Archive for the 'Free online courses' Category

Do all Americans have the same age?

With a special Bonus Feature: A correct proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem that fits in a Tweet.

When the students in my Introduction to Mathematical Thinking MOOC encounter a difficulty with an assignment problem, many of them take to the course Discussion Forum to discuss it. By far the longest single thread in the course was for Problem Set 6, Question 5, a couple of weeks ago, which grew rapidly to 193 original student posts, garnering 1,051 views.

The mathematical topic was proofs by mathematical induction. I had given an example in the video-lecture, and then presented the students with a number of purported induction proofs to evaluate according to the course rubric. (See the previous post in this blog for background on the course structure and its rationale, together with a link to the rubric.)

PS6, Q5 presented them with a purported induction proof that in any finite group of Americans, everyone has the same age (and hence all Americans have the same age). Clearly, this is a ludicrously false claim.

The argument I gave in support of the statement was 19 lines long. Each line comprised a single, fairly simple statement. The lines were numbered. The students’ task was to locate the first line where the proof broke down.

The question had a clear and unambiguous correct answer. The logical chain held up for a certain number of steps, and then the logic failed. But I had constructed the argument with the deliberate intent of making the identification of that failure line a tricky task. (You will find variants of this problem all over the Web. I made it particularly fiendish.)

And fiendish is how the students found it. In fact, only 1 in 5 (exactly 20%) got it right. One other (incorrect) line was chosen by slightly more students (23%), while other lines selected ranged widely over many of the lines. Indeed, there were only two lines of the total 19 that no one selected.

Many interesting points were raised and debated – in many cases in heated fashion – in the ensuing forum discussion. For an online course focused on group discussion, this was easily one of the most successful problems I gave them, with learning taking place on many levels.

One of the meta lessons I wanted this particular exercise to provide was the realization that there is a lot more to proofs than whether they are right or wrong. (See the companion post to this in my profkeithdevlin.org blog for a lot more on what role proofs play in mathematics.) The argument I had constructed was, with one subtly positioned logical slip, entirely correct. 18 of the 19 lines are fine. Yet, the claim purportedly being proved in so absurd, in a very real sense the entire argument must be nonsense from the getgo. And so it is.

The widespread belief that proofs are primarily about right and wrong is the argumentation analog of the equally widely held belief that mathematics is about “answer getting” that I discussed in my recent post on Devlin’s Angle for the Mathematical Association of America. (Yes, that makes three Devlin blogs. Everybody has a blog these days. If you want to stand out from the crowd, you need two or more.)

Both beliefs – math is all about answer getting and proofs are all about truth – are, I believe, a consequence of the way mathematics and proofs are presented in our K-12 system. What is taught is so unrepresentative of mathematics as practiced by professional mathematicians, there surely has to be an explanation.

Presumably, the perception that mathematics is about answer getting came about in the days before we had calculators and computers, when (accurate) answer getting was an important part of a useful mathematics education. Its continued survival well into the digital age can probably be ascribed to systemic inertia (of which there is no lack in the world of education), with the additional incentive that right/wrong questions are extremely easy to grade (by machine, if you are an administrator who prefers to buy equipment than pay teachers)!

In contrast, evaluating mathematical thinking and problem solving is much more difficult and requires a lot of time on the part of a skilled teacher.

Similarly, for the simple kinds of proofs encountered in high school, determining whether an argument is correct or not is usually easy, but evaluating it as a proof is much more difficult and requires a lot more skill and experience – as the students in my MOOC have been discovering to their continued great frustration.

The idea that proofs are primarily about truth and correctness is very ingrained. When presented with an argument that is extremely well crafted but has an obvious flaw (so this clearly does not include my Americans’ age example), many students find it hard to evaluate the overall structure of the argument. Yet proofs are all about structure. As I keep emphasizing, to my MOOC students and anyone else who is willing to listen, in effect, proofs are stories mathematicians tell to convince the intended recipient that a certain statement is true.

If you forget that, and focus entirely, or even almost entirely, on logical validity, you end up with absurdities like my example of a logically correct proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem so small it will fit into a Tweet, let alone the margin of a book:

FLT

Thanks to some work by Andrew Wiles and Richard Taylor, that tweeted argument is logically correct. Every statement follows logically from the preceding part of the argument. If you want to fault it, you have to examine the structure, pointing out that there are some steps missed out that the intended reader may not be able to reconstruct, especially as there are no reasons given. (See here and here for the missing bits.)

The fact is not that logical correctness is not important. It’s that its importance is only in the context of many other features proofs need to have in order to function as intended.

What features? Well, for starters, how about the features of proofs I list in the rubric for my MOOC?

I’ll tell you one thing. Andrew Wiles would not have had his paper accepted for publication if he had not addressed all the points on that rubric!

No, Wiles did not take my course before proving his famous result. The flow is the other way round. I formulated the rubric to try to identify some of the factors professional mathematicians like Wiles make tacit use of all the time when writing up proofs for publication. You would not believe the objection many people have to a rubric that tries to make that skill set available.

