Thursday, December 20, 2012

Statistical Analysis of the Functional Programming Principles in Scala MOOC

(Post by Mark Lewis, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Trinity University)

It has now been a few weeks since my first MOOC completed. At the end of the course they did a survey asking for various information to help them plan potential future courses. Today I got an e-mail that mentioned they had done some analysis on the nearly 7500 responses to that survey. The following link was included in the e-mail.

I haven't heard of any other MOOCs doing this type of analysis or making this type of data available. Granted, part of the reason they are making it available is so that students can get further experience. That doesn't really make sense for anything that isn't CS related and of a sufficient level of difficulty.

Two things that really jump out to me from this data are that this MOOC was a standout in terms of completion and it had an interesting population of students. These are inevitably correlated. Most MOOCs have a completion rate of about 10%. This one had a completion rate of 20%. I know that many people point to these low completion rates as a sign that MOOCs don't work well. However, I think they are part of the fact that MOOCs work very well at doing something that other forms of education simply can't do, they make learning highly available to anyone who is interested, even if they aren't willing to put in the full effort to finish a course.

The reason for the high completion rate is almost certainly related to the student population of this particular MOOC. The survey respondents showed a very highly educated group of students with the largest subgroup being those who have completed a masters degree, followed by those who have completed a bachelors degree. Basically, the people who finished this course, were doing it as continuing education and the majority had strong backgrounds to build on. My guess is that this isn't as strongly the case for other MOOCs and that is why they tend to have lower completion rates.

The blog post highlights some other interesting aspects of this course and how it was run. On the whole, I think this course is probably an early model for a highly successful MOOC. Those who want to use this type of structure for education should probably look to this particular offering as a model to base their efforts off of.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Thoughts on Our First Panel Discussion

(Post by Mark Lewis, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Trinity University)

On Monday 11/12/2012 we had the first panel discussion. The three faculty members at Trinity who are taking MOOCs this semester formed the panel. Attendance was rather good with most of the desks in the collaborative being filled for the majority of the discussion. Another thing that made the discussion a good one was that not everyone in the room, or even on the panel, was really convinced about the efficacy of MOOCs. This lead to more interesting and thought provoking discussions.

In this post I wanted to put down some follow-up ideas that I had related to this discussion. Of course, I was one of the people on the panel who felt that MOOCs could be effective and were worth watching out for. So this post contains my response to two main issues with MOOCs that were raised during the panel and some elaboration on why I fear MOOCs. I agree that the issues are significant problems with current MOOCs. What I want to point out is that they are also correctable.

Problems with Meet-Ups
One of the obvious shortcomings of a MOOC is the lack of actual physical contact with the professor or other students. While there really isn't much that can be done about contact with the professor (that is after all what makes the MOOCs scale so well), there are solutions when it comes to students. Many students in MOOCs schedule meet-ups with other students so that you can have the discussion that can be very vital to the learning process. For the MOOC I was part of, they even pointed out as an option for getting together with other class members and for continuing to build a community after the class had ended.

I actually think that this approach works well in some places. Unfortunately, San Antonio is not currently one of those places. As a city, San Antonio has a sufficient population, but I don't believe it has a sufficient number of active MOOC takers. This is a problem that would be solved naturally if MOOCs were to gain more traction. Were they to really take off so that a decent percentage of people use them both as continuing education as well as post-secondary education, then every reasonably sized city in the US would likely have active meet-up groups that could form around the topics.

I could even see a model where the MOOCs look for "local experts" in the topic of the course in major metro areas. These people could probably be given some small compensation to get them to attend meet-ups regularly. Whether that is economically feasible is unclear, but I see this as pushing forward the trend I expect to see in teaching where people are broken into a few superstar content creators and large numbers of "learning coaches".

Shortcomings of Grading
One of the big discussion points of MOOCs is the grading. My CS course was done wonderfully. Automatic grading of code correctness is easy. The MOOC I was enrolled in went further by also checking style with ScalaCheck and giving points for that. They also integrated their tools very nicely so that it was easy for students to submit and get feedback. However, checking coding assignments is only one part of a complete evaluation for most Computer Science courses. That leads into the objection that was brought up in the discussions.

One of the other faculty was taking a Statistics course and the quizzes were all multiple choice. (Full disclosure, I have to admit that I normally use the term "multiple guess" so that tells you how I feel about that type of evaluation.) The problem that she had with this was the fact that she really cares more about the approach that students take more than the final result. She mentioned how seeing the actual work gives her a better ability to see what students are misunderstanding and to modify her teaching methods in the future to improve learning.

