Posts Tagged 'Coursera'



Liftoff: MOOC planning – Part 7

A real-time chronicle of a seasoned professor embarking on his first massively open online course.

It’s been three weeks since I last posted to this blog. The reason for the delay is I was swamped getting everything ready for the launch of my course four days ago, on Monday of this week. As of first thing this morning there are 57,592 students enrolled in the class.

The course was featured in an article on MOOCs in USA Today. It was a good article, but like every other news report I’ve seen on MOOCs, the focus was on the video lectures. Those certainly take a fair amount of time on the part of the instructor (me, in this case), and are perhaps the most visible feature of a MOOC, just as the classroom lecture is the most visible part of many on-campus courses.

For some subjects, lectures, either in-person or on a computer screen, may be a major part of a course. But for conceptual mathematics, which is what my course is about, they are one of the least important features.

Learning to think mathematically is like learning to swim, to ride a bicycle, to ski, to play golf, or to play a musical instrument. You can probably get some idea by having someone explain it to you, but you won’t learn how to do it that way. The key words in that last clause are “learn” and “do”. There is really only one way to learn how to do something, and that is by doing it. Or, to put it more bluntly, the only way to achieve mastery is by repeated failure. You keep trying until you get it. The one thing that can help is having someone who already has mastery look at your attempts and give you constructive feedback.

In fact, failing in attempting to do something new isn’t really failure at all in the sense the word is usually used. Rather, a failed attempt is a step towards eventual success. Edison put it well when asked how he felt about his many failures to make a light bulb. He replied, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

After just one week of my course, I’ve seen a lot of learning going on, but it wasn’t in the lectures. Even if I’d been able to see each student watching the lecture, I would not have seen much learning going on, if any.  Rather, the learning I saw was on the discussion forums, primarily the ones focused on the assignments I gave out after each lecture. As I explained to the students, the course assignments and the associated forum discussions are the heart of the course.

So what is my part in all of this? Well, first of all, I have to admit I am uncomfortable with the title “instructor,” since that does not really reflect my role, but it’s the name society generally uses. “Course designer, conductor (as for an orchestra), and exemplar” would be a much better reflection of what I have been doing. Once the course was designed, the lectures recorded, and all the ancillary materials prepared, my task was to set the agenda, provide motivation and context for the various topics, and give examples of mathematical thinking.

The rest is up to the students. It has to be. (At least, I don’t know of any other way to learn how to think mathematically.) To be sure, in a physical class, the instructor (and or the TAs) can interact with the students, and (if it occurs) that can be a huge factor. But that simply helps the students learn by repeated failure, it does not eliminate the need for that learning-by-trying-and-failing process. Let’s face it, if you are not failing at something, you have already learned it, and should move on to the next step or topic. (With understanding, once you get it, you don’t need to practice!)

In a MOOC, that regular contact with the instructor and or the TAs is missing, of course. That means the students have to rely on one another for feedback. This is where the Coursera platform delivers. Here are some recent stats from my course website:

Total Registered Users 57592
Active Users Last Week 32123

Video Lectures

Total Streaming Views 77415
Total Downloads 19491
# Unique users watching videos 21712

Discussion Forums

Total Threads 641
Total Posts 5414
Total Comments 3823
Total Views 119489

Though I’d like to see a lot more students posting to the forums, with almost 120,000 views (after just one lecture and one course assignment!), it’s clear that that is where a lot of the action is.

As I surmised in an early blog-post, I don’t think it was the widespread availability of video technology and sites like YouTube that set the scene for MOOCs. To my mind, Facebook opened the floodgates, by making digitally-mediated social networking a mainstream human activity. (I’d better add Skype, since there are already several Skype-based study groups for my course. And of course, students who live close together can do it the old-fashioned way, by getting together in person to work through the assignments.)

One feature of the course that did not surprise me was the sense of feeling lost some students reported (and I’m sure many more felt), in some cases maybe being accompanied by panic. For most students, not only does my course present a side of mathematics they have never seen before (the world of the professional mathematicians), on top of that, none of the strategies they were taught to succeed in high-school math work any more.

