The man whose courses are creating a buzz

Published Mar 23, 2018

Open science, access to science for everyone, is a bit of a buzz phrase at the moment. But how does it work when it comes to education? Through his open courses on the internet, Stefan Nilsson reaches thousands of people all around the world who have an interest in his subject, computer science.

“Several lecturers here, including me, thought it was a pity that much of KTH Royal Institute of Technology’s teaching material wasn’t public,” Stefan Nilsson says. “Because I was keen to reach as many people as possible, I tested copying course material that I had produced myself about algorithms and programming languages, and uploaded it to my own site.”

The response exceeded all expectations. Stefan Nilsson had hoped for about a hundred viewers. He’s now getting thousands of visitors every day. The material is commented on and shared by even more people across the world on social forums such as Facebook and Reddit, where he has highlighted his site. The people who have shared it come from up to 140 countries – mainly the US, China and Sweden.

“Clearly there are lots of people who want to attend the courses, even outside academia. I’m there for everyone who might be interested: professional programmers, teachers, researchers and young enthusiasts.”

The teaching material covers a mix of basic programming skills, and an understanding of concepts in the fields of computer science and theoretical computer science. It is both for beginners and more advanced students. The material comes from courses that Stefan Nilsson teaches at KTH, and that he himself has produced over the years he has spent as a university lecturer.

Competence development

The aim is to exchange experiences and share knowledge. Many IT developers are members of the Swedish Facebook group and it has given them a much appreciated opportunity to update their skills, he says.

“It has become an opportunity for different groups in the IT sector to analyse problems and suggest solutions at a level that there simply isn’t time for at work. We have lots of discussions about mathematical methods and program quality – sometimes in great detail, sometimes about general principles.”

Stefan Nilsson, who wants to inspire young computing enthusiasts to apply to university.

The hope is to also inspire young enthusiasts – people who are passionate about programming – to study at university. Stefan Nilsson thinks that if young people gain access to course material that is used at universities, there’s a greater chance of getting them interested in higher education.

“Many people want to know what the course is about and what studying computing at university is really like.”

He has used feedback on social forums to develop the programming courses he will be running at KTH this spring.

“More perspectives result in better solutions. I will be using several of the things I have learned recently to teach algorithms on a course for technical physicists.”

Using the teachers’ exemption

Usually KTH’s courses can only be accessed by registered students enrolled at the university. Stefan Nilsson has published his course material under the teachers’ exemption, which provides copyright protection for material produced at work.

This is an unusual initiative that you don’t see very often, says Per Berglund, Vice Dean of Faculty at KTH. Provided that it sticks to the rules relating to the teachers’ exemption and ancillary occupations, he recognises that it has several benefits:

“The thinking behind it is positive: making material accessible to encourage lifelong learning,” he says. “There is an enormous need for lifelong learning, but limited resources for enabling continuous professional development, so in that context an initiative like this fulfils an important function.”

Stefan Nilsson himself is pleased to have established a new arena for his teaching in such a simple way.

“It was a bit of an experiment to begin with. It feels fantastic to be able to reach so many people who are interested. I’d never have imagined there were so many of them.”

Text: Christer Gummeson

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