! Other times, I want to set it on fire.

A model of JJ Abrahm's Enterprise from Star Trek (2009).
A model of JJ Abrahm’s Enterprise from Star Trek (2009), about to be printed.

My first experience with 3d printing was in a mechanical engineering course I took while at Illinois. We had access to many tools used during product prototyping and made use of Autodesk Inventor–my favorite parametric modeling tool–to create models for the course, and as candidates for 3d printing. I loved the idea of being able to take an idea and turn it into a physical object without going through the hurdles of traditional manufacturing. Still, that 3d printer was $30,000, and always scheduled out so far in advance, that access wasn’t practical for the range of casual applications I was considering.

I imagine this mirrors the early days of computing at universities and corporations, when access to computer time was a valuable commodity. This was in 2005, after all. Then, 3d printing was one of the advanced prototyping tools available to lucky mechanical and structural engineers, not so much the casual creator or artist with grand vision and perhaps a deft hand on 3ds max (another favorite modeling tool of mine). Amazing what a few years can bring.

Fast-forward to 2012, and Makerbot had just announced their second consumer product, the Makerbot Replicator. With the declared their early intent of focusing their product at small business and even consumer price points, their message was clear: 3d printing was quickly becoming accessible to the masses. I decided to make the investment (no small sum, $2,250 at the time for the dual-extrusion model I have), and while I can’t say it’s for everyone, it’s definitely a cool tool to have around. Since then, other players have come on the scene, bringing down the price of 3d printing even further.

Bre and Makerbot’s message that the tools of manufacturing was coming to the masses, was highly appealing, particularly to those like me with hopes of creating and tinkering with things in the physical realm. Makerbot took it a step further by creating Thingiverse, the online platform for sharing and remixing “things”. It’s the 2010s and “content” is social; the act of creating is rarely a solitary affair, and there are a variety of platforms for people that love to create to share their wares. Some of them, like Thingiverse are free and geared toward educational uses, while others like Shapeways are more commercial.

I love being able to find what others have made and shared up on on community sites like Thingiverse. I love even more that we’ve now bridged the gap between idea and physical good. There’s a learning curve, but I believe that the increasing availability of tools, the network effects of communities of content creators, and the sheer utility of being able to make anything you can think of, will inspire more to seek out the skills necessary to participate. For a tinkerer like me, the simple joy of turning idea into matter, or something more purposeful, like replacing a broken knob or a missing shower curtain, are all are fun opportunities to make rather than buy what I need.

Some things I’ve printed:

  • Shower hooks – I was still using shower curtain hooks I got at IKEA in my post-college years, and over time, some had gone missing some. I put up with it for  while but the girlfriend told me that it looked really sad. So after contemplating going to Bed Bath and Beyond, I found these on Thingiverse. Rather than spending $10 on a dozen or so shower curtain hooks that I didn’t need, I printed a a few, and tada, problem solved! The mentioned post also reminded me of this truth: “You’re a MakerBot owner. You live for these moments.” Indeed.
  • Key and Wallet Holder – I made this to solve a very annoying problem of mine–misplacing my wallet and/or keys at home. I wear a myriad of outer wear, and would often spent a few minutes looking for my stuff before heading out for the day. Cumulatively, I must have spent hours looking for my commonly used items, not to mention the annoyances caused by being delayed in the morning. I designed and made this, and solved my problem. I’m also pleased to know that at least 250 others have found it useful.
  • Cat Toy Sword Handle – This was originally meant by the designer to be an umbrella hilt, but I found a better purpose in fashioning a cat toy sword out of it.
  • And others, including: Smartphone stand, jewelry mockups, Ar.Drone parts, custom shaped clips, custom attachments, obscure knobs and levers, bookends, toy models, robot frame parts, etc…

Here are some examples of prints there I’ve printed. Some are my own, the rest are from Thingiverse. Find me on Thingiverse at


So that’s it, consider this my resounding endorsement for 3d printers–that if you have the means to afford one, and the patience to learn a new skill to a hobby-grade or more, you will find 3d printing a high enjoyable pastime, and tool to add to your creation toolset. Especially true if you possess 3d modeling skills, or access to a 3d scanner.

Let the MOOCing continue!

