MathThink MOOC v4 – Part 8

In Part 8, I explain why I believe MOOCs cannot and will not lead to cost savings in higher education – at least in a nation that values its standard of living.

As I’ve noted in previous posts to this blog, for the first version of my Introduction to Mathematical Thinking MOOC, I took the first part of a course I had given many times in regular classroom settings, and ported it to a MOOC platform in what I thought was the most sensible way possible. In particular, I changed only things that clearly had to be changed. It was always going to be an iterative process, whereby each time I gave the course I would make changes based on what I had learned from previous attempts.

Given the significant differences between a physical class of 25 entry-qualified students at a selective college or university and a distributed class of 80,000 students around the globe (the size of my first MOOC class in Fall 2012), of widely different educational backgrounds and ability levels, for whom the only entrance criterion was being able to fill in a couple of personal information boxes in a Website, it made sense to maintain – for the first version – as much as possible the contents and structure of the original classroom course. That way, I could focus on the MOOC-specific issues.

After the first session was completed (survived more accurately describes my sensation at the time), all bets would be off, and I would follow where the experience led me. I felt then, and continue to feel now, that there is no reason why a MOOC should resemble anything we are currently familiar with.

I watched as Sebastian Thrun quickly moved Udacity away from his original conception of a highly structured, programmed traditional course – with all that entails – to offering more a smorgasbord of mini-courses, built up from what can be viewed as stand-alone lectures. I asked myself then, and continue to do so, if I should hang on to the central notion of a course, and maybe just tweak it.

So far I have decided I should, the main reason being, as I tried to explain in my last post, the kind of experience I feel best results in the kind of learning I want to provide.

In particular, the primary goal of my course was, and is, to help develop a particular way of thinking – certain habits of mind. That is best achieved, I believe, by focusing on particular “content”.

I used the quotation marks there, because I think it is not accurate to view learning experiences (for experiences are what produce learning) as a certain volume of “content” that is “contained” is some sort of container or vessel. But it seems that everyone else knows what the term (educational) content means – a shared understanding that provides Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with a nice story to raise investment for developing “platforms” to “deliver” that “content” – so I’ll go with it. (I used the word five times in my last post, and no one wrote in to object or say they did not understand what I meant.)

Anther reason for maintaining a course structure (the indefinite article is intentional) is that I want my course to function as a transition course, to help students make the shift from high school to university. And for the foreseeable future, I think universities will continue to carve up “content” into delivery packages called “courses”.

The third reason for having a course is our old friend, student expectations. Many of my full-term students tell me that they signed up because they want a course, with all that entails: commitment, deadlines, testing, and community.

That third reason likely reflects the self-selection implicit in students who sign up for a MOOC, fully 80% of whom (according to recent MOOC research) already have a college degree, and hence are adapted to – and good at – learning that way.

This implies that, by offering a course, I may be reinforcing that emergent trend of primarily providing further college education to individuals who already had one.

That may, in fact, be where MOOCs will end up. For sure, Udacity’s recent pivot appears to reflect Sebastian Thrun’s having decided to direct his (investors’) money toward that audience/market.

If the provision of continuing higher education  for college graduates does turn out to be the main benefit that MOOCs provide, that will surely be something for we MOOC developers to be proud of, particularly in a world in which everyone will need to learn and re-tool throughout their lives. (Major innovations rarely land where the innovators thought they would, or do what was originally intended.)

But in that case, MOOCs won’t yield the massive cost savings in first-pass, higher education that many politicians and education-system administrators have been thinking they offer.

In fact – and here I am probably about to bring the wrath of Twitter onto me – I think the current goal of “solving the problem” of the rising cost of higher education by finding ways to reduce it, misunderstands what is going on. I suspect the costs of providing first-pass higher education will continue to rise, because quality higher education is becoming ever more important for life in the Twenty-First Century.

Just as the introduction of the automobile meant society had to adjust to the new – and ever rising – expense of gasoline, so too the shift to knowledge work and the knowledge society means we have to adjust to the cost (high and rising) of a first-pass higher education (the fuel for the knowledge society) that stays in synch with society’s needs.

What MOOCs and other forms of online education have already been shown to be capable of – and it is huge – is provide lifelong educational upgrades at very low cost.

But based on what I and many of my fellow MOOC pioneers have so far discovered – or at least have started to strongly suspect – the initial “firmware” required to facilitate those continual “software” upgrades is not going to get any cheaper. Because the firmware installation is labor intensive and hence not scalable – indeed, for continuously-learning-intensive Twenty-First Century life, not effectively scalable beyond 25-student class-size limits.

