Hitting the books

I tweeted this a couple of days ago

I’ll write a little more about my frustrations with my MOOC, but I thought some of you might be interested in the books I turn to.  I have a stack of Python books.  Every time I see one that looks promising, I pick it up.  I use them not only to learn from but to get ideas for assignments and projects.  Not having programmed for a living, I often grasp for ideas that students can tackle.  Most of my students are good about coming up with ideas themselves, but there are always a few who need some direction.

My current favorite Python book is The Practice of Computing using Python. I like the way the material is presented and there are plenty of exercises and projects to practice on.  I often reference it when I forget how to do something.  I also just got Python Programming for the Absolute Beginner, 3rd Edition, primarily for assignment ideas.  The material in it is also presented quite nicely and the examples are fun and appealing (less math, more games!).   I have a few others, but I don’t pick them up that much.  I’ve got my eye on a couple of other books I’d like to look at.

What I like about books as opposed to MOOCs is that I can flip through them and look at what I want.  I can go back and forth however I want.  There are indices I can look stuff up in.  If I don’t like one project, I can do another.  There are usually 10 or more at the end of chapters. And yes, MOOCs, in theory, allow you to do similar things, but they’re not as good.  The discussion forums are no match for an index and a thorough explanation.  I use the Internet a lot–Googling how to do things that I’m stuck on.  I often end up at either stack overflow or the python documentation.  Both are useful, so I’m not knocking technology completely.  It’s just that it has its limits for understanding a concept.

Books certainly have their limits, too.  They’re slow to update.  They often have particular ways of doing things. They’re expensive.  But there are great things about them and many of them are taking advantage of online publishing and online supplements to make them more useful in the digital age. What books and MOOCs are both missing is a good feedback loop.  At least with programming, I can tell when something works or doesn’t, but in many other subjects, you don’t always know if you’ve gotten something right or wrong and why.  For that, you need a teacher.


While traveling, I started participating in a MOOC n computer science. Everyone and their brother has been touting these as the game changer in higher education. Please stop. I honestly can’t imagine anyone getting a complete degree this way and doing well. While there are likely some people and subjects that are well suited to this format, I find it a frustrating way to learn something new. Yes, the videos are short, which is indeed a good thing,and it’s cool that there are questions you can actually answer. But there’s only one right answer and no one to ask why your answer isn’t right. Sometimes in the explanation, there’s a brief mention of other ways to solve the problem, but no explanation of what those solutions might be, and worse, why the actual answer is better than those other solutions.

After a while of trying to sort out answers for myself and getting them “wrong”, I gave up and just clicked on the answer. This can’t be a good way to learn. It’s also true that I’m under conditions not necessarily conducive to learning, but I suspect many people who choose to enroll in classes online are in similar kinds of situations. Full-time jobs, kids, no money to pay for other classes, low motivation, etc. I just don’t find the material compelling enough to dispel all those distractions.

I’m going to continue, though, and I may change my mind. But so far, it’s not living up to the hype.