Archive for August, 2012

The “C” in “MOOC”: MOOC planning – Part 6

A real-time chronicle of a seasoned professor embarking on his first massively open online course.

A few days ago, I went into our campus TV studio with the two course assistants for my upcoming MOOC, to record a short video introducing them to the students.  The students will see a lot of me, but my two TAs will be working behind the scenes, and the students will encounter them only through their contributions to the forum discussions. The videos were intended to compensate for that lack of human contact.

During the course of recording that video, the three of us got into a discussion about our backgrounds, our motives in giving the MOOC, and our views on mathematics, science, education, and our expectations for the MOOC format. The camera was rolling all the time, and we were able to select a few parts of that discussion and create a second video that I think will help our students understand some of our thinking in putting this course together.  I posted copies of both videos on YouTube.  (They are much lower resolution than the videos the registered students will see on the course website when it goes live on September 17 — the “first day of classes”.) I think the two videos provide an insight into our thinking as we designed this course.

The fact that the current round of MOOCs have a “first day of class” at all has been a matter of some debate. The C in MOOC stands for “course”, but is this the best way to go?  For example, see this blogpost from a graduate student at Berkeley, who argues for a more open framework of learning resources. He makes some good points that all of us involved in this initiative have thought about and discussed, but I’m not sure the kind of thing he advocates can work for disciplines and subjects that depend heavily on student-faculty and student-student interaction, as mine does.

In fact, I’m not sure the MOOC will work sufficiently well at all in such cases; this is very much an experiment that I anticipate will continue for several years before we get good answers either way. For the first iteration, it makes sense to start with a model we know does work. And important (we think!) elements of that model are, to repeat Sebastian Thrun’s list, as quoted in the Berkeley student’s blog: admissions, lectures, peer interaction, professor interaction, problem-solving, assignments, exams, deadlines, and certification. To use the mnemonic I coined earlier in this series, our basic design principle is WYSIWOSG: What You See Is What Our Students Get.

Since these courses are free, we can, of course, do a lot of A/B testing in future years, to see which of these truly are crucial, which can be changed and how, and which can be dropped. I suspect the answers we get will vary from discipline to discipline, and possibly from course to course.

All of us involved in this MOOC movement are trying to find out the best way that works for our particular discipline and is consistent with our own style as instructors. As I indicated in Part 4 of this diary, I think it makes sense to begin by trying to implement in a MOOC as much of our tried-and-trusted classroom-based teaching as we can (as Thrun did with Udacity), and then iterating in the light of what we learn.

This is why, instead of hiring a mathematics graduate student to TA my course, which is what I would have done for an on campus class, I brought onto my team two graduate students from Stanford’s School of Education with several years of experience in learning design and the use of technology in education. In addition to helping me with the design and running of the course, they will conduct research into the course’s efficacy and try to understand how learning occurs in a MOOC. (Other than a brief, non-compulsory questionnaire at the start and finish of the course, all their research will be based on data gathered on the Coursera course platform and human monitoring of the forum discussions. One huge benefit of MOOCs is that they facilitate Big Data research.)

It’s live beta, folks.

To be continued …

My first big mistake: MOOC planning – Part 5

A real-time chronicle of a seasoned professor embarking on his first massively open online course.

Wow! With three weeks to go to the course launch, I checked the course registrations for the first time. So far, almost 35,000 students have signed up. In theory, I knew this would happen; that’s been everyone else’s experience with MOOCs. But when you actually see that kind of figure on the stats page for your own course, it makes a big impression.

Then I made my first big mistake. I sent out a welcome email to the students who had already registered. That part was not the mistake. Of course I’d want to welcome the students! Nor was my error to mention this blog in my email. It does, after all, provide students with some background on my thinking behind the course and what I want to achieve. My mistake was not closing comments on this blog before I sent out the email.

I was online when the first few comments started coming in, and as usual I responded to them. Then the flood began. I managed to close comments before the WordPress servers shut me down.  :-)

So, sorry to all those who wrote in to this blog and did not get a reply. The Coursera platform, which is desgned to handle classes of many thousands of students, offers opportunities to comment and exchange ideas, with a mechanism to bring to the attention of me and my teaching assistants any discussion thread that is generating a lot of interest. That will be available once the course starts.

I wonder what my next mistake will be.

To be continued …

Why MOOCs Look Unprofessional: MOOC planning – Part 4

A real-time chronicle of a seasoned professor embarking on his first massively open online course.

From an educational perspective, my goal in offering a MOOC on mathematical thinking is very modest. I have not approached the task as one of developing a whole new pedagogic model. That is a future goal — for me or for others. Rather I set out to see how much we can take current university teaching (of transition mathematics material) and make it available to a wide audience. Indeed, almost all the Stanford MOOCs currently being offered are free, online versions of regular Stanford courses, in many cases running concurrently with a physical class on campus. (As I noted in an earlier post, the technology that supports these MOOCs was actually developed at Stanford in order to facilitate flipped-classroom learning in on-campus classes.)

The underlying assumption of university education — at least at major research universities (as Stanford is) — is that the principle value for the student comes from studying with a world expert in a particular domain. Though many professors at research universities do in fact put enormous effort into their teaching, what is really being offered (sold) to students is the expertise (and reputations) of the faculty. (Other parts of the value proposition, such as the prestige of the university, stem from the faculty, both past and present.) It’s a method that works well for very bright, well-prepared, and highly motivated students, but it is not ideal for everyone.

In fact, even at less prestigious universities, where there are fewer leading research faculty, and at liberal arts colleges, where the primary focus is on undergraduate education, field-content knowledge hugely outweighs pedagogical content knowledge — how to teach the subject and how students learn it. (A Ph.D. is usually required for a faculty position.) That makes universities and colleges very different from high schools.

One of the implicit purposes of  a math transition course, such as mine (as well as many other first-year courses in different disciplines), is to help incoming students adjust to the different approach to teaching. More precisely, it is to help them adjust to not being “taught”, but having someone help them learn. This is particularly significant in mathematics — at least in the US — because of the hugely formulaic, procedures-focused nature of K-12 mathematics education in this country.

My challenge then, like that facing most of my colleagues offering their first MOOC, is to figure out how to take an existing educational model, hitherto used to teach (or help to learn) twenty-five or so students in a classroom, and make it available to thousands, spread around the world.

Since my topic is mathematical thinking, the biggest, and most obvious challenge is how to compensate for the complete absence of regular interaction between the students and me, the instructor. Sure, I give lectures when I teach a physical transition class, but the lectures are one of the least significant components. They really just set the agenda for learning. In order to help the students develop the ability for mathematical thinking, I need to see them in action at the board, to read their work, and to discuss their attempts face-to-face. Learning to think mathematically is more like learning to drive or to play tennis than soaking up knowledge. You have to do it alongside an expert or coach.

It’s a challenge I think cannot be completely overcome in a MOOC. The question is, is it possible to get part-way there? I suspect it is, but we’ll only find out for sure by making the attempt. So here we are.

One thing a MOOC does offer that is not possible in a physical class — and hence is a plus — is that all the instruction and professorial-learning-assistance can be on a one-to-one basis. Sure, it’s all one way, but if you set it up right (and if your voice/personality/whatever work over an ethernet cable), then the student can get that sense of working alongside the instructor — the expert.

Though by no means the first to discover that, Salman Khan, by virtue of his huge following at Khan Academy, demonstrated just how powerful is that sense of “working together, side-by-side”. Though I share the dismay of many of my colleagues at his less-than-expert content knowledge and his almost non-existent pedagogical content knowledge (neither of which he could be expected to have, given his background), where I seem to part company with many of them is the huge significance I attach  to the way he pulls off that human-connect. For online learning, I suspect it trumps almost all other factors.

(BTW, in developing my MOOC, I soon lost track of the number of times I made a decision based on a “suspicion” — or a “guess” or  “hunch”. MOOCs are generating enough research questions to sustain several generations of doctoral dissertations in education research.)

Based on that suspicion (admittedly a suspicion comfortingly buttressed by a Khan Academy user base that numbers in the millions), Khan’s format was my starting point, as I observed in my last post. Not just the physical aspect of “sitting alongside in a one-on-one tutorial” but the associated human connect (and with it reassurance and encouragement) that Khan delivers.

In Khan’s case, his now widely familiar format originated with him informally helping his school-age relatives (who lived a long way away) with their math homework. What the viewer gets on their computer screen is, well, just “Uncle Sal”, doing what he would have done if he were really sitting alongside one of his relatives. For my MOOC, I wanted to achieve a similar outcome. Not a slick show, not a polished, rehearsed performance. Just me doing math.

Of course, the logistics of putting together a complete course that has to run automatically, and be scalable to many thousands of students around the world, many of them not native English speakers, meant that there had to be a lot of detailed advanced planning. Everything had to be scripted. But when it comes to the bits where I explain some mathematics, I put the script to one side and just start to work through the material as if I am sitting next to a student.

You might not like it. It might not work for you. You will surely despair at my handwriting. You might hate my accent. (I did cut down drastically on my jokes and puns, in deference to a multilingual audience.) But as far as I can make it, absent being physically in the same room, it’s what you would get if you were taking the course with me here at Stanford.  [Some time spent in a campus video-editing studio made my into-camera segments look a lot smoother than they were when we recorded them! If it's digital, it's plastic. But the goal there was to reduce the length of those segments.]

Which brings me back to my starting point: seeing the extent to which we can take existing university education and make it available to the world.

Once we can do that — and it will surely take several iterations to iron out all the kinks and make an altogether better job of it — we can look at how to change the underlying model. In addition to MOOCs making accessible to the world some aspects of university education, I think that the act of designing them, mounting them, and analyzing the results, will lead to changes in the way we organize learning within our universities.

It is because the current goal is to see how well we can deliver (current) real university education to the world for free that most of the MOOCs being offered have an unpolished, unrehearsed look. By deliberate choice, to the greatest degree we can achieve, what you see is what our (on-campus) students get. (I think this WYSIWOSG philosophy — I just made up that term —  is also one of the reasons for the success of Salman Khan — including the fact that in his case, unlike university MOOCs, he does not even lesson-plan his instruction sessions.)

So much for the most visible part of the MOOC: the instruction. But instruction is still just instruction. As I’ve said before, the learning takes place elsewhere, through other mechanisms, none of which we understand very well. So where is that educational  meat?

Now we are about to really enter speculative territory.

To be continued …

COMMENTS: As always, comments are welcome, provided they remain on topic.

Khan Academy Meets Vi Hart: MOOC planning – Part 3

A real-time chronicle of a seasoned professor embarking on his first massively open online course.

The ideal way to learn mathematical thinking (and a great many other things that involve understanding, not just doing) is in a small physical group with an expert. That provides frequent opportunities to interact one-on-one with the expert, during which the expert can observe you work in real time (on paper or at a board) and can give you direct feedback on written work you have done and handed in for evaluation. It also provides frequent opportunities to discuss what is being learned with other students at the same stage of their learning, sometimes with the expert present, other times with the expert absent.

Sometimes, the expert will provide instruction. Though there have been successful instances of mathematics professors who largely avoid instruction (R L Moore being the most notable example), most of us (i.e., university mathematics educators) find that instruction has a valuable place in mathematics education. But many of us view it as just one part of mathematics education.

Anyone who has experienced highly interactive mathematics teaching will know how different it is from mere instruction, and how much more effective. I wrote about this last March in my Devlin’s Angle column for the MAA. Unfortunately, it seems clear that a great many Americans have never experienced good mathematics teaching. If they had, you would not have thousands of Khan Academy users (including famous figures such as Bill Gates) declaring Salman Khan is the best math teacher ever. You can say a number of good things about Sal Khan (I am going to say some of them in just a moment), but being a great math teacher is not one of them. To say that he is, simply reflects on the miserable math ed diet that many millions of American have been fed, for whom Khan Academy offers something far better than they were ever exposed to.

I bring up Khan Academy for a couple of reasons, one being that it set the stage for the MOOC explosion. Indeed, former Stanford CS professor Sebastian Thrun stated publicly last January that it was Khan Academy that inspired him to give his first MOOC in fall 2011, and then to leave Stanford and launch his own MOOC service Udacity at the start of this year.

It’s not merely the wide reach that Khan Academy demonstrated. As I discussed in a recent article for the MAA, Sal Khan managed to tap into the power of the Web medium to achieve a critical element of good teaching that not all teachers can offer: a strong teacher-student bond. Moreover, he did so using just his voice and the electronic trail of a digital pen on the viewer’s computer screen. Yes, some of the math is wrong, and the pedagogy is so poor, experienced teachers tear their hair out, but the very success of Khan Academy shows how important is the teacher-student connection.

Khan Academy is not a MOOC, of course, but it does provide a model for online mathematics instruction. In starting to plan my MOOC, I began by trying variants of Sal’s approach for the instructional part. Like him, I have a voice that works on the radio (or a Web audio channel) — an accident of birth — which makes such an approach feasible.

I soon concluded that his approach would not work. It is fine for presenting short instructional mini-lectures on how to follow a particular mathematical procedure, but it is woefully impoverished for trying to help students understand a mathematics idea or a proof, and to form the right mental concepts. For that, the huge importance in mathematics teaching of physical gestures, in particular the hand(s), cannot be ignored.

There is an old challenge in which you ask someone to describe a helix while keeping their hands clasped firmly behind their back. (Try it!) But it’s not just helices. Explaining almost any mathematical concept without using at the very least hand and arm gestures, and in many cases full body motion, is difficult if not impossible. There is masses written about this topic, based on many years of research. For example, take a look at this summary, or this one, or this forthcoming book. Or Google on the terms “mathematics + learning + hand + gesture” or variants thereof to see a lot more.

Since MOOC students access the material on a wide range of devices, with different screen sizes, I felt that a full body recording of me working at (and in front of) a blackboard or whiteboard would not be ideal. Besides, I love the sense of intimacy Khan Academy offers. You get a strong sense of sitting next to a friendly relative who is personally instructing you. I wanted to create that environment.

But trying to follow an explanation of a mathematical concept or proof Khan-style, where the visual channel consists only of a digital pen trace, was impossible — at least, it was given my educational style. At the very least, I needed my writing hand to direct the student’s focus. The simplest way to achieve that was to have a video camera mounted above my desk and record me working through the material in the time-honored fashion of paper-and-pencil. That seemed to work.

Having decided on the basic modality, the next issue was one of style and tone. After playing with some variants of the basic format, I came down in favor of a very informal look, where I simply slap down a sheet of paper on the desk in front of me and the student, and work through the material. (Marking the exact position of the paper on the desk and letting it totally fill the screen looked too artificial — though at this stage the issue was largely one of taste, and this is a decision I may change based on the experience I get from this first course. I did have to tape down the paper, but the initial placement was fairly casual, and the taping was sufficiently loose that the paper could still move a little — it takes effort to create “informality” on video.)

To counter the inevitable sense of frustration when watching a pen write something out in real time, I decided to speed up a lot of the writing during the video editing phase. (Though not to the speed of the wonderful Vi Hart, whose purpose is informative entertainment.) So at that stage I found myself with a “Sal Khan meets Vi Hart” look. A great place to start, given the success both have achieved!

For standalone Web instruction, that would likely be enough, but a MOOC involves a lot more. It is, after all, a course — a structured experience over several weeks, with a professor. Regular connection to the instructor is important — at least, I think it is. (It was for me when I was a student.) To achieve that “human connection,” many of my Stanford colleagues who have given MOOCs have put a small head-and-shoulders video of themselves speaking in one corner of the screen, as the material being discussed occupies the rest of the display. I tried that, and found it did not work for me, with my material. The face was a distraction. I wanted to keep as much of the Khan Academy sense as possible — you don’t ignore success unless there is good reason! So I opted to keep video of me separate from the hand-writing part.

I’ve posted a short sample from Lecture 1 on YouTube. Given the low resolution of YouTube video encoding, this does not display well in terms of content, but the Coursera platform uses far higher resolution video.

I doubt much of this material will survive to a second iteration of the course next year. At the very least, I’d want to go back and pay more attention to lighting and audio levels and consistency.  But it does have the overall look and feel I was trying to achieve. This is live beta, folks.

But as I have already indicated in this blog series, I don’t see the video lectures as the heart of the course. They merely set the agenda for learning. The real learning takes place elsewhere. I’ll turn to that topic in a future post.

Meanwhile, my Stanford MOOC Introduction to Mathematical Thinking is scheduled to begin on September 17 on Coursera. If you want to do some preliminary reading, there is my low-cost course textbook by the same name. Though written to align to the course, it is not required in order to complete the course. (Indeed, I noted  above that I see MOOCs as replacing textbooks — though some MOOCs may have required textbooks, so it would be unwise to predict the imminent death of the printed textbook!)

To be continued …

NOTE: I mentioned Khan Academy to indicate its role in the MOOC explosion and acknowledge its role in guiding the design of the instructional videos in my MOOC. But the focus of this blog is on MOOCs in general and mathematics MOOCs in particular. Comments discussing the merits or demerits of Khan Academy are off topic and hence will not be published; there are many other venues for such discussions.

How Facebook Made MOOCs Viable: MOOC planning – Part 2

A real-time chronicle of a seasoned professor embarking on his first massively open online course.

One obvious, but huge distinction between planning a physical course and planning a MOOC is that for the former, it is generally fairly easy to make changes — even major ones — once the course is underway. But MOOCs are different. It requires an enormous amount of time to put a MOOC together (video recording/editing and implementing all the online course materials are just two elements not present in a physical course, or if they are, those materials can usually simply be omitted if a mid-course adjustment is required). As a result, once the course launches, you are pretty well committed to running it through largely as planned.

If I were putting together a MOOC for which Stanford would charge (and offer credit), by now I would be getting decidedly nervous. But that is not how things stand at present. Everyone sees this sudden MOOC explosion purely as an experiment to see what the medium can offer. The courses are free, and since there is no credential at stake, there is no worry about unmotivated students or of cheating. An unmotivated student is not going to continue with the course beyond the first week or so, and the only person who loses by student cheating is the student. Presumably both will change if this experimental phase is a success, and MOOCs take their place alongside other forms of higher education, where there are payments and credentials.

My own view, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is that MOOCs are not a replacement of the traditional bricks-and-mortar university, rather they are the twenty-first century version of the textbook.

Widespread availability of textbooks did not replace universities. Indeed, they did not change university education very much at all. In theory, once every student could purchase a textbook, there should have been little need for professors to give mainstream content lectures — particularly if the professor had written the course textbook — but the basic content lecture continued to remain the dominant model.  Early in my professorial career, I tried to adopt a flipped classroom approach, based on giving students reading assignments from a book I had written, and using the class time to discuss the material. It proved to be a disaster; hardly any of the student read the assigned reading, and of those that had, few really knew how to read a mathematics text and learn by so doing. I soon ended up having to give classical lectures on the material that was expressed far better in my textbook — far better because I had spent time putting my thoughts onto the page and the resulting manuscript had been professionally edited.

I am not sure that, on their own, video-recorded instructional material will lead to much of a change in university education either. Video-lectures are not really very different from textbooks. At least, for most university-level material that is the case. For learning how to carry out maintenance around the house, to change a bicycle tire, to assemble a piece of furniture, etc., video is far better than text. But those are all simple procedural learning — the goal is to learn how to do something, and for that purpose, showing is more efficient than describing in words. In contrast, the main focus of much university education is understanding; the student is supposed to learn how to think differently. That is very hard to do at arm’s length, regardless of whether the arm involves a textbook or a video. It is by direct interaction with an instructor and with other learners that we can gain understanding and learn how to think a certain way. That is why I don’t see MOOCs as a threat to the existence of universities.

MOOCs may, however, do what textbooks and instructional-videos failed to do. They may finally give rise to flipped classrooms — a mere six centuries after the invention of the printing press give rise to textbooks. The reason is, MOOCs are far more than video-recorded instruction. In fact, video lectures are one of the least significant elements of a MOOC. The key to the educational potential of MOOCs are human-computer and human-human interaction —  the latter especially so for most subjects. In particular, social media are what make MOOCs possible, and it is the widespread familiarity with, and acceptance of, human-human interaction over an ethernet cable that led to the sudden explosion of interest in MOOCs. In short, MOOCs are a direct consequence of the growth of Facebook, which made interaction-by-social-media global.

[I should add that I don't see the degree of human-human interaction offered by social media in a MOOC being as educationally powerful as direct fact-to-face interaction. The unavoidable limitation in a MOOC is not the medium per se, rather is the scalability factor. In a physical class, the students get to interact with the professor -- the expert, the domain professional. In a MOOC, that crucial part is missing. I think good course design can get a lot out of social media, but that one factor means that we'll always need physical universities.]

The challenge facing a professor setting out to design and offer a MOOC, then, is to figure out how to take advantage of the (human-computer and) human-human interaction made possible on a global scale by social media, in order to provide students with a valuable learning experience.

In this regard, the experiment really begins with (many of) the 117 MOOCs currently offered by the MOOC platform Coursera. Coursera is a spin-off from a Stanford project in Computer Science to develop a platform to support flipped classrooms at the university. The first wave of Stanford MOOCs were basic level computer science courses, where there is a heavy focus on procedural learning and less dependency on reflection and peer interaction. (Those features come later in CS, and when they do, not a few Stanford CS students drop out and start their own companies, occasionally becoming millionaires within a few years!) But many of the second wave of courses now underway are in humanities and other areas, where the primary focus is on thinking and understanding, not doing.

To take just one instance of course design, in a basic-level computer science MOOC, it is possible to give machine-graded assignments. It would be possible to offer a math MOOC a similar way, provided the focus was on mastering basic computational procedures.  But in my case, where my goal is to develop mathematical thinking, I realized from the start that the key to making it work would be the social media factor. Just as it is for humanities courses.

That impacted how I would design, structure, and present the core material, as I’ll describe in my next post.

To be continued …


I'm Dr. Keith Devlin, a mathematician at Stanford University. In fall 2012, I gave my first free, open, online math course. I repeated it in spring 2013, then in fall 2013, and in February I am giving it a fourth time, each time with changes. This blog chronicles my experiences as they happen.

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