Monday, March 26, 2012

The little known Golden Gate Transit buses

For reasons I don’t understand, Google Maps doesn’t seem to know about the Golden Gate Transitbuses, even though there’s a whole bunch of them and they are by far the fastest way to get from downtown SF to the Cow Hollow/Fillmore/Presidio area on transit.

There’s a whole mess of bus routes, but the most interesting for SF residents who don’t need to commute to Marin County are the 10, 70/80/81, and 101/101X.  These run from the Financial District (1st & Mission/Transbay Terminal) to Civic Center, then up Van Ness and west on Lombard.  Because they make limited stops, they’re fairly fast (though at $3.75, more expensive than Muni).  For example, from my neighborhood of Glen Park it would take over 45 minutes to get to the Cow Hollow area on BART+Muni (on the 22-Fillmore), but only around 25 minutes on GG Transit, which is competitive with driving once you factor out the time needed to try to find parking in Cow Hollow (good luck).

And if you have friends in town who want to see or walk across the Golden Gate Bridge without the hassle of driving there, taking these buses from downtown SF is an easy way to do it.

They run pretty late, although outside of commute hours they run infrequently (once an hour for most routes), so you  have to plan ahead a bit.

Downsides: they don’t appear to be on Google Maps, so you can’t get transit trip planning that includes them (511.org has a trip planner that does include them, but it’s horrible and inaccurate); they don’t appear to be on NextBus, so if there’s traffic you won’t have a way to tell how delayed they are.

Still, it’s better than taking the 22-Fillmore all the way out there, and certainly better than trying to park in Cow Hollow.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Made it to Spring Break, things still holding together!

We made it to spring break without the online course imploding!  Woohoo!

We were concerned (especially after Homework 2, which we knew was tough) that we were just going to lose everybody.  But no—over 5,000 people are still with us, comparable to Prof. Jennifer Widom’s database course, which I hold as the benchmark.

Dave and I are impressed with the perseverance of the online students, especially given that most have full time jobs.  The next time around we will probably expand the course by a week or two in order to space out the deadlines a bit.  (We just extended most of the homework deadlines by a week for the online course.)  We are also hiring local help (Berkeley students!) to help further debug the homeworks, improve the autograders, create new assignments and quizzes, monitor the forums more regularly, and fix the A/V quality (we know, we know).

We definitely plan to offer this course for free at least a couple of more times over the summer.  Beyond that it’s unclear what will happen–it’s no secret that Coursera is a for-profit company, and we don’t know how long they will make courses available for free.  However, we’re excited enough about this that we will make sure to find some way to keep getting the material out there, and if we can do so for free, we will.  We’ll even get a chance to meet a few of the online students in person—they formed a study group that meets at a Starbucks close to UC Berkeley!

A big thanks to those who had faith in us and have continued to persevere through the course!  And especially those who bought the book—we have 2 new chapters just about ready to go and they’ll be available as a free upgrade around two weeks from now.  As promised, anyone who bought the Kindle edition will continue to get free updates until the book is content-complete.

So…as we get close to the end of the first iteration…

To those who hung on until the end despite the problems: THANK YOU for your patience, for the constructive feedback you provided via the forums, personal emails, comments on these blog posts, and however else you reached out to us.  You’ve made it worthwhile for us by letting us know you were getting something out of the course!

To Instructors: if you’d like to beta test this material in your classrooms, we’ll even offer to run the autograders for you.  See our beta program description if you might be interested.

To Griefers who tried to poison the forum atmosphere early on: see ya, and don’t let the door hit your a** on the way out.  The smart money says that a whole bunch of companies besides Coursera are about to start trying to monetize courses like this (you can read about it in the latest Wired, in the NY Times, and elsewhere), so next time you’ll at least be paying for the right to complain.

And now…Spriiiing Breeeeaaaaak!!!  Wooooo!!! (For the next week I can work from home instead of going to campus.)

