Sunday, February 17, 2013

The blessing and the curse of self-pacing

I am experiencing first-hand the blessing and the curse of self-pacing.   But before I elaborate on that theme, permit me to introduce myself to the blog audience. 

My name is Forrest Stonedahl, and I am an assistant professor of Computer Science and Mathematics at Centre College, in Danville, Kentucky.  I became interested in the MOOC phenomenon last summer, and am currently the (proud?) possessor of two certificates attesting to my quasi-academic achievement in two Coursera courses last fall.  Specifically, I completed the same computer science course on "Functional Programming in Scala" that Mark Lewis of Trinity has previously blogged about, as well as a marketing course on "Gamification".  I found the computer science course to be intellectually stimulating and enjoyable - even though most of the concepts were already familiar to me, it's always fun to learn a new computer language, and I had been meaning to learn Scala for some time.  That course gave me the excuse (and extrinsic motivation) to actually dig in and do it. I'll probably post some more about my experience with this course later, to provide another perspective to complement Mark's view of the course.

With the marketing course,  I "attended" most of the first week's video lectures after which point I decided that the course was rather dull, and I wasn't learning much.  Now, I could have dropped the course at this point, but instead I decided to try an experiment to see if I could pass the course while doing as little work as possible, and without watching any more of the course videos.  I became, "virtually", one of those students who never comes to class except on the exam days.  (We don't tolerate such behavior here at Centre College, but I know it can happen at some larger universities...).  A quick text search of the lecture notes each week would provide the definitions needed to pass the multiple-guess quizzes (and the quizzes could be repeated to get higher scores -- thus, I came close to acing most of them).  There were also a couple of peer-graded writing assignments, but I am perfectly capable of expounding on a theme while injecting some appropriate marketing jargon here and there.  The experiment's result:  I ended the course with an overall score of 92.5%, despite having learned very little.  Is this a failure of MOOC-based learning?  Perhaps.  But I rather suspect my experience would have been even more abysmal if I had been forced to sit through the physical version of the class at UPenn.  You are free to choose among a few possible morals of this story:
  1. An intelligent but uninterested person can still pass a MOOC with relatively little effort, and little educational gain.  While this may de-value the reputation of MOOCs, the same observation applies to some brick and mortar courses as well. 
  2. Despite Coursera (et al's) attempts to court only the best faculty at the best universities,  occasional courses can be uninspiring.
  3. I personally am not a good candidate for business school -- probably some people found the course scintillating.  But in my defense, I came into the course thinking that the *idea* of "gamification" is very interesting.  And I still do.  I just don't think that this course on the topic was very interesting.  In fact, I could imagine myself teaching a short course on the subject with a small group of energetic undergraduates where we actually spend time working on projects to *implement* gamification ideas in a real context.   That would be interesting.  But I digress.
But the fact that I continually digress rather than moving the primary narrative forward provides a nice segue back to the title topic: self-pacing.  Despite (or perhaps because of?) decades of formal education, I still have a incurable habit of procrastination.  I am currently enrolled in Udacity's course CS271 on Artificial Intelligence.  Yes, this is the famous class taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig that launched a thousand metaphorical ships (or autonomously driving cars?) into the shifting landscape of higher education.  It's being re-offered again, this time in a self-paced format. I can feel Udacity cheerily reassuring me: Take as long as you want, Forrest.  We'll be here for you.  There are no deadlines.  No stress.  Just drop in and learn at your own pace.

And I would like to.  Honestly, I would.  Although I have a background in A.I., I'm excited about learning this material which focuses specifically on the A.I. techniques useful for programming self-driving vehicles.  Furthermore, I'm currently teaching a course on A.I.and I am interested to see if there are any topics that I can tie in to my own class.  However, I've only made it through one week of this course that I started almost a month ago.  The road to procrastination is paved with good intentions.  And with a busy spring teaching term incessantly pushing new deadlines to the top of my to-do list, I just haven't found the time to make progress.  However, I feel pretty certain that if this course was like the Coursera courses I've taken, with weekly homework and quiz deadlines, I would have found (or made) the time.   As it is, the temporal gap widens, and the knowledge I gained in week 1 may already be fading, and becoming stale as it creeps toward the dark recesses of my memory.

Food for thought: If even those of us who have a love for the subject and pride ourselves on independence and self-learning require extrinsic punishment/reward to pace the course appropriately, how will our less motivated students fare in such an environment?
 The blessing of self-pacing is that it's flexible -- you can fit the coursework around your busy work/life schedule.

