Tuesday, July 2, 2013

MOOCs vs. "real" courses

Having completed my first MOOC, I would like to reflect upon the differences between my MOOC experience and the Computer Science courses I teach at Hendrix College.

The greatest strength of the MOOC is asynchrony.  You can watch the lecture where you want, when you want, and even get instant feedback on your work.  There is no limit on class size or enrollment.  There is no need for a time turner to enroll in multiple courses that are scheduled on top of each other.

So what do my synchronous, class-time-intensive courses have to offer in comparison?  The most important thing is pedagogy for topics that cannot be interactively taught by a computer program.  Whether it is a class discussion on the finer points of a proof in an Algorithms course or an analysis of a requirements document in a Software Engineering course, the fact is that much of the material in the computing discipline is not amenable to the MOOC treatment.

Furthermore, much of the feedback a student requires for individual work is also not readily communicable in the MOOC manner, which relies upon being able to program a computer to give the proper feedback.  In other words, as long as artifacts of Artificial Intelligence cannot pass the Turing Test, there are core elements of computing that will require a human teacher.  Here are a few examples:

  • Writing proofs of correctness and asymptotic complexity
  • Writing requirements documents and specifications
  • Writing properly structured, well-engineered code
  • Developing solutions to free-form projects
In all of these cases, we have vaguely defined problems that admit a multitude of solutions.  As the problems are vague, so too is the problem of assessing the solutions.  In fact, this assessment is best seen as an interactive process, not a one-time decision.  A good instructor can examine a code submission, give the student feedback, and later review the resubmitted version.  The cycle can continue until the code is satisfactory.

It is indeed noteworthy that most of the items in the above list begin with the word "writing".  It is the development of the ability to communicate a technical solution to another human being with a need that can be met computationally that distinguishes the successful computer scientist.  To develop this ability requires a human coach.  That is how I see myself as a college instructor.  I structure every single one of my courses around the goal of helping my students develop this capacity.  This affects everything from my use of class time to the types of assignments I create and the type of feedback I give when grading.  

So having made these observations, what might the role of MOOCs be in a liberal arts college?  Computing programs at small colleges are often limited in the electives they are able to offer.  It is easy to imagine running an independent-study course in which the student works through a MOOC under the supervision of the instructor.  By augmenting the MOOC with some open-ended project assignments, something closer to a real course experience can be developed.  

But there are some important caveats to note.  First, a MOOC does not necessarily cover content equivalent to a full course. In some situations, creating a proper experience might require more than one MOOC, or perhaps a MOOC in combination with a substantial amount of extra material.  Second, this is not a basis for planning a curriculum, any more than independent study courses would already be employed in such a manner.  To their credit, Udacity has made their courses available under a Creative Commons license. In principle, a useful MOOC could be archived by an institution, in case for whatever reason Udacity in the future does not maintain its availability.  Nevertheless, there is much reason to be wary of MOOCs as being an ephemeral resource.

Much early commentary on MOOCs focused on the possibility of the elimination of the university as we know it.  Thrun himself suggested that in 50 years, there might be as few as 10 institutions delivering higher education.  This particular bit of hysteria is calming down, as reality sets in.  Creating a MOOC has cost the University of Pennsylvania about $50,000 per course.  From my own experience, it is clear that this is not a static investment.  Even a top-flight MOOC is subject to plenty of bugs and problems, and I suspect revisions and updates will be a significant long-term cost.

In any event, it is noteworthy that Thrun himself has walked away from his earlier rhetoric, emphasizing that "...human contact and mentoring make a substantial difference in learning outcomes."  Contact with the right humans is what makes higher education expensive.  It is reasonable to expect cost savings to be modest at best.

I believe this first generation of the MOOC phenomenon has been very valuable.  Many of the MOOCs (especially from Udacity) are terrific resources for learning.  But much of the value comes from forcing those of us in brick-and-mortar institutions to clarify, both for ourselves and for our students, what precise value we add with our (expensive) human presence.  I hope this little essay has made at least a modest contribution in this direction.