MOOCs are So Back to the Future

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

With the second edition of my Stanford MOOC Introduction to Mathematical Thinking starting this weekend on Coursera, I have once again been wrestling with the question of the degree to which good, effective mathematics learning can be achieved at scale, over the Internet.

I describe some of my reflections in my latest post in my monthly Devlin’s Angle column for the MAA — a column aimed primarily at college mathematics faculty, which makes up most of the MAA’s membership.

When I started to plan the first iteration of the course last spring, my main goal was to be able to walk away alive in order to try again. I stayed as close as I could to the way I had taught such a course in a traditional classroom setting, since I knew how to make that work (in the traditional classroom). This time round, armed with what I learned from that first attempt, I am making a number of changes.

My course TA (last time and this) is Paul Franz, a doctoral student in Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, and the two of us went into the Stanford TV studio recently to talk about the new course with broadcaster Angie Coiro, currently host of the syndicated radio and television interview show In Deep. You can find the first clip (10 minutes) from that hour-long interview here.  I’ll release further clips in future posts to this blog.

One change I’ve made to the course is to stretch it from seven weeks (five weeks of lectures followed by two weeks of examination work) to ten weeks (eight plus two). As we observe in that video clip, that change was a direct result of the information we collected from giving the course the first time.

Students in a MOOC exhibit a very different — and far more varied — profile from the traditional university cohort. Not just in age and backgrounds, but also in their reasons for enrolling in a MOOC. For instance, many people enroll in a MOOC with no intention of completing the course. They simply want to get a sense of the topic or subject.

But there is another group that wants to complete the course,  and come in prepared to work very hard to do so. They want the course to be as close as possible to a regular university course — essentially the classroom course I have been giving off and on at a number of elite colleges and universities since the late 1970s, most recently at Stanford — not a watered down version. But as the course went on, a substantial number of them submitted forum posts and emailed me to say that the pressures of their professional lives occasionally made it impossible to keep up. With instructional videos being released three times a week, on Monday’s Wednesdays, and Fridays, if a business trip caused them to miss a couple of days, they were never able to recover, and eventually had to drop out.

So I have reorganized the course so it runs slightly longer, but with instructional videos coming out only twice a week (Mondays and Wednesdays). That still maintains the pressure that is a major component of my course (and primarily, I see it as a course, for reasons I have articulated in several earlier posts in this blog), but provides what I hope is sufficient flexibility for busy people to cope.

The adoption of a different schedule is almost certainly the most obvious change I have made. But that one is purely logistic. Far more significant, and to me (and my education graduate student TA) more interesting, are the pedagogic changes I have implemented.

As the first course progressed, I gradually came to realize that the underlying pedagogical model I had adopted enabled me to make much more extensive and aggressive use of a number of educational devices I had used only minimally the first time round, namely:

  1. machine-graded, multiple-choice pop quizzes
  2. machine-graded, multiple-choice (substantive) problem sets
  3. student evaluation/grading of work.

I have been strongly opposed to the first two (as are most of my colleagues, and for good reason) for my entire career in university education, and had never seen the need for the third (though I am familiar with the research that shows the beneficial effects on student learning of being asked to evaluate and grade the work of their peers). In a MOOC, where there are thousands of students, all three seem unavoidable. And so I used them all. But I did so as little as possible.

This next time round, all three play a much more prevalent role. And they do so because of that recognition that my underlying pedagogic model eliminated many of the objections and hestitations I had to those devices.

What is that pedagogic model? One-on-one teaching/learning, the kind of learning experience that in the traditional academy is reserved only for doctoral students. For inescapable personnel reasons — sheer numbers — it is not possible to provide one-on-one learning experiences for undergraduates or masters students at a traditional university.

But surely, isn’t it even more problematic in an online course with tens of thousands of students? Strange though it may seem, the answer is no.

