27 March 2015

Lynda.com for learning computing science as high school students: a review

Recently, I had a chance to spend some time reviewing Lynda.com's offerings on various computing science topics.  The review here is geared towards using Lynda.com with high school students as the target audience.  I thought I'd share a few observations.

Lynda.com is ok for what it is, that is, as a quick introduction to topics for what seems to be its intended audience of busy professionals working in the field.  At least I think that's their target audience.

For high school students, however, especially for beginner, intermediate, or even middle to lower level advanced high school students, Lynda.com's offerings for computing science topics are simply inadequate, missing curricular connections, and uses pedagogy ill-fitting for students in the high school age range.  That's not really a bad thing for Lynda.com, as I don't think high school students are their target audience at all.



Specifically, I've looked at "Foundations of Programming: Data Structures with Simon Allardice", "Java Essential Training with David Gassner", as well as "JavaScript Essential Training with Simon Allardice".  I also looked at the index of what other lessons are offered.  I've looked at some of their Exercise Files as well.

The video presentation is fine: clear voice, good pace of speaking.  Some of the detailed points in the lessons were actually factually wrong, if I recall correctly, but not wrong enough or often enough to probably be harmful overall for beginners.

The list of topics is very well suited for working field professionals looking for a quick intro to a topic they perhaps need to learn very quickly, so the topics are very application specific rather than more educationally expansive, inspiring, or conceptual-development driven.  It's very much like a spoken version of a traditional textbook, rather than actually taking advantage of a new and powerful medium i.e. the social web.  It reminded me of video tutorials that were available back before the web, when such lessons could and were distributed on CD-ROMs.

The Exercise Files were pedagogically rudimentary, surely helpful to use along with the video explanations, but again, the Exercise Files were not much more than what could've been available on CD-ROMs in the back of books or magazines before the web existed, "back in the day".  That doesn't mean it's bad, just that it's no more appropriate for high school students now than back then.  Some lessons didn't have Exercise files.  I also don't see assessment instruments, essential for a high school classroom teacher bound by provincial regulations.

The Lynda.com lessons uses many specific examples that may not be usable when being fitted into a teachers' course implementation of the provincial government's prescribed curriculum.  For example, just because a teacher is teaching Java doesn't mean they can use a lesson or example that uses Java for Android (which isn't quite Java to begin with, except it is, but it's not because it's kind of an outdated version of Java, except it's an outdated version of Java the language but not Java the compiler or run time, except it's actually blah blah blah...etc.).  Or as another example, just because a teacher is teaching JavaScript, doesn't mean a lesson or example that uses JavaScript with HTML5 will be usable in a class where students learn JavaScript to do Processing.js graphics based programs in a specialized IDE.

In other words, either a teacher goes "all in" and teaches with what is specifically in Lynda.com, or else the teacher has to be lucky enough that Lynda.com has something useful for what was already planned into their curriculum implementation.  And without curricular connections being provided, the teacher has to do an in-depth lesson-by-lesson review of every Lynda.com lesson to ensure it's usable and school appropriate, and find where it's usable in the provincially mandated curriculum.

It might have been ok to have a teacher, especially one without much subject matter expertise, just go "all in" and use Lynda.com as the backbone of a course.  Except Lynda.com, as previously mentioned, is focused on application topics of some immediate use to working field professionals.  So for example, it has plenty of topics on writing C# programs, and also on topics that are specifically quite popular in the professional field (but which do not necessarily have much pedagogical use for beginners. e.g. architectural patterns).

And so it also has many gaps in topics that are provincial curriculuar requirements.  For example, topics on ADTs may be explained in the abstract (no pun intended) but not explained in Java; or for other topics, explained in Java but not in JavaScript, etc.  It makes it tough for a teacher to teach when topics are discussed in certain particular specific applications but not in the context of what the students need it to be in.

These problems are exacerbated by the fact that Lynda.com lessons are contained in a "walled garden" rather than being available openly on the wider internet.  Meaning that they will never have as much selection, or as good a coverage, as what's available on the entirety of the internet (which is easily seen to be true, as Lynda.com is itself also just one part of the internet).

But in the open internet outside of Lynda.com's walled garden, there is already so much more selection, better coverage, and more up-to-date high-quality content, much of which are even free!  So much so that many students have told me of where they themselves are learning on their own on the web, places I didn't even know about until they told me (that's how vast the internet is, of course).

Some older teachers have experience with the challenges of assembling resources from the open internet on their own, but that negative experience needs to be taken in the light of what time period those teachers primarily had been teaching in.  The internet's vastness and the ability for even the layman to search for content via Google, Bing, YouTube, etc, has improved exponentially since then.  Even compared to a decade ago, it's mind boggling how easy it is to find things nowadays.

Finding good content on the internet is nowadays easy; but using good pedagogy in the classroom has not gotten any easier (hopefully this means classroom teachers won't be replaced by computers until at least a long time from now...).  I sympathize with some older teachers' viewpoint that it can be a challenge to assemble resources as a teacher to teach with, but really it's just not that hard nowadays for teachers with even some modicum of "Google-fu" skills (of course, many students outpace teachers in this regard).

Some teachers have expressed to me their concern that given the Lynda.com videos are not easily downloadable (if they even have a license to download copies at all, given that the schools sign contracts which are not shared with the front line teaching staff), therefore a teacher spending time on creating a course using those videos may find themselves on the wrong side of the walled garden in a year or so when the school board stops paying the Lynda.com invoice.  And a little bird on the net told me that the invoice is usually on the order of $20,000 to $30,000, money the school board could spend on other important priorities.

That's one of the problems with any walled garden resource, of course, and why I prefer resources that are open source and free:  free as in freedom, as in free speech, not even necessarily as in free beer.  Fortunately for all of society, every major software tech company out there, at some level, support open source resources, including Microsoft, Oracle, Google, Facebook, Apple, IBM, etc.

So all in all, Lynda.com is a fine additional resource for the working field professional, but not very well suited generally for high school students.  Khan Academy doesn't have quite the level of material needed at the high school level yet, but it does have vastly better pedagogy and a better price (i.e. $0.00) compared to Lynda.com.  Recently, Khan Academy has even started developing and making available more advanced computing science material as well, so the situation with Khan Academy may soon be improving for the better.

This review is really only for computing science topics for a high school student audience.  For other topics like drawing with Photoshop or photography, Lynda.com might well be quite suitable.

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