In this case, the desire was to see the work involved in doing math to solve problems. Right now the MOOCs do not include a method for doing this. However, this is something that I feel is just waiting for someone to create the right software. I can imagine a tool that includes a formula editor with additional intelligence and perhaps some notation so that students can indicate where one thing leads to another or what they are doing. It is certainly possible to verify that every step in the process is a valid one and to show that the start point and end points are what they should be. Given this, I don't think it is at all unreasonable to expect automatic grading for the work involved in mathematical derivations.

In the area of Computer Science, I have been thinking a fair bit of thinking about how I could set up automatic evaluation of the different types of questions that I like to use for assessment. Coding is one facet, but I also typically ask students to trace code and to do short answers. I don't yet have an approach for auto-grading short answer questions, but I do have an idea for auto-grading tracing questions which I wrote up here.

In addition, I have quite a few problems where students have to draw the data structures that result from performing various operations. By writing a custom drawing program, which includes only the constructs that students need to be able to draw data structures, it is possible to determine if what a student draws is equivalent to the correct answer and if not, how much it differs. One of my projects for this summer is to write a program that does these things so that I can have students do exercises beyond writing code that are automatically graded.

The advent of MOOCs is inevitably going to spur a lot of people to think about ideas like this for doing automatic evaluation of different types of problems that are significant for particular topics. Many of these will be doable well before we have really good short answer or essay auto-graders.

Fear and Economics
At the end of the panel we got into the question of whether people fear MOOCs and the impact that they might have on liberal arts schools. The room was definitely divided on this topic. I personally feel that MOOCs have to be taken seriously because of the reality of economics. As any economist will tell you, people buy on the margin. The price of a good is based on marginal utility, not absolute utility. For colleges, that means the real question is what benefits does a school provide above and beyond the lower priced competition, or how close can they be in quality to the higher priced competition.

Students receive many different things from a college education, but the reality is that the main thing they are paying for is the signaling to get them a better job. The stats clearly bear out the fact that a college degree is a good investment for most majors. ( However, that is largely because it is pretty much the only broadly recognized signaling option currently available. If MOOC certificates or badges were to gain traction as a signaling option, then the marginal cost becomes extremely significant.

The costs of a college education can vary quite a bit, but at many small, liberal arts schools, it looks something like four years + $160,000. The four years are significant because you do have to consider the opportunity cost of spending those years in college. The $160,000 needs to include room and board as well as tuition, books, and other fees. Small schools often have a residency requirement so tuition is only part of the total cost. Of course, students have to have food and shelter regardless of how they choose to educate themselves, so maybe some of that could be discounted, but if the comparison was to living at home with parents, taking MOOCs, and going to lots of meet-ups, the MOOC option really can come out at very close to $0. The flexibility of MOOCs might also allow students to get to the point where they have sufficient signaling in less than four years.

So the question is, is the marginal value of actually going to college worth the cost? As of today, I think that the answer is definitely yes, simply because MOOCs are new and they are not yet a valid signaling option. However, as I posted previously, I know of employers who already understand the value of MOOCs because they are requiring employees to take them. There is also acknowledgement of their signaling ability from the fact that MOOCs are able to work as job placement services today.

The reason I worry about how MOOCs will disrupt higher education is not because I think that MOOCs will be as good or better than traditional higher education. I don't. They can't recreate all the elements. I worry about them because they are priced so low that they don't have to match traditional higher education, they just have to get good enough to be considered a valid signaling mechanism. Once that happens, a reasonable fraction of parents and kids out of High School will pick to try that route instead of putting large sums of money into traditional higher ed. As it stands, many colleges are already struggling, either financially, or with admissions. The extra competition is going to drive those institutions that are in trouble under because they simply won't be able to attract students at the tuition rates that are needed to sustain their budgets.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

ModPo Part Two

Over the past few weeks I've had the opportunity to be involved in several conversations between Trinity faculty, staff and administrators about technology as it relates to Trinity's overall strategic plan.  These were lively big picture/vision talks, of which MOOCs were just a small part, but the funny acronym does seem to be popping up everywhere these days.

