Coursera online MOOC: one student’s experience with Stats 101.

I have been taking Statistics 101 from Coursera. This course is taught by a Princeton professor. I have been interested in stats for a while, but have never taken any classes. As a bonus, a work project I’m focused requires a lot of linear regression. (I’m using a library for the linear regression, of course, but wanted to understand some of the limits of linear regression before applying it for a business purpose.)

It was very easy to sign up for the class. I was a bit early, (the lectures are put up weekly starting on a given date), so I just added my email address to the wait list. When the class started, they emailed me and I registered.

It was free.

There are some changes coming to the university world. I have some friends who are professors and I’ve been sharing articles like this one and this one for years.

So, that was an additional reason to take the course. What would an actual online class be like?

The class is divided up into 12 weeks, 1 midterm and 1 final. Each week there are between 4 and 6 lecture videos to watch (the longest was approximately 20 minutes, the shortest is approximately 5 minutes), a lab video and a homework assignment. The lab typically examines the lecture concepts and puts them into practice using R, an open source stats tool/language. The homework is an untimed quiz that I have 100 tries to finish. Each quiz has 10 questions, some text input, some multiple choice, and typically is due 2 weeks after the initial lecture on the topic. I can complete the quiz later for reduced credit.

I’m over halfway through the course.

Am I learning something? yes. Definitely. I’ve learned basic concepts of statistics. There has been some handwaving on some complicated concepts and single letter concepts are occasionally introduced with little explanation (t, Z, and F values, for example), but this is an intro course, so I am unsurprised. I definitely have become comfortable with basics of R.

Am I learning what I would be in a normal college classroom? Nope. There’s been no collaboration (because of my time constraints, I don’t participate in the forums, which are the only form of collaboration I have seen). All R scripts are provided in the labs, which means you sometimes just cut and paste. Questions on quizzes are constrained by the online test format. Because I’m jamming it into my schedule, I don’t review the material as much as I should. There’s no opportunity to stop the instructor and ask exactly what he meant.

But….did I mention it was free? And that I’m not in college and don’t have the time for a normal college class?

If you are thinking of taking an online course through a MOOC like this one, here are some tips.

  • block out time to watch the lecture videos–I spend about 1-2 hours a week doing this. You can double book this with mild exercise (treadmill), sometimes. Sometimes the concepts were complex enough I could not multi task.
  • Coursera has a button on the video player to run the videos faster. I just started using this and find running the lectures at 1.5x is doable.
  • plan to spend some time on the labs and quizzes–I spend about 1-2 hours every week.
  • know what you want. If I wanted a deep understanding of statistics, I would probably need to spend an additional 2-4 hours each week working on understanding all the concepts covered in the lectures, and get an additional statistics book. (This one looks nice.). But I want a conceptual overview that lets me dig into third party libraries and learn the domain jargon enough to search the internet for further resources. This class is letting me do that.
  • get a tablet–these devices are perfect for consuming the lecture videos.
  • be flexible in your viewing, but try not to view a week’s worth of material in one day–that much academic knowledge transfer is no fun.
  • no credit is available. This might be an issue for some students.
  • be committed. It is very easy to sign up for these courses and then drop out, because there really are no consequences. But there are a huge variety of courses from a number of sources: udacity, udemy, edx, Khan Academy.
  • enjoy the free world class instruction.  Did I mention this was free?

All in all, I’m happy with this course and will come out of it more grounded in statistics.

From my experience in this class, I think that the business of teaching, especially introductory material that lends itself to video lectures, is going to undergo a change as radical as what newspapers have been through over the past 20 years. I don’t know if MOOCs will augment or supplant universities, but the scale and cost advantages are going to be hard to beat.

The future of the web browser…

… from the perspective of people building platforms for add-ons (or plugins or extensions or what-have-you): this collection of videos from the keynote of the Add-on-Con covers a variety of interesting topics regarding browser development, the security model and how extensions fit, ad blockers and what they mean, and more.

Of the major browsers, Chrome, Opera and Firefox are represented–the Microsoft/IE representative was sick, and Apple/Safari was MIA.  It’s about 30 minutes of video, unfortunately split into 5 separate segments.  Well worth a view.
[tags]video killed the radio star[/tags]

Dan Pink discussed the sad state of employee incentives at TED

Fantastic video from Dan Pink about motivation in the workplace.  He examines the science of motivation, and knocks business for not adapting new methods of encouragement for the new, right brain type problems that face us.

This quote pretty much summarizes the talk:

There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. And what worries me, as we stand here in the rubble of the economic collapse,  is that too many organizations are making their decisions,  their policies about talent and people, based on assumptions that are outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than in science.

You can see a transcript of the talk by clicking on the ‘Transcript’ link on the right hand side of the video.  It’s actually pretty cool–clicking on a sentence and it updates the video to that part.  It’s not linkable, though–FAIL.

A few takeaways:

  • If/then rewards work well for simple tasks…they concentrate the mind and narrow your focus.
  • From a study by the FRB of Boston, “once [a] task called for ‘even rudimentary cognitive skill’ a larger reward ‘led to poorer performance'”
  • Management is not a tree, it’s a television set.  We invented it.
  • Atlassian used to give their engineers autonomy at least a few times a year to choose what they work on (FedEx Days), and now gives workers control over 20% of their time.  (Joel has something to say about Atlassian too.)
  • Autonomy, mastery, purpose are what people are looking for (once money is taken care of)
  • Results only work environment–people can work when they want, as long as they get their work done.  Here’s a stub wikipedia article about ROWE.
  • Encarta vs Wikipedia–who won?  The encyclopedia that leveraged people’s desires to work, not the one that paid them.

Now, my thoughts.