And I’m not talking about the strange folks who post “it’s the end of civilized life as we know it” commentaries on the Drexel Math Forum (cc-ing me directly, because they suspect, rightly, that I don’t frequent the site). Many of the good folks who voluntarily spend ten weeks struggling through my MOOC object as well. And not a few of them indicate in Forum posts where they learned to put so much emphasis on logical correctness. A fictional composite of a fair number of posts I’ve seen over the five runs of my MOOC runs thus: When I was at university, if there was a logical error in my proof, the professor would award zero points.

As a mathematician who knows how f-ing hard it can be to prove an original result, reading those kinds of comments fills me with more dismay that you can possibly imagine.

To end on a positive note, at least you have now seen a concise, but correct proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

How is it going this time?

My Mathematical Thinking MOOC is now starting its ninth week out of a possible ten. (The last two weeks are optional, for those wanting to get more heavily involved in the mathematics.)

At the start of the week, registrations were at 38,221, of whom 24,342 had visited the site at least once, with 2,818 logging on in the previous week. But none of those numbers is significant – by which I mean significant in terms of the course I am offering. (People drop in on MOOCs for a variety of reasons besides taking the course.)

The figure of most interest to me is the number of students who completed and submitted the weekly Problem Set. In my sense, those are the real course students. As of last week, they numbered 1,013, and all of them will almost certainly complete the course. That is a big class. The undergraduate class I taught at Princeton this past spring (using my MOOC as one of several resources) had just 9 students.

My MOOC has two main themes: understanding how mathematicians abstract formal counterparts to everyday notions, and how they make use of those abstractions to extend our cognitive understanding of our world.

For much of the time the focus is on language, since that is the mechanism used to formulate and define abstract concepts and prove results about them.

The heavy focus on language and its use in reasoning gives the course appeal to two different kinds of students: those looking to investigate some issues of language use and sharpen their reasoning skills, and those wanting to develop their analytic problem solving skills for mathematics, science, or engineering. (The latter are the ones who typically do the optional final two weeks of the course.)

The pedagogy underlying the course is Inquiry-Based Learning.

To make that approach work in a MOOC, where many students have no opportunity to interact directly with a mathematics expert, I have to design the course in a way that encourages interaction with other students, either on the course Discussion Forum on the course website or using social media or local meetings.

Early in the course, I identify a few students whose Forum posts indicate good metacognitive skills and appoint them “Community Teaching Assistants”. A badge against their name then tells other students that it is worthwhile paying attention to their posts. The CTAs, there are currently thirteen of them, and I also have a back-channel discussion forum to discuss any problematic issues before posting on the public channel.

It seems to work acceptably well. To date, there have been over 3,700 original posts (from 957 students) and 3,639 response comments on the course Discussion Forum.

Since the only practical form of regular performance evaluation in a MOOC involves machine grading – which boils down to some form of multiple choice questions – it’s not possible to ask students to construct mathematical proofs. The process is far too creative.

Instead, I ask them to evaluate proofs (more precisely, purported proofs). To help them do this, I provide a five-point rubric that requires them to view each argument from different perspectives, assigning a “grade” on a five-point numerical scale. See here for the current version of the evaluation rubric.

Notice that the rubric has a sixth category, where they have to summarize their five individual-category evaluations into a single, overall “grade” on the same five-point scale. How they perform the aggregation is up to them. The overall goal is to help the students come to appreciate the different features of proofs, as used in present-day mathematics. The rubric asks them first to look at the proof from the five different perspectives, then integrate those assessments into a single evaluation.

After the students have completed an evaluation of a purported proof, their (numerical) evaluations are machine graded (more about this in a moment), after which they view a video of me evaluating the same proof so they can compare their assessment to one expert.

The goal in comparing their evaluation to mine is not to learn to assign numerical evaluation marks the way I do. For one thing, evaluation of proofs is a very subjective, holistic thing. For another, having been evaluating proofs by both students and experts for many decades, I have achieved a level of expertise that no beginner could hope to match. Moreover, I almost never evaluate using a rubric.

Rather, the point of the exercise is to help the students come to understand what makes an argument (1) a proof, and (2) a good proof, by examining it from different perspectives. (For a discussion of the approach to proofs I take, see my most recent post on my other blog, profkeithdevlin.org.)

To facilitate this, the entire process is set up as a game with rules. (Of course, that is true for any organized educational process, but in the case of my MOOC the course design is strongly influenced by video games – see many of the previous posts in that blog for more on game-based learning, starting here.)

In particular, the points they are awarded (by machine grading) for how close they get to my numerical proof-evaluation score are, like all the points the Coursera platform gives out in my course, very much like the points awarded in a typical video game. They are important in the moment, but have no external significance. In particular, success in the course and the award of a certificate does not depend on a student’s points total. My course offers a learning experience, not a paper qualification. (The certificate attests that they had that experience.)