TL;dR: I love MOOCS. To me, their value is clear: The opportunity to learn and participate in a subject of my choosing, being able to expect a worldwide, inquisitive class, with all that it offers. For many, online learning is a solitary affair, but I find the missing community layer one of the most compelling works to yet be built. In this post, I’ll discuss my thoughts on MOOCs, their advantages and shortcomings today, and a few aspects where they need improvement.

MOOCs–Massively Open Online Courses–are relatively new in the ed-tech scene, having come into being a mere three years ago, pumped full of investor capital with much fanfare of disrupting higher learning, and delivering access to education at a fraction of the cost of traditional learning institutions. Following from smaller scale experiments in open course ware, and successful massively online services like the Khan Academy, MOOCs were heralded as a way to reduce the growth in cost of education, to expand access, and bringing new tools to our most troubled students. Many of these promises are far from being delivered, raising concerns from investors, after all, many of the highest profile MOOC providers are for-profit–seeking to cash in on the revolution, one that’s been much quieter than the most eager had hoped. As a veteran of a few MOOCs, I’ve found them compelling offerings of education previously locked away behind admissions doors and geographic bounds, but I feel equally that there is more work to do, to answer many of the questions that add uncertainty to the MOOC movement.

As of 2015, MOOCs have yet to accomplish their goal of revolutionizing learning, at least for the masses, prompting discussions around where they are encountering difficulty, and whether the business model is viable as currently implemented. Comparisons are often made between real-life classrooms on statistics such as enrolment, completion rates, grates, and test results.

It’s under this backdrop of questions around profits business models that for-profit MOOC providers will be judged, and will ultimately live and die. Questions around the true financial value of MOOCs, and whether or not people will actually pay for them, will need to be answered by current players need to do to justify their current valuations. Still, for a substantial core, open course ware is part of the broader social movement of our generation that desires to make information open and accessible, and will likely fight to keep it that way.

Broadening access to education

MOOCs provide massive global reach and scale of audience that traditional universities will likely struggle to match via traditional instruction. It is unlikely that these prominent universities will ever reach all these students in scale in real life, but thanks to online instruction media, it is possible for one to take the same microeconomics course I took as an undergrad as a MOOC (even taught by the same professor). And the same course, that once taught a few hundred, now teaches 6,500 students worldwide, and that’s just for this term. Some of the most popular courses have attracted ten times that–a stadium full of participating students. Incredible!

Of course, not all will complete the course, and the quality of the learned education is much more variable given the absence of rigorous testing/validation, but I highly doubt that a dedicated person intent on learning the material would be worse off from taking this version of the course, versus the sit-in course that I took a decade ago. In fact, I’d even say it’s easier today, for the inquisitive self-motivated learner to find supplemental material to continue their learning; so today’s MOOC learner may be even better equipped with knowledge.

Importantly, by being free, and open without any barrier to all, it’s possible for more than just accepted students of Illinois to take this course, and rather, is open to the entire world. Given this, I can see how 6,500 seems disappointingly small, we must not forget that it’s a HUGE amplification in reach. “Revolutionary” isn’t hyperbole when you’re able to teach 40x as many students as you did previously.

Connecting MOOCs to the Real World

Of course, the most important test of MOOCs will be how well their benefits translate into real use, both in the outcomes, but also in the education process itself. One area where MOOC providers have failed to reproduce real-world benefits is the building of lasting real-world communities that are developed in and outside the university classroom. I find this very surprising, given that for most university life, even the academic side, is an extremely socially enriching experience. In the real world, we chat, debate, compete, cooperate, with our peer students, and while this isn’t totally absent from the MOOC experience, there is a distinct lack of persistent value in the social interactions

It is said that the primary value of MBA programs are the lasting real-world connections you form through class and extracurriculars. For reasons obvious, there are some challenges to this in a purely online media. However, as the rise of internet culture has shown, it is completely possible to create lasting connections from common interests, and what better common interest than shared intellectual pursuits? This is highly lacking in today’s MOOC landscape, where various fora typically make up the extent of discussion in the community.

Despite being highly leveraging social media connect platforms to sign you up and share, none of the MOOC providers have bothered to take advantage of network effects by investing into a social layer on their site, particularly one that lasts beyond the scope of the classroom forum. It would be great if there was a better way to formalize such connections. I’ve seen this used very effectively on sites such as QuoraRedditStackExchange, and other sites which effectively build out and incentivize an engaged community.