Because the focus of the course is on mathematical thinking, I can’t provide the students with a list of rules to follow, templates to recognize, or procedures to follow. The whole point is to help them develop the ability to solve novel problems for which no  rules are known.

Of course, at this stage, the problems I give them are ones that have been solved long ago, and which have been shown to provide good learning material. But to the student, they are new, and that’s what matters in terms of learning. Unless, of course, they look for the solution on the Web, which defeats the whole purpose. But in a voluntary course where the focus is on process, not “getting answers,” and which provides no college credential, I hope that does not occur. In fact, one of the things that attracted me to free MOOCs was that the students would enroll because they wanted to learn, not because they were forced to learn or simply in need of a diploma. (We mathematicians get a lot of students like that! But we get paid to teach those classes. So far, no one is paying MOOC faculty for their efforts.)

Most US students have a particularly hard time with this “there are no templates” approach, because of the way mathematics is typically taught in American schools.  Instead of helping students to learn mathematics by figuring it out for themselves, teachers frequently begin by providing instruction and following it up with examples. Michael Pershan has a nice summary of this on YouTube. (His initial focus is on Khan Academy, but Khan is simply providing a service that is molded on, and fits into, the US system. The crucial issue Pershan’s video addresses is the system.)

The pros and cons of the two approaches, instruction based or guided discovery, remains a topic of debate in this country, but in the case of my course, there can be no debate. The goal is to develop the ability to encounter a novel problem and eventually be able to figure it out. Providing instruction in such a course would be like giving a golf cart to someone who wants to walk to lose weight! It might get them to their destination with less effort, but it would defeat the real goal.

Having thought at length about how to structure this first version of the course, and played around with some approaches, I ended up, as I thought I probably would, going minimal.  Virtually no instruction, and what little there is presented as examples of mathematical thinking in action, not by way of a carefully planned lesson. I was pretty sure I’d do that, because that’s how I’ve always conducted classes where the goal is student learning (as opposed to passing a standardized test).

There are a number of studies pointing out the dangers of over-planned lessons, one of the most famous and influential being Alan Schoenfeld’s 1988 paper in Educational Psychologist (Vol 23(2), 1988), When Good Teaching Leads to Bad Results: The Disasters of “Well Taught” Mathematics Courses. Still, as I said, I did play around with alternatives, since I was worried how students would fare without having regular access to the instructor and the TAs. I may have to re-visit those other approaches, if things go worse this time than I fear.

But this time round, what the student gets is as close a simulation as I can produce of sitting next to me as I work through the material. The result is not perfect. It’s not meant to be. There are minor errors in there. It’s meant to provide an example of how a professional mathematician sets about things. Definitely not intended as something to be perceived as an entry in an instruction manual.

After those work sessions were video-recorded, they were edited, of course, but only to cut out pauses while I thought, and to speed up the handwriting in places. I found that on a screen, watching the handwriting in real time looked painfully slow, and rapidly became irritating, particularly in places where I had to write out an entire sentence. So I took a leaf out of Vi Hart‘s wonderful repertoire. The speed ramping ended up being the only place that modern digital technology actually impinged on the lecture. Everywhere else it merely provided a medium. The approach would be familiar to Euclid if he were somehow to come back and take (or give) the class.

To be continued …

You may be interested in two recent videos featuring the founders of the two Stanford MOOC platforms that started the current explosion of interest in these courses. In one, Sebastian Thrun talks about Udacity. In the other Daphne Koller discusses the creation of Coursera.

The “C” in “MOOC”: MOOC planning – Part 6

A real-time chronicle of a seasoned professor embarking on his first massively open online course.

A few days ago, I went into our campus TV studio with the two course assistants for my upcoming MOOC, to record a short video introducing them to the students.  The students will see a lot of me, but my two TAs will be working behind the scenes, and the students will encounter them only through their contributions to the forum discussions. The videos were intended to compensate for that lack of human contact.

During the course of recording that video, the three of us got into a discussion about our backgrounds, our motives in giving the MOOC, and our views on mathematics, science, education, and our expectations for the MOOC format. The camera was rolling all the time, and we were able to select a few parts of that discussion and create a second video that I think will help our students understand some of our thinking in putting this course together.  I posted copies of both videos on YouTube.  (They are much lower resolution than the videos the registered students will see on the course website when it goes live on September 17 — the “first day of classes”.) I think the two videos provide an insight into our thinking as we designed this course.