A recent Inside Higher Ed article argued that rumors of MOOCs disrupting everything about education as we know it are overblown because a MOOC sells something fundamentally different than the high-touch experience one gets at a place like Trinity.  Is the sky really falling?  I don't know. But just this past Sunday, I opened the New York Times Education Life section to read an article declaring this "The Year of the MOOC."  Most poet friends and colleagues still just look at me funny and even giggle when I mention the word.  They're not sure what I mean, and in truth, it doesn't seem like anyone wholly is.  Part of this may be due to the fact that MOOCs themselves are evolving even as I type this sentence.  What seems clear is that most everybody wants to be a part of this MOOC thing whatever it was/is/will be, but how?

Variations of these what and how questions keep coming up for me as I've moved through completing my MOOC course on Modern and Contemporary Poetry.  (And maybe this comes with the territory of my discipline, as poets are particularly concerned with both the what and how of language usage in a poem.)  As I mentioned in an earlier post, the what (content) of the ModPO course continues to be pretty great.  It  moves fast.  In fact, it sometimes moves too fast as I've occasionally gotten behind and pulled a few late night po-video marathons, which, by the way, is how and when many of my students actually do their learning, whether I like it or not.  I'd like to speak more to this piece of how MOOCs might meet real changes in the way students actually communicate, think, read etc. as many of the questions I feel like I'm generating from taking my MOOC are pedagogical rather than technological, but I'm still deep in the weeds of my thinking on all that.  For now, I'll just touch on two things that my MOOC doesn't do so well.

One consistent concern relates to MOOC evaluation methods.  Mod Po requires four close-reading essays to complete the course.  On my first essay, I received four peer comments.  They were all over the map.  You don't receive grades, just what the site calls "peer evaluation/feedback."  One of my anonymous evaluators wrote simply "I think that this is an example of a hard effort essay, unfortunately I think that the author doesn't get the main idea of the poem."  He, or she, was, quite simply, wrong on that.

But I do think that ModPo shows evidence of trying to make feedback better.  Whether students use it or not, the rubric for evaluating essays is solid and similar to the kind of thing I use in my own classes.   I expect my students to be able to identify some aspect of a poem, as well as connect the dots to what it points to/complicates etc.  In short, they should be able to answer the "so what?" question.  ModPo asks this too, with varying results.  One sample rubric asks "Does the paper say something about how Dickinson's dashes work.  If yes, please remark on how effectively, significantly, and/or interestingly the essay deals with dashes."  This "how effectively, significantly and/or interestingly" wording seems useful, but, as any teacher knows, even if you ask the "so what?" question, you don't always get an answer.  I got a few responses that reached beyond "yes, the writer does this" and "no, the writer doesn't do that," but not many, and that's the rub. While this course demonstrates excellent content and sufficient guidance for how students might engage with content, there is little follow-up or interactivity in terms of how well they eventually do it.  That kind of higher order thinking/guidance is the heart of any humanities course.  

Ideally, discussion boards provide a place for more interactive guidance, and I had hoped to spend more quality time there, but I admit I've been mostly distracted by the hundreds of conversations picked up and dropped off.  There are come useful threads happening.  They just don't seem to build in any way that creates collective inquiry and discovery, which is another big part of what makes a traditional classroom experience so meaningful.  Another argument against MOOC type learning is that professors simply can't interact effectively with their students, but Filreis comments on a surprising number of threads.  He's around, a lot actually.  I honestly don't think he sleeps.  Not surprisingly, the discussion boards are most interesting when he drops by.  This is an example of one of the ways in which my MOOC succeeds by being like a traditional classroom with a teacher steering discussion in fertile directions.

In addition to canned videos, the ModPo course features a series of live webcasts over the course of the semester.  During these sessions, Filreis and the TAs meet in real time at the UPenn Writers House and class members can call in/text/email questions.   You can also show up if you live in the Philly area.  From what I can see on the screen, live attendance is small.  During the one I watched last night, the first caller said he was an English teacher, and that he'd really learned a lot from the seminar style of the video discussions.  Filreis replied, "The hardest part about running a seminar is knowing what question to ask, so that it's open enough, but not so open that the things runs amock and you can't possibly finish the discussion in the time period." I want to make sure I'm asking good questions here. What is missing? seems to be the thread through this post.   Some kinds of learning can't be massively scaled, but how might the flexibility and expansiveness of a MOOC like this inform what we're already doing?  For the next post.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

MOOCs from the Employer Perspective

(Post by Mark Lewis, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Trinity University)

I have now completed the third week of my Coursera course and there isn't much new to report on that front. The lectures are getting longer. I think that is good as I previously noted that the material seemed to be a bit slight for a full course. This week's assignment was very interesting, but thankfully for me, it was only a small step up in difficulty from the previous week, not a significant one. The topic of my post this week is more to report/reflect on a conversation related to MOOCs with our department's advisory board.