The reason is that a MOOC is, in many ways, like radio or TV — and not just because MOOCs make use of video-recorded lectures. Of far more educational significance, though TV and radio are both referred to as “mass media,” they are in fact highly individual. The newsreader on radio or TV is not addressing a large audience; she or he is talking to millions of single individuals.
The secret to being good on the radio or TV is to forget the millions and think of just one (generic) person. After all, the listener or viewer is not in a room with millions of other people; in fact, if the broadcast is successful, that listener or viewer is cognitively in a room with just the presenter. The really successful radio and TV newsreaders and presenters are the ones who can do that really well. They create that sense that they are talking just to You. And the same is true for a MOOC.
When your voice, with or without your face, is in someone’s living room, especially if on a regular basis, there is a direct human connection that in important ways is far more intimate than is possible in a lecture hall filled with anything more than a handful of students.
Once you realize this feature of the MOOC medium, the one-on-one pedagogic model is obvious. I used it extensively in the first version of the course, going to considerable lengths to create a sense of the student sitting next to me at my desk as we worked through the material. (You can see a low resolution example here. The Coursera videos on their site are larger and of much higher resolution.)
Although the entire course was planned meticulously in advance — for such a complex system, with so many moving parts, it has to be — when I sat down to record an instructional session, everything was recorded as live, without notes. I simply plonked a piece of paper down on my desk, beneath an overhead camcorder, and began talking to an imaginary (single!) individual student sitting alongside me.
The only editing done to what was captured by the camcorder was to speed up some of the handwriting to match my voice. All my false starts and my inevitable writing and speaking errors, together with my moments of indecision, made it into the video that was released. For the fact is, the focus of the course, namely mathematical thinking, is an error-prone, messy, human activity,  that often proceeds at a pedestrian pace, punctuated with uncertainties, and that is exactly what I wanted to convey.
To make the result as realistic as possible, I made a point of not thinking in advance about the topic or problem I would discuss — and certainly never “rehearsed.” After all, none of those would have been possible if the student had simply knocked on my office door and said, “Professor Devlin, do you have a moment to explain something to me?”
True, this does not make for riveting, slick television. It’s not meant to. It’s WYSIWOSG teaching: “what you see is what our students get.”
In other words, MOOCs enable us to go back to the oldest, and to this day by far the most effective method of education the world has ever known: the one-on-one apprenticeship system. Once you realize that, many things become possible that can’t be effectively used in traditional undergraduate education.
That includes the use of pop quizzes and multiple-choice questions! For when you think about it for a moment, PhD advisers use both all the time. True, they don’t think of them in those terms, and they don’t implement them with machine grading, but they do use both techniques.
Of course, a MOOC still does not allow the apprentice to talk back to the instructor — though in reality most apprentice learners feel pretty timid next to the expert, and rarely do that. Moreover, the instructor is not able to view and comment on the learner’s work. This is where, in a MOOC, crowd sourcing (something not available in a traditional apprenticeship situation) must be brought to bear. Now we are into something new!
I’ll continue this thread in future posts.
Since most of the instructional materials in a MOOC have to be created and assembled before the course begins, once it gets underway you are pretty well locked into the approach you start with, and any changes have to wait until you give the course again. So this second version of the course is my first opportunity to implement the changes I would have liked to make last time, and to make adjustments based on looking at the course data after the first edition finished.
I’ll be blogging about those changes in real time as the course proceeds. Will they make things better, and if so how? You will know soon after I do.
To be continued …
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2 Responses to “MOOCs are So Back to the Future”


  1. 1 Patricia March 1, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    Dr D: As a former English teacher I love that you’re reinforcing that old writing trope: to get to the universal, you need to go through the specific!

    I also like your argumment that by doing this you are “…going back to the oldest, and to this day by far the most effective method of education the world has ever known: the one-on-one apprenticeship system. Once you realize that, many things become possible that can’t be effectively used in traditional undergraduate education.”

    When I share my MOOC-based learning experiences with other educators, I stress that I found the quality of the instructor is primarily responsible for a MOOC’s(and therefore students’) success or failure. I know I was suprised to discover that that was even more true in a MOOC of 30,000 than in an in-person class–in part because I most MOOCs by their very nature didn’t provide comparable peer-to-peer learnings to those found in the traditional classroom.

  2. 2 Melissa Kane March 12, 2013 at 5:20 am

    One of the best parts about the lectures, is that I feel like you speak “to” us, rather than “at” us. I love how you brought up the idea that you are not teaching to a “large audience” but to (in this case for this semester) 25,000 “single individuals”. This one (generic) person really appreciates that;~) I am incredibly inspired by the material, and feel there is a “one on one” aspect with the course that a large class in a university hall does not allow, for many of the reasons you mentioned in the blog. I think the handwritten notes in lecture actually enhance and contribute to the comfort level and make the material seem more real, and almost like I am writing it out myself (except for the left handed aspect). Kidding aside, even one week into the class, I have already shifted the way I look at things. I feel that portions of my mind are turning on that may have been sitting dormant waiting for a catalyst such as this. I woke up last night at 3 a.m. with thoughts of class material on my mind, which lets me know I have stumbled onto something so wonderful that my mind is even thinking about it when I am sleeping.

    Thank you for taking the time to offer this course. I am already feeling as if my thought patterns are shifting, and I can not wait to see what sort of transformation takes place within my consciousness over the course of the next 9 weeks.


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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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