Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, November 1, 2015
Having registered for Harvard Computer Science 50, an online course famous for changing people’s lives, I left off downloading Scratch, an MIT-generated program designed to teach children fundamental computer programming. The first homework assignment takes me eight hours. I am supposed to finish the nine-week course by December 19. I am thinking that means no Thanksgiving, no Christmas, no morning walks, and no interaction with any people or pets in my family.
I give myself three days to recover and refresh from Problem Set 0, overly pleased with myself for having masterminded — using interlocking puzzle parts simulating “code” — a set of fortune cookies moving through space that are clicked on for various effects and messages. My personal zenith? One of the cookies randomly hitting the edge and then ricocheting off over and over again. I call the game (which has no beginning, or end, or way to win) “Space Fortune.” It says very little — or perhaps it says everything — about my ability. It speaks volumes about my proclivities. A fortune cookie moving through space barking proverbs? I’m there.
But do I use enough events and operators, loops and variables and controls? Are my sprites and backdrops and sound effects adequate? [Insert shrug here]. I like the Radiohead soundtrack I choose. I’ve always wanted to be a fortune cookie editor.
In the meantime, in real life, I bump into a few people wanting to explore the idea of online learning. “How rich,” someone says. “How empty”, says another. What is the future of learning without personal interaction? What exactly is learning? Good questions. Since I don’t see myself in a classroom at this point in my life (one never knows, though), I am content remaining unseen, a statistic. It’s the great leveler. No one knows my age or how fast my hand doesn’t shoot up to answer a question. Cool, right?
Yeah, until Problem Set 1.
Problem Set 1 requires the downloading of a very large Harvard “appliance” (essentially a computer inside my computer) that facilitates writing real code. I listen to three hours of lectures, thinking, “Wow, the world runs on mega-bazillions of bits of code authored mostly by men.” It takes me a couple of hours to download the appliance and learn how to use the terminal and write some basic code (with lots of remote hand-holding). “Hello, world!” is what we code to print on the screen. Those two words. Okay, I say to myself. Okay.
Then I read the actual assignment problems. I watch all the side bar videos. How hard could it be, creating a half pyramid for a Mario game out of keyboard characters and then printing it out?
But I have no clue where to start. Sincerely yours, A lost person. I watch the hour-long walk-through on YouTube and see distant blips of light in the self-scan of my brain. If I watched the video again a couple of times, I could probably figure out PS1 in fifteen or twenty hours.
Meanwhile, I want to get to know this young woman walking me through. She seems nice. What did her parents do? Is she as smart and well-adjusted as she seems? I like the gap in her teeth. I want to look her up; but I resist the temptation. Briefly.
Fact is, for success here, I would need the sleep-away camp version of CS50, the remedial one offered in a secluded cabin island-bound off the coast of Maine, and I’d have to temporarily exit my life for that to happen, which is not an option right now. Maybe in another decade.
Well, gee, I start to wonder: who are my contemporaries in this class, anyway? Turns out, only 20 percent of the 150,000 or so registering in 2013 are female. Their median age is 29. The completion rate of all those who registered is 0.9 percent. Because of my life and responsibilities and natural disability with the subject, I am part of the 91.1 percent spectrum of people who do not complete it. (On campus, 99.6 percent complete the course.) Where do I stand now?
I stand corrected! I will not take on challenges so airily (copy 50 times). I will tend more toward the things I am good at and be less fascinated with what is difficult (copy 100 times). I will continue to explore online learning to enrich my mind (beginning with UCSD’s top-ten-listed Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help You Master Tough Subjects!).
For now, though, I am just saying one thing: I am a Harvard dropout. At least that has a ring to it.