The advisory board for our department consists mainly of successful alumni as well as some other local business leaders who have taken an interest in Trinity and the Trinity CS department. Most of the board was familiar with MOOCs and several had employees who were taking courses through MOOCs. Some were even paying employees to do so in order to acquire job related skill. This fact made it immediately clear that businesses are aware of the power of MOOCs and respect what they can do for continuing education in the field of Computer Science.

We asked the board how they saw MOOCs as being significant for the future of education and in particular, how they would likely impact small Universities like Trinity. There was not uniform agreement on that. There seemed to be an attitude that MOOCs could not replace the complete education of attending a college, but that they could appear as a gold star on a resume. From my perspective, it was significant that board members did not think that MOOCs could replace the normal college education. However, students taking MOOCs while in college display an extra level of dedication and interest that several of the board members thought was significant, and which they would want to see in future hires.

Trinity and MOOCs
We asked the question of whether Trinity should be involved in MOOCs and one of the first ideas that came up was something that has been discussed a bit internally at Trinity. That is the idea that we could offer MOOCs that are primarily aimed at High School students with the objective of aiding recruitment.

The board also discussed the efficiency of MOOCs. The recent move by UT to join edX was very different from previous MOOC efforts in that it really underscored the drive for improving efficiency and how they intend to use this as a mode for teaching large introductory courses. Computer Science departments are currently seeing a significant increase in enrollment across the nation and it appears to have hit Trinity this year. For that reason, using MOOC-like techniques to make teaching more efficient could be very beneficial for our department. However, the board is very aware that the environment of Trinity with a lot of access to faculty is significant, so usage of such techniques needs to be done appropriately.

The board thought that the idea of integrating MOOCs in summer school was also a very good idea. For a variety of reasons, Trinity students don't take summer courses at Trinity. MOOCs, or MOOC-like courses could get around many of the reasons for this and help to keep students more engaged year round, even during the times when we can't house them on campus. One board member noted that Trinity likely can't charge tuition for a course that involves students going through the MOOCs at Coursera or Udacity because they are for-profit and their terms of service agreements inevitably prohibit such usage.

The idea of having Trinity run a MOOC that is hosted through Coursera was mentioned as well. The board members generally liked this idea and felt that the branding was easily worth the $50k that Coursera charges. As they said, one highway sign can cost that much if it is up for a similar period of time, and highway signs won't be seen by over a million people. The challenge in this is having the right course and the right person teaching it. The value of the branding could be negative if the effort is not done well. Of course, it might be easier and more in line with the ideals of Trinity to use an open venue like edX, or even putting something together using Google Course Builder (which was mentioned in an earlier blog post). Right now edX isn't getting quite the same level of publicity as Coursera so the benefit to marketing would not be as large. Using Google Course Builder would remove the benefit of marketing almost completely, but it certainly could be a valid place to start.

One last idea that was floated was the idea of having MOOCs that combine Trinity with other local entities. For example, Rackspace is very interested in supporting cloud based education and there might be mutual benefits to having Rackspace and Trinity collaborate on something that was highly visible and met the educational objectives of both parties.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

First Thoughts on ModPo

ModPo being the catchy abbreviation for the Coursera MOOC on Modern and Contemporary Poetry.
I'm a few weeks into taking the class, and now that I'm getting a sense of the content, the various modes of online engagement, and the assessment methods, I hope to report back more regularly.

I should probably admit from the get-go that a part of me is downright giddy about the very idea of 30,000 people interested in poetry.  There has been lots of buzz. "This is an event!" the intro emails from Coursera seemed to shout.  "At midnight tomorrow, you will get to start reading and talking about some really great poems!"  People were tweeting their excitement about this chance to learn more about poetry, and I was excited too.  But I'm also an easy target.  I already know a good deal about Modern and Contemporary Poetry, and I am pedagogically interested in the through line this particular course takes in framing Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson as two varieties of poetic radical, and following their influence through major movements in American verse.  Later, the course aims to take on some thorny conceptualist poets, and I'm looking forward to seeing how they "teach," and to what else I might learn from this model.  ModPo, you had me at "I dwell in Possibility."

