Beginner Pong: Rice Amasses 54,000 Online Students for First Coursera Class

Distance learning, until recently, has mostly been relegated to certificates and diplomas from second (or third or fourth) rate schools aimed at getting college degrees into the hands of anyone who could afford the courses. But, with technology -- particularly video -- dramatically altering the way we communicate, traditional four-year universities, including some fairly prestigious ones, have lept onto the bandwagon.

That includes Houston's own Rice University, which has launched its first online course through Corsera -- an online higher education website launched in April offering free massive open online courses (MOOCs) from some of the better colleges in the country -- and, so far, it's been an overwhelming success.

Since putting "An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python" on Coursera, more than 54,000 students have registered to take the eight-week course that promises to teach beginners how to build "simple interactive games such as Pong, Blackjack and Asteroids." What, no Q*bert?

The course is taught through brief video lectures (more than 70 of them) and includes many characteristics of a standard classroom including quizzes and assignments. Rice does not offer credit for the course or certification, but that isn't the point of most MOOCs, which are mostly like enormous online Leisure Learning classes.

What makes this particular programming course unique is its use of a software designed by Rice associate professor Scott Rixner called CodeSkulptor, which allows students to program Python code through an online browser-based interface. "It runs at least 100 times faster than anything else out there, and that's what makes it possible to teach this class with games," Joe Warren, chair of Rice's Computer Science Department, said in a release. "No one else can support graphics like this in a real-time Web-based Python environment."

Additionally, the course will utilize Google cloud storage for assignments, allowing the entire course, lectures and assignments, to be taken using only a web browser and an Internet connection.

Despite the lack of credit and the fact that this isn't a particularly difficult course by Rice standards, it does offer some challenges and, as Warren said in a release, it's still a class taught by Rice. "The Coursera students are going to need to devote at least seven to nine hours each week to these assignments. One question I have is whether the people signing up for Coursera have that level of commitment," he said.

Considering the fact that my nerd friends and I used to, after a day at the arcade, try to figure out how to build our own version of Galaga, I'm guessing quite a few of the 54,000 who signed up will stick around at least long enough to build their own version of Asteroids.

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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke