My recent Coursera journey

Wednesday, 11 February 2015.

In the past couple of months I managed to complete 4 online courses on Coursera, which is an education platform that partners with top universities to offer free MOOCs (Massive open online courses). In this post I like to present you my experiences with these courses and my plans for any future courses.

The reason for me to start following online courses has to do with what I already pointed out in my previous blog post "My System to Win Big". I want to keep on improving myself and acquire more knowledge in domains of my interest. Part of it is revisiting knowledge I'm "supposed" to know to gain an even better understanding, and the other part is exploring new uncharted territories. I also wanted to follow courses where I would have to practice and hone my programming skills.

But why follow online courses with a rigid schedule and deadlines if you can simply study books or solve some tough problems on Project Euler at your own pace? Well, for me as it turns out, having a fixed course schedule releases me of the burden of planning and serves as a nice stick to finish on time, which made it easier to get into the habit of spending evening hours on education. This way I didn't have to spend my will-power every time to get started, and now that I have grown this study habit and with it the discipline to follow through, I'm in a much better position to also study at my own pace.

The courses for which I have received statements of accomplishment are in chronological order:

In the subsequent sections I will describe each course and my experiences in more detail.

Courses

Machine Learning

Overview: Stanford University // June-September 2014 // 12 weeks of study // 6 hours per week // Coursera link
Difficulty: Easy

Half a year ago at Bottlenose I was shifting from primarily a Software Architect role to more of a Data Scientist role, and therefore spending more time on Machine Learning problems. So I thought it was valuable to refresh my knowledge in this particular domain. Besides reading up on some study books I decided to enroll in the Stanford Machine Learning course, which presented a nice overview with some basic programming exercises. Topics included (as listed on the Coursera page):

  • Supervised learning (parametric/non-parametric algorithms, support vector machines, kernels, neural networks).
  • Unsupervised learning (clustering, dimensionality reduction, recommender systems, deep learning).
  • Best practices in Machine Learning (bias/variance theory, innovation process in machine learning and AI).

Given that I was already very familiar with these topics, combined with an excellent presentation by instructor Andrew Ng, it may not come as a surprise that I found the course easy to follow and the programming exercises not hard to implement with only the (frequent) annoyances of coding in Matlab.

It felt good to revisit all the topics in the course, which presented me once again with the wide variety of Machine Learning approaches and techniques. Perhaps in hindsight other specialized courses on Machine Learning on a more graduate level would have been more worthwhile. However, I don't regret my time spent on this course as it never hurts to go back to the basics once in a while. Additionally, as this was my first online course, it was a great way to get started with Coursera and familiarize myself with this new educational format. And after finding out that it worked really well for me, I instantly signed up for a lot of other (more specialized) courses.

Algorithms: Design and Analysis, Part 1

Overview: Stanford University // October-December 2014 // 6 weeks of study // 7 hours per week // Coursera link
Difficulty: Medium

After finishing the Machine Learning exercises in Matlab I wanted my next Coursera course to require a "real" and more interesting programming language, and at the time I was already reading up on two other programming languages that I liked to put into practice: Julia and Rust.

I was already aware of the "Algorithms: Design and Analysis" class, which two of my friends already completed and recommended, thereby making it interesting candidate as my next course. Having finished a similar course (in Java) during my study at Delft University I thought this course would be a walk in the park and a good playground for testing the waters with Julia and Rust. At the same time I was starting with the "Bioinformatics Algorithms" class, which also focused on implementing algorithms, but in the domain of biology (more on Bioinformatics later). Both courses I started with Julia.

I can honestly say that I really like the Julia language, which was born out of its creators wish to have a programming language that is:

... open source, with a liberal license. We want the speed of C with the dynamism of Ruby. We want a language that’s homoiconic, with true macros like Lisp, but with obvious, familiar mathematical notation like Matlab. We want something as usable for general programming as Python, as easy for statistics as R, as natural for string processing as Perl, as powerful for linear algebra as Matlab, as good at gluing programs together as the shell. Something that is dirt simple to learn, yet keeps the most serious hackers happy. We want it interactive and we want it compiled.
(Blog: Why we created Julia)

The first week's programming assignment, a counting algorithm piggy backing on merge-sort, I also implemented in Rust after finishing the Julia version. The Rust implementation was a painful delivery, which was mostly me fighting the compiler and having a hard time finding clues on the web due to a lot of breaking changes in Rust's development towards the 1.0 release version. Add to that the resulting performance being slower than with my Julia implementation, and I quickly decided to leave Rust alone or at least until the language would be more stable (1.0 alpha was released Jan 2015).

While I was getting the hang of Julia, I also started exploring possibilities to introduce the language at Bottlenose, but found the language too immature just yet (at version 0.3), especially compared with Python and its vast amount of available (scientific) packages. It would have been interesting to complete the entire course in Julia, but I deemed it more valuable to switch to Python along the way and perhaps revisit Julia again in a couple of years from now.