All that enthusiasm aside, I am simultaneously trying to step out of my own shoes as I "go to class," keeping these questions in mind.  What would this course be like for an undergraduate with marginal interest and experience?  How could they demonstrate their learning in a quantifiable way?  How does the experience of discussion board communication compare to the intimate sense of shared engagement and inquiry one finds in a small humanities seminar?  Is it even relevant to compare those two things?  What, if any, elements of my own courses might benefit from being "canned" and communicated this way?  What, if any, humanities classes might lend themselves to the crowd-sourcing model of evaluation?  And finally, what other populations affiliated with schools like Trinity might benefit from distance learning opportunities like this?  I'm sure I'll have more questions by the end of the 10 weeks, as well as some more informed answers.

As Mark discussed in relation to his Scala course, ModPo features something of a superstar teacher in the UPenn's Al Flireis.  I was familiar with Filreis from the online poetry archive PennSound and through his spirited close-reads of what some might call "difficult" poems on the Poetry Foundation's podcast PoemTalk.  (It probably goes without saying that few poem explications are interesting enough to listen to on the treadmill, but his are.)  ModPo is essentially an online version of English 88, a course Filreis has been teaching at UPenn since the late eightes, and he has clearly refined both his approach and course content to serve this format.  This isn't just a course jumping on the online education bandwagon as Filreis has long be e-media's evangelist in the poetry world, calling for ending the "lecture as we know it," and I couldn't help reading the opening poem, Emily Dickinson's #1705 (Volcanos be in Sicily) as quietly mimetic of his pedagogy.  In it, Dickinson questions the primacy of first hand experience, suggesting that she can make her own geography of "Volcanos nearer here."  So, is this online eruption of poetry enthusiasm a suitable substitute for literature courses at a Primary Undergraduate Institution (PUI)?  We'll see.

In talking with other Trinity faculty in preparation for this pilot, many expressed concern about evaluation methods for online courses.  With ModPo, one receives a certificate of completion for writing four short essays, commenting on others' essays, taking and "minimally" passing regular quizzes, and participating on the discussion boards.  So far the quizzes have been specific questions about individual poems.  They are not timed, and one has several opportunities to get them right.  At first, this felt a little dumbed down, but I missed a subtle part of one question on my first time through, and the explanation of why was useful. Going back and doing it again helped me better understand the reasoning behind the right answer, and so there is real potential for an engaged student to effectively puzzle out levels of analysis and interpretation without human instruction.  My initial forays into the discussion boards have been less rewarding.  With 30,000 people, there are a dizzying number of threads, and equally wide-ranging levels of discourse.  It's difficult to navigate, and there is a lot of repetition and digression to wade through.  I'm going to try and dive in a little deeper next week.

I'll end this post with thoughts on Filreis' notion of "ending the lecture as we know it," as ModPo offers an interesting alternative model.  When I clicked on the first video, I expected to see a talking head talking about a poem.  Instead, the "lectures"--and there is one for every poem on the syllabus--are small 10-20 minute close-readings conducted by Filreis and the course T.A.s.  These T.A. are like the smart kids in the room, and one could argue that passively watching them have a rigorous and thoughtful discussion is preferable to participating in a lame discussion inside a "real" classroom.  These bite-sized models of learning in action strike me as an element of online education that could be adapted to a PUI in a number of interesting ways: as part of a flipped classroom, as preparation for a larger collective activity like reading a TUgether book, or even as a resource for other populations who want to take, or retake, a popular class they missed during their undergraduate days.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Coursera Placement Services

(Post by Mark Lewis, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Trinity University)

I haven't finished the second week of course material for my Coursera course, but something just came into my inbox that I felt warranted an immediate post. Below is an e-mail from Coursera about placement services. It makes sense. This is one of the possible options for services like Coursera and Udacity to make money.
Hello Mark Lewis,

Thanks for enrolling in Functional Programming Principles in Scala! At Coursera, we want to help you achieve your goals, whether those goals include finding a job or just learning something new. On that note, we're piloting out a free job placement service to connect you with great professional opportunities. If you would like to participate, click here ( to complete the Placement Services settings page and opt-in to the service. After you opt-in, we will share your resume and other information you provide, with a small number of carefully selected partner companies and allow them to introduce themselves if there’s a match. 