The fact that the current round of MOOCs have a “first day of class” at all has been a matter of some debate. The C in MOOC stands for “course”, but is this the best way to go?  For example, see this blogpost from a graduate student at Berkeley, who argues for a more open framework of learning resources. He makes some good points that all of us involved in this initiative have thought about and discussed, but I’m not sure the kind of thing he advocates can work for disciplines and subjects that depend heavily on student-faculty and student-student interaction, as mine does.

In fact, I’m not sure the MOOC will work sufficiently well at all in such cases; this is very much an experiment that I anticipate will continue for several years before we get good answers either way. For the first iteration, it makes sense to start with a model we know does work. And important (we think!) elements of that model are, to repeat Sebastian Thrun’s list, as quoted in the Berkeley student’s blog: admissions, lectures, peer interaction, professor interaction, problem-solving, assignments, exams, deadlines, and certification. To use the mnemonic I coined earlier in this series, our basic design principle is WYSIWOSG: What You See Is What Our Students Get.

Since these courses are free, we can, of course, do a lot of A/B testing in future years, to see which of these truly are crucial, which can be changed and how, and which can be dropped. I suspect the answers we get will vary from discipline to discipline, and possibly from course to course.

All of us involved in this MOOC movement are trying to find out the best way that works for our particular discipline and is consistent with our own style as instructors. As I indicated in Part 4 of this diary, I think it makes sense to begin by trying to implement in a MOOC as much of our tried-and-trusted classroom-based teaching as we can (as Thrun did with Udacity), and then iterating in the light of what we learn.

This is why, instead of hiring a mathematics graduate student to TA my course, which is what I would have done for an on campus class, I brought onto my team two graduate students from Stanford’s School of Education with several years of experience in learning design and the use of technology in education. In addition to helping me with the design and running of the course, they will conduct research into the course’s efficacy and try to understand how learning occurs in a MOOC. (Other than a brief, non-compulsory questionnaire at the start and finish of the course, all their research will be based on data gathered on the Coursera course platform and human monitoring of the forum discussions. One huge benefit of MOOCs is that they facilitate Big Data research.)

It’s live beta, folks.

To be continued …

My first big mistake: MOOC planning – Part 5

A real-time chronicle of a seasoned professor embarking on his first massively open online course.

Wow! With three weeks to go to the course launch, I checked the course registrations for the first time. So far, almost 35,000 students have signed up. In theory, I knew this would happen; that’s been everyone else’s experience with MOOCs. But when you actually see that kind of figure on the stats page for your own course, it makes a big impression.

Then I made my first big mistake. I sent out a welcome email to the students who had already registered. That part was not the mistake. Of course I’d want to welcome the students! Nor was my error to mention this blog in my email. It does, after all, provide students with some background on my thinking behind the course and what I want to achieve. My mistake was not closing comments on this blog before I sent out the email.

I was online when the first few comments started coming in, and as usual I responded to them. Then the flood began. I managed to close comments before the WordPress servers shut me down.  :-)

So, sorry to all those who wrote in to this blog and did not get a reply. The Coursera platform, which is desgned to handle classes of many thousands of students, offers opportunities to comment and exchange ideas, with a mechanism to bring to the attention of me and my teaching assistants any discussion thread that is generating a lot of interest. That will be available once the course starts.

I wonder what my next mistake will be.

To be continued …

Khan Academy Meets Vi Hart: MOOC planning – Part 3

A real-time chronicle of a seasoned professor embarking on his first massively open online course.

The ideal way to learn mathematical thinking (and a great many other things that involve understanding, not just doing) is in a small physical group with an expert. That provides frequent opportunities to interact one-on-one with the expert, during which the expert can observe you work in real time (on paper or at a board) and can give you direct feedback on written work you have done and handed in for evaluation. It also provides frequent opportunities to discuss what is being learned with other students at the same stage of their learning, sometimes with the expert present, other times with the expert absent.

