Review EdX UT601 Embedded Systems

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5 min, 846 words

I recently completed my first EdX course Embedded Systems Shape the World and wanted to share a little bit about the experience.

For a while now I've been exploring various venues for continuing education. The longer I'm in my field the more I learn and then that leads to me realizing how much more I want to learn in new areas. That said I've never been great at taking courses that are not self paced partially because week to week my schedule can change dramatically between work and family. Because of this over time I've tried out multiple platforms of learning such as Pluralsight, Khan Academy, formal online masters programs etc. All of them have their pros and cons ranging of cost to quality to engaging content.

Last year I started learning more about SoC type hardware via Circuit Playground. This has lead me on an adventure to learn more and more about embedded systems, C and hardware. Most of this has been stitched together from various sources and ad hoc as the need arose in a personal project. Towards the end of summer I decided I wanted to formalize this learning and started to look around. There are online programs from universities like TESU, and individuals offering classes, but I stumbled across the UT 601 class on EdX and realized the setup would be a good fit for me. Additionally EdX offers verified courses with certificates which I thought might be nice in the future.

Signing up and getting verified with EdX was easy. I was able to use my laptop and phone to complete all the task in under 30 minutes. The layout of EdX is very similar to other online learning platforms that I've used.

UT 601

Once I started UT 601 I started to run into a few more barriers. The course requires the purchase of a Texas Instruments kit for use throughout, which makes sense this is an embedded systems course. What I wasn't expecting was the use of Keil. To complete the course I needed to be able to install Keil 4.2, and a simulator DLL (which was pretty neat) on a Windows platform. A couple annoyances there. This is an online course with the goal of global education opportunities, but immediately I'm locked into a platform, and additionally Arm places Keil behind a personal information collection form. I was happy that Microsoft provides a Windows 10 ISO that I could use within a VM to work on the course. After downloading that though I found that VirtualBox didn't pass through the board USB connection so that I could make use of the Stellaris Debugging software/firmware that I would need. After some time fiddling with it I ended up switching to VMWare, and after switching the USB connection to pass through as 2.0 was able to get everything packaged up into a Windows VM with Keil, the Stellaris software, the simulator DLL and the appropriate Keil registry edits. In case it would ever help anybody my VMWare config file is here.

After spending a couple days getting the IDE, hardware and VM all setup and playing well together I dove into the course. Overall I enjoyed it. It exposed me to PIN programming and doing a lot of GPIO work that I haven't done in the past. Additionally it was a good refresh on concepts at the beginning like pipelining. One thing I did notice is there was a big jump from lab 5 to 6. We went from editing template projects to writing most of the project from the ground. Each section provded a different amount of direction (not gradually declining, but instead seemingly random) on how to complete the lab. New concepts were quickly introduced and some lacking explination such as using the Keil Oscilliscope and Analyzer. Overall it was a good course, but I would suggest dedicating a couple weeks and doing it all at once due to how much it ramps up half way through. The accompanying book is made available in each section and I highly recommend reading it as the videos act more as highlights than covering the material at a level that prepares you for the labs.

The one thing that was a minor annoyance throughout was the reliance on Keil (IDE's have a place but often hide what the compiler and tools are doing creating a gap in knowing how stuff works) and the problems experienced by taking this course in a VM. Other than that the course was interesting and challenging.

Wrapping up

Overall I'm glad I took and completed UT601. I learned a fair amount, and look forward to taking part 2 after the the new year. EdX is a platform I see myself continuing to use as it's been super simple, has a range of interesting content, and the course facilitators are really responsive.