Let me now turn to the actual course contents after this (quite long) Julia-Rust-experience-intermezzo. When I mentioned that I believed this course to be an easy ride, I was actually quite mistaken. The lectures had a lot of technical and mathematical depth, and the quizzes were often very challenging. You simply cannot fly through this course without a good understanding of the introduced concepts, which are luckily very well presented by course instructor Tim Roughgarden. All in all I can highly recommend this course for both expert and aspiring computer scientists for learning (or revisiting) several fundamental principles of algorithm design, and I'm looking forward in participating in Part 2 of this course later this year.

Bioinformatics Algorithms, Part 1

Overview: UC San Diego // October 2014 - Feb 2015 // 10 weeks of study // 10 hours per week // Coursera link
Difficulty: Medium/Hard

I always had a general interest in biology with genetics in particular, and if you combine this with my interest in algorithms and Data Science, you can see why I had a course in bioinformatics high on my wish list. Along came "Bioinformatics Algorithms" on Coursera and I could no longer resist signing up and was eager to get started. The syllabus consists of chapters of the interactive text book "Bioinformatics Algorithms: an Active Learning Approach":

  • Where in the Genome Does DNA Replication Begin? (Algorithmic Warmup)
  • How Do We Sequence Antibiotics? (Brute Force Algorithms)
  • Which DNA Patterns Act As Cellular Clocks? (Randomized Algorithms)
  • How Do We Assemble Genomes? (Graph Algorithms)
  • How Do We Compare Biological Sequences? (Dynamic Programming Algorithms)
  • Are There Fragile Regions in the Human Genome? (Combinatorial Algorithms)

In a way this was the "Algorithms: Design and Analysis" course all over again applied to the biological domain. The practical application of the algorithms really made this course stand out for me, and made all algorithms more tangible. The interactive book accompanied by the online lectures had great production value and introduced concepts and terminology very well.

The programming assignments throughout the book were the real meat of the course, and it is where you will spend most (90%) of your time. Where most exercises were not too hard, there was still a big chunk of problems that were very challenging. Sometimes due to the automated solution checker that would be a bit too strict in the solutions it would accept (and no feedback on why you were wrong), but mostly it were just hard problems to solve. Once you worked your way through the chapter and finished all the exercises, the corresponding quiz was easy to pass.

To get a statement of accomplishment you needed to score 70%, which is definitely doable. I went the extra mile and focused on scoring above 85% for an accomplishment with distinction, which meant no hiding from the difficult parts. In the end I was very proud that I achieved my statement of accomplishment with distinction.

I'm looking forward to part 2 of the course, which will start this month.

Learning How to Learn

Overview: UC San Diego // January 2015 // 4 weeks of study // 2 hours per week // Coursera link
Difficulty: Very easy

When you are spending your spare time following online courses and you notice there isn't enough time in the week to follow all the courses you would like, you have to make choices. And it is not only the choices that are difficult, you also want the courses that you decide to follow to have a lasting impact and not be quickly forgotten when you are moving on to another course. This brings us to the topic of how you can learn to learn more effectively, which is what the course "Learning how to learn" has to offer.

While the course is very easy and lacks real depth, it is still beneficial to at least watch the lectures and the interviews, as there might be some tips and tricks you can pick up that will improve your learning capabilities and help you overcome procrastination when it hits you.

My key takeaway points are:

  • Recall: A great way to improve your understanding and ability to form strong memories is to pause for a moment after you have read some text, look away, and forcing yourself to recall what you just read. Formulating your thoughts really helps, so talking and explaining to others is another big plus.
  • Focus on "process" not "product".
  • Make to-do lists for next day.
  • Exercise really helps when you get stuck on some hard problem. Shifting you focus can make your subconscious and diffuse mode of thinking work for you in the background.
  • Skim through an article or paper to get a sense of of the context to help structuring new knowledge.

What's next?

In 2015 I want at least take the following courses, of which the first two are continuations of two courses I already completed:

Additionally I'm looking forward to follow more courses specialized in the field of bioinformatics (e.g. genetics, bio-medicine, evolution, neuroscience) and Data Science (mining datasets, pattern discovery, advanced statistics)

I also want to finish Linear and Integer Programming of which I already completed 2 out of 7 weeks, but discontinued the course due to time constraints of other overlapping courses.

Tips

I want to conclude with two tips for when you are going to embark on your own Coursera journey:

  • Do no take too many courses at once. It might seem sometimes that you could easily squeeze in another course, but they often take more time than you anticipate. Additionally if you end up stalling in one or more courses, you might get demotivated and stop all-together.
  • Find yourself some friends who are already following online courses or talk them into joining you. Having a study group of like-minded individuals will really help you stay on course and make the ride less lonely and a lot more fun.

Good luck with our own online education!

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