Sometimes, the expert will provide instruction. Though there have been successful instances of mathematics professors who largely avoid instruction (R L Moore being the most notable example), most of us (i.e., university mathematics educators) find that instruction has a valuable place in mathematics education. But many of us view it as just one part of mathematics education.

Anyone who has experienced highly interactive mathematics teaching will know how different it is from mere instruction, and how much more effective. I wrote about this last March in my Devlin’s Angle column for the MAA. Unfortunately, it seems clear that a great many Americans have never experienced good mathematics teaching. If they had, you would not have thousands of Khan Academy users (including famous figures such as Bill Gates) declaring Salman Khan is the best math teacher ever. You can say a number of good things about Sal Khan (I am going to say some of them in just a moment), but being a great math teacher is not one of them. To say that he is, simply reflects on the miserable math ed diet that many millions of American have been fed, for whom Khan Academy offers something far better than they were ever exposed to.

I bring up Khan Academy for a couple of reasons, one being that it set the stage for the MOOC explosion. Indeed, former Stanford CS professor Sebastian Thrun stated publicly last January that it was Khan Academy that inspired him to give his first MOOC in fall 2011, and then to leave Stanford and launch his own MOOC service Udacity at the start of this year.

It’s not merely the wide reach that Khan Academy demonstrated. As I discussed in a recent article for the MAA, Sal Khan managed to tap into the power of the Web medium to achieve a critical element of good teaching that not all teachers can offer: a strong teacher-student bond. Moreover, he did so using just his voice and the electronic trail of a digital pen on the viewer’s computer screen. Yes, some of the math is wrong, and the pedagogy is so poor, experienced teachers tear their hair out, but the very success of Khan Academy shows how important is the teacher-student connection.

Khan Academy is not a MOOC, of course, but it does provide a model for online mathematics instruction. In starting to plan my MOOC, I began by trying variants of Sal’s approach for the instructional part. Like him, I have a voice that works on the radio (or a Web audio channel) — an accident of birth — which makes such an approach feasible.

I soon concluded that his approach would not work. It is fine for presenting short instructional mini-lectures on how to follow a particular mathematical procedure, but it is woefully impoverished for trying to help students understand a mathematics idea or a proof, and to form the right mental concepts. For that, the huge importance in mathematics teaching of physical gestures, in particular the hand(s), cannot be ignored.

There is an old challenge in which you ask someone to describe a helix while keeping their hands clasped firmly behind their back. (Try it!) But it’s not just helices. Explaining almost any mathematical concept without using at the very least hand and arm gestures, and in many cases full body motion, is difficult if not impossible. There is masses written about this topic, based on many years of research. For example, take a look at this summary, or this one, or this forthcoming book. Or Google on the terms “mathematics + learning + hand + gesture” or variants thereof to see a lot more.

Since MOOC students access the material on a wide range of devices, with different screen sizes, I felt that a full body recording of me working at (and in front of) a blackboard or whiteboard would not be ideal. Besides, I love the sense of intimacy Khan Academy offers. You get a strong sense of sitting next to a friendly relative who is personally instructing you. I wanted to create that environment.

But trying to follow an explanation of a mathematical concept or proof Khan-style, where the visual channel consists only of a digital pen trace, was impossible — at least, it was given my educational style. At the very least, I needed my writing hand to direct the student’s focus. The simplest way to achieve that was to have a video camera mounted above my desk and record me working through the material in the time-honored fashion of paper-and-pencil. That seemed to work.

Having decided on the basic modality, the next issue was one of style and tone. After playing with some variants of the basic format, I came down in favor of a very informal look, where I simply slap down a sheet of paper on the desk in front of me and the student, and work through the material. (Marking the exact position of the paper on the desk and letting it totally fill the screen looked too artificial — though at this stage the issue was largely one of taste, and this is a decision I may change based on the experience I get from this first course. I did have to tape down the paper, but the initial placement was fairly casual, and the taping was sufficiently loose that the paper could still move a little — it takes effort to create “informality” on video.)

To counter the inevitable sense of frustration when watching a pen write something out in real time, I decided to speed up a lot of the writing during the video editing phase. (Though not to the speed of the wonderful Vi Hart, whose purpose is informative entertainment.) So at that stage I found myself with a “Sal Khan meets Vi Hart” look. A great place to start, given the success both have achieved!

