Monday, March 25, 2013

Smoke, Not Light

Let me start by saying that I was really looking forward to this MOOC experience.  Somehow I never got the memo, the one that said that MOOCs were evil, that they heralded the end of education as we know it, that they represented the last flicker of the flame of learning, just before it turned into a wispy ghostlike memory of a time when thinking was an action to be done well or poorly, not an inner replay of a History Channel documentary.  I also didn't get the memo about how MOOCs meant the end of all of our jobs.  I was totally looking forward to it. 

And this is what the internet (video-recording, television, film, radio, langauge) was supposed to be for, right?  This was always the big promise.

Well, I reckon I'm over it.  My MOOC is called "Writing History," and it is run from UCF through the Canvas system.   As near as I can tell, the point of the course was to explore "how and why history is written the way it is."  Or maybe another way to put it:  it's a historiography class.   Or it's's a class about the socio-economic and political forces that shape the writing of history.  Or it's not.  Yes, I'm a little unclear on the concept.  Weeks in, I'm still a little unclear on the concept.  But let me come back to that.

Things started out fine, but right after that, they were not fine.  The course is divided into content modules, one per week.  And a module consists of some very short videos by the instructor, some links to outside reading materials, podcasts, and videos, and a kind of quiz mechanism that is supposed to be like a game but is really like a quiz.  A multiple choice quiz.  Thus endeth each module.

The intro video explained that the instructor, a historian, was not an expert in all of the things we'd be covering.  In fact, he knew very little about some of the things we'd be covering, and so there would be lots of links to outside things.  Sometimes, he said, he'd be assigning reading from books that were not online.  We'd have to get these from our local library or a bookstore.   OK...that could happen.  Not so very "MO" in the "MOOC" formula, but maybe I had the wrong idea.

So I started moving through weekly modules.  Well, I tried to.  The Canvas interface is very simple--click on the link to watch the video.  You can adjust the volume, but that's it.  The instructor is a slow-talker, and I really wish that I could speed things along, but whatever--I'm watching videos.  Well...I'm trying to watch videos.  The links are often broken.  Sometimes they lead to nothing.  Sometimes they lead to videos, but not the ones they're supposed to lead to.  The online conversation threads are full of sad cries for help:  I can't get to the next module because the links in last week's module are broken!  Dozens of these messages.  I wrote some myself.  Sometimes, after days of this, the instructor would chime in on the threads:  Videos are fixed, enjoy.  But in at least two cases, they were not fixed.  And there was no other mechanism that I could find for reporting this kind of thing.  Well, that's just technology, right?  So I decided to roll with it, keep up as I can, even though this is a steady problem. 

So I'm watching videos sometimes.  Now I've got nothing against the instructor.  He appears to be interested in the stuff.  But he really doesn't seem to know about it.  Maybe it's a chance for him to learn, too--I can relate.  But he is clearly reading a script in these vids, and he clearly did not write it.  My reason for thinking that is that a) he can't pronounce the names of the people he's talking about, and b) he stops midway through sentences, very frequently, as if he does not know that the sentence continues.  And very slowly--did I mention that?  I would be extremely surprised to finds out that he had even read these ahead of time, much less written them.

Luckily, his videos are very short.  The real content comes from the links.  And most of the links are to BBC podcasts.  I love the BBC, really, hearts.  But I'm surprised to see that a very significant part of this course relies on the BBC.   Oh, and sometimes, for example, a link to "all of the works of Tacitus"--so you can brush up on that a bit, too, to help you with the BBC PODCASTS. far as I can tell, we've got a less-than-ideally-invested instructor, a swarm of technical troubles, and a heavy reliance on educational programs that someone else produced.  And almost no student/instructor interaction.

Yeah, what about student/instructor interaction?  Well, every now and then, the instructor makes a short, very concise comment in the discussion threads.  (There are only threads, no live or real-time interaction.)  He did warn us that he wouldn't show up much.  Something about not having time, and something about only wanting to chime in when he had something significant to say.  He doesn't want to stomp on our conversation.  His respect in this regard has been excessive.  Most of the threaded discussions are about things like this: "I am writing the history of my great grandfather's experiences in WWI, and that BBC podcast really made me realize that writing history is fun, not scary."  Response:  "Oh, I totally know what you mean.  I love thinking about ancient times.  I am so glad I am taking this course."  As someone who cares deeply about conversation, I harbor only pious feelings about any and all comments.  We all start from where we are, and that is a sacred thing.  But there is no instructor presence here, really, and so any chance of "capitalizing" on these starts, in a guided way, is lost. 

(And here's where the unclarity of the concept comes back in.  Many of the participants are, for personal or professional reasons, prospective writers of history.  That is, they saw the title, Writing History, and signed up for it, thinking that it would help them figure out how to do their own writing.  But that is really not at all what the course was supposed to be about.  As near as I can tell, it was supposed to be meta-historical--a look into the conditions which shape the writing of, and study of, history.  That's a difficult idea, and only tangentially related to practical aims.  Now, given the fact that the readings and videos are not really about that idea, maybe it doesn't matter.  But if there was a way to counteract the misunderstanding that many of the students had when they signed up...and still would be regular and robust guidance from the instructor.  His insufficiently focused course, unsupported by the assigned materials, and uncorrected by his interaction, creates much more smoke than light.)

All in all, I am not impressed.  Again, I was excited by the MOOC idea, not worried about it or suspicious of it.  And I can imagine a course with none of these problems--it could be a real thing.  It would obviously require a lot more work on behalf of the instructor.  I do think that at least some students are enjoying it, and that's great.  Some of them are clearly not in a position to take a course in other ways.   And I'd say that a lot of the commenters are people who are taking the course completely out of personal interest, and that's great, too.  I am a little worried that they might not realize that what they take to be a real college level course, millions of Brits take to be after-tea entertainment.   I'm also a little worried about abstract things like:  Is it going to be the case that British taxpayers are on the hook for the great MOOC revolution?  Has anyone told them? 

I'm going to stick with it.  Maybe all of these wrinkles will be ironed out.  Maybe our instructor will soon get to material that he is more comfortable with.  Maybe he'll interact more.  Maybe he'll post the transcripts of his script-based videos, so that we can read them even when the videos won't work.  Maybe the students will start to understand better what it's all about.  It's a lot of Maybes.


Monday, March 18, 2013

I have a horse in this race.

As a communication scholar, much of my research involves educational applications of emerging technologies. One might think that this would make me predisposed to the MOOC vision, but I'm actually quite skeptical about the claim that MOOCs represent a serious threat to small universities such as Trinity. 

It is important to acknowledge three factors that bias my interpretations. 

First, I have a vested interest in the continued existence of the face-to-face interactive lectures and discussions that flourish at Trinity. I simply do not want to imagine a world in which MOOCs would make my job obsolete. My concern is not solely based on economic self interest. One can always hunt for other lines of work, and almost anything related to programming would actually pay more than most teaching gigs. I'm more concerned about the quality of life. Everything about this job makes me happy. Even on the first Monday after Spring Break, with stacks of grading piling up on my desk, this job is amazing. 

The first startup was named
 Metaversatility. The second
company was (and continues
to be) Elastic Collision.
Second, my interpretation of MOOCs is necessarily shaped by the fact that I was once an evangelist for the virtual world Second Life. In fact, I took a year of unpaid academic leave to co-found two startup companies that developed virtual spaces for commerce and education. I rode the wave at the right time, returning to the academic fold at the exact moment when the real-world economy crashed, bringing Second Life's economy with it. Five years later, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I recognize that there were many flaws with the grandiose visions promoted by virtual world boosters. Though I remain convinced that something like Second Life will be very important in the near future -- perhaps even merging with MOOCs and wearable interfaces -- I'm far more skeptical about virtual promises than I once was. 