Overall, I’ve been pleased with the results of this way to handle mathematical argumentation in a MOOC. But it is not without difficulties. I’ll say more in my next post, where I will describe some of the observations I have made so far.

Stay tuned…

 

Here we go again

This blog has been quiet for the past few months, as other activities took all my available time, among them spending the first half of the year as a Visiting Professor at Princeton University, where I used the Spring session of the MOOC in flipped classroom mode as part of a course I gave there. But with the fifth session of my MOOC Introduction to Mathematical Thinking starting in a week’s time, it’s time to bring this sleeping blog back to life. (One should not let sleeping blogs lie for too long.)

Having made changes to the course on sessions 2, 3, and 4, this time round I have made only very minor tweaks. Session 4 was, I felt, more or less what I wanted it to be. Sure, I could re-do the entire thing with better video, better sound, and slicker graphics. But I’d prefer to wait another year or two before embarking on what would be considerable expense and a fairly significant amount of work. I think the jury is still out as to whether there will continue to be significant interest in MOOCs (at least as they are at present), in particular a MOOC like mine, which goes against some of the common wisdom.

For one thing, my MOOC is very definitely a course, with regular submission deadlines, and the videos are long by MOOC standards, averaging around half an hour each.

The former (the deadlines) are designed to try to ensure that as many students as possible are working on a particular topic or assignment at the same time, thereby facilitating fruitful discussions on the course Discussion Forum or on social media. Only very unusual students are able to master mathematical thinking on their own. Everyone else needs constant interaction with others, either with an instructor familiar with the material (something not possible in a MOOC) or with other students working on the same issues.

The longer videos reflect the fact that mathematical thinking cannot be broken down into bite-sized chunks – indeed, mathematical thinking demands the very opposite of morselization. It’s not about individual steps, rather the construction and carrying out of an overall strategy. To put it bluntly, working in intensive, thirty-minute chunks is the absolute minimum required to solve almost any mathematical problem of merit, and in general it takes a fair number of such half hour sessions, if not more sustained efforts.

Of course, there is nothing to prevent someone from working their way through the course materials in their own time, or from pausing the videos whenever they want. Depending on the individual, that could prove more or less beneficial. But they would then be using my materials to create their own learning experience. The course as I designed it is intended to be experienced in a cohort group, with much of the actual learning emerging during, or as a result of, discussions with other students.

Details aside, though, why am I in the MOOC business at all? I still get asked this from time to time.

I articulated my reasons for originally creating the MOOC in the early posts to this blog, starting with my first post in May 2012. Subsequent, modified sessions of the course were driven by a desire to try to “get it right”. Not in the sense of creating “the perfect course”. There is no such thing. Rather, my goal was to create a MOOC that represented what I felt was my best effort to put into MOOC format a course by me. What I wanted to create was the closest I could get in a MOOC format to taking a regular, physical class with me.

But what of now? Why am I offering this course for a fifth time? Well, with 20,000 students already enrolled, a full week before the course opens, there is  clearly still considerable demand. But that is only part of my rationale. The fact is, with the initial MOOC euphoria now (thankfully) a thing of the past – I never bought into the hype and said so at the time – I still see MOOCs as offering some benefits over traditional, classroom teaching.

One significant benefit of MOOCs over traditional classroom courses is that they offer the possibility to deliver personal, non-threatening, side-by-side, one-on-one education. The course presenter simply has to design it that way. I believe the huge early success of Khan Academy comes from that one factor. Khan’s pedagogic model is poor (though typical of a lot of classroom teaching) and in some instances his content is flat wrong, but his delivery is superb and he puts people at their ease. The guy has charisma, and it flows at you through the audio channel on your computer. What is more, for many people, what he offers is a lot better than they experienced, or are enduring, in a more traditional education setting. (Disclaimer: I know Sal slightly, and like him a lot, but we are not close friends.)

So, seeing what he had done well, I modeled, as best I could, the videos in my MOOC on Sal’s delivery, modified to work for more advanced, less-procedural mathematics.

The second benefit of a MOOC, for those who can take advantage of it, is that it puts the student in full control of their learning. Timing, pace, number of repeats (of items or of the whole course). True, many students cannot handle that. But for the ones who can, it is wonderfully freeing and empowering.

Certainly, the students at Princeton who took my MOOC as part of their course said they preferred accessing the instructional lectures part of the course in video format rather than actual lectures by me, precisely because they could control the pace and “rewind the tape” whenever they needed to.

Neither of those MOOC pluses has anything to do with the Massive Open part, of course. What is the upside for me to having thousands of students? Well, my major satisfaction on that front is that, by being totally open on a global scale, MOOCs can reach a relatively small number of talented individuals, in various parts of the world, who crave and can benefit from a good education, but have no other access to one. I’ll happily tolerate massive dropout from my MOOC in order to reach those few whose lives I really can change.

Of course, I am hardly alone in seeking my reward in my successes with a few. It’s what motivates math teachers the world over.

How do I know I actually am changing some lives? Some have told me. Like all MOOC instructors, in every course I have given, I have e-chatted with a small number of students whose forum posts catch my eye, and some of them eventually tell me I have absolutely transformed their lives.

So, perhaps 75,000 of my 80,000 registrants drop out, as happened with the first session I gave. Before they pull the plug, they may have gotten something of benefit. It may have just been conformation that they really don’t like math, though I suspect that most gain more benefit than that. Be that as it may, however, what really inspires me, is being able to reach 10, 20, 100 – or maybe only 1 or 2 – students for whom my MOOC was the thing that changed their lives.

I hardly ever have an opportunity to do that in a Stanford or a Princeton classroom. The most I can do there is polish a jewel. Maybe.

MathThink MOOC v4 – Part 10

In Part 10, the final episode in this series, I talk about my key course design principle, I put forward an argument that in some respects MOOCs may be better than traditional courses,  and I show you the inside of the MOOC-production lab (where you will find a historic MOOC artifact).

The familiar, over-hyped and over-played media story about MOOCs was inspired in large part by (the possibility of) large numbers of students taking the same class, all around the world. And in one sense, the numbers are large. Though enrollments rarely reach six figures, compared with traditional physical courses, even a “tiny MOOC” (a TOOC?) can have several thousand students.

But those numbers can be misleading. In particular they appear to position MOOCs as being off the right-hand edge of the familiar universities maximum-class-size chart, where elite liberal arts colleges attract students (and their paying parents) with claims such as “None of our classes have more than twenty-five students”.

For some MOOCs, such off-the-chart positioning is, at least to some extent, appropriate, particularly the introductory-level computer science courses that dominated the first wave of xMOOCs coming out of Stanford and then MIT, where the pedagogy is largely instructional. Those courses are in many significant ways simply very large versions of their physical counterparts, with an Internet connection separating the instructor from the student, rather than the more traditional thirty feet of air. Indeed, some of the early CS MOOCs were built around recorded and streamed versions of actual physical courses, with real students.

But in many cases, that “large-version-of-the-familiar” picture is just wrong. Rather, for many MOOCs the educational model is one-on-one, apprenticeship learning. That is certainly the case for my course. I made that choice for, what were for me, two very compelling reasons.

One was my experience as an upper level undergraduate and then a graduate student, when a typical week was spent struggling for hours on my own or with a group of fellow students, interspersed with one or two private sessions sitting next to a professor, as I sought help with the concepts I had not fully grasped or the problems I had failed to solve. That was when I really learned mathematics.

The other influence was my experience in writing books and articles for newspapers and magazines, and in radio and television broadcasting. As with MOOCs, the popular perception is that those media are about conveying thoughts and ideas to thousands if not millions of others. But as any successful writer or broadcaster will tell you, in reality they are all one-on-one. The trick you need to master to make the communication flow is to imagine you are writing or speaking to just one person and to connect with them. (In the case of an interview, such as my “Math Guy” discussions with host Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition, there actually is a single discussant, of course – I am speaking with one person – and the listeners or viewers are essentially silent observers. The secret of being a good interviewer, as Scott is, is to be able to act as a representative of the viewer or listener.)

In both cases, education and mass media, the secret to success is to evoke thousands of years of human evolution in social interaction. Ritualized classroom education and mass media are relatively recent phenomena, but interpersonal communication is as old as humanity itself, and the successful teacher or broadcaster can take advantage of the many instinctive, powerful aspects thereof.

In the case of (basic) mathematics teaching, look at the huge success of Khan Academy. (I certainly did in planning my MOOC.) Salman Khan built his organization, and with it his reputation, around a large library of short, video-recorded instructional lessons. Though much of the content is not good, and in many cases mathematically incorrect, and the pedagogy poor (Khan is trained in neither advanced mathematics nor mathematics education), what he does as well as – I would say better than – almost anyone else in the business is successfully package “side-by-side, one-on-one conversation” and distribute it over the Internet via YouTube. He is every bit the master of his chosen medium as Walter Cronkite was of television news delivery.

In designing my MOOC, I set out to create that same sense of the student sitting alongside me, one-on-one. If you can pull it off, it’s powerful. In particular, if you can create that feeling of intimate human connection, the student will overlook a lot of imperfections and problems. (I rely on that a lot – though the reason I do not edit out my frequent fluffs is that I want to portray mathematics as it is really done.)

True, what I deliver is not the same as actually sitting side-by-side with me. In particular, the student is not able to talk back to me, nor can I begin by reading the student’s initial attempts and then comment on them. Other features of the MOOC have to provide, as best they can, equivalents of those important feedback channels in learning.

On the other hand, in a physical class of more than a dozen or so, it is not really possible for any instructor to provide ongoing, one-on-one, close guidance to each student.