For standalone Web instruction, that would likely be enough, but a MOOC involves a lot more. It is, after all, a course — a structured experience over several weeks, with a professor. Regular connection to the instructor is important — at least, I think it is. (It was for me when I was a student.) To achieve that “human connection,” many of my Stanford colleagues who have given MOOCs have put a small head-and-shoulders video of themselves speaking in one corner of the screen, as the material being discussed occupies the rest of the display. I tried that, and found it did not work for me, with my material. The face was a distraction. I wanted to keep as much of the Khan Academy sense as possible — you don’t ignore success unless there is good reason! So I opted to keep video of me separate from the hand-writing part.

I’ve posted a short sample from Lecture 1 on YouTube. Given the low resolution of YouTube video encoding, this does not display well in terms of content, but the Coursera platform uses far higher resolution video.

I doubt much of this material will survive to a second iteration of the course next year. At the very least, I’d want to go back and pay more attention to lighting and audio levels and consistency.  But it does have the overall look and feel I was trying to achieve. This is live beta, folks.

But as I have already indicated in this blog series, I don’t see the video lectures as the heart of the course. They merely set the agenda for learning. The real learning takes place elsewhere. I’ll turn to that topic in a future post.

Meanwhile, my Stanford MOOC Introduction to Mathematical Thinking is scheduled to begin on September 17 on Coursera. If you want to do some preliminary reading, there is my low-cost course textbook by the same name. Though written to align to the course, it is not required in order to complete the course. (Indeed, I noted  above that I see MOOCs as replacing textbooks — though some MOOCs may have required textbooks, so it would be unwise to predict the imminent death of the printed textbook!)

To be continued …

NOTE: I mentioned Khan Academy to indicate its role in the MOOC explosion and acknowledge its role in guiding the design of the instructional videos in my MOOC. But the focus of this blog is on MOOCs in general and mathematics MOOCs in particular. Comments discussing the merits or demerits of Khan Academy are off topic and hence will not be published; there are many other venues for such discussions.

How Facebook Made MOOCs Viable: MOOC planning – Part 2

A real-time chronicle of a seasoned professor embarking on his first massively open online course.

One obvious, but huge distinction between planning a physical course and planning a MOOC is that for the former, it is generally fairly easy to make changes — even major ones — once the course is underway. But MOOCs are different. It requires an enormous amount of time to put a MOOC together (video recording/editing and implementing all the online course materials are just two elements not present in a physical course, or if they are, those materials can usually simply be omitted if a mid-course adjustment is required). As a result, once the course launches, you are pretty well committed to running it through largely as planned.

If I were putting together a MOOC for which Stanford would charge (and offer credit), by now I would be getting decidedly nervous. But that is not how things stand at present. Everyone sees this sudden MOOC explosion purely as an experiment to see what the medium can offer. The courses are free, and since there is no credential at stake, there is no worry about unmotivated students or of cheating. An unmotivated student is not going to continue with the course beyond the first week or so, and the only person who loses by student cheating is the student. Presumably both will change if this experimental phase is a success, and MOOCs take their place alongside other forms of higher education, where there are payments and credentials.

My own view, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is that MOOCs are not a replacement of the traditional bricks-and-mortar university, rather they are the twenty-first century version of the textbook.

Widespread availability of textbooks did not replace universities. Indeed, they did not change university education very much at all. In theory, once every student could purchase a textbook, there should have been little need for professors to give mainstream content lectures — particularly if the professor had written the course textbook — but the basic content lecture continued to remain the dominant model.  Early in my professorial career, I tried to adopt a flipped classroom approach, based on giving students reading assignments from a book I had written, and using the class time to discuss the material. It proved to be a disaster; hardly any of the student read the assigned reading, and of those that had, few really knew how to read a mathematics text and learn by so doing. I soon ended up having to give classical lectures on the material that was expressed far better in my textbook — far better because I had spent time putting my thoughts onto the page and the resulting manuscript had been professionally edited.