Third, something changed in my life five years ago that significantly undermined by enthusiasm for virtual interaction. I married my best friend (also a Trinity professor), and I became a step-parent to a super cool seven-year-old. It soon became clear that I could not be fully present in my face-to-face relationships when spending ten, twenty, or thirty hours a week in Second Life. When I was touting the benefits of virtual classrooms, I thought of virtual interaction and face-to-face interaction as substitutable ingredients. Today, if asked to choose between face-to-face and virtual interaction -- whether in my personal life or in the classroom -- I am far more likely to opt for face-to-face interaction.

I understand that virtual interaction is often quite meaningful, and I have little patience for those who think that online communication is somehow pathological or strange. But life experiences have instilled in me a far deeper respect for the importance of being physically proximate to other human beings. 

A close family member is currently undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments for Type 2A breast cancer. (She is doing quite well, I might add.) During Spring Break, I spent a week with her in California. Physical proximity and the ability to hug my family members was essential. Second Life wouldn't have been the same for so many reasons, including the fact that chemo-related neuropathy has made extensive typing and avatar navigation very difficult for this person. She's a highly technical person who has been programming computers since the 1970s, but she's not currently able to take full advantage of virtual conferencing technologies. The avatar is too difficult to control, typing is only possible in small amounts, and the all-seeing gaze of the web-cam is far too intrusive for someone undergoing chemotherapy. 

If money or other circumstances made it impossible for me to visit my family in California, Second Life (and other virtual platforms) would be better than not interacting with her at all. But it would be a distant second to physical proximity. 

So, these are three biases that influence my observations: 1) I have a vested interest in the status quo, 2) my previous enthusiasm for Second Life has left me with "once bitten twice shy" skepticism, and 3) life-changing experiences have helped me understand the deep importance of physical proximity and face-to-face interaction. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Was This a Fair Test?

I just limped across the finish line of my first MOOC, Galaxies and Cosmology (10 out of 15 on the last quiz = pass!).  I got what I wanted out of the course; I learned the time scales for events in the history of the universe, the types of galaxies and how they evolve, and most importantly, a lot of jargon that will help me better follow astronomy seminars.  I also learned more about how I'd develop my own MOOC -- that displaying slides with narration was mostly OK, but that I'd still want some animation for complex math, and that there would be no need to show my face while taking!  But I'm also left with a new reservation about the recent explosion of MOOC interest.  If we are looking at MOOCs as an option to classroom instruction, was this a fair test of the system?

With a couple of exceptions (coding and poetry courses about which others have posted), most of the online courses I have seen advertised, and certainly the one I took, were what we would call survey courses, or general overviews of a field.  And I think this is part of what is fueling the MOOC excitement -- it's fun to have the horizon suddenly pushed way back, and have whole new expanses of knowledge available to you.  It's the same thing we saw with the advent of search engines; it's incredibly addictive to watch a movie and say, "What else has that person been in?", or watch Jeopardy! and ask, "Where the heck is Suriname, anyway?", and have the answer immediately available.  But while survey courses are great introductions to a field, they hide much of the work required to become a practicing member of the field.

Through the Galaxies and Cosmology course, I know what the Friedmann equation is, and what the solutions look like in certain limits.  But I haven't had to solve it myself, and in no way feel prepared to use it for any real astronomical calculations.  I learned some new terminology and have shown (increasingly less) retention of it, but I'm not ready to apply it beyond reading comprehension.  Which is fine, because that's what the course was intended to do.  But add in the requirement of learning applications, and all of the warts of the MOOC process (limited interactivity with instructors, poor signal-to-noise in message boards, grading process versus result) become magnified.

I think Gabriel Ferrer said something very important in the previous blog post.  The current incarnation of MOOCs cannot replace classroom instruction, but they can free it up, and allow it to concentrate on its strengths.  Present your material through online instruction, where students can choose their own hours and pace of learning.  Then devote classroom time to application, problem solving, and interactivity, and you get the best of both worlds.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Automation of teaching

For my first post, I am not going to talk directly about MOOCs as such.  Rather, I want to highlight a recent study concerning a language-learning web site called Duolingo. It is claimed that "A team of independent researchers recently found that students on Duolingo take 34 hours to learn as much as a one-semester university course". (link to study)

What I find pertinent about this, relative to MOOCs, is the following.  MOOCs are touted as beneficial because they can automate instructional tasks previously undertaken by human beings.  The MOOC, then, is the latest in a long line of technological innovations that reduce or even eliminate human effort.