In fact, strange as it may seem, I think it might be possible to better provide some crucial aspects of one-on-one higher mathematics education by making use of a platform designed to provide unlimited scaling, than can be achieved in a traditional classroom.

This is particularly true, I believe, for a course such as mine, where the focus is developing a new way of thinking, not mastering a toolbox of techniques that can be used to solve particular kinds of problems. Here’s why I think that.

The fact is, we don’t know how we do mathematics, or how we learn it. The people who do learn to think mathematically will tell you that they found it within themselves – ultimately, they had to figure everything out for themselves, just as learning to ride a bike comes down to discovering the ability within yourself. (Remember, I am not talking about mastering and applying procedures, which can largely be done without any deep understanding.)

Some, like the famous Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (VIDEO), manage to take this step with no human help, working alone from textbooks borrowed from libraries. But most of us find we need the regular encouragement and feedback from one or more others or from a tutor. (See the full length documentary (52 mins) Ramanujan: Letters from an Indian Clerk.)

But how important is it to be physically co-present with that tutor? Is it the feedback that is crucial or do the encouragement and the provision of explanations and examples suffice?

After all, mathematics is, by its very nature, logical – supremely so – which means that it can be discovered by reflection. Particularly the basics of mathematical thinking.

Whether a particular individual has the desire or persistence to persevere with such reflection is another matter. Personality type presumably plays a big role. So too does innate mental power. And there has to be motivation.

But for those who are of the appropriate personality type and who have enough mental capacity and motivation, is it necessary that they spend a period of time physically co-present with an instructor?

Absent individual feedback, modern social media provide a powerful means for humans to come together. Maybe that is enough.

HW

The “video recording studio” in my home where I record all my instructional videos

(The face-to-face continuity pieces in my lecture videos are designed to make that human connection as strong as possible. That was the only part of my MOOC where we spent money, to get high quality video that conveys my presence. I recorded the handwriting segments in my home, using a cheap consumer camcorder, and I edit my own videos.)

The fact is, a student taking my MOOC can make a closer connection with me than if they were in a class of more than 25 or so students, and certainly more than in a class of 250.

So let’s take stock of what  can be delivered to the students in a MOOC.

Certainly, the streamed lecture video of a MOOC delivers more than they would get if they were sitting in a large lecture hall with me doing my thing at the front. The lecture video delivers me in a way the student has complete control over, making it self-evidently better.

And in a large class, the student is not going to get my individual attention, so there is no loss there in learning in a MOOC.

So a MOOC seems to offer more of me than a student would get in a regular, large class.

But they also get a version of that close, one-on-one instruction that they absolutely do not get in a regular class of any size.

Absent being able to speak back to me – something many students have insufficient confidence to do (unfortunately) – I think there is good reason to believe that human connection through social media may be enough to have whatever effect is provided by the real thing.

For sure, for some students, it may be important to have frequent real contact with someone to work with, especially someone who knows enough about the subject to provide constructive feedback. But that can often be arranged locally on the receiving end.

(Equally, shy students can perform much better in an online environment.)

The bottom line then is this. Though I do not know that the modalities in a MOOC are enough to help people learn how to think mathematically, I have yet to encounter any reason that it cannot be made to work.

Mathematics, with its intrinsic figure-out-able nature, may be a special case.

It would be ironic indeed if the subject that has historically been the one that most people find impossibly difficult, turns out to be the one most suited to MOOC learning. (Again, let me stress that I am at not talking about procedural problem solving.)

I doubt that large numbers of students can become mathematicians by taking a MOOC, and the same is true for physical classes. But I see no reason why a great many cannot gain useful mathematical thinking skills from a MOOC, nor that there is an insurmountable obstacle to people with the talent and the motivation using a MOOC to take the first crucial step towards a professional mathematical career.

In any case, I no more am discouraged by recent media articles claiming the death of the MOOC than I was encouraged by those same writers’ breathless hype just twelve months ago. (The only MOOC death associated with the story the New York Times ran on December 10, 2013 was the demise of its own over-hyped and under-informed coverage of a year earlier.) America, in particular, has a strikingly naive perception of education that would be its undoing were it not for a continuing supply of J1 and H1 visas. I plan on moving ahead.

My total spend so far? Forget all those media stories about MOOCs costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. After an initial outlay from Stanford of, I think, around $40,000, to cover initial video recording and editing and student TA support for the first version, and $9,000 to cover the cost of a course TA in the second version (TA-ships being a form of student financial aid, of course), everything since has been on a budget of $0.

VE

The “video editing suite” in my home where I edit all my instructional videos

In particular, as I noted above, I now do all my own recording (cheap consumer camcorder) and video editing (cheap consumer editing package) at my home in Palo Alto.

Of course, Stanford does pay my salary, but developing and giving my MOOC is on top of my regular duties, and is essentially viewed as research into teaching methods. So when Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn looks into me for fodder for his annual Wastebook (see Section 63 if you think innovative mathematics education could not possibly be in his sights), I will be able to counter by saying that no taxpayers were harmed in the making of my MOOC.