Off-site interaction is encouraged at times, but are relatively rare, and are often class specific and do not offer continuity beyond the scope of the teaching. While this may be deliberate to keep things focused on education, it seems a huge oversight to get a bunch of intellectually curious people in a virtual classroom, but not provide easy means to connect beyond it. There isn’t even a means to message other users, or tell them apart from class to class.

It’s a shame, because users are already coming up with their own ways to cultivate community that is absent, including offline blogs, various discussion and review sites, ad hoc social network groups, showing a clear desire and need in the market. If it is the intent of these for-profit MOOC providers to capture this attention and added value, they haven’t really done so too well. I’d love to see the creation of a meta-layer learning community, bringing to life a lasting social layer to the learning environment.

UPDATE: (2/26) Looks like Coursera is giving social a try–we’ll see where this goes:

Legitimacy and recognition

MOOCs provide incredible opportunities for learning, but so far, it doesn’t come with the weight of a university’s recognition. I don’t believe this needs to be a barrier for MOOCs–as educational tools develop, I believe the quality gap in instruction can be eliminated or even reversed, and that recognition can be had in other demonstrations of learning than a course certificate. That said, I feel the internet provides a great many other ways to help differentiate you and demonstrate your learning far more than a piece of paper with a generic signature can. The true value to show is the to display one’s autonomy in self-directed learning, and ability to synthesize it in applications, and for someone like me, who uses MOOCs to accelerate an area of interest for which I’m already researching, that works perfectly.

For other motivations, like Laurie from the No-Pay-MBA blog, who is trying to replicate the academic side of a business school degree, there are more clear requirements that may reveal gaps in what courses are offered at any one time. That said with a vibrant community, I believe that an effective curricula can provide a great guide for an education, and we should recognize that very little cannot be learned from other sources.

I’ve always believed that the true value of education comes from what you do with it, and for a self-starter with sufficiently strong motivation and an understanding of how to apply what’s being learned to the real world, I’m sure that they can easily achieve the same and surpass the average MBA grad. (Now if only there was a means to verify that this person indeed has learned the material, and is qualified for the subject matter…)

Personally, I find the idea of paid certificates rather dubious. There is no substantive difference if you're a motivated learner.

A Rational Rethink

To my earlier question, will the model of MOOCs survive? As for-profit enterprises, the causes for disillusionment from investors of platforms are obvious. That said, from a perspective of values, MOOC platforms are incredible educational tools that simply were not available before 2012, and are clearly yielding value to the community that takes them. I would like to see the rise of a non-profit MOOC platform as the dominant model for delivering content, but I’ll leave it to whoever can deliver the best experience.

Some turmoil can be expected in the market as investors re-think product-market-fit, but I see the movement of MOOCs continuing broadly. They provide excellent marketing for the universities, are highly engaged on as platforms, and provide clear value to students invested in it to learn. The multiples are so incredibly high that it’s a surprise that it’s taken so long for education to get to this point. More realistically, I see MOOCs fitting in with sites like SkillShare, embraced by those seeking to learn and engage a community. Perhaps a level of certification of learning could be next–I could imagine Coursera offering “verified” testing centers.

While the definitions are debated, I see MOOCs as being part of a broader movement of open information. This means their core material has to be accessible to all, regardless of geographic boundaries, and at no cost, and without barrier. Note that platforms can provide added value and charge for them, but in principle, like the open source movement, “the stuff that matters” should be free, and without barriers of access such as admission, completed prerequisites, GPA, etc.

Platforms tend to work very well as enablers of community, and current platforms need to do more to foster it to bring engagement. Most course providers thus far have chosen to do so via course specific forums and occasional use of external communities. I’ve seen a heavy use of Google+ for both classroom continuity and mass-Google Hangouts (allowing previous semesters to continue to engage with future students and the ever-growing community) for office hours. Perhaps MOOC providers could find a place where they can add further value via an internal social layer.

My Experiences

In my next posts on MOOCs, I will write about the courses that I felt were highly informative, and even entertaining. Far better than most television one might be watching.

The trailer for the first MOOC I ever took–Dan Ariely’s Beginnger’s Guide to Irrational Behavior: