Tag: Online learning

Learning Autonomy with Self-Driving Cars: Duckietown goes MOOC.

Figure  1 Tani (left) and Censi (right) in the Duckietown Lab
(Picture: ETH, Alessandro della Bella)

Jacopo Tani and Andrea Censi are senior assistants in the research group headed by Emilio Frazzoli (D-MAVT), an internationally renowned specialist in autonomous systems. Together with Prof. Liam Paull of the University of Montreal, they lead the Duckietown project, which was conceived at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2015. The goal was to build a platform that was small-scale and cute yet still preserved the real scientific challenges inherent in a full-scale real autonomous robot platform.  Duckietown is now a worldwide initiative to realize a new vision for AI/robotics education. It teaches participants to programme autonomous vehicles to navigate a structured environment using rubber ducks as the passengers of the vehicles, and has now been used by over 80 universities in 23 countries worldwide. Their next endeavor is to create a series of massive open online courses (MOOCs) focused on the science and technology of autonomy through the lens of self-driving cars. In this multi-institution project, ETH will take leadership and develop the first course of the MOOC-series.

What will the MOOC be about and what do you seek to achieve for participants?

The Duckietown MOOC series will be about autonomy, or how to make machines take their own decisions to accomplish broadly defined tasks. This topic is both intellectually fascinating and very timely given the rapid progress of robotics and AI technologies in our daily lives. Autonomy will be studied through self-driving cars, an application with disruptive social potential.

Participants will engage in a sequence of software and hardware hands-on learning experiences whose particular focus is on overcoming the challenges of deploying robots in the real world. Our hope is that participants will gain useful skills and come to appreciate and understand the challenges of this technology, while at the same time having lots of fun!

What motivated you personally to make a MOOC?

The Duckietown project was developed to make the science and technology of autonomy accessible to the broadest possible audience, not only to those learners lucky enough to have access to premiere educational institutions where these topics are addressed. Building a Duckietown MOOC experience was a logical step towards achieving the mission of the project. We are grateful for ETH-Innovedum supporting our efforts and extremely excited to bring our vision for learning autonomy to the world.   

What are the unique didactic challenges?

Teaching autonomy requires a fundamentally different approach compared to many computer science and engineering disciplines. There is extensive and diverse preliminary knowledge needed to really comprehend autonomy from the “pure” mathematics and physics to “modern” machine learning based approaches. Moreover, robots are real world machines, and theory and practice do not always play well together. To see the theory work in the real world it is necessary to translate the knowledge in software architectures, and deploy them on hardware platforms. Finally, there is a proliferation of hardware platforms and software tools out there, each with its own peculiarities, strengths and shortcomings. It is not always clear what tools are worth investing time in mastering, and how this competence will translate to different platforms.   

 How will you overcome these challenges?

To address these barriers of entry to learning autonomy, the MOOC “Self-Driving Cars with Duckietown” will have several distinguishing features, namely:

  • Competency-based topic progression
    The sequence of topics in the courses is determined by asking the question: “what is the most we can make our robot do, with the least amount of prior knowledge?” instead of “what is the best order to explain things?”. As learners progress through behaviors of increasing complexity to reach the final objective, it becomes naturally necessary to introduce new concepts and tools to address limitations to previous behaviors. This approach allows students to jump right in “the middle of things” (getting Duckiebots to do things!) and gradually re-iterate concepts through the various technical frameworks and implementation solutions that are so very important to align the theory with the practice, leading to a stronger comprehension of the how and why things happen.
  • Hardware-based hands-on learning on a standardized platform (the Duckiebot) with open-source industry-widespread software tools
    This is a robotics and AI MOOC where every participant will have the opportunity to follow along by doing real world experiments with their own robot at home. The Duckietown framework was designed, from the software stack (i.e., Python, ROS, Docker) to the Duckiebot and Duckietown city, to make the course accessible for all learners, both pedagogically and economically.
  • Remote evaluations of hardware assignments
    The last, but not least, distinguishing factor of this MOOC is the use of remote facilities (the Duckietown Autolabs) where reproducible performance assessment of hardware assignments is conducted in controlled environments. This feature enables remote grading of hardware assignment, which, to the best of our knowledge, is a first ever for a robotics MOOC.

Like to know more about Autonomy with Self-Driving Cars? Course starts at January 15, 2021 and will be published on the edX-platform.

Inspired to start your own MOOC project? Please have a look at our website and contact Marinka Valkering to discuss possibilities!

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Being more human online together

Many useful lists provide technical recommendations for optimising virtual meetings (here is one from the IT Services Team at ETH Zurich. In this short post, though, I will go one step further. In video conferencing we are, quite literally, “hosts”. This makes us responsible for managing the behaviour of others, especially if it is disruptive. In this context it is important to communicate our expectations clearly. This requires us to consider our own requirements and the needs and circumstances of those participating in our virtual sessions, and to find a balance between them.

Teaching involves relationships, firstly between lecturers and students, but also among students themselves. Therefore, effective facilitation addresses the needs inherent in human relationships and how we can respect these in the virtual environment.

Let’s look at some key aspects to be considered:

Eye contact

Eye contact conveys attention and interest. (Keep in mind here that some cultures prefer to avoid direct eye contact.) If you wish to transmit a sense of eye contact, you can do this by looking directly into the camera and not at the face of the person you are talking to, even if this means that you yourself lose eye-contact. One tip is to minimize the facial images and move them to the top of your screen, near your camera. Your gaze is then close to the camera, but focused on faces.

Names

Many video conferencing tools allow participants to change the name displayed alongside their image. Consider asking students to adjust this to their preferred name. “SmiJo” is a lot less personal than “John Smith” or even just “Johnny”.

Rapport

To build rapport, take the time to make people feel acknowledged and welcome at the beginning of a virtual session. Create space for “warming up” with smalltalk before launching into the reason for the session. Depending on the size of the group you may wish to greet individuals by name when they appear, even if they are late. If the group is large, you can still acknowledge latecomers en masse. Trusting that their reasons for being late are legitimate will help to create an atmosphere which is conducive to learning.

Sound

Think about how you want participants to manage sound. Is it important to minimise background noise? The more participants there are, the more distracting background noise can be. However, in smaller informal settings, ambient noise can help people feel connected – an important consideration the longer we are in physical isolation. Agree on how the mute button should be used.

Video

A common belief is that all participants should switch on their cameras when joining a Zoom meeting. However, this may be difficult for various reasons: attendees may not have a camera; there may be other people around; or their bandwidths may not be able to cope with video. Some people are also profoundly uncomfortable with displaying themselves on camera for long periods.

Lecturers should therefore consider why they want students to turn their cameras on. Then they should articulate their expectations, and consider equally acceptable alternatives. Do cameras really need to be switched on? If so, is that for the whole meeting? For example, if the meeting is long, but not particularly interactive, the lecturer might ask the students to turn their cameras on at the beginning to “establish contact”, but say that it’s OK to switch them off later. This might be especially relevant if everyone is viewing slides, for example. Using “hide self view” can also minimise the cognitive fatigue we are all experiencing due to the increased frequency of online meetings and length of time spend in video conferences.

Remember that not everyone thinks about how they appear on screen: it may be useful to give people feedback and guidance in this area. Their lighting may make their images too dark to see, or if the video is flickering it can be hard on the eye after a time.

Background

The background displayed on the screen can be both informative and distracting. Students may choose virtual backgrounds to obscure a messy room or one that reveals things they prefer to keep private (such as family photos or an extensive wine collection). If their choice of background is too distracting you should let them know. Conversely, you can use the virtual background function as a way to connect. Ask people to share a photo of a place meaningful to them, or an image that provides comic relief!

Movement

As the host, when you view a gallery of many faces your eye will naturally be drawn to movement. If people join via mobile phone or tablet, they are likely to be more mobile and may move around in their spaces. This is sometimes unavoidable, but it can be very distracting. Make participants aware of this and ask them to deactivate their screens if they change positions or if they are moving around a lot.

Chat

Think about the best way to use the chat function. Will you be monitoring it actively, or not at all? Would you like people to use the chat to announce their departure from the session? Most video conferencing tools offer multiple ways to communicate. Tell your students how you want them to use them.

The intention of this post was to encourage you to think broadly about how you run a virtual meeting or lecture as well as how you manage your own on-screen behaviour. Our available technology provides us with so many options, but these sometimes generate divergent behaviour. Here establishing fair expectations will go a long way towards facilitating a successful virtual event.

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