Caesar's Passion for IoT Helps Transition his Graduate Course into an Online, Hands-on Coursera Specialization

7/14/2021 3:55:31 PM Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Over the past decade, Illinois CS professor Matt Caesar became and remained enthralled with the progress behind the Internet of Things (IoT). So much so that he’s made it a clear focus of his research and developed it into a series of graduate-level courses.

Illinois CS professor Matt Caesar
Illinois CS professor Matt Caesar turned a decade's worth of Internet-of-Things research into graduate classes that are now a hands-on Coursera specialization.

The interest sparked with a belief that IoT would alter the reality many of us experience daily.

On the surface, it is about devices. IoT describes the network of physical objects embedded with sensors, software, and other technologies to connect data with other devices and systems. There are now smart athletic shoes that help people better understand their body’s reactions. Smart water bottles detect how much water you drank or still need to drink.

But Caesar knows IoT encompasses so much more.  The electrical grid is now enhanced based on IoT innovation with smart sensors and meters. IoT also altered healthcare devices so that medical practitioners and their patients can proactively assess a patient’s needs, rather than retroactively treating based off a problematic event.

The excitement of such technologies, though, needs balance from proper technical expertise. And there is very little Caesar enjoys more than computing issues of enormous scale.

“From the beginning of IoT development there was this observation that we were beginning to work with these really exciting AI and ML models. But the curiosity we all had was how to get data to it properly,” Caesar said. “I am working off a foundation built from more than a decade's worth of research and advances in AI, computer networking, computer systems and computer architecture that are all convolving together to form this field.

“If you think about it, we’re building this huge, artificial brain, and for that brain to work it needs data – which is where IoT comes into play with the vast array or sensors, actuators, and processors that act as the eyes, ears, and hands of this brain."

That excitement and knowledge, he believed, would form a great basis for a graduate-level course, which Caesar launched on campus in Spring 2019. More recently, though, he has adapted it into an online course as part of the Online MCS and MCS in Data Science (MCS-DS) programs, while also making a light-weight version available as a four-part specialization. The videos can be viewed for free, but students pay to take the courses and do the assignments. These offerings provide anyone wanting to learn IoT with the opportunity to understand the challenges inherit to it, while equipping them with the creativity and technical know-how to overcome those challenges.

In the classroom, Caesar’s belief is that students learn best while doing. His in-person courses come from a bit of lecture time, but, more so, laboratory time that provides an opportunity for hands-on experience and creativity.

He also requires students to come up with an idea for a new device, but that device isn’t based on a random whim.

Caesar spent years collecting industry thought from leaders at companies like Amazon and IBM to best understand the field’s greatest challenges. Once he explains this to the students, they are then free to harness that knowledge into devices and creations that propose new ways to think about solutions.

“It was great to structure the courses in a way that’s very practical yet still hands-on,” Caesar said. “But, at the same time, this is the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign where we teach people science in a way that prepares them to be leaders and practitioners. So, of course, there’s a formal science behind what’s taught.”

John Hart
John Hart

The success of the in-person courses led to the online degree course and specialization, introduced during the spring 2021 semester of 2021 with the help of John Hart, fellow Illinois CS professor and Director of Online Programs.

“Matt was looking for a way to reach a wider audience with his innovative IoT material. Coursera provides Illinois access to over 80 million learners and was a natural fit for the impact Matt was looking for,” Hart said.

Developing an online offering of his course for the MCS paved the way for Caesar to reach an even greater audience of students by making the material also available as massive open online courses (MOOCs). After launching at the end of spring, this specialization has already reached more than 1,000 learners.

The program’s team of dedicated CS instructional designers – Eric Huber, Milt Epstein and Sebastian Kelle – specialize in MOOC development. This allows the program to build off an already successful set of online graduate courses. The instructional designers manage the process and details, allowing the instructor to focus on higher-level concerns, like ensuring the learning objectives are completely covered and effectively delivered.

The resulting MOOCs now provide an educational opportunity to any worldwide learner, something Hart calls a “sitting-in” experience. The Coursera MOOC specialization includes all of the lectures and classroom activities, but without the exams and class projects needed to confer graded course credit. Caesar’s IoT specialization does include a series of projects he designed specifically to help any learner build their own network-connected devices.

What impressed Caesar most, as it shifted online, was the level of interactivity still included.

“When I started teaching this, I was doing it all in-person so everyone involved could pick up and see and study the devices, the sensors the instruments and connect them together,” Caesar said. “So when we went online, I wondered what we would do from there, but it worked. That was amazing to me, but it was because we still made use of the physical devices – as most are readily available now.

“But we also make use of online services like Amazon Web Services, and AWS has an IoT platform that we make use of. We also used a platform, GNS3, that allows you to interact with devices.”

After admission to the Online MCS or MCS-DS, qualified students can enroll in Caesar’s degree course and complete the more rigorous set of projects, graded assignments, and exams required for university credit.

“We design our online programs for scale so they can provide an educational opportunity to all the students looking to advance their career and learn the deeper, more advanced topics of graduate computer science,” Hart said. “We soon discovered that the online version of Matt’s courses not only covered the learning objectives of a an MCS course, but it also included enough starting material in each of its hands-on projects to make a good Coursera specialization. This can give anybody the opportunity to learn IoT from Illinois and earn a Coursers specialization certificate.”

Caesar couldn’t have been more impressed with the result.

“John and his team have been so great in terms of guidance for how to connect with our new audience,” Caesar said. “I’m also thrilled to work with a number of teaching assistants on these courses, which has represented a massive amount of work.”

The people Caesar believes deserve perhaps the most credit, though, are the students.

“I want to thank them because they are very brave for taking this,” he said. “Many think they can't work with hardware or think that IoT is too hard. But they try anyway, and when they do, they find that they really can do it – not just to build things, but to innovate and design things themselves, as well."