That said, it is arguable that there are aspects of teaching that are not amenable to automation.  My own hunch is that automated teaching is essentially an application of artificial intelligence.  Since AI is not (at least not yet) coextensive with human intellectual capability, it seems that certain tasks remain that are not amenable to automation, where a human teacher still has a valuable role to play.

We might welcome, then, a technology that allows the aspects of teaching that can be automated to be automated so that we might have more time and energy for the aspects where a human still ought to be in the loop.  Considering again Duolingo, while it might be able to replace human instruction for the first semester (or year) of reading and writing practice, what it does is open up an opportunity for such courses to increase the emphasis on conversation, discussion, creative writing, and even tentative exploration of literature.  I suspect the situation might be similar with MOOCs across a variety of courses.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Are MOOCs a Real Challenge to the Residential Colleges and Universities?

I Just finished the five-week long MOOCs course titled “E-learning and Digital Cultures” taught by five instructors at the University of Edinburgh. This was my first MOOC experience and it was eye-opening and thought-provoking.

A total of 42874 participants registered for this course. However, it’s reported that only 17% of the participants were active in the last seven days before the course was over. About 60% of the respondents came either from “teaching and education” or reported themselves to be “students”. Over 60% of the entire respondent group has postgraduate level qualifications, and a further 35% have a university or college degrees. 

Course contents included video clips and reading materials. There was discussion forum for the topic covered each week. Participants were also encouraged to conduct discussions through Facebook and Twitter. Additionally, the instructors also organized a couple of “hangouts” through Google+.

The final assessment for this course included a digital artefact and assessment of three artefacts of other participants.  

Reflections on this MOOC Experience.

Some years ago, when Internet-based distance education was getting popular, a lot of discussions were conducted on the impact of distance education on physical campuses. The emergence of MOOCs has aroused similar discussions and concerns.

Apparently MOOCs have both promises and pitfalls for disseminating knowledge. Promises include its potential to reach unlimited number of participants and unlimited boundaries; the second promise many of the MOOCs are “taught” by the renowned professors from the elite institutions; the third one is the any-time, any-place flexibility compared to face2face courses.
Yet, there are many problems MOOCs have to address. One, the quality of the MOOC education. Because of the large number of participants, it’s almost impossible for an individual to get attention of the course professors. In the course I took, many participants complained of the limited presence of the course instructors. As a matter of fact, the instructors did not participate in the discussions at all, and even they did, their posts would be buried by the hundreds of other posts. The second pitfall of MOOCs, as I see it, is the validity of the course evaluation. This problem also has something to do with the big number of participants. As far as the course I took, the evaluation assignments did not seem to be closely relevant with what was covered in the course. It seemed that even someone who had not taken the course, he/she could still make a digital artifact and assess other’s artifact. The third problem is the high rate dropout. This problem may have a lot to do with the fact that many participants took the course merely for gaining an experience rather than credit or certificate. Nevertheless, students’ motivation is a critical factor for the successful completion of the course.

Implications of MOOCs for ACS Institutions

 Finally, I want to raise the following questions to my colleagues for discussion. What’s the impact of MOOCs to residential colleges and universities? Are MOOCs a real threat to residential colleges and universities such as our ACS institutions? What can we, as a consortium, do to meet the challenge posed by MOOCs and adapt to new technology that drives MOOCs?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

What are the advantages of MOOCs?

"We had MOOCs back in my day.  They were called 'books.'"

A recent visiting speaker at Trinity University said the above to me.  And to first order, it's true.  Until very recently, if you were motivated to learn a subject on your own, you turned to books.  Books are self-pacing, portable, and adjust to your time schedule.  And in the infancy of MOOCs, you can find a greater variety of approaches and skill levels in books for just about any subject.  So what advantages do MOOCs offer at the moment?  I'm listing these from least to most persausive, in my opinion.

Some People Learn Better By Listening -- I've heard this in the past, but the two times I've mentioned it to psychology faculty, they've bitten my head off.

Technology Makes Everything More Fun -- In "The Simpsons," Bart won't do yard work, but will wait in line to play with the Yard Work Simulator.  I can see the same idea working here, but surely the shine would wear off after several weeks of work.

Interaction With Instructor -- Message boards should allow you to get questions answered directly by the instructor or teaching assistants.  Unfortunately the signal-to-noise in the classes I've observed has been horrible, with a couple of students turning the boards into their personal blogs.  (Digression:  Is this a science-specific issue?  Do the humanities have an equivalent to the "Einstein is WRONG!!" stereotype?  Do they get regular, mammoth letters outlining how Shakespeare's plays could be decoded to reveal their authorship by a Belgian farmer predicting the end of the world?)

Feedback -- My favorite feature of MOOCs so far has been end-of-video quizzes, which help cement the ideas you've just learned and explain the right answers when you choose incorrectly.  Books typically do a lousy job of this.  If they have exercises, often they put a subset of answers in the back with no explanation.  But there's nothing about the platform of books that prevents them from having this feature.

Multimedia -- Now we're getting somewhere.  MOOCs can supplement their instruction with sound, video, and animation, such as in The Mechanical Universe, probably the best example of this I've ever seen.  But this content takes a lot of effort to create, and the course in which I am now enrolled uses almost none.  And as I mentioned in my last post, I haven't come upon a concept yet where I felt I needed such visual cues to understand it.

Reward Structure -- People are more motivated when there is a reward at the end, especially one more tangible than self-improvement.  A friend of mine is participating in a weight-loss program wherein you pay money, and get double the money back if reach a target weight in a certain time frame.  Even though he knew the benefits of losing weight, he told me he didn't think he could do it without the added incentive of having money on the line.  As it pertains to MOOCs, I am astounded at how much emotional investment people place in their completion certificates.  My course is two weeks behind due to the instructor's illness.  He still intends to end the course officially on March 11th, but will post all the delayed content after that date so people don't miss anything.  The boards are rife with complaints that they would rather work faster and complete it all by the 11th so that their certificates mean more.  Um...they don't mean anything now.

Activation Energy -- With books, you have to search for the right one, and either plunk down some money on Amazon or drive to your local library.  Not exactly an impulse buy.  But with MOOCs, if I were to page through the Coursera offerings and find something that I liked, I could sign up right now.  No cost, no investment, and nobody looking over my shoulder if I decide it's not right for me and drop it later.  And since I have the course open in another window...
Multitasking -- I could listen to the content while I finished this blog post.  And that is what prompted the quote that began this post; the speaker's daughter was enrolled in MOOCs, and would listen to them while writing emails or checking Facebook, but always while her attention was divided.  Can't really do that with a book.

So what this stream-of-consciousness has led me to is the following:  while there are several potential advantages to MOOCs, as currently constructed they can encourage bad study habits.  It's too easy to think we're learning when we're not, because our mind is elsewhere.  If we become too sorely challenged, we can drop the course and move onto the next one, because what has been lost?

Professor Stonedahl mentioned a couple of his bad habits in the previous post, so let me add my own.  I am really enjoying Galaxies and Cosmology, and have been filling a lot of holes in my astronomy knowledge.  But I worry about whether I will remember much of it once the course ends.  Right now I find it easiest to complete the course by setting aside a 2-hour block once a week, devouring a week's worth of videos in rapid succession, and then taking the weekly quiz (one attempt only in this course) while the information is fresh in my mind.  It's working; I haven't scored below 90% yet, though there are some lucky guesses in there.   But is this the best way to store this knowledge in my long-term memory?  Already I feel like the early chapters are slipping away.

The point -- when we teach face-to-face, we discuss study habits with our students all the time.  Read the material before you come to class.  Don't start the homework at the last minute, but spread it out so that you are reviewing concepts more regularly.  Learn through practice.  In MOOCs, where we don't have as direct an interaction with our students, we need to think how to structure them to make bad habits harder to form in the first place.