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Angrave Completes Teaching First MOOC on Developing Android Apps

No matter how experienced a teacher you are, launching a course with over 140,000 registrants has to be a daunting task. CS Professor Lawrence Angrave recently had the very feeling as he completed teaching the first MOOC on developing apps for the Android platform.

Lawrence Angrave
Lawrence Angrave

Well, if it was intimidating at the beginning, you wouldn’t know it by looking at Angrave. Several weeks into the course, he still looked buoyant and excited about it.

Once of the aspects of a MOOC that Angrave noticed quickly is how it can cause the instructor to become somewhat schizophrenic. At any one time, he is thinking of the current week that the online students are working on, as well as the upcoming week that needs to be finalized, and the week in the future for which he is currently recording the material.

“You have to have this split brain,” Angrave said. “People ask, ‘How is it going?’ And I have to say, ‘Well, which week are you talking about?’”

Vibrant online community

One of the aspects that Angrave was pleased to see develop was an active online community among the students in the course. The forums became a place for students to solve unusual situations that they have come across. Some students in particular situations discovered unique problems with some of the software. Through the forums, they found solutions. “Students have been able to come up with fixes to a variety of bizarre situations," said Angrave.

With video production for the MOOC course stretching over the winter break, Angrave recorded some lessons from his vacation in Guatemala.
With video production for the MOOC course stretching over the winter break, Angrave recorded some lessons from his vacation in Guatemala.

Even more impressive were the personal connections that students made through the online forums. And students discovered they were not alone in finding an assignment challenging. In addition, “there were connections made on the newsgroups among people who had similar backgrounds, but who lived in geographically different places,” said Angrave. “It was a very human element to this very technical course.”

Course with impact

“I get a lot of satisfaction out of realizing that so many people are excited about this content,” said Angrave.

Several of Angrave's lessons brought in the history of the computer science discipline, such as this visit to the Spurlock Museum to look at items related to John Bardeen, co-inventor of the transistor.
Several of Angrave's lessons brought in the history of the computer science discipline, such as this visit to the Spurlock Museum to look at items related to John Bardeen, co-inventor of the transistor.

But, though the content did have impact on the students, the extent of that impact was up to each participant. For some students, just watching the videos available online will be as far as they want to go with the course. Others will be more fully engaged with completing assignments and interacting with other students. “I don’t see that as a problem,” said Angrave. “I think that is one of the great benefits of MOOCs. You have structured introductory material in a way that is accessible to people given a certain amount of time. MOOCs have been a great leveler.”

The impact of the course on the students can be seen in some of their comments on the forums. Said one student: “Since I started this course I have been dreaming nothing but scrambled Java code, and I wake up saying things like ‘linear layout’ and ‘scroll view’ to myself. This goes on all night every night. Is it just me?”

Keeping it interesting, keeping it real

Angrave worked to keep the students interested and--where possible--entertained during the class. One particular approach was what he called "a fun video” that they did at the end of the week.

For two of those videos, Illinois undergraduates with some Android programming experience talked to the course participants. Angrave said that these undergraduate students could speak to how difficult they found Android programming at the beginning, but that persistence would pay.

One end of the week video was recorded in the Spurlock Museum. There Angrave showed the Nobel Prize won by Illinois faculty member John Bardeen, who received the award as part of the team that invented the transistor. “We were able to look at it as the grandfather of our computers and cell phones and the Blue Waters facility,” Angrave said. “It was nice to place Android development with the broader context of computer science.”

To introduce the Java language—which has only 50 words—Angrave decided to go beyond simply giving a list of the words. Instead, he put the words to music and created a music video.

Personal evaluation

Looking back over the past several weeks of this MOOC, “I’ve very happy with how the course has turned out,” said Angrave. “For a first offering—for my first time—I give myself a good eight, maybe nine. You can always see better ways to do things. But for that particular point in time, I think we did a pretty good job. We made a course that was as accessible as possible.”

Angrave was quick to point out that the course came together only with the assistance of others. "Creating the course was an extraordinary amount of work," explained Angrave. "This course is the product of many talented and dedicated people from Illinois, including Jason Mock, Liam Moran, Colleen Cook, Katherine Woodruff, and Angie Mock, representing groups from ATLAS and CITL. My graduate and undergraduate Computer Science assistants were Rohan Arora, Will Hennessy, Vishal Disawar, Vishnu Indukuri, and Nelson Osacky. Everyone worked very hard to create and then run this course, and we made a worldwide experience that Illinois can be proud off."

This first MOOC for creating apps on the Android platform ended on February 14. Angrave is already making plans for how he will make the course even better the next time he has an opportunity to teach the course.