The world we have created simply entails those (new and rising) educational costs every bit as much the growth of the automotive society meant accepting the (new and ever-after rising) cost of automotive fuel.

(Oh, and by the way, we in the US need to realize that the knowledge society requires better teacher preparation in the K-12 system as well. Well-educated humans are the new fuel, and they neither grow on trees nor are found underground.)

Okay, that’s enough editorializing for one post. At the end of my last report, I promised to describe how I structure my course so that, while designed primarily to provide a framework for a community learning experience, it can still be useful to folks who want to use it as a resource.

First, what do I mean by “resource”? I decided that for mathematical thinking, it was not possible to produce Khan Academy style “online encyclopedia” materials, where someone can dive in to a single video or narrowly focused educational resource. You simply have to devote more than ten minutes to gain anything of value in what I am focusing on.

So I set my sights on people who come in and complete one or two “Lectures”, a Lecture in my case comprising a single thirty-minute video and some associated problem-solving assignments. So I am not delivering “bite-sized learning.” I am serving up meals. (Restaurant meals, where you have time to savor the food and engage in conversation.)

To facilitate such use, the earlier Lectures focus on everyday human communication, ambiguity resolution, logical reasoning, and very basic mathematical ideas (primarily elementary arithmetic – though in a conceptual way, not calculation, for which we have cheap and efficient machines).

Only in Weeks 7 and 8 do I cover more sophisticated mathematical ideas. (Weeks 9 and 10 comprise my new Test Flight process, which I described in Part 6 of this series. That part is specifically for advanced mathematics seekers.)

Thus, Weeks 1 through 6 can be accessed as a resource by someone not strongly interested in mathematics. At least, that is my current intention.

Admittedly, someone who delves into, say, Week 4 might find they need to go back and start earlier; but that’s true of Khan Academy as well, and is surely unavoidable.

By making the awarding of a Statement of Accomplishment dependent on completion of the Basic Course (first eight weeks), not the achievement of a particular grade, I hope to be able to maintain and reward the participation of someone who begins by just “trying out the course” and gets hooked sufficiently to keep going.

To cater for this dual use as much as possible, in addition to changing the course structure, the upcoming new session has four new videos, and I modified four existing ones. (All the time keeping that magic ingredient “content” the same.)

Well, that’s where I am at present. As I noted earlier, this blog series is essentially my lab book – complete with speculative reflections – made public in real time. (I am already deviating from things I said in this blog just a year ago.)

Ah yes, last time I also promised I would say “what motivated me to give a MOOC in the first place – and still does.” The answer is, “Reaching students who do not currently have access to quality higher education.”

That probably seems very much at odds with everything I’ve said above. It’s not. I’ll explain why in my next post.

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1 Response to “MathThink MOOC v4 – Part 8”


  1. 1 ljwaks January 18, 2014 at 7:20 pm

    The basic idea, that the cost of a college education will continue to rise, is unsupported. Much will depend on how we redesign our educational provisions, and what will count as a “college education” or even a “first class college education”.

    That said, the rising cost of this “first class college education” raises questions that Keith does not address here. The first is, how will “society” pay for this? The second is, how many people will have access to it?

    One current problem is the eradication of many previously “college level” jobs by outsourcing and technology. Fewer jobs + rising cost will both contribute to a declining rate of return on private investment on a college education.

    Tuition dollars, however, now fund an increasing share of college education. The declining rate of private return implies that fewer people will make the investment, driving down the flow of tuition dollars.

    So this leaves the question: what fragment of the young adult population should go to college? If there is a social benefit in an educated population beyond the economic growth provided by an educated workforce, then this cost should be borne by public investment, not private tuition fees. I don’t see anyone arguing for a free or highly subsidized higher education anymore, because the emerging workforce no longer needs many of what came to be regarded as “college level” skills.

    If our economic policy and occupational arrangements emerge in such a way as to richly reward those skills the economy really needs, then those few attaining those skill levels will be so rewarded for their investment in education, and should both pay the requisite private tuitions. But then what happens to those who will be excluded on that basis?

    The most obvious answer is that those who will share directly in the wealth created by economic growth may be asked to contribute, through higher taxes, for expanded social insurance – and perhaps a social minimum of support – for those facing the risks of the contingent labor force. .


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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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