Coming up for air (and spouting off)

A real-time chronicle of a seasoned professor who has just completed giving his first massively open online course.

Almost a month has passed since I last posted to this blog. Keeping my MOOC running took up so much time that, once it was over, I was faced with a huge backlog of other tasks to complete. Taking a good look at the mass of data from the course is just one of several post-MOOC activities that will have to wait until the New Year. So readers looking for statistics, analyses, and conclusions about my MOOC will, I am afraid, have to wait a little bit longer. Like most others giving these early MOOCs, we are doing so on the top of our existing duties; the time involved has yet to be figured into university workloads.

One issue that came up recently was when I put on my “NPR Math Guy” hat and talked with Weekend Edition host Scott Simon about my MOOC experience.

In the interview, I remarked that MOOCs owed more to Facebook than to YouTube. This observation has been questioned by some people, who believe Kahn Academy’s use of YouTube was the major inspiration. In making this comment, they are echoing the statement made by former Stanford Computer Science professor Sebastian Thrun when he announced the formation of Udacity.

In fact, I made my comment to Scott with my own MOOC (and many like it) in mind. Though I have noted in earlier posts to this blog how I studied Sal Khan’s approach in designing my own, having now completed my first MOOC, I am now even more convinced than previously that the eventual (we hope) success of MOOCs will be a consequence of Facebook (or social media in general) rather than of Internet video streaming.

The reason why I felt sure this would be the case is that (in most disciplines) the key to real learning has always been bi-directional human-human interaction (even better in some cases, multi-directional, multi-person interaction), not unidirectional instruction.

What got the entire discussion about MOOCs off in the wrong direction – and with it the public perception of what they are – is the circumstance of their birth, or more accurately, of their hugely accelerated growth when a couple of American Ivy League universities (one of them mine) got in on the act.

But it’s important to note that the first major-league MOOCs all came out of Stanford’s Computer Science Department, as did the two spinoff MOOC platforms, Udacity and Coursera. When MIT teamed up with Harvard to launch their edX platform a few months later, it too came from their Computer Science Department.

And there’s the rub. Computer Science is an atypical case when it comes to online learning. Although many aspects of computer science involve qualitative judgments and conceptual reasoning, the core parts of the subject are highly procedural, and lend themselves to instruction-based learning and to machine evaluation and grading. (“Is that piece of code correct?” Let the computer run it and see if it performs as intended.)

Instructional courses that teach students how to carry out various procedures, which can be assessed to a large degree by automatic grading (often multiple choice questions) are the low hanging fruit for online education. But what about the Humanities, the Arts, and much of Science, where instruction is only a small part of the learning process, and a decidedly unimportant part at that, and where machine assessment of student work is at best a goal in the far distant future, if indeed it is achievable at all?

In the case of my MOOC, “Introduction to Mathematical Thinking,” the focus was the creative/analytic mathematical thinking process and the notion of proof. But you can’t learn how to think a certain way or how prove something by being told or shown how to do it any more than you can learn how to ride a bike by being told or shown. You have to try for yourself, and keep trying, and falling, until it finally clicks. Moreover, apart from some very special, and atypical, simple cases, neither thinking nor proofs can be machine graded. Proofs are more like essays than calculations. Indeed, one of the things I told my students in my MOOC was that a good proof is a story, that explains why something is the case.

For the vast majority of students, discussion with (and getting feedback from) professors, TAs, and other students struggling to acquire problem solving ability and master abstract concepts and proofs, is an essential part of learning. For those purposes, the online version does not find its inspiration in Khan Academy as it did for Thrun, but in Facebook, which showed how social interaction could live on the Internet.

When the online version of Thrun’s Stanford AI class attracted 160,000 students, he did not start a potential revolution in global higher education, but two revolutions, only the first of which he was directly involved in. The first one is relatively easy to recognize and understand, especially for Americans, who for the most part have never experienced anything other than instruction-based education.

For courses where the goal is for the student to achieve mastery of a set of procedures (which is true of many courses in computer science and in mathematics), MOOCs almost certainly will change the face of higher education. Existing institutions that provide little more than basic, how-to instruction have a great deal to fear from MOOCs. They will have to adapt (and there is a clear way to do so) or go out of business.

If I want to learn about AI, I would prefer to do so from an expert such as Sebastian Thrun. (In fact, when I have time, I plan on taking his Udacity course on the subject!) So too will most students. Why pay money to attend a local college and be taught by a (hopefully competent) instructor of less stature when you can learn from Thrun for free?

True, Computer Science courses are not just about mastery of procedures. There is a lot to be learned from the emphases and nuances provided by a true expert, and that’s why, finances aside, I would choose Thrun’s course. But at the end of the day, it’s the procedural mastery that is the main goal. And that’s why that first collection of Computer Science MOOCs has created the popular public image of the MOOC student as someone watching canned instructional videos (generally of short duration and broken up by quizzes), typing in answers to questions to be evaluated by the system.

But this kind of course occupies the space in the overall educational landscape that McDonalds does in the restaurant business. (As someone who makes regular use of fast food restaurants, this is most emphatically not intended as a denigratory observation. But seeing utility and value in fast food does not mean I confuse a Big Mac with quality nutrition.)

Things are very, very different in the Humanities, Arts, and most of Science (and some parts of Computer Science), including all of mathematics beyond basic skills mastery – something that many people erroneously think is an essential prerequisite for learning how to do math, all evidence from people who really do learn how to do math to the contrary.

[Ask the expert. We don’t master the basic skills; we don’t need them because, early on in our mathematic learning, we acquired one – yes, just one – fundamental ability: mathematical thinking. That’s why the one or two kids in the class who seem to find math easy seem so different. In general, they don’t find math easy, but they are doing something very different from everyone else. Not because they are born with a “math gene”. Rather, instead of wasting their time mastering basic skills, they spent that time learning how to think a certain way. It’s just a matter of how you devote your learning time. It doesn’t help matters that some people managed to become qualified math teachers and professors seemingly without figuring out that far more efficient path, and hence add their own voice to those who keep calling for “more emphasis on basic skills” as being an essential prerequisite to mathematical power.]

But I digress. To get back to my point, while the popular image of a MOOC centers on lecture-videos and multiple-choice quizzes, what Humanities, Arts, and Science MOOCs (including mine) are about is community building and social interaction. For the instructor (and the very word “instructor” is hopelessly off target in this context), the goal in such a course is to create a learning community.  To create an online experience in which thousands of self-motivated individuals from around the world can come together for a predetermined period of intense, human–human interaction, focused on a clearly stated common goal.

We know that this can be done at scale, without the requirement that the participants are physically co-located or even that they know one another. NASA used this approach to put a man on the moon. MMOs (massively multiplayer online games – from which acronym MOOCs got their name) showed that the system works when the shared goal is success in a fantasy game world.

Whether the same approach works for higher education remains an open question. And, for those of us in higher education, what a question! A question that, in my case at least, has proved irresistible.

This, then, is the second MOOC revolution. The social MOOC. It’s outcome is far less evident than the first.

The evidence I have gathered from my first attempt at one of these second kinds of MOOC is encouraging, or at least, I find it so. But there is a long way to go to make my course work in a fashion that even begins to approach what can be achieved in a traditional classroom.

I’ll pursue these thoughts in future posts to this blog — and in future versions of my Mathematical Thinking MOOC, of which I hope to offer two variants in 2013.

Meanwhile, let me direct you to a recent article that speaks to some of the issues I raised above. It is from my legendary colleague in Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, Larry Cuban, where he expresses his skepticism that MOOCs will prove to be an acceptable replacement for much of higher education.

To be continued …

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11 Responses to “Coming up for air (and spouting off)”


  1. 1 reflectionsandcontemplations (@martinlugton) November 26, 2012 at 7:57 am

    I completely agree with your point about learning being social, and about the promise of MOOCs being more about connections and networks than video streaming.

    Interesting to see you write about ” the second MOOC revolution. The social MOOC.” This type of MOOC does actually already exist, but isn’t well known.

    This page introduces these ‘connectivist’ MOOCs: http://www.connectivistmoocs.org/what-is-a-connectivist-mooc/

    Given what you’ve said in this article I think you’ll like what you see :)

  2. 4 Paul Reiners November 26, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    “[...] future versions of my Mathematical Thinking MOOC, of which I hope to offer two variants in 2013.”

    I’ve said this before, but I would love to see you and/or Jonathan Borwein offer a MOOC on “The Computer as Crucible”.

    More generally, I’d love to see you offer a MOOC on any topic suitable for people who have a bachelor’s degree in math.

    • 5 Keith Devlin November 27, 2012 at 4:17 am

      Almost certainly I’ll offer a MOOC on a different topic at some stage. But first, I want to learn how to design and run a MOOC that I am satisfied with — and I think that will take several iterations with my current topic. :-)

  3. 6 Bill Kitch November 26, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    I agree that creating a learning community is a key concept, whether in a MOOC or a face to face class. It seems to me that an import aspect of the MOOCs I’ve lurked in, is that has had a number of students with significant subject matter knowledge. These experienced students seem to play a major role in creating and advancing the online learning communities. I’m hoping your data collection and analysis will give some insight on who these experienced students are and their importance to the community. My working thesis is that they are essential. I’d be interested in data supporting, or refuting, this annecdotal observation. I’ve seen the power of crowd sourcing, but in most applications (such as pothole earthquke reporting) it doesn’t require a expert. In the case of MOOCs I think it requires significant topical experience, if not expertise.

    • 7 Keith Devlin November 27, 2012 at 4:20 am

      I agree on the (likely) need for experts in the discussion groups. I tried one way to do that with my first attempt, and it failed miserably. (It did not help that the Coursera platform did not support groups. They are working on it, but likely won’t have it ready until next fall.) I’ve written on this a number of times in this series.

  4. 8 Barry Peddycord III November 26, 2012 at 11:55 pm

    I often say that the real essence of MOOCs are not the courses on udacity.com, but the showcase on udacity.me. Thanks so much for articulating the connection to social networking – I feel like the real way to make MOOCs successful is to leverage social networks to build meaningful virtual study groups.

    Thinking that ‘youtube’ is what has driven the success of MOOCs is a very web 1.0 way of thinking. ”Social” is the new paradigm of the web.

  5. 9 Shecky R November 27, 2012 at 12:20 am

    Great post and thoughts! Like you, I’m optimistic about the long-range promise of MOOCs, but am also reminded a bit of being enamored 40 years ago by the advent of Skinnerian “programmed learning” — I thought at the time it would revolutionize education, but it barely made a dent (and part of the problem may well be its lack of a “social” component).
    One thing different about MOOCs is that you will soon be dealing with generations of young people who have grown up doing everything online and for whom it is second nature. As an old fogie ;-) I still find learning from a book easier than learning from a computer screen, but I suspect that will all change, and the worldwide applications for MOOCs will make them indispensable.

  6. 11 Barb Salem December 9, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    Thank You for your thoughts and innovation. As a Mom who stayed home with her children, reacquainting myself with classes/learning is very intimidating. Taking classes online seems more inviting and practical. Moving forward, online MOOC’s with excellent experts is not only appealing its a Godsend! iTunesU has kept me intellectually involved, taking actual classes will stretch my comfort zone – finding out if I am just listening or mastering concepts!


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I'm Dr. Keith Devlin, a mathematician at Stanford University. I gave my first free, open, online math course in fall 2012, and have been offering it twice a year since then. This blog chronicles my experiences as they happen.

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