P.S.: I had some technical video difficulties with “SaaS TV #2? (salesforce.com) but it should be posted by tomorrow.  SaaS TV #3 (with GitHub) should be available by April 4.  It’s must-see TV.

UPDATE:  I got an unexpected opportunity to speak with Raffi Krikorian, Director of Engineering at Twitter!  That conversation is the basis of the just-posted SaaS TV #3. Next week we hope to post #4 (with Zach Holman of GitHub) and, hopefully, #5 (Dan Webb of Twitter talking about the present and future of JavaScript)!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Crisis Averted: What If You Have to Cancel a Show?

Well, that was exciting.

Because of a problem with Alameda Power & Telecom’s equipment, Altarena had to suddenly cancel tonight’s Of Mice & Men performance.

Happily, the cast agreed to stage a “make-up” performance tomorrow night at 6pm, after the matinee.  Tonight’s customers were told they could either come to that performance, exchange the ticket for any other performance of the season, or get a refund.

But how to “roll over” tonight’s will-call list?

As it turned out, it was pretty simple.  We simply edited the “time and date of this performance” info in Audience1st to reflect the rescheduled time.  Presto-change-o: all patrons who had reservations for tonight now “automatically” have reservations for tomorrow (it even shows up in their online account), plus we can even sell tickets to the added performance to make up for those patrons who prefer a refund or can’t come tomorrow.  Indeed, it’s already listed as an added performance on our Store page—it just happens to be an added performance to which we’ve already sold a lot of tickets.

I hate when unexpected situations like this result in having to cancel a show, but at least the software makes the administrative part of it pretty painless.  So—crisis averted.  Can your ticketing system do that?  :-)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The downside of online education

In the 90s, the joke was “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”  The anonymity of online interaction allowed you to reinvent yourself.

One aspect of offering the online course has been to remind me that “On the Internet, nobody can confront you for being an a**hole.”

I just have to copy-and-paste (verbatim) a recent posting from a student [sic] in the online course forums, because paraphrasing just won’t do it justice:
As you don’t take care of us, the students, due the quality of the course I decide to quit this one

If you (the organizers) realize how important is our time and you decide to take this course seriously then perhaps I will return

Do you (the organizers) realize how many courses like this one are there? Do you realize how serious are them (see udacity for example) and how they care about us?

Is this the quality of the whole university? I now understand why stanford or others are more reputated than cal tech: because they take care about what they are doing but not you, you are making a fudge here and I have no time for fudges

…it goes on for awhile like this.  I don’t even know who this person is—he or she posts as “Garito” with no other information.

I’ve dealt with whiny students before, but this level of entitlement is, frankly, stunning.  Besides the fact that “Garito” provides no actual suggestions and confuses UC Berkeley with Cal Tech, what gets me is the downright nasty and ad hominem assertion:  You don’t care about what you’re doing, or about the students.

We’ve already acknowledged a number of technical glitches that have slowed things down and that we’re working to fix, but “Garito’s” statement is just injurious and insulting.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.  I volunteer at a nonprofit community theater, and for years it’s been our consistent experience that the worst customers are the ones who got free tickets.  As a group, they complain more, are more likely to cancel at the last minute or walk out of the performance, write the nastiest reviews, and rarely turn into repeat customers even when they said they loved the show.  That is, they’re more motivated by getting a ticket for free than by the product offered.  (That’s also why our theater doesn’t do deals with GroupOn and similar outfits.)

I strongly suspect that online education purveyors will reach a similar conclusion, and hopefully that’ll happen before instructors get sufficiently turned off by attitudes like these that they decide to stop donating hundreds of uncompensated extra work hours for the “Garitos” of the world.

I know it’s human nature, when you’re trying to do a good job at something, to focus disproportionately on negative feedback; very few students, even those with legitimate grievances, have been anything like “Garito” and many more have been very positive in their comments. So in this case, sorry, “Garito”, but all I can really say, to use your own terminology, is “fudge you.”

