•I'm interested in participating, is it still in operation? Many of the posts are quite old.
Yep! Still in business!
•Is this designed for the absolute beginner?
Yes. That said, the nitpickers will guide you to the right mindset -- but never give you the answer.
•I am hoping to find an active group working on something like this for the peer interaction. Will I find that with the Cattle Drive?
The Cattle Drive is one on one interaction. For each assignment you get paired with a nitpicker, you get told all the ways you're doing stuff wrong , then once things are the way we see fit, you get the solution.
•This page http://www.javaranch.com/java-college.jsp has students download JDK for SE7, I'm using JDK 1.8 is that OK?
You can use 1.8 if you'd like. The solutions are mostly Java 1.6, but the goal isn't to get you to the same solution. The goal is clean, readable code. Maybe I'll consider updating the solutions.
•The one thing I'm concerned about (yes I have a confidence issue) is not being able to actually complete an assignment. Should that happen, will I be able to get any help from the nitpicker or forum?
You can ask as many questions as you like. We've had folks of all levels and walks of life in the Cattle Drive.
Both of the below come from: About The Cattle Drive
If you have a question about an assignment, do NOT send an e-mail! Instead POST a message in the JavaRanch Big Moose Saloon forum called "Cattle Drive (java college)".
This approach is a lot like object oriented programming. The focus is on the assignments, and the methods are attached.
What does that mean?
The below comes from: Java Programming Style Guide
There's a link on that page: JavaRanch Project Standards
What is that? How or does it apply to the Cattle Drive?
I'm ready to join as soon as I'm sure I understand what I'm committing to. This is not a trivial sum of cash, I must be sure. I hope you understand.
Yep. Right here.
>•The way I read this, I do not get one on one assistance from this "nitpicker", I rely on peers in the forum?
We try to encourage you to ask questions of others in the forum. That said, you can always ask your nitpicker for additional pointers.
When posting to the forum, we ask that you don't share code/solutions so as to not spoil it for others.
>•I'm not allowed to post code from my attempts regarding these assignments in the forum?
Correct. People want to be able to come to the solutions on their own. No spoilers!
>•Please understand, I do see the value in the nitpicker, my fear is I can't do this without direct assistance. I'm concerned if I'm not allowed to post code and show exactly what I'm trying to do in the forum, or interact with an individual via email, I will fail. Am I understanding correctly how this works?
Let's go for an example.
The first task is to write a program that takes input from the command line and output it 100 times. The nitpicker will not tell you how to go about doing that, syntax-wise. You will go google/read/study, then write a solution which does what's asked, or comes close. The nitpicker will guide you with hints so you can make your program better. You go back and forth until there's nothing left to shine up. Once it passes muster, you get the solution and move on to the next assignment.
If you have questions about Java syntax, you can ask here or in Beginning Java forum. Most of your questions will be able to be answered with a simple google query, like "how do I get command line input in java" or the like.
The self-directed learning style really worked for me, and I think that after completing the drive, I have a much better understanding of the value of clearly written code. The Cattle Drive encourages good coding practices, helps one develop a deeper understanding of the why of things, and it can be a whole lotta fun, too! (In a very masochistic sense of the word fun.)
I hope that helps you!
In addition you might consider head first java, or a newer beginning java book.