This fall I completed my first "official" online course, Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technologies offered by Princeton University on Coursera. It's amazing how much progress has been made in the technology powering online courses in the last few years. I've studied topics in larger MOOC offerings that interested me in the past, but I do not recall the overall experience being as polished or easy to use.
The lectures were lead by the following instructors:
- Arvind Narayanan, Princeton University
- Joseph Bonneau, Stanford University
- Edward Felten, Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer
- Andrew Miller, University of Maryland
The instructors did a great job covering the material and breaking down complex concepts into byte sized chunks that were easy to understand and analyze in a larger context.
This was one of the aspects of the course that really surprised me. For a seven-week class, the course was packed with a breadth of information and topics that covered everything from the history of cryptocurrencies to bitcoin mining to politics and regulation. You can find a complete list of topics in the course syllabus here. The topics were well thought out and progressed logically throughout the course.
The other aspect that really surprised me were the amount of resources that were provided for each topic. My expectation was for each topic or section to have a few pages of notes with references to external resources for supplementation. Did we get that? Nope. We were provided with full chapters for each topic (in most cases) as they were being authored progressively throughout the course. In my opinion, this is truly awesome for a new, freely-available online course. My only request would be to make the slides from the lectures available. I generally take a lot of notes and I'm a slow writer, so having the slides would have saved me a bit of time.
Each lecture had a number of videos with mandatory quizzes that had due dates and penalties for late submissions. You could retake the quizzes again to improve your score if desired. The quizzes were pretty good at reinforcing the information that was in the lecture and challenging you to apply that knowledge. Quiz questions were either multiple choice or True/False. Not ideal, but definitely the simplest solution for online course material at scale.
The quizzes were not completely without fault though. Some answers were incorrectly marked incorrect and some of the verbiage of the questions was slightly misguiding. But, the staff did a good job at correcting issues quickly once notified.
This was the one area that was really lacking. There were a couple of programming assignments provided that you could experiment with, but I would love to see structured programming assignments facilitated using something like Codecademy. The addition of a series of online programming assignments using Codecademy or a similar service would really take this course over the top.
Class Format & Forums
The class format was asynchronous with new lessons released on Friday of each week. This worked out well for me as it helped me to set a weekly pace and cadence considering my work and family schedules. I absolutely loved that all of the lectures were online videos. I really like to focus on the instructor and process information in big chunks in addition to taking a lot of detailed notes. This can be a big problem since I'm not a fast writer. I experimented with things like voice recorders while in college to bridge the gap, but there was always something unnatural about it to me. This course felt a lot more natural for me and worked well for my style.
The downside of the asynchronous nature of the course is the limited interaction with classmates (coursemates?). Since all quizzes had the same end of course deadline date, the forums were often active with questions from previous weeks and did not have continuity to the overall flow of the course. You may be able to address this by having staggered due dates for each set of topic quizzes, e.g. quizzes are due 2 weeks after the topic week. I think having students progressing through the material at relatively the same time would create a more unified, class-like feel.
What worked for me: My Plan of Action
It's easier for me to add or remove something from my life or daily routine if I have a plan or framework for action. So, when I enrolled in the course, I needed to figure out how I was going to integrate it into my life and keep pace with the instruction.
I decided that I would use my lunchtime to watch videos during the work week and that I would work from 5am to 7am on the weekends. This worked out pretty well for me with the exception of two Saturday mornings and a week or so during the workday over the duration of the course.
If you're interested in learning more about Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies, I'd definitely recommend this course. If you want to dig a little deeper, check out Mastering Bitcoin: Unlocking Digital Cryptocurrencies.