I am not sure that, on their own, video-recorded instructional material will lead to much of a change in university education either. Video-lectures are not really very different from textbooks. At least, for most university-level material that is the case. For learning how to carry out maintenance around the house, to change a bicycle tire, to assemble a piece of furniture, etc., video is far better than text. But those are all simple procedural learning — the goal is to learn how to do something, and for that purpose, showing is more efficient than describing in words. In contrast, the main focus of much university education is understanding; the student is supposed to learn how to think differently. That is very hard to do at arm’s length, regardless of whether the arm involves a textbook or a video. It is by direct interaction with an instructor and with other learners that we can gain understanding and learn how to think a certain way. That is why I don’t see MOOCs as a threat to the existence of universities.

MOOCs may, however, do what textbooks and instructional-videos failed to do. They may finally give rise to flipped classrooms — a mere six centuries after the invention of the printing press give rise to textbooks. The reason is, MOOCs are far more than video-recorded instruction. In fact, video lectures are one of the least significant elements of a MOOC. The key to the educational potential of MOOCs are human-computer and human-human interaction —  the latter especially so for most subjects. In particular, social media are what make MOOCs possible, and it is the widespread familiarity with, and acceptance of, human-human interaction over an ethernet cable that led to the sudden explosion of interest in MOOCs. In short, MOOCs are a direct consequence of the growth of Facebook, which made interaction-by-social-media global.

[I should add that I don't see the degree of human-human interaction offered by social media in a MOOC being as educationally powerful as direct fact-to-face interaction. The unavoidable limitation in a MOOC is not the medium per se, rather is the scalability factor. In a physical class, the students get to interact with the professor -- the expert, the domain professional. In a MOOC, that crucial part is missing. I think good course design can get a lot out of social media, but that one factor means that we'll always need physical universities.]

The challenge facing a professor setting out to design and offer a MOOC, then, is to figure out how to take advantage of the (human-computer and) human-human interaction made possible on a global scale by social media, in order to provide students with a valuable learning experience.

In this regard, the experiment really begins with (many of) the 117 MOOCs currently offered by the MOOC platform Coursera. Coursera is a spin-off from a Stanford project in Computer Science to develop a platform to support flipped classrooms at the university. The first wave of Stanford MOOCs were basic level computer science courses, where there is a heavy focus on procedural learning and less dependency on reflection and peer interaction. (Those features come later in CS, and when they do, not a few Stanford CS students drop out and start their own companies, occasionally becoming millionaires within a few years!) But many of the second wave of courses now underway are in humanities and other areas, where the primary focus is on thinking and understanding, not doing.

To take just one instance of course design, in a basic-level computer science MOOC, it is possible to give machine-graded assignments. It would be possible to offer a math MOOC a similar way, provided the focus was on mastering basic computational procedures.  But in my case, where my goal is to develop mathematical thinking, I realized from the start that the key to making it work would be the social media factor. Just as it is for humanities courses.

That impacted how I would design, structure, and present the core material, as I’ll describe in my next post.

To be continued …

The Challenges of Online Education: MOOC planning – Part 1

A real-time chronicle of a seasoned professor embarking on his first massively open online course.

I’ve been pretty quiet on this blog since launching it on May 5.

Partly that is due to summer vacation and the start of great cycling weather. But a lot of my time got swallowed up planning and developing my fall MOOC. It’s now scheduled to start on September 17, and the registration page just went live on Coursera, the Stanford spin-off MOOC platform now offering online courses from a number of the nation’s best universities.

All my Stanford colleagues who gave courses in the first round earlier this year reported how much time it takes to create such a course, no matter how long you have been teaching at university level. Knowing that you won’t be in the same room as the students, where there is ongoing interaction and constant, instant feedback, means that the entire course has to be planned down to the finest detail, before the first day. In addition to the usual course planning, lectures have to be recorded written materials prepared, and interactive quizzes constructed well in advance, with the knowledge that for some students, you may be their only connection to the material.

In my case, my fall term was already pretty full, before counting the MOOC, so I knew I could not rely on having the opportunity to record material once the course begins. That meant I had to try to anticipate well before the course launch, the difficulties the students might have.

