Interview conducted by and translated from original Chinese by Coursera team member, Eli Bildner.
Guokr.com’s “Ten-thousand Youth Conference” bore all the hallmarks of a rock concert: hundreds of effervescent twenty-somethings, a flashy A/V setup, migrating packs of autograph-seekers. But at this gathering, the “rock stars” signing autographs were, in fact, tenured professors from greater China’s top universities, and the animated audience was comprised of MOOC fans from across the country.
I met a number of remarkable people during the Guokr conference (as a Coursera translation partner, Guokr has translated an impressive array of courses into Chinese). I met Professor Benson Yeh, of National Taiwan University, whose course on probability featured the first MOOC-based multiplayer gaming platform. I met Zi Lingzi, at 14 years old the youngest member of Guokr’s MOOC Academy. And then there was Wang Zhen. When the emcee called him up to the stage, the audience erupted in applause. I’d never heard of him, which clearly signified by remove from the China MOOC loop; Wang Zhen had already achieved local renown as a MOOC superstar, having earned 40 credentials (over 30 of them from Coursera).
Earlier this month, we had a chance to connect with Wang Zhen via email.
Coursera: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Wang Zhen: My name is Wang Zhen. I was born in Nanyang, in Hubei Province, in 1984. In 2002, I entered Beihang University, in Beijing, to study applied physics, and in 2009 received my master’s in computational physics from Beihang as well. Now, I live in Beijing’s Haidian District, where I work on computational modeling for a manufacturing business.
Coursera: What originally inspired you to start taking MOOCs? What was the first course you completed?
Wang Zhen: Ever since I was small I’ve always been a very curious person, but even having spent so many years in school I’d never found a relaxed, self-directed learning environment. If MOOCs hadn’t appeared, it’s possible that my curiosity would have remained buried forever. Fortunately, in 2011 I found Stanford’s three online open courses: Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Databases. Conveniently, at that time I was pretty free, and thus my MOOC studies began. And from then on I’ve fallen in love with MOOCs and their free atmosphere.
The first course I completed was Sebastian Thrun’s Artificial Intelligence course. Or, it could have been Andrew Ng’s Machine Learning class; that depends on which course, in 2011, first released its certificates!
Coursera: In total, how many MOOCs have you completed to date?
Wang Zhen: To date, I’ve completed 33 Coursera courses, including one Princeton course that didn’t give statements of accomplishment. I’ve also completed some Udacity courses and EdX courses, and one Google course on Gamification.
3 Courses Wang Zhen has taken that you should consider taking too:
Hetero Parallel Programming:
Coursera: What are some of the things you’ve learned through your MOOC studies?
Wang Zhen: What’s most excited me has been artificial intelligence and machine learning. We live in the era of big data, and every year — every month — we see smarter products emerging. Through taking MOOCs, I’ve gone from being a machine learning and artificial intelligence “outsider,” to a hobbyist who’s able to fluently comprehend the literature, and who could, one day, make it a profession.
Coursera: In what ways — if any — have MOOCs changed your life?
Wang Zhen: MOOCs have definitely changed my life. First, MOOCs have pretty much taken over my non-work life. Through MOOCs, I’ve also met a ton of students who are as passionate about MOOCs as I am. Third, for the first time in my life I’ve attracted attention from the media!
MOOCs have also changed the way that I think in a personal sense. Today, I think of MOOCs mostly as a way of organizing knowledge. Even though there are so many disciplines out there, there are also many fundamental principles that are similar. I love that feeling of understanding a subject by learning about all that surrounds it. Of course, I also hope that my studies can help my personal development, and can help my career.
Coursera: What’s been most challenging about pursuing this course of study?
Wang Zhen: Honestly, regardless of whether I’m just auditing a class or doing the assignments, I’ve never thought that completing a class is a particularly hard thing to do. It’s certainly a bit hard cramming it all in, but since I’m pretty far from retirement, spending time like this is what I should be doing. Either way, I feel more pressure from my family. For example, my father will tell me: “Don’t spend so much time studying all those crazy things. Put your time into something that will make you money.” This kind of talk gives me a ton of pressure. So I still need to find a balance.
Of course, there are plenty of times when class is hard — but it’s interesting too! For example, an assignment in “Probabilistic Graphical Models” (Stanford) took up two days of free time. Cracking RSA passwords in “Cryptography” (Stanford) kept me up to 2am. A large-scale NP problem in “Discrete Optimization” (University of Melbourne) took up 20 hours, and I still didn’t figure it out. But I don’t experience this as pain. Rather, solving these kinds of problems gives me a tremendous sense of accomplishment and happiness.
Coursera: What role do you think MOOCs can play specifically in China?
Wang Zhen: To many Chinese, the appearance of MOOCs has significant meaning. We all know that China is a country with educational inequity. Tons of people, for many reasons, aren’t able to benefit from great teaching. MOOCs can fill this gap, can let knowledge flow irrespective of barriers like location or environment. My hope is that through MOOCs, no person’s unique talents will be stifled for reasons like these.
Of course, for many reasons, if MOOCs want to play a role in China, they still have a long way to go. Both from the general atmosphere, and from government, MOOCs will face challenges. But the desire of young people to learn is something that can’t be overlooked.
Coursera: Is there any advice you can give to fellow Courserians who are still working on completing their first course?
Wang Zhen: Here are a few tips:
- Seek happiness. Can you gain happiness from taking a class? If you can, I think you’re going down the right path. Otherwise, try another class or do something else that makes you happy.
- Do your homework early. Deadlines are set; your free time isn’t. If you wait for the last minute, there’s a good chance you’ll miss the deadline.
- Cherish the forums. Through the forums, you can find basically all the materials you need for studying. Using the forums is also a great route for solving hard problems. For nearly all of the hardest problems I’ve solved, I’ve gotten inspiration in the forums.
Find a study partner. This should help you finish your homework, and keep up your progress.
Coursera: Is there anything else you’d like to share with the Coursera community?
Wang Zhen: I’ve got less and less hair. Is there a correlation between taking MOOCs and going bald?2