In order to give you more control, we will not share any of your contact information with employers beyond what you choose to provide in your resume, personal website or social-network profiles. Finally, you will always have control over whether or not your information is shared with employers and you can use the opt-in field on the Placement Services settings page to opt-in or out at any time. In this early stage of the pilot, most job opportunities will be US based and your course performance can only be shared for a few selected courses. However, we will offer a broader number of opportunities and include more courses as we expand the service.

We're excited to connect you with great companies and new opportunities as we develop this service! If you'd like to participate, opt-in here! (

Andrew Ng, Daphne Koller and the Coursera Team
I feel that this should bother traditional schools on two fronts. The lesser front is that this could be something that truly sustains MOOCs to make them viable for the long term. Of course, being viable in the long term doesn't matter if traditional colleges retain a significant edge in value that makes people want to attend them. The more significant aspect of this, in my opinion, is that if MOOCs prove to be useful to both employers and to students in making the connection between them and finding jobs for people, it will turn them into a serious threat to traditional colleges.

I know that many of my colleagues at small, liberal arts schools like to tout the benefits of being a well-rounded, well-educated individual. Many look down on the idea that college is about getting jobs. However, they have to consider the cost of college and how much monetary value people place on being well-rounded and well-educated. I believe that there are few people in the US who can afford to value those qualities much above $10-20k in and of themselves. Given that college typically costs 10x that much, the reality is that people pay for college because they see it an investment in their futures. That investment pays off when they get better, higher paying jobs. If you take away the job benefits of college, only a small, elite subset of the population would continue to pay for college. That subset is far smaller than the number of students that need to be attending colleges for the current number of institutes of higher education to survive.

So the reality is that if most of the faculty in the US want to actually keep their jobs, they need to also appreciate the fact that they are imparting skills, qualities, and abilities in their students that do help them to get better jobs. That is a big part of what students and parents are paying for.

If the MOOCs can demonstrate the ability to hook students up with employers in a broad and general way, I believe that is when they become true competition for traditional higher education. At that point it doesn't matter if they are lacking many of the aspects that we value in traditional higher education. The MOOCs don't have to be a copy of the current model, they just have to provide similar benefits because when you get down to it, that is what people are really paying for. If they can provide similar benefits while costing between nothing and a tiny fraction of the cost of college, they have a remarkable edge.

I would really like to hear if people doing other MOOCs with Coursera or Udacity have gotten similar letters. I acknowledge that I might be getting this mainly because I am signed up for a MOOC in Computer Science. It might be that other fields aren't getting this type of treatment yet. If you have taken a MOOC, please comment and let me know.

I will close with a somewhat tongue-in-cheek third threat that this poses, the possibility of luring away faculty from normal colleges. Of course, professors become professors for a reason. We love what we do. Our job has its own special rewards that are simply impossible to find in other fields. However, as my first post indicated, I think that one of the great strengths of MOOCs, as they currently stand, is in the area of continuing education. I feel like faculty should be some of the most likely people to utilize that service. How many job offers can a professor be given before at some point he/she decides to try out doing something different?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Google Course-Builder

I watched a Google Hangout On Air today sponsored by the Google Course-builder team.  The event was led by project head Peter Norvig and featured an interview with Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun.  It was the second Hangout on this topic since the project was announced less than two weeks ago.  Last week's hangout featured a conversation with Vi Hart of Khan Academy and Math Doodling fame.
Screenshot of the Google Course-Builder team, plus Thrun.
Google Course-Builder team, plus Thrun. 

Those interested can watch the entire recording below.  I will simply share a few bits that I found interesting.

Norvig stated that Google is committed to the Coursebuilder project and that they are responding quickly to user concerns.  I know some probably worry about the level of investment required to implement a course on this new platform, given Google's history of abandoning projects.  Thrun asked whether Coursebuilder might one day become something like YouTube, where course creators can upload their materials, and Norvig said yes.

His answer to virtually all of the audience questions was basically "Of course you can do that,you just have to build it yourself (e.g. charging fees for courses, integrating popcorn.js, etc.)  Norvig indicated that, unlike Udacity, Coursera and EdX, Google wasn't interested in providing courses, only in providing the platform (Google's Powersearching course, for which the platform was designed notwithstanding, I suppose).