By the way, the two panel lights  I use when I record my handwriting segments (shown in the earlier photograph) have historical significance in the world of MOOCs. I was given them by Google’s Peter Norvig after he had finished using them to record the first Stanford-Google Artificial Intelligence MOOC that generated all the current interest in the medium. A contemporary equivalent of the Ishango Bone?

THE END

MathThink MOOC v4 – Part 9

In Part 9, I admit that my interest in MOOCs is driven by a very Selfish Gene.

Why do I devote so much (unpaid) time working on my MOOC? And it is, to be sure, a lot of time, little of it factored in to my official Stanford workload.

According to least one very good, and highly respected (by me no less than many others) educational writer, it is the prospect of fame, as she recently tweeted thus.

WojcickiTweet

I suppose there may be a professor or two somewhere who sees MOOCs as a pathway to fame, but if so, they should definitely take my Mathematical Thinking MOOC to develop good numerical sense. A globally distributed, ten week class of maybe 40,000 students, half of whom will watch at most one video and many of whom would not be able to tell you the name of their MOOC instructor if you asked them (the same is true for regular, physical classes, by the way), is hardly fame.

Fame is epitomized by @KimKardashian, with almost 20 million Twitter followers. If that’s your goal, devoting many years of your life to get a PhD ain’t the optimal path!

What academics tend to seek is peer recognition. And, believe me, giving a MOOC will, if anything, reduce the status of any scholar within the Academy, possibly to an even greater extent than writing books and magazine articles “for the general reader”. (I’ve done both. As an academic, I was doomed long ago.)

The danger of stepping outside the walls of Academia has been recognized ever since The National Academy of Sciences denied entry to Carl Sagan. As a recipient of the Carl Sagan Award for Science Popularization, I am thus doubly doomed.

No wonder I felt I had nothing to lose by jumping onto the MOOC bandwagon – though at the time I started work on my first MOOC it was not so much a bandwagon as a small Stanford wheelbarrow, yet to be discovered by  New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. (He soon made up for missing the start. Just google “Thomas Friedman MOOC” and you will uncover a host of Massively Over-hyped Outrageous Claims.)

Why do academics give MOOCs? While I surely cannot speak for all MOOC instructors, I can probably speak for the many I have talked with, and by and large they all give the same answer. It comes in two parts.

The first part is educational research. (This is the reason why Stanford, my university, provides some – very modest – support for MOOC development.) The process of designing and giving a MOOC provides a wonderful opportunity for an instructor to find ways to improve their teaching craft, and provides educational researchers with massive amounts of data to help us better understand the learning process. For just one illustration of this, check out this article from a MOOC instructor at Vanderbilt University.

ChrisChristie

New Jersey governor Chris Christie showing his opinion of teachers

The second part is the same answer you will get if you ask someone why they went into K-12 teaching, a profession that not only pays poorly, but ranks so low in the US psyche that a savvy State governor contemplating a run for President will regard you as fair media game for a finger-wagging, photo-opp tongue-lashing:

Teachers are not seeking fame, or wealth. They do it because they have this deep-seated urge to change lives by teaching.

When I joined the tiny band of Stanford faculty who were designing the first wave of MOOCs, our motto was “Let’s Teach the World”, a slogan that I took for the subtitle to this blog. This is what it is about.

It wasn’t a desire to be famous that we found attractive. Heavens, if you are at Stanford, you probably already have all the academic “fame” you could ever want. Rather, the hook was an opportunity to take something we had been providing regularly to a privileged few and make it available to anyone in the world who had access to the Internet.

It was, in short, an idealistic dream. How to operationalize that dream was another question, and there were at least as many approaches as MOOC instructors.

The Stanford-MOOC-pioneering computer science professors Thrun, Koller, and Ng set their initial sights on large numbers of students around the world being able to take CS courses, 100,000 or more (maybe a lot more) at a time.

Recognizing that (introductory-level) computer science is almost certainly a special case – because it is suited to instruction-based learning and a lot of what is being taught is, by its very nature, machine gradable – instructors in other disciplines set different expectations for their courses.

In my case, I had two clear teaching goals in mind, one very much focused on “the world”, the other “egalitarian elitist”.

As a mathematician who has devoted a lot of my career to community outreach, through public talks, newspapers, general-audience books, magazines, radio, television, movies (occasionally), blogs, and podcasts, I saw MOOCs as yet another medium to “spread the gospel of mathematics”, moreover a medium that offered the possibility of taking my audience a lot further down the mathematical path than any of those other media.

Broadly speaking, the first six weeks of my Mathematical Thinking MOOC attempt to cater to that general audience. I very definitely want to capture and sustain the interest of as many individuals as possible. Massive (the M of MOOC) is the goal. My focus is not so much on getting my students to learn mathematics – there is precious little of it in those first six weeks – but to raise their awareness of the nature and power of mathematics, and to help them come to realize that they actually do have a (creative) mathematical mind, it just needs to be unlocked from the panic-inducing prison that traditional K-12 math education so often drives it into.

