Friday, August 16, 2013

Buffet-style schooling

I have tasted the Smörgåsbord of online learning, and it's time to reflect.
When eating out, buffets can be both exciting and perilous. Buffets allow you to taste a little of this, and a little of that -- sample anything that looks interesting, and avoid the things that look unappetizing. On the other hand, it's easy to get carried away, and load up your cafeteria tray a little too full (hence why many colleges have moved to tray-less cafeterias, since juggling plates is apparently an effective antidote to this problem!).
So now I am staring at a number of partially eaten MOOCs on my plate, and although I may not have given the whole experience adequate time to digest, I'm going to offer some observations on the various MOOC courses and platforms I've crossed paths with.

1) Coursera. My first experience with MOOCs was through Coursera, and as I mentioned in my previous post I completed two Coursera courses in 2012: one in computer science, the other in business. Last year I also started (but dropped) a third course on Cryptography. More recently, I got enticed into Coursera's course on Data Science, and completed a little over half of the course before other pressing events in my (real-world) life caused me to fall behind. Coursera courses start and end on a specific date, and have regular due dates for each assignment/quiz, and once I fell behind, I lacked the time and motivation to catch back up. After the course had ended, I was surprised to discover that I had earned a 70% in the course (good enough for a certificate), despite not completing the peer-reviewed exercise or the second graded quiz.

This course was innovative in that it provided an (optional) “real-world assignment” which matched up students with non-profit organizations to analyze real datasets and hopefully provide benefit to the organizations who provided the data. At Centre College, we regularly do something similar in our Software Engineering and Database courses, getting students to work on projects for real clients who can actually benefit from software solutions. While I didn't end up participating in this Coursera assignment myself, the idea of pulling off this kind of student-client match-up on a grand scale is intriguing. It's these kind of creative assignments that help MOOCs move past the working-in-isolation lecture-watching quiz-taking format. Of course, fair assessment and grading of such assignments is going to be a problem for MOOCs, but sometimes I think that grades are overrated, and the experience of building/analyzing something real is worth more to the student's education than a letter grade. Furthermore, a well-done project could be added to a student's portfolio and shown to potential employers.

I also enrolled in a Coursera course called “Startup Engineering”, which I have dabbled with a bit – mainly just to see what content/skills are covered in this course.

Finally, I'm pre-enrolled in a Coursera course called “Video Games and Learning”, coming from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. It's quite dubious that I'll have time to really take this course, but to return to the central metaphor for this blog post: I keep seeing more dishes that look interesting, so I scoop them up and put them on my plate. (Even if my plate is already full.)

2) Udacity. I have continued working my way through the “Artificial Intelligence for Robotics” course here, in fits and starts, and the little blue progress part shown on the “My courses” page at Udacity suggests that I am about 2/3 of the way through. My “self-pacing” in this course has been decidedly unspectacular, with sporadic MOOC binging, followed by long gaps. Perhaps because some of the material is familiar, I don't find it riveting enough to stay “hooked”. Perhaps it's just my natural proclivity toward perpetual procrastination, and getting caught up in my own summer research projects. In any case, it raises continued concerns that the self-pacing model will not work well for some (many?) students.

Several months ago, I also signed up for another self-paced Udacity course called “Differential Equations in Action”, but have yet to complete the first lesson. It's kind of like purchasing a (free) book that I think I'd like to read some day, but for now it's just sitting on my bookshelf.

3) Open2Study. This is an Australian MOOC platform, which is currently offering around 30 free courses (but is also affiliated with Open Universities Australia (OUA), which offers accredited online degree programs). I enrolled in a business course called “Big Data for Better Performance”, but then forgot about it. Unlike Coursera, which spews weekly emails into my inbox to remind me about upcoming deadlines, course announcements, and syllabus changes, Open2Study didn't nag me with reminders. In fact, I signed up for it before it started, and then I forgot about it until after the course was already finished, and I had (essentially) “flunked” it. Though I daresay the term “flunked” doesn't really apply to MOOCs... I didn't get a failing grade, because I got no grade at all. The site simply informs me that “no certificate was earned” for that course. Even though the course has officially ended, it seems that I can still go back and watch the lectures and take the quizzes – it just doesn't “count” for anything. Then again, did it really “count” for anything to begin with?

Just today I signed up for another course on Video Game Development at Open2Study. The smörgåsbord strikes again.

I must say that some aspects of this system feel a bit childish... see screenshot below. A bit surprising given Open2Study's affiliation with Open Universities Australia. This message feels more “elementary-school” than “collegiate” – but gamification runs rampant these days... and it might really work.



4) Udemy. Udemy has a distinctly different feel from the other MOOC providers. If Coursera, Udacity, and EdX are all sit-down restaurants with chefs trained at established culinary schools, then Udemy is a open-market bazaar (without health inspectors or restaurant critics, but with plenty of customer reviews to help you find the more reputable vendors and tastier food trucks). That is, the courses at Udemy can be taught by anyone – not just professors at elite institutions. In fact, if you wanted to create your own course (about just about anything – say “Viennese Waltz”, or “How to clean berry stains off of anything”), you could make that course and offer it on Udemy. (Think Youtube, but for education?) Another key difference is that Udemy *does* charge for many of it's courses, although many are also free. Or rather, the individuals who create the courses may charge for the courses, and Udemy takes a cut of the profits.

I signed up for a free course on HTML5 at Udemy. It started off too elementary for me, since I am already familiar with HTML, and just wanted to brush up on the latest developments in web design, layout, and scripting. I may skip to the later chapters, or I may ditch it entirely – we'll see. One thing that I did think was particularly well-done in Udemy was the integrated “note-taking” app that sat beside the video, allowing you to jot down notes while watching the video, AND those notes are hotlinked back to the time in the video that you took them, effectively allowing you to bookmark key concepts and jump to them. I haven't seen anything like it on Coursera or Udacity, but I think it's a great step forward, and once again it moves beyond the mere “recorded lecture plus quiz” format, to take advantage of the interactive nature of the media. I'm including a screenshot below.



In general, I think this open exchange marketplace for educational courses is a neat idea. But like many of the MOOC options today, it lacks coherence of curriculum, and I have trouble envisioning how it might replace a traditional college experience. On the other hand, it seems like a cornucopia for continuing education, especially for picking up new technical skills. I expect Udemy (or sites like it) will be a commonly-used platform for businesses looking to train workers in new technologies, or workers looking to update their marketable skillsets.

5) EdX.  I haven't taken any courses from EdX yet, but I know someone who took one of MITx's introductory physics courses, and who reported it to be quite academically rigorous, but deficient because of lacking the hands-on “lab” component, which is a key element for learning science.

 6) Of course, there are a plethora of other MOOC providers (here's a fairly comprehensive list), but I won't discuss them since I don't have any personal experience with them to relate.

To recap: at this point, I've signed up for 11 MOOCs in total, on four different platforms. Of these, I have earned a certificate in 3, failed to complete 3, will probably ditch 1 more, am still actively working on one, and 3 others are yet to start. If I don't complete any more, my completion rate will be around 27%, which probably still puts me well above average (given the ~10% completion rates reported for many MOOCs).

Buffet-style schooling has some important advantages over a traditional education (namely flexibility), but also poses some challenges. It's up to you to make sure you choose a healthy assortment of food, and you don't bite off more than you can chew...