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.