[Time for another Ken Robinson video. This one is a doozy. It’s the one that made him world famous – unlike MOOCs, TED talks can make you famous. For the evidence that what Sir Ken says applies to mathematics, see my own book The Math Gene: How Mathematical Thinking Evolved and Why Numbers Are Like Gossip.]

In the final weeks of my MOOC, I slowly shift attention to my second audience. That audience is a lot smaller. I am looking for people who, in certain key ways, are very much like I was as a teenager.

Hull

Alexander Dock in the 1950s, about half a mile from my childhood home

Growing up in a working class family in post-Second-World-War England, in the grimy, Northern industrial city and port of Hull, with no ready access to quality education (let alone higher education), and no role models for learning in my family or my neighborhood, my innate talent for mathematics would likely have gone forever un-realized.

(Through to my early teens, my school teachers advised me to focus on writing, since they felt I had no mathematical abilities, as evidenced by the fact that I was always the last person to master each technique, and kept asking pesky “What?” and “Why?” questions when “everyone knew” that doing math was all about “How”. “Our’s not to reason why, just invert and multiply.”)

Fortunately, at high school I encountered a math teacher who recognized something else in me, and pulled me out of his regular math class to teach myself, with his occasional guidance, from his own college textbooks.

I also started to pore through every available “popular mathematics book.” (There weren’t many back then, but most were available as cheap paperbacks.)

That got me started on a rewarding and fulfilling mathematical journey I have been following ever since.

I am certainly not unique in having stumbled my way into mathematics through chance. For most of my professional career I have been surrounded by people who are a lot better mathematicians than me, and a lot more accomplished, and many of them can tell similar “humble origins” stories. But they come from all around the world. Not many of them, if any, come from where I grew up. Similar places, but not the same place. (It’s a density issue.)

In fact, I was surprised to discover a few years ago that the official listing of “Famous People of Hull” includes just two mathematicians, John Venn (of Venn diagram fame) and yours truly.

That may or may not be a comprehensive listing (I never knew John Venn was from Hull until I saw that entry), but it does suggest that you may have to extend access to quality mathematical learning to populations in the hundreds of thousands (Hull’s population was about 300,000 when I was growing up there, it’s considerably less today), in order to connect with just one or two who have talent.

I want to do just that. Citizen Devlin wants to provide mathematical outreach to millions around the world. Keith Devlin the grown-up kid from Hull, wants to reach those few individuals who have talent for mathematics but neither learning role models nor access to good education, and provide an educational opportunity analogous to the one that changed my life.

If the “Famous People of Hull” data is even remotely correct, I need to reach many hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, around the world, to stand any chance of connecting to those talented few who currently do not have a seat at the educational table.

(It’s probably not an issue of raw talent density. I am sure there are many people will significant mathematical ability in every part of the world. Rather the challenge is the density of talented individuals you are able to connect with, and as a result recognize and bring out their talent.)

Large dropout rates in MOOCs? Though I work hard to try to keep everyone in my course for the first half, and put considerable effort into keeping as many as possible through to the end of the Basic Course (see earlier posts), as far as my second motivator is concerned, those dropout rates are not a problem at all. They are part of the filtering process.

I’m looking for “me” – that talented young person with no access, and probably no hope – to give them a similar opportunity to the one that chance brought my way all those years ago.

MOOCs have given me that dream.

In each of the three iterations of my MOOC I have given, I have seen a small number of students who I think may be such individuals. They are the ones for whom I have made an exception to my (obviously essential) rule of not communicating individually to MOOC students. That’s reason enough to continue.

In other words, my involvement in MOOCs is in large part driven by my own educational Selfish Gene. Not to replicate me, but to replicate what happened to me. Now you know.

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.

MathThink MOOC v4 – Part 7

In Part 7, I ask myself (yet again) does it need to be a course?

One issue I keep returning to is whether my MOOC should be a course. Or, to put the question a more useful way, what features of a classroom course do I want or need to carry over to a MOOC, what features should I jettison, and what new features should I add?

I raised the issue in my blogpost of August 31, 2012, just before my MOOC launched for the first time. Since then, students’ expectations (as expressed in emails to me and in the discussion forums) have continued to confirm my initial instinct that there are good reasons to carry over a lot of  traditional course structure.

Still, the question is not going to go away. I brought it up again in June of 2013 after completing the second version of my MOOC, noting that the majority of my students treated the course as a resource rather than a course.

In those early posts, I made a number of references to Khan Academy, an educational resource I now have very mixed feelings about. (In particular, I think Sal’s enthusiasm and undeniable – and hugely valuable – ability to project his personality through his voice, and thereby to remove much of the fear that many of his followers may have toward mathematics, fall well short of what he could achieve, due to poor pedagogy and way too many elementary – but educationally important – factual mistakes.) I made several key choices based on what could be learned from his endeavors.

