Fast.ai vs Deeplearning.ai: which deep learning courses should you take?

As deep learning has become more popular, two courses stood out to me as having really useful teaching styles and reputable staff behind them: Fast.ai and Deeplearning.ai. As someone who has a theoretical background in deep learning and picked up Tensorflow on an as needed for a project basis, I was really interested in learning how to build complex deep learning architectures from scratch, and I’m always found I can sharpen my skills by hearing different experts describe known concepts.

Along with my goals of sharpening skills, I have been working alongside folks at the Recurse Center who are learning deep learning from scratch, and am using some of their feedback for evaluating the courses from that basis as well.

So, I delved into both courses and will share here what I found.

Theory

Theory in Fast.ai

The way Fast.ai handles theory is through visual examples and take home readings. I do not think this would be sufficient for a strong grasp of theory unless you can form a great study group to go over the readings and concepts. Both courses do have forums though, which could help with this.

Theory in Deep Learning.ai

The theory teaching in deeplearning.ai is really strong, with optional videos to watch that are of use if you have a calculus background to go into detail.

Winner: Deeplearning.ai

Applications

Applications in Fast.ai

I think it helps a lot that Jeremy Howard, a fast.ai professor, started a deep learning startup after seeing early on that modifying an out of the box ImageNet model could provide better results on classifying some medical imagery than top physicians. The hacker mentality is strong here as shown by show by having you able to submit to a Kaggle contest for what was at the release of the course a placement in the top 50% of the leaderboard, after lesson 1, and I’ve already reused several code snippets I’ve developed while going through the Fast.ai course, in projects.

Applications in Deeplearning.ai

While I could see myself using some code snippets from Deeplearning.ai (provided I downloaded them), I have not been able to easily translate the Deeplearning.ai code I’ve written into projects I’m working on. Deeplearning.ai also spends a lot more time teaching theory, especially early, and has yet to release their computer vision and sequence model components, so this will probably change soon.

Winner: Fast.ai since I am using code I’ve written there in projects already, whereas Deeplearning.ai code is mainly about learning the theory until their more application driven courses are released.

Portability

Portability of Fast.ai

Assuming you have access to a machine with GPU, this code is super portable, as you will be developing it all locally or on your own cloud box, and you will be developing modular solutions for real deep learning problems that you will continue to build on through out the course, within jupyter notebooks.

Portability of Deeplearning.ai

Deeplearning.ai really pales in comparison to Fast.ai here, for several reasons:

  1. They wiped my homework notebook clean without prior notice when I stopped paying the monthly fee.
  2. Since all your work is in their cloud, you need to explicitly download each Jupyter notebook of your homework before it is wiped.
  3. I don’t find the code that applicable/extendable to the projects I’ve been doing in industry/academia.

Winner: Fast.ai hands down is here with reusable, extendable code provided you have a machine to run it on to begin with.

Accessibility

Accessibility of Fast.ai

I would say Fast.ai is super accessible as far as teaching style and language choice (Keras and now Pytorch which they will use in the future, are a lot more accessible than Tensorflow), so as long as you can afford to rent an AWS GPU box and figure out how to run their environment installation script on it or have a deep learning rig already (I do), it is a very accessible introduction.

Accessibility of Deeplearning.ai

One way Deeplearning.ai makes itself super accessible is by hosting cloud Jupyter notebooks for you to do all your work in. This made the class pretty frictionless to start on, and is why I started it first.

By pretty frictionless, I do imply there is still friction, which is true. One of the big turnoffs of mine towards this class is that they ghost auditing it. By ghost I mean that when I and several other of my peers first tried to take this class, they did not show auditing as an option, but when we came back to the site through a search engine, the auditing option appeared on the site. I believe this will inhibit many people who want to take the class, but can’t afford the $50 a month cost, from taking it.

Also, at this point I am not convinced learning Tensorflow is the best way to learn deep learning, the syntax is highly nuanced and takes time to grasp that one could be spending learning more about the concepts.

Winner: Fast.ai if you can access a GPU machine, Deeplearning.ai if you cannot.

Conclusion

I ultimately think this is a trick question, even though Fast.ai did win on the arbitrary evaluation scale I chose to evaluate the courses and I’ve spoken to several people who regret not starting with Fast.ai. I think some combination of both courses, fast.ai for applications and deeplearning.ai for theory, is the optimal use case.