A Love Note to Coursera

Dear Coursera,

I’ve never written a note like this before to a web site (or should I call you a “platform”?). Please excuse the awkward sentences that follow, but I need to express what a wonderful time I’m having with you, the great hopes & dreams for the future that I have for us, and a tinge of remorse for all the wasted years prior that we could have, should have, been spending time together.

Just a month ago I discovered I had a passion for Data Science. And in my wanderings on the great wide web, I saw you in the corner of a Google search result, looking confident and beautiful, but at the same time, very, very approachable.

courseraI saw that you had an educational program to offer, a “Data Science Specialization” I believe you called it. One that could take a shy, pensive but eager student like myself on a one-year whirlwind tour of the tools and techniques of a data scientist.

Heart in hand, I took the plunge and signed up for the first course in the series, “The Data Scientist’s Toolbox“. God help me, even though you freely offered all of the contents within for free, I wanted you to like me and I shelled out $29 for a digital certificate upon successful completion of the course.

And what a wonderful experience its been so far! What joy! What new passion for life I now have since I met you! Thanks to your lectures, your “free” (pay what you can/want) books, and your open community of students and teaching assistants I have learned about R, git, mathematics and data manipulation. And this is just the beginning…

I’m almost done with the second course, “R Programming” and I can feel our bond strengthening. We’ve taken that next step of physical intimacy, where I’ve been able to get “hands-on” with your gentle, expert guidance. I hope you don’t mind my awkward groping and fumbling on the keyboard. But your patience with me has paid off as I just now finished creating a fairly complex matrix caching function and committed it to my github account. What a wonderful release that was!

We’ve still got so far to go, Dear Coursera. The more I have of you the more I want! Just a few days ago, I took another leap of faith and signed up for your free “Machine Learning” course, and what a stimulating cornucopia you offer of Linear Algebra, solution learning algorithms, and a new (to me) software package called GNU Octave. You never cease to amaze me.octave

Well, my love… that’s it for tonight. I need to get some sleep and thanks to you, Coursera, I truly will be dreaming of data tonight.

zoRk – using the swirl package to learn R

You discover early on that you need to learn R if you’re going to explore the realm of data science.

So how to learn? I started by downloading R and R Studio and installing them on my Windows laptop. I acquired a couple of books on R from Amazon – but found that I needed some more basic, hands-on introduction to R before I could really absorb what those books covered.

As I started taking the Coursera R Programming course, they recommended that I should simultaneously work through the R lessons offered in swirl – “a software package for the R programming language that turns the R console into an interactive learning environment.”

You basically learn R through R using R.

I installed it, loaded the library and with a simple


I was on my way. And I fell in love with this way of learning R.

It’s not the only way, for sure. I always love to learn from books and I will be back to my Amazon purchases shortly. The Coursera lectures are good and provide excellent theoretical background on how R works (I just finished the brain-stretching lectures on Scoping Rules).

But for just starting out with R, nothing beats the simplistic, no-frills, text-only, hands-on methodology of swirl.


swirl offers a number of different courses but I’m as green as green can be, so I’m working through “R Programming”.

swirl2The lessons are short (10 – 20 minutes each) and very logical in their progression of concepts. I come from an education background (a former Physics teacher) and I was as passionate about the pedagogy as I was about the science. Whoever authored “R Programming” remembers what it was like to start from the beginning. Everything is based on founding principles and builds upon concepts without belaboring points (as Khan Academy is apt to do on occasion).

Without moving videos, fancy graphics, voice-overs and more importantly, the emphasis of hands-on practice as you learn, swirl is a very distraction-free environment to learn R.

You know what it reminds me of? (You have to be a child of the 80’s to appreciate this.)


A Disciplined Regimen

Whendog_meat I get interested in something (creative writing, Japanese, web development, running) I tend to act like a dog in a meat shop. I see so many books, movies, training videos, clubs, newsletters, Facebook groups, Twitter accounts, etc., that I end up trying to consume everything at once and not accomplishing anything.

I’ve also fallen into the trap of “doing what you can in your free time” – so that the only logical conclusion is that free time eventually dwindles, activity in my interest comes to a stop and after the days turn into weeks turn into months – the interest is gone.

This time, it’s different.

This time, I’m working from a plan.

The plan is doing two things for me:

  1. Keeping focused on a specific list of things to accomplish daily and
  2. Making sure I’m not planning too much to do in a single day, forcing me to parse out items over a longer period.

Here’s a narrow snapshot of my current plan. I keep it on a Google Sheet so I have access to it from my home laptop, work computer, phone or tablet.

The plan evolves daily – but I always try to keep a least a week ahead in solidifying what I’m going to accomplish each day.

20150708 The Plan

Yeah – it’s OCD. But it’s also a reflection of how f*ing serious I am about this. And there is a certain thrill I get at the end of the night when I mark that last box GREEN for the day.

patienceI’ll go into more depth on some of the tracks that I’m following. For example, I just started with Swirl (Learn R, in R.) today. What an amazing program.

I’m in Week 4 of this endeavor, and I feel like I’ve made progress on all fronts. But I still feel like I’m covering a lot of basics still – and…

I want to get to the advanced stuff NOW.