First week of Coursera's Cryptography course

I’m enrolled in Coursera’s Cryptography course, taught by Professor Dan Boneh using ostensibly the exact same syllabus and course material that he teaches at Stanford. It started just under a week ago, and I submitted my answers to the first week’s problem set earlier this evening.

Taking an undergraduate level course online, in a subject where I have a passing knowledge of the terminology and some idea of the practical aspects of applying cryptography to computer systems, was always going to be challenging, especially for someone who hasn’t been in the education system for over a decade. I did reasonably well on the problem set and know how to solve the extra programming problem, so it’s a pretty good start, but I could have done a fair bit better.

My motivation for taking the course comes from multiple places. I want to see what self-directed online learning is like today, given the recent explosion of online learning initiatives like Coursera, Khan Academy and Udacity. I’m also working on a computer system where I need to add multiple levels of cryptographic security, and I really wanted to understand and get a very solid grounding in the theory behind the practical aspects of securing such a system.

My biggest downside so far isn’t understanding the ideas behind the material, but following, learning and understanding the mathematical notation used in discrete probability. I really should have gone over the lecture material in a couple of places more than once, and read the recommended wikibook, before attempting the problem set in its entirety. Pushed by the idea that I’m running out of time for this week, and knowing I haven’t even started the other course I’m enrolled in at the same time, meant I rushed a bit.

If I have any advice to someone in my position, where you haven’t studied for quite a long time and you’re looking at something that’s more theory than practice with a heavy mathematics background, it’s to get to grips with how the ideas presented will be written down notationally.

There’s a pretty big disconnect in a couple of places between what was taught in the lectures and what I was asked to answer in the problem set, notationally, and trying to derive things didn’t quite work out.

On top of knowing how to read mathematically, my other biggest failing this week has been time. I haven’t set enough time aside in my spare time to sit down and do it properly. I’ve taken the lectures, taken minimal notes thinking I was OK because I understood most of the theory, and moved on too quickly. I spent no time with my classmates in the forums either.

Being able to take assessed courses like this in your spare time, at roughly your own pace and from the comfort of your own environment, is clearly the future of education, and I can see myself augmenting my skills and knowledge like this for a long time to come.

I heartily recommend everyone find a course they’re interested in and give it a try. In the big three initiatives, everything’s currently free and you can look at the course material — including videoed lectures! — ahead of time to get a good taster.