One thing I did not do was go the route of turning my MOOC into a collection of Khan-like, standalone, bite-sized snippets. Indeed, deliberately ignoring the current buzz that the audience will drop precipitously if your videos run more than seven minutes, I decided to aim for half-hour chunks. Hey, if thirty-minutes works for Seinfeld and Thirty Rock, why not for Mathematical Thinking? (Remember, I’m looking at a highly selective audience who have voluntarily chosen to enroll in an online math course! I haven’t completely lost it – just enough to keep trying to make this free online course thing work in the first place.)

My decision was largely because the material simply cannot be broken up in that way. Unless you are a mathematical genius, when it comes to mathematical thinking, most of us find that thirty-minute chunks is the absolute minimum time commitment to make any progress at all, and a lot is lost if you cannot arrange for much longer periods. The very last “lecture” of the course actually lasts an hour and a half, with the original video cut up into three segments of roughly equal, thirty-minute lengths. And students who have completed the course say they wished I had spent even more time on the one (capstone) topic I covered in that last lecture.

Since approximately 5,000 students have, on average, stayed with the course to the end each time, I definitely want to continue to provide the learning experience they have clearly been looking for. (In my next post I’ll say how, at the same time, I try to cater for those seeking a resource.)

A significant part of that experience is, I believe, being part of a community, where everyone is working toward the same goal, with regular pressure points (deadlines) that force them to keep sufficiently in lockstep so that they can exchange ideas and express community reactions in real time. Though many of them do not post regularly on the community discussion forums, they do (I assume) follow them, finding answers to their questions and surely being encouraged to learn that they are not alone in finding something particularly difficult or confusing.

That sense of community is, to my mind, an important part of my course. In the (necessarily) simplistic terminology introduced to try to explain the conceptual difference between the original Canadian MOOCs originating from Athabasca University and the unrelated MOOCs coming out of Stanford some years later, my course is a c-MOOC in x-MOOC clothing. (See the Wikipedia article for the tangled history.)

From the very first lecture, I recommend repeatedly that students try to form small learning communities to work through the weekly problem assignments that are the heart of the course.

And there we have another reason why I have not carved my course into bite-sized instructional videos. It’s not about instruction! The expressed goal is not “teaching mathematics” but guiding folks on a process of learning how to think a certain way. In particular, learning how to set about solving a novel problem that perhaps only partially resembles one encountered before.

In other words, in my course the devil is very much not in the details. It’s in the overall flow of ideas, the swirling cloud that hovers above all those details.

The key for making that transition from “template recognizer and applier of known techniques” to “creative problem solver” is to rise above the details and grasp the meta-cognitive aspects of good problem solving.

Having myself made that transition by sitting next to my senior tutor (a professor) in my senior undergraduate year and then my doctoral adviser for the subsequent three years, and watching and listening to them as they worked through problems with me (a very one-sided “with”!), I knew first-hand that the process works. I also know of no other way that does.

It’s a slow process, to be sure. Many students in my regular classes over the years, and far greater numbers of students in my MOOCs, have not been prepared, and in some cases not willing, to adjust to that different pace.

I lost count of the number of MOOC students who expressed frustration (and more) at how slowly I was moving, how I “rambled” and “repeated myself,” and how “unprepared” I had been when I sat down to record those videos.

My approach was, of course, carefully thought out and deliberate. I never intended to give a slick, prepared presentation. (I do many of them, and there are videos all over the Web. But those presentations are about infotainment, not learning to think a different way.)

My approach was always about providing a window into one person’s (mine) thought processes. Not to mimic me. That would make no sense in terms of learning how to think creatively.  Rather, to gain sufficient insight to be able to develop that capacity in themselves.

Of course, I can provide just one example – me. But one example is enough. Because the capacity for original thought is in every one of us. It just has to be unleashed.

Evolution by natural selection has made all of us creative problem solvers. That is Homo sapiens’ great survival trick. Unfortunately, an educational system developed in the industrial age to turn innately creative humans into compliant cogs in organizations, suppresses that innate creativity, rewarding fast acquisition and retrieval of facts and rapid execution of procedures, a sad turn of events for today’s world, as summarized brilliantly by the provocative and always entertaining Sir Kenneth Robinson in the animated talk I will leave you with.

Creativity is in all of us. You see it in every small child. Despite systemic education’s efforts to suppress it, it remains eager to break out. (Google dopamine.) It does not take much of a stimulus to make it (start to) happen. A ten week MOOC may seem very short. But it may be enough to initiate the process. (Google “Prison Break”.)

* * *

Next time I’ll describe how I structure the course so that, while designed primarily to provide a framework for a community experience, it can still be useful to folks who want to use it as a resource. I’ll also say what motivated me to give a MOOC in the first place – and still does. Meanwhile, here is Sir Ken:


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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