Monday, March 5, 2012

Week 3: no disasters yet

Our free online SaaS course is now entering its third week, with no major disasters to report!

Our autograder technology is working, thanks to heroic efforts by our on-campus graduate student instructors (i.e. TA’s), especially Richard Xia’s strong Ruby chops, and to Amazon Web Services’ generous donation of EC2 credits to run the autograder processes.  No doubt we will further improve, streamline and fortify the autograders for future course offerings, but without Richard’s efforts we couldn’t have had them running in time.  The autograders give detailed feedback on which tests passed and failed in the homework submission, and we allow students to resubmit homework to improve their scores based on the autograder’s feedback right up until the deadline.

The students are about to submit HW#1, completion of which entitles each of them to a $10 Amazon AWS credit and 90-day GitHub Micro account (thanks to Jinesh Varia at AWS and Kami Lott at GitHub for these very generous donations!).  In fact, based on the activity in the autograder processes (another big thanks to AWS for donating EC2 credits that we can use to run autograders for 39,000 students), thousands of students have already submitted it.

We’ve been humbled by the number of countries represented, including many where , or in some cases cannot easily complete a financial transaction to the US.  We’ve made separate arrangements with many of these students so they can continue the course, but obviously we’ll have to find a sustainable and scalable solution to the distribution problem for next time.  We’ve even had a couple of generous offers from students willing to subsidize the book purchase for others who are in financial hardship.  We’ve fielded emails about this issue from the Gaza Strip, Tunisia, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Nigeria, Georgia, Indonesia, Macedonia, Malaysia, Serbia, and Singapore, in no particular order.

Last but certainly not least, we’ve seen a handful of VERY positive and gracious emails and forum posts from people who are clearly appreciative of our efforts and feel they are getting a lot out of the course, despite its imperfections and the inevitable glitches that happen on a first offering.  To those who reached out to us in that way—you know who you are—thank you for both your gratitude and your understanding that this is a brand-new experience for us and that problems will happen despite our best efforts.  I’m spending most of my waking hours focused on this course, and hearing from people like you renews my energy to improve it further.  Originally I was excited about being able to reach 35,000 students, but the truth is that the real reward is hearing from the few hundred for whom the opportunity has had such a positive impact.

Our free online SaaS course is now entering its third week, with no major disasters to report!Our autograder technology is working, thanks to heroic efforts by our on-campus graduate student instructors (i.e. TA’s), especially Richard Xia’s strong Ruby chops, and to Amazon Web Services’ generous donation of EC2 credits to run the autograder processes.  No doubt we will further improve, streamline and fortify the autograders for future course offerings, but without Richard’s efforts we couldn’t have had them running in time.  The autograders give detailed feedback on which tests passed and failed in the homework submission, and we allow students to resubmit homework to improve their scores based on the autograder’s feedback right up until the deadline.We’ve been humbled by the number of countries represented, including many where , or in some cases cannot easily complete a financial transaction to the US.  We’ve made separate arrangements with many of these students so they can continue the course, but obviously we’ll have to find a sustainable and scalable solution to the distribution problem for next time.  We’ve even had a couple of generous offers from students willing to subsidize the book purchase for others who are in financial hardship.  We’ve fielded emails about this issue from the Gaza Strip, Tunisia, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Nigeria, Georgia, Indonesia, Macedonia, Malaysia, Serbia, and Singapore, in no particular order.Last but certainly not least, we’ve seen a handful of VERY positive and gracious emails and forum posts from people who are clearly appreciative of our efforts and feel they are getting a lot out of the course, despite its imperfections and the inevitable glitches that happen on a first offering.  To those who reached out to us in that way—you know who you are—thank you for both your gratitude and your understanding that this is a brand-new experience for us and that problems will happen despite our best efforts.  I’m spending most of my waking hours focused on this course, and hearing from people like you renews my energy to improve it further.  Originally I was excited about being able to reach 35,000 students, but the truth is that the real reward is hearing from the few hundred for whom the opportunity has had such a positive impact.