Norvig says that in teaching his own Artificial Intelligence class as a Massive Open Online Course on Udacity, he learned that

  1. Community mattered.  Students learned from each other.
  2. Motivation was more important than information
  3. Learning is done by the student, not the teacher.  
All three of these lessons put the instructor and the lecture material as secondary to the learner and, in particular, groups of learners.  community was a recurring theme, with Norvig bringing out a colleague to speak to how they generated community in the Powersearching class by emailing participants reminders, linking directly to the forum from the course activities so that people could share strategies and questions, and using the Google+ Hangouts tool to form study groups.

The conversation with Thrun was fun to watch, though they both seemed somewhat nervous or uncomfortable.  The conversation highlighted the experimental nature of both Udacity and Coursebuilder, the fact that they were reacting to what had come before (e.g. MIT's OpenCourseware) and the need to come up with pedagogies for online and lifelong learning.

They discussed the trade-offs between synchronous and asynchronous courses, where synchronous courses generated excitement and community and asynchronous courses were ultimately more convenient.  Thrun indicated that he envisioned a future where these two could be reconciled somehow through self-pacing.

They discussed the question of learner motivation, hitting on gamification but also on ultimate employability of students completing these courses (Norvig's AI course in particular).

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

First Week of Class: Functional Programming in Scala on Coursera

(Post by Mark Lewis, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Trinity University)

I just finished the first weeks lectures and assignments for Functional Programming Principles in Scala so it seemed appropriate to write a post on my first impressions. We were told in e-mails that this course has over 32,000 students enrolled in it. (Update: another source showed 40,000 as the number for the first week.) The fact that it is being taught by Martin Odersky, the creator of Scala, is inevitably a big factor in getting many people to register. Normally I don't know if a course on functional programming would garner so much interest, but there is no doubt that functional is seeing a general resurgence and the fact that Martin is the person behind the language is a huge factor. Nearly every Scala community I belong to has had notices about this course.

The quality of the teachers is probably one of the greatest strengths of MOOCs. The nature of these courses means that they fully enable the "superstar effect" to come into play in education. One teacher can now serve every person in the world who has an interest in learning about a particular topic. Granted, they do so through a one-way distribution mechanism of prerecorded videos and scripted automatic assessment. Then again, that doesn't sound too different from what actually takes place in large lecture halls. The internet just happens to be the world's largest lecture hall and anyone across the world can make it to lecture, regardless of actual physical location.

In this regard, Martin Odersky does not disappoint. The lectures are clear and insightful. The examples are definitely well thought out. I found that I appreciated and enjoyed what he had to say despite having significant experience in this area myself. Given my background, I did find the option to watch at faster than normal speeds to be quite helpful. 1.5x seemed about right for me. Going faster than that made the audio hard to understand. This is, of course, one of the great benefits of the video format. You can "attend lecture" when it suits you and you have control over things like speaking speed as well as the ability to rewind and watch segments again if needed.

I assume that the general format of the videos is something that is associated with Coursera. Early on there were scenes of Martin sitting in his office, but most of the time it was either slides or screen captures. The interface for the slides, with Martin's hand and a pen that could point and write were things I particularly appreciated. It reminded me of being back in school years ago when teachers would write on overhead projectors. This had a more personal feeling than a straight screen capture. IMO.

The occasional breaks for quizzing and to let students think about questions were very useful from a pedagogical standpoint. I did run into one problem though where I used a feature of Scala that hadn't been discussed yet and had the automated system tell me that my answer was incorrect because of it. This is the type of thing a human could easily spot and comment on. Being told that an answer was wrong when I knew was correct was a bit frustrating to me and I could see that really throwing off a novice student.

After the lecture videos, there was a little assignment with three problems. They were very well done and posed some challenge for the experienced student because you had to solve them with a limited set of constructs. The setup for working on the assignments and submitting them was easy to follow and the feedback was nearly instantaneous. They also provided test suites so that you could check your code against some tests before you submitted it.

One the whole, I was really impressed with the experience. It is only the first week, and there is a lot more to see, but this convinced me that for people like myself, Coursera and other MOOCs can provide a remarkably powerful resource for continuing education.

Of course, continuing education isn't really the purpose of this blog. This blog is about using these techniques in the context of normal college education and specifically how it could be useful for, or threatening to small, liberal arts institutions. I want to address this as four questions.

