Sunday, 21 April 2013

Functional Programming at Coursera

Many professions are based on the idea that you do a big amount of learning upfront (university) and then only small updates will be necessary throughout the rest of your career. However, in software development technology advances so quickly that your whole career is really one of continuous learning. To further this end, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have been become popular, especially over the past year or two. I don't see them as replacing traditional universities. However, they are a very useful resource, both for reminding yourself what you learnt in university and introducing you to new paradigms as they become popular in your field of expertise.

A great example is the Functional Programming Principles in Scala course at Coursera. Coursera is based at Stanford University, and this particular course is led by the Swiss professor Martin Odersky, inventor of the Scala language. I am now on the fourth week of the seven-week course. Each week requires the student to watch a couple of hours of videos interspersed with quizzes, and then take some more serious exercises, which take several hours more and submitted online using the Scala tool sbt. A student can do this work at any time during the week, meaning there doesn't need to be any interruption to one's regular work schedule. At the end of the course, a certificate is available, as well as the total score on the exercises.

In practise the majority of students drop out of online courses soon after starting them. However, I fully intend to pursue this one to the end, as I think the material is both excellently presented and highly relevant to the direction the software world is moving in. Furthermore, completing the exercises feels like solving puzzles in a way that I found quite addictive, and I shall be sorry when the course is complete and there are no more.

For instance this week's lectures, on "Types and Pattern Matching," set the stage for exercises on creating Huffman trees, which was quite interesting. In this course, there is an emphasis on data structures and algorithms that reminds of my days studying Computer Science at university twenty years ago. In those days we learnt Scheme, a LISP variant and a classic functional programming language. These days there are more popular FP languages like Scala and Clojure, which are entering the mainstream for many good reasons including allowing access to the JVM and Java libraries.

Anyway I highly recommend the course. This is the second run of it and I expect there will be another chance for people to take it in a few months.