  • First, watch the whole video.  It’s only 18 minutes and is well worth your time if you are an employer or an employee (which covers most of us, I think).
  • ROWE reminds me a lot of college, especially higher level classes.  No one cares about when you do the work and I don’t remember being required to be at classes, but the results (passing a test, turning in a paper) were very important.
  • He only talks about the autonomy component of the new ‘motivation trilogy’ (autonomy, mastery, purpose).  I wish he’d chosen to talk about ‘purpose’ because to me that is the hardest bit–someone needs to do grungy jobs.  I guess granting workers autonomy is pretty revolutionary too.
  • “once money is taken care of” is a huge elephant in the room that he again does not address.  When the work is high value add, it makes sense to take money off the table (software developers are very lucky in this respect).  But what about a worker at Target, for example?  A Target store can’t afford to pay someone enough to take the money issue off the table, but can probably benefit from the ‘motivation trilogy’
  • The whole Encarta vs Wikipedia example that he gives is great, but he ignores the fact that Wikipedia has very few paid employees and that Wikipedia only won because of volunteer labor.  It’s not a solution that scales across a society.

Overall, in general, a thought provoking talk (expect nothing less from TED).  I would say that he is describing the future of work as consulting.  You are paid for what you know, the problems are fuzzy, answers are unexpected and at times unclear, and results arrived at matter far more than hours put in.

Is the future of work consulting?  If so, the business world is about to be upended, because, to borrow Dan’s phrase, “the operating system of business” isn’t designed to handle a workforce of consultants.  Heck, society isn’t either.

[tags]work, employment, gtd[/tags]

Notes from Tom Malaher’s cloud computing presentation

A former colleague, Tom Malaher, did an online presentation about cloud computing on Mar 11 at the Calgary JUG.  You can view the recording of it now.  It was titled: Cloud Computing and Amazon Web services (AWS), and was a great survey of cloud computing and then a nice dive into AWS.  I used to work with Tom and always enjoy the depth and breadth of his presentations.

Below are some of my notes.

  • This was their first online meeting, due to cash flow issues (lack of sponsorship), and to make it easier for speakers out of the Calgary area.  It was put on using  (This client was installed using JNLP; very easy to install and setup).  You can use Elluminate for up to three participants for free (but you cannot record your session).
  • Definition of cloud computing is in tug of war in vendor land.  According to Infrastructure Executive Council, cloud computing is elastic, multi-tenant, on-demand, usage based metering (no long term contracts), self service

Tom outlined a number of variations on cloud computing

  • Infrastructure as a service (s3, ec2)
  • Platform as a service (Google app engine, Microsoft Azure)
  • Software as a service (Google docs,
  • Grid computing–more homogenous, but lots of overlap

Diving into Amazon Web Services, he outlined all the webservices that Amazon provides.  I had already heard of a number of these, but two caught my eye:

  • DevPay–pass through payment for Amazon Web Services.
  • Public Data Sets–public domain data sets easily available for computation on the AWS platform

Composing AWS services makes sense, since there are no bandwidth charges between Amazon service calls within Amazon’s data centers (e.g. EC2->S3).

He had some interesting figures from the IEC: 70% surveyed are not using cloud computer (40% aren’t even considering it).  Only 10% are hosting an ‘app’ on the cloud (with no definition of an app).  I asked a question of Tom about what is considered an app.  I have a client who is hosting backups and images on s3, and friends who regularly back up servers to s3.  Is that an ‘app’?  I don’t think so, but Tom didn’t have a definition of ‘app’ for this survey.

Tom also did an interesting cost analysis when he was looking at pros and cons for AWS.

The high end hosting agreement: 1gb ram 50gb hd, 2000gb transfer: $59/month.

For a comparable AWS instance, with an ec2 image, 1.7 MB ram, 160gb hard drive (ephemeral), 2000 gb transfer, persistent 50gb hard drive: worst case $479.50/month, but for one day: ~$16.

In my opinion, this is the key con of AWS right now, at least for full fledged applications. It’s simply not cost competitive with some of the hosting you can find out there.

And with regular hosts, you don’t have to deal with as much infrastructure overhead. Tools like ElasticFox and S3Fox can help.  I’ve used S3Fox and love it.
The development model is suprisingly similar (Tom mentioned building his demo on his home machine and using some of the more exotic services, like SQS; then, when he was ready for the full cloud deployment, he just moved his war file to the appropriate image after some setup).

Then Tom demoed an app built by composing a number of Amazon web services.  Starting an an ec2 machine image (AMI) takes a long time (but still less than building a machine from scratch :).  During entire presentation and demo (1 hour, 3 instances, some messaging, he was only charged 50 cents.

Other interesting uses: The NY Times used it to build a bunch of web friendly pngs from tiffs of papers past.
You can use a regular RDBMS, with Elastic Block Storage.

Someone asked: where does AWS fit in larger organizations?  Tom thought it was a good fit for small organizations…  But he was not really sure about large organizations.

In my opinion, many of the technical decision makers I know are willing to use S3 as a storage mechanism, but they still want a backup solution, in case Amazon is unavailable (as it sometimes is).  This unavailability would be even more damning if you had an entire webapp running off ec2 and the other services.

Buying your own dedicated server has its own risks, but many people are still used to that paradigm.  But, for quickly scaling, or for a special one time project that needs a lot of firepower (like the NYTimes project above), it makes sense.

Stepping back from AWS, the idea of cloud computing seems to be continuing to make progress and attack the issues of network connectivity, security and cost that make it a hard sell at the present.  I love the delineation of the variations (infrastructure as a service, etc), and not all cloud computing will look like AWS.
Overall, a great presentation.  If you have the time (I stayed for some of the Q&A, and left at the 90 minute mark), it’s worth a listen. Go ahead, check it out.

[tags]cloud computing,cjug[/tags]

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