The curse of self-pacing is that it's flexible -- you might not fit the coursework around your busy work/life schedule.

"Piled Higher and Deeper" #1388 by Jorge Cham. Used with permission.

Is it human nature, or do the students (and I?) just need to learn better self-discipline and time prioritization skills?  My take is that while self-pacing sounds liberating in theory, in practice I think it will prove ineffective for most students.  Agree?  Disagree?  Either way I'd love to hear from you -- comment below!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Galaxies and Cosmology -- First Experiences

(Posted by Dennis Ugolini, Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Trinity University)

I am four weeks into the Coursera course "Galaxies and Cosmology," taught by Prof. George Djorgovski of the California Institute of Technology.  Fun fact:  I received my BS in Physics from Caltech in 1995, and was enrolled in Ay 21 (the basis for the online course) as a sophomore, twenty years ago with the same instructor.  Note that I said enrolled -- I had forgotten until recently that I dropped Ay 21 after a couple of weeks, having decided instead to take more optics and become a pure experimentalist.  So while the symmetry isn't perfect, at least the material is new to me, so I'm paying more attention.

The course is nine weeks long.  Each week's material is grouped thematically into two "chapters;" for example, the Week 1 chapters were History of Cosmology and Introduction to Relativity.  Lecture content is spread among 6-11 videos, each 8-12 minutes long, with an occasional multiple-choice question or two to reinforce concepts.  Most of the screen is filled with a PowerPoint slide (downloadable separately as a .pdf file), with Dr. Djorgovski shown at the upper left, seated and speaking to the camera, and the Caltech and course logo in the lower left.  The course website also recommends three textbooks and provides links to additional reading for each lecture. 

You get one point per video for viewing it, and up to ten points on a multiple-choice quiz each week.  Passing is 60%.  Watching every video and randomly guessing on each quiz gives you an expectation value right on 60%, while acing the quizzes but skipping the videos makes passing impossible.  So the course structure encourages you to (a) view the material and (b) just learn something along the way.

There is a discussion forum, as well as a teaching assistant who holds occasional "office hours," but I have not sat in on these yet.  At first the forums were dominated by people introducing themselves and forming study groups, and complaints about the course structure, particularly that you could only attempt each quiz once.  Oddly, most complaints came from people who scored 8/10 or close to it, but wanted to try again until they got it perfect.  Since then the forums have evolved towards questions on the material, with frequent answers from Dr. Djorgovski and the TA.  I was amused by the reaction to Dr. Djorgovski's note that the forums were not the place to discuss alternative theories for the origin of the universe, and that users who persisted in that would be banned.  Many people became frightened to ask questions, for fear that their misunderstandings would be construed as advancing alternative ideas.  Clearly they've never had to wade through a dozen "Einstein is Wrong!" posters at a conference.

Some thoughts after the first four weeks:

1.  The content is an abbreviated version of the Caltech course, but definitely not simplified.  There's a lot of calculus and some assumption of basic astronomy knowledge, and the pace is rapid.  But the quizzes cover only broad concepts with little math.  The idea again seems to be that they want you to learn something, and beyond that, you can go as deep as you'd like.

2.  I find that the concepts I remember the best are the ones addressed in the multiple-choice questions that interrupt each video.  No matter how simple the questions are, the fact that I had to stop and think, even for a moment, is reinforcement enough.

3.  I've toyed with creating video content in the past (for research-related outreach), but never followed through because I was worried about production values.  How much effort will it take to get fancy new graphics for each lecture?  Flying equations ala The Mechanical Universe?  Music?  This course has none of those things -- and I find I don't miss them like I thought I would.

4.  We only covered one chapter in week 4 because Dr. Djorgovski has the flu (feel better!).  Wait, the full course isn't already in the can?  He's making these on the fly as we go along?  That surprised me.

My interest in MOOC's is in providing a content bridge between high school and college, so that students with poor preparation (particularly in math) can catch up during the summer after senior year and arrive on campus ready to succeed in their intro classes.  I've seen too many students in physics and engineering doomed right out of the gate to a possible fifth year because they did not have the mathematical background to get through Mechanics.  So the most useful thing I've taken so far from this exercise are techniques for structuring a course that has just enough evaluation to make sure you have a pulse, while helping you get out of the course however much you put into it.