Review: CS107: C++ Programming — Saylor Foundation

There are a few MOOCs I’m interested in taking that are taught using C++. I’m not overly familiar with this language, which was motivation enough for me to go through the third course in Saylor’s Computer Science curriculum, CS107: C++ Programming. That course promises a thorough introduction to C++ programming. It is not a course for beginners, though. You are expected to have a basic familiarity with programming, including object-orientation.

CS107 has been my third course on Saylor, and so far this is the course that best illustrates the viability of their approach to teaching. Yes, all the material they use is freely available elsewhere. However, by curating content and offering a syllabus, Saylor provides a helpful structure for self-learners. This makes it easy to follow along, and greatly increases the value of the original sources. For instance, Google’s C++ class is too dense and fast-paced for anyone who isn’t an experienced programmer already, and Keith Schwartz’s Stanford hand-outs might not be overly useful without the accompanying lectures, which are missing. An older version of Stanford’s CS106B is available online, though. Further, the tutorial on provides very little hand-holding, with very few examples and no exercises at all. Saylor solves all those problems by combining those and other resources.

I would recommend that you get a book to complement the material. While I do think that CS107 is a perfectly adequate university-level course, it can be quite convenient to be able to quickly look-up topics in just one place, instead of having to go through various links and sites. There are a few free sources available. I’ve used Allen B. Downey’s How To Think Like a Computer Scientist: C++ Version. It has served me well as a concise reference, even though it won’t help you much in the second half of the course, which explores more advanced topics such as templates, preprocessor directives or manual memory management. Speaking of supplementary books, Eric Roberts offers a draft of Data Abstractions in C++ free of charge. It is quite verbose, but the book looked good to me. You might appreciate the many exercises it offers.

The final exam was quite satisfying, apart from some minor issues. The majority of questions were of a practical nature, which I find laudable. The most common question type was based on tracing the execution of a program and choosing the correct output from a number of alternatives. Other questions covered language details which, for the most part, were perfectly reasonable. I found just two of the 50 questions hard to justify. One asked to evaluate a statement of the form “x = (y = 10, y + 1)”. This is syntactically legal, and does evaluate to an integer, provided both x and y have previously been declared. However, I couldn’t think of a case where you would want to write code like that. Some other question presented you with a program that reads in a file consisting of a short sequence of characters as binary, and print the content character by character as hexadecimal values. I would have been fine with a short program or a question that tests whether you can manually convert from one number system to another, but seeing instructions that say, “(Hint: you should compile the code to figure it out.)” caught me off guard, and not just because I was doing this exam on a computer on which I didn’t have any software development tools installed.

What I disliked, though, was that all code fragments were presented as unformatted code. It is quite startling how difficult it can be to read code that wasn’t properly indented. Saylor should fix this issue, and it should be a relatively easy fix too. Despite the few minor flaws, though, I think that CS107 is a solid course. It won’t turn you into a master C++ programmer, but afterwards you should know enough C++ to go through more advanced CS courses that are taught in this language.

[EDIT: On 17 June I received an email from Tanner Huggins, Content Development Associate at Saylor Foundation. He let me know that they’ve fixed the formatting issues with the exam I had pointed out.]

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