LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND – Scala is a computer language designed by EPFL professor Martin Odersky, and while it may sound obscure if this is not your field, think again: Odersky just finished teaching the first-ever “Mooc” course, part of EPFL’s fall term, where he had 53,000 students. Many were working on getting their certification, and 9,700 of them managed it.
Distance learning is one thing, massive distance learning is another. Mooc stands for Massive Online Open Course. An exciting aspect of it, Odersky notes, is that it opens a new world of possibilities for students to “earn a degree at several universities simultaneously”. The University of Helsinki in Finland has accepted the course credits as part of their curriculum and his team is in discussion with several other institutions.
Scala is, among other things, an alternative to Java in the world of computer languages, so it’s perhaps not surprising that so many people who want to learn it are prepared to do so online. The course was offered, during seven weeks, on the Coursera learning platform, which is shared by EPFL and 32 other universities.
Odersky was surprised by the scale of the Scala course success. “What surprised me most was the involvement and motivation of these people, and ultimately the success rate. Close to 10’000 students obtained this certificate in only two months, that’s more than in my entire career!” The students came from several countries, including Switzerland with a few hundred students and 140 from EPFL. “But more importantly,” says Odersky, “85 percent of these people already have a university degree, and [they] therefore already have a real interest in the subject.”
Scala was developed at EPFL and in 2011 Odersky, with a $3 million capital infusion, joined forces with Akka middleware, another open source group, to set up a company called Typesafe. The goal was to increase Scala’s use on the web.
It has been used by a wide range of groups, including Twitter, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Sony, Xerox and the GuardianOnline.
Scala is compatible with Java but requires only about half as much code.
An early investor was Greylock in Boston and Silicon Valley, notable backer of Facebook in its early days and Linked In since 2004.
Odersky says the experience of having so many students at once posed some organizational teaching challenges. The problem of teacher-student contact was partly resolved by ensuring that assistants and students could work together by e-mail. Forums and discussions proved to be of significant use, with 2,800 discussions that generated 12,000 posts.
The task was daunting and different from the classroom experience. “Alone in front of the computer, without an audience, it’s really something else! On a daily basis, the preparation and the management of these Moocs generates a lot of work for my team and me. And then, it had to be invented and adapted along the way. For example, we realized after a few weeks that it was necessary to hire an editor, someone who could bring an external point of view and indicate what wasn’t working, what wasn’t understandable, and to bring our attention to points in need of improvement.”
Direct contact with students nevertheless remains important he feels, and the challenge is how to best combine this traditional approach with the new massive classroom approach. Odersky is ready to step up to the challenge: the course will be offered again during the fall 2013 term at EPFL, and he’s considering running a part two course.
Odersky, prior to Scala, contributed to the development of Java. He also created the Pizza and GJ languages, designed the original version of generics for Java, and wrote the javac reference compiler.