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Monday, 8 September 2014

Bisecting Algorithms, Calculus, and Monty Python

I feel bad for leaving people hanging, but if you follow me on Facebook you already know why. At least this time it's been for a far better reason than pain. You see, I finally bit the bullet and 'went back to school' if you can call it that. I found out a year ago about something called MOOCs. It stands for Massive Open Online Courses. MOOCs are usually free, and they're provided by some of the most prestigious universities and colleges in the world.

I was reading about something to do with Bill Gates, I believe, when they mentioned this initiative he'd been a big part of. The idea was to provide real educational instruction to anyone in the world so long as they had access to a computer and internet services.At first I didn't think it would apply to me, since I don't exactly live in a underdeveloped country - it's a little to over-developed if you ask me. Turns out the courses are available to anyone in the world.

It took me a while to get up the energy, and I really had no idea what I wanted to get into, so there I was a year later and still not taking advantage of this amazing resource. The more I started building websites, though, the more I started to see that my knowledge belonged in the realm of antiquity, collecting dust while the young 'uns zoomed past me. Some of my knowledge is still relevant, and having it was a good base for me because I could usually figure things out quite nicely, but with every website I created I was left frustrated and wanting to do more, without the ability to do so.

Most of the answer I was looking for were readily available online, so whenever I wanted to try something knew I could always figure out how to do it, but it felt a bit like cheating. I really wanted to know what to do and how to do it without looking it up all the time. So, I kept going back to a site with free course listings. It's www.mooc-list.com in case you're in the market for a really good, free education. I finally decided I would concentrate on programming more than web design, because I was starting to get a decent handle on that from hands-on experience. They had courses on there through everyone from Harvard to Yale, and from MIT to Oxford. You could say I was a little surprised. Some of those schools are damn near impossible to get into, and they cost a fortune.

mooc-list.com led me to edX. Originally I followed a Harvard course link, but within minutes I was looking at Intro to Computer Science and Programming from MIT. Harvard is great if you want to be a lawyer, but I don't think anything beats an education in tech from MIT. I screwed up my courage and determination, and forged ahead with registering. It was totally painless. I could have taken the course completely free, but I decided to go the route of being a verified student for $50. The fee is just for administration costs for looking at your ID and comparing it to you webcam shot, so they know it's really you taking the course. Then when they hand out the certificate at the end, your name is actually on it, rather than just getting a generic one that could belong to anyone.

For the time being I'm learning Python, a programming language that was actually named after that well-known comedy troupe, Monty Python. Apparently it's supposed to be hilarious because of references within the language. I haven't dissolved into gales of laughter just yet, but I'm only about a quarter of the way through the first part of the course. The second part is Computational Thinking and Data something-or-other. That starts at the end of October, a week before my first course is finished. Right when I'm dealing with my final exam, I'll be delving into fresh territory. Of course, I'm doing that already because I'm also taking a course on solar energy from Delft University of Technology. By the time we're done we're supposed to be able to design our own PV (photovoltaic) system, and since I plan to run my home off solar I'd like to know what I'm doing (and whether or not my contractor is installing the right panels in the right configuration).

So far I've got 100% on everything for the programming course at a quarter through the lectures. I haven't done much in the solar course, but my first assignment for that isn't due until September 22nd. With the programming stuff I had two assignments two days apart, so I've been concentrating on that.

I don't think I'm as smart as I used to be (or thought I was), because this course is supposed to be for people with little or no programming knowledge. Algebra is required, though it's supposed to be at a high school level. It's been nearly 30 years since I took algebra, though. It may not have changed much, but I sure haven't been using it in my daily life - all the teachers said we would need algebra one day, and apparently my time has come. How I'm supposed to remember math I did more than half my life ago, I couldn't tell you, but there it is. I didn't feel all that old until I went back to school. The program information regarding prerequisites said we wouldn't need calculus...but they lied. I need it, and I've never taken it.

There you have it folks. I thought I was glued to my laptop before - this is ridiculous. So hang in there for a bit. Once my head stops spinning I'll be a little more attentive to my writing. In the meantime, I hope everyone out there is doing well. And remember, "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition."