Here we go again

A real-time chronicle of a seasoned professor who is about to give his second massively open online course.

The second offering of my MOOC Introduction to Mathematical Thinking begins on March 4 on Coursera. (The site actually opens on March 2, so students can familiarize themselves with its structure and start to make contact with other students before the first lecture.) So far, 13,000 students have registered. Last time I got 65,000, but back then there was the novelty factor. I’m expecting about 35,000 this time round.

For a quick overview of my current thoughts on MOOCs, see this 13 minute TV interview I did at Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia last November. (As the home of Skype, global-tech-hub Tallinn is particularly interested in MOOCs, of course.)

It’s been almost four months since my first foray into the chaotic new world of MOOCs came to an end, and ten weeks since I posted my last entry on this blog. I have decided that giving a MOOC falls into the same category as running a marathon (I’ve done maybe two dozen), completing the Death Ride (three), and – I am told – having a baby (I played a decidedly minor role in two). At the time you wonder why you are putting yourself through such stress, and that feeling continues for a while after the event is over. But then the strain of it all fades and you are left with feelings of pleasure, accomplishment, and satisfaction. And with that comes the desire to do it all again – better in the case of running, cycling, and MOOCing.

Coursera, we have a problem

It’s important to remember that genuinely massive MOOCs are a mere eighteen months old, and each one is very much a startup operation — as are the various platform providers such as Udacity, edX, Coursera, Venture Labs. and Class2Go (all except edX coming out of Global Startup Central, i.e., Stanford). One of the features of any startup operation is that there will be plenty of missteps along the way. Given the complexity of designing  and delivering a university course in real time to tens of thousands of students around the world, it’s amazing that to date there have been just two missteps. The first, when the instructor had to pull the plug on a MOOC on designing online courses (yes, a particularly poignant topic as it turned out) and then more recently when the instructor pulled out, leaving the course to be run by the support staff.

Notice that I did not refer to either as a “failure.” Anyone who views such outcomes as failures has clearly never tried to do anything new and challenging, where you have to make up some of the rules as you go on. We are less than two years into this whole MOOC thing, so it’s worth reminding ourselves what it took (VIDEO) the USA to put a man on the Moon and bring him back alive, and to go on and build the Space Shuttle. The pedagogic fundamental that we gain confidence from our successes but learn from our mistakes, is as true for MOOC platform builders and MOOC instructors as it is for MOOC students.

Fortunately, I survived my first test flight relatively unscathed. I may not be so lucky second time round. I’ve made some changes that are intended to make the course better, but won’t know if they do until the course is underway.

Perhaps the most obvious change is to stretch the course from seven weeks (five weeks of lectures followed by two weeks of final exam work) to ten (8 + 2). Many students in my first course told me that the “standard university pace” with which I covered the curriculum was simply too much for online students who were fitting the course around busy professional and family schedules. I doubt that change will have any negative consequences.

More uncertain in their outcome are the changes I have made to the peer review process, that forms a major component of the course for students who are taking it for a Certificate of Completion (particularly Completion with Distinction).

Give credit where credit is due? Maybe

Talking of which, the issue of credentialing continues to generate a lot of discussion. My course does not offer College Credit (and it is not clear any Stanford MOOC ever will), but just recently, the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE CREDIT)  has evaluated and recommended college credit be given for five MOOCs currently offered (by other universities) on Coursera. (Starting this March, it will be possible to take an enhanced version of my MOOC given by Stanford Online High School, for which a credential is awarded, but that course, aimed at high flying high school juniors and seniors, has a restricted enrollment and carries a fee, so it is not a MOOC, rather a course with tutors and assessment, built around my MOOC.)

But I digress. As I observed on a number of occasions in this blog and my MAA blog Devlin’s Angle, I see group work and peer evaluation as the key to making quality mathematics education available in a MOOC. So students who took the first version of my course and are planning on enrolling again (and I know many are) will see some changes there. Not huge ones. Like NASA’s first fumbling steps into space, I think it is prudent to make small changes that have a good chance of being for the better. But I learned a lot from my first trip into MOOC-space, and I expect to learn more, and make further changes, on my second flight.

Finally, if you want to learn more about my reflections on my first MOOC and MOOCs in general, and have a two hour car drive during which you would find listening to a podcast about MOOCs marginally better than searching through an endless cycle of crackly Country and Western radio stations, download the two podcast files from Wild About Math, where host Sol Lederman grills me about MOOCs.

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17 Responses to “Here we go again”


  1. 1 Chris February 20, 2013 at 8:57 am

    Your effort & energy is very much appreciated.

  2. 2 vmarinelli February 20, 2013 at 9:40 am

    So weirdly psyched about this. I’ve been out of school for so long, it hurts, and the math background I had to start with was nearly non-existent. (In high school Geometry, I wrote poetry.) I need to do this for a very long list of reasons, and this option makes it possible. Thanks for your (possibly crazy) forward thinking in developing this.

  3. 3 Patricia February 20, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    As one of the folks who couldn’t keep pace last term, I am so very grateful for the opportunity to take the (slightly) slower-paced version this term. As a theater major with a Masters in the Art of Teaching English, I have to say that over half of my notes for last term’s class were about your pedagogical style. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your process with us along with the Math.

    I am excited to see how you’re going to approach the peer-review process; it has consistently been the weakest link in all 5 MOOCs in which I have taken part. Thank you for trying something new.

  4. 4 Mark Richard-Fogg February 20, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    Keith, looking forward to taking your MOOC again (having discovered the first two days before the final.) A cognitive re-igniter is your MOOC!

  5. 5 Bridget Collins February 20, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    Looking forward to this with trepidation – math was not my strongest suit.

    And this is my first MOOC.

    But very excited.

    Thank you for doing this.

  6. 6 stefanmathematics February 20, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    I’m truly looking forward to this! I think math education can be improved greatly, and I’m excited to see how professor Devlin approach it.
    Also, and I really liked Muller’s perspective. I didn’t know about him until I read Devlin’s post: http://devlinsangle.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-problem-with-instructional-videos.html. So, let’s make a bunch of mistakes, my fellow students, and learn while doing so. :)

  7. 7 Jerzy February 20, 2013 at 5:11 pm

    Keith, the idea of having a blog is excellent. I am taking another MOOC right now but I have no clue what the organizers are thinking about (possible improvements).

    Also, publishing a book on Amazon is a very good move. Looking forward to learn from you how to run a successful MOOC.

  8. 8 ThomasPatrick Stainbrook February 20, 2013 at 7:47 pm

    I am so Very Much looking forward to this and the other courses I’ve enrolled in here on Coursera.org that one can not find the words anywhere to describe how HAPPY I am to have this opportunity. I THANK YOU!!

  9. 9 Robert Talbert (@RobertTalbert) February 20, 2013 at 9:17 pm

    First of all, I really appreciate that you are doing a MOOC. I didn’t participate in it the first time but heard nothing but great things about it from those who did.

    However, I want to disagree with your statement about failure. I don’t think it’s wrong to say those courses failed, or at least contained serious failures that had or are having significant repercussions. These were more than just “missteps”. A misstep is what happens when you plan the best you can and something happens you didn’t prepare for, and you happen to end up in a place you didn’t intend. The Georgia Tech MOOC, from what I have read, simply wasn’t designed well — the technology didn’t work at scale, the assignments didn’t work well, etc. That’s a failure, not an honest mistake. As for the UC-Irvine MOOC, that’s still ongoing so the course itself hasn’t failed, but having a professor quit the course mid-stream is a failure of something, surely — of expectations, perhaps?

    This doesn’t condemn MOOCs — Coursera has 222 courses and 220 of them have not melted down like these two. But those two courses don’t seem to me like simple missteps, and I think you can say so without being someone who never tries new things.

  10. 10 Sean Wesley February 20, 2013 at 10:16 pm

    Dr. Devlin, thank you for continuing to work on this course and for not giving up on MOOC’s like it seems some have in those articles you linked. I took your course last time and made it through the first three weeks before I fell so far behind I couldn’t keep up. So, I am really excited to have the opportunity to take the course again and am looking forward to it. Great job and take care!

  11. 11 Barry West February 20, 2013 at 11:33 pm

    To me, this material is challenging. it is not maths that I learned and need to review, it’s maths that I never learned, being educated in the 1950’s. But there is the added bonus that it is not a classroom, and there is any amount of reference material on the web. Also I’m studying because I want to.

  12. 12 J Long February 21, 2013 at 1:16 am

    Thank you Professor Devlin for your efforts. I look forward to participating in the course. I am cultivating an education that will satisfy my curiosity. I hope this course will assist me in forming a healthy mathematical attitude for life long learning.

  13. 13 Belmond February 21, 2013 at 4:33 am

    HI Keith, you have me all excited for this course. Hope I am able to keep pace with you and the rest of the students.

  14. 14 lightbygrace71 February 23, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    Hi Keith! I am signed up for your upcoming Coursera class because I suck at math and thought it might be a good challenge and might help improve my very poor skills…Reading the information on the Amazon page about your book, however, I am wondering if I would really be able to handle it…I barely passed any kind of math courses in high school and never went beyond remedial pre-algebra in college (with a LOT of extra help)….In your honest opinion do you think this course might help teach a new way of thinking that could help or do you think I might find it as frustrating as other math endeavors? THANKS!

    • 15 Keith Devlin February 23, 2013 at 4:32 pm

      Forget the book (for now) and sign up for the course. You will almost certainly do fine for the first five weeks, and that should be valuable. After that, see how it goes. You may find the book will help for the last five weeks. Good luck.

  15. 17 Nic Matlage February 24, 2013 at 12:55 am

    I haven’t done any significant math, besides basic math you use as a cashier, in several years and am hoping to be able to go back to college in a year and a half and decided to start with your course to help me get back into the mindset. I absolutely love math and am excited to start on this new adventure! Thanks for the welcoming email, can’t wait to start! –Nic


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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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