  1. Could the Coursera course be a drop-in for a course at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution (PUI)?
  2. If not, why not and what is missing?
  3. Could this MOOC be used to facilitate a normal PUI classroom?
  4. If not, why not? If so, what benefits would it provide?

Based on the first week of the course, here are my answers to these questions. I will try to revisit these in later posts to give some continuity to my observations.

  1. No. What I saw from the first week would not be a drop-in substitute for one of my courses or hopefully any other course on this topic at a PUI. While I can give that answer definitively, I also think that it would be reasonably easy to largely close that gap.
  2. The main problem is that there was too little of the course. There was only about an hour of video lecture and this is for a seven week class. The second week has slightly less than an hour of lectures. Compare that to ~40 hours of class meeting time for my normal courses. Granted, administrivia is all pushed outside of the lectures, but even given that, I feel they would need 1:30-1:45/week and a few more weeks to be a proper substitute for a 3-credit PUI course.

    Also missing were a lot more exercises and evaluation questions. The platform provides the ability to add these things, and they were used. However, I would want to see some exercises and questions that come at the end of each lecture as well as more inside of it. The assignment questions were appropriate, but other exercises that build up knowledge one step at a time would be required since you can't ask the instructor questions.
  3. Yes. In fact, after watching the first week's lectures I almost wanted to force the students in my "Principles of Functional Programming" course to sign up and watch. I didn't for two main reasons. The first is that we are currently working in Scheme, not Scala. While the thinking is similar, the students struggle enough with the very simple syntax of Scheme. Even though 70% of my students know Scala, I still don't feel it would be appropriate to try to mix things up like that in their brain. In addition, the first week of the MOOC was during the fifth week of my class. That causes a bit of a synchronization problem.
  4. I have already been playing with blended learning techniques and recording my own videos for students to watch outside of class. The system for the MOOC takes this an extra step up. I feel like if it weren't for the little problem where our semesters are not synchronized, I could ask students to basically take the MOOC and then add my own exercises and discussion on top of it to bring it up to the time level of a 3-credit course and also to fill in gaps when students don't grasp something and the resources associated with the MOOC aren't sufficient for them to fill in the gaps.

In general, I have a very positive view of this MOOC, but I have serious questions about whether it can function well for traditional students who are beginners and who lack direction or motivation. I can see some ways in which the MOOC could be altered to help close those gaps, but there are other things that I still can't see happening without a little bit of human interaction with someone who does understand the material. Perhaps more insight will come to me in future weeks. Even with those limitations, I feel that I could build a class around a MOOC where my role was more of a facilitator and it would make my workload for a single course much lighter, freeing me up to teach more courses or to do other things for the University.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Blog Introduction

The purpose of this blog is to document activities and share ideas as part of a critical look at MOOCs and their relationship to liberal arts education. There is a lot of buzz about how education is one of a number of areas that is currently ripe for disruption by technological innovation. Developments like OpenCourseWare have made educational materials freely available for many years now. However, the ability to have free video distribution through sites like YouTube has opened other doors. Khan Academy aims at giving lessons on many different subjects and quite a few include quizzes and other forms of automatic assessment., some of which are gamified to further motivate students. The arrival of MOOCs in the fall of 2011 introduced another twist with fairly complete models of instruction available to large numbers of people.

In the year since Stanford offered two MOOCs from their CS department, the field has grown by leaps and bounds with many of the top national Universities jumping into the fray. At the time I am writing this, there are nearly 250 MOOC offerings split between Coursera, Udacity, and edX. These offerings include quite a few courses in the Humanities and social sciences as well as the STEM fields. Each MOOC will enroll 10,000+ students from around the world and many will give certificates of completion to those who stick with them and do the required work. While it might not be exactly clear what the future holds for these MOOCs, one thing is clear, change is coming fast.

To help make sense of this change, Trinity University has applied for funding from the ACS to initiate an informed dialog on MOOCs and the liberal arts. To deal with the fact that things are moving so quickly, Trinity has put up funds to get things going before we hear back from the ACS about the proposal. To make sure the dialog is informed, a number of faculty from Trinity and several other ACS institutions have agreed to complete a MOOC and record their experiences and thoughts. This blog will serve as part of the information distribution aspects of this work. readers should also feel free to make comments and contribute to the dialog. In spring 2013 the discussion will move beyond this blog as Trinity hosts video conferences between ACS campuses to help get all faculty thinking about the challenges and opportunities provided by these new modes of education.