Of course, I would not have chosen my topic (introduction to mathematical thinking) if I had not taught it many times before. Many colleges and universities ask their incoming mathematics students to take a “transition course” to develop the all-important skill of mathematical thinking. I helped pioneer such courses back in the 1970s. So I did start out with a good idea of the kinds of difficulties students would encounter on meeting the material for the first time.

But the challenges I faced (and still face) in trying to provide such a course in a MOOC format were, and are, formidable. To be honest, I am not sure it can really be done, but the only way to find out is to try – and not just once either. (Like the Coursera platform itself, my fall MOOC will be very much a beta release.)

An obvious problem is that learning to think like a mathematician, which is what transition courses are about, is not something that can be achieved by instruction. In that respect, the learning process is similar to learning to ride a bicycle. There is no avoiding a lengthy, and often painful process of trying and failing (i.e., falling) until, one day everything drops into place and you find you can ride. At that point, you wonder why it took you so long. Instruction helps, though only in retrospect can you see how. During the learning period, riding seemed impossible – something others could miraculously do but that you were not capable of.

(As someone who came to serious road biking and mountain biking later in life, I can recall vividly that the same is true for “advanced cycling.” For instance, being instructed – many times – how to corner fast on a downhill did not prevent me having to go through a lengthy process of learning how to do it. And while the broken collarbone I sustained in the process was a result of a rear-tire blowout on a sharp corner descending Mt Hamilton outside San Jose, California, it is possible that with more experience I could have kept control. But I am getting off track, which is what happened on Mt Hamilton as well.)

The challenge facing anyone trying to help students learn how to think mathematically by way of a MOOC, is that the communication channel is one way, from the instructor to the student. The sheer number of students (likely into the thousands) prevents any reliance on even the highly impoverished forms of student-faculty interaction that are possible with distance education for a class of no more than thirty students.

The only option (at least the only one I could see) is to try to create an environment where the students can help one another, by forming small study-groups and working together. In particular, I felt the students in my transition mathematics MOOC would benefit greatly by having regular transition course instructors use my MOOC in a flipped classroom model, so that my MOOC students working alone would be able to interact with other MOOC students who in turn were interacting in-person with a professor in a regular class, and perhaps on occasion interact directly with one of those professors online.

This is why I decided to offer my MOOC at the same time (the start of the US academic year) as many US colleges and universities offer their own transition courses. If instructors of those courses get their students to take my MOOC as part of their own learning process, their participation in study groups and the online discussion forums could ensure that every student in the MOOC is at most just one step removed from an expert. For the students in regular transition courses, using my MOOC in a flipped classroom experience, there is the added benefit that we all learn very efficiently when we try to teach others.

Another advantage of trying to involve instructors and students from regular transition classes, is that those instructors could critique my teaching in their class. Contrary to popular belief, “experts” are not infallible beings who know everything. They are just regular people who have more experience in a particular domain than most others. Analyzing and critiquing expert performance is another powerful way to learn. (So feel free to tear me apart. I can take it; I brought up two daughters through childhood and adolescence to adulthood, and after that I was a department chair and then a dean.)

To make my course attractive to regular transition course instructors, I had to make it very short, and focus on the very core of such courses, so those instructors would have plenty of time to take their own courses in whatever direction they choose.

Once I made that decision, I decided to write a companion book for the course. My Stanford colleagues who were giving the first MOOCs reported that some students wanted a physical book to read to support the online learning. People learn in different ways, and we instructors should accommodate them as much as possible.

There are many transition mathematics textbooks on the market, but they are all fairly pricey (ranging from $60 to $140) and cover much more ground than was possible in a mere five weeks of MOOC instruction. Definitely outside the spirit of free learning for all. I decided to write a companion book rather than a textbook (insofar as there is a distinction), since my view is that MOOCs are actually twenty-first century replacements of textbooks.

(I don’t think there is any chance that MOOCs can effectively replace regular university education, by the way, and a school district, state, or nation that decides to go that route will be just a single generation away from becoming a new third-world economy. But if I were a major textbook publisher, I would see MOOCs as the impending end of that business.)

To remain close to the ideal of free education, I decided to make my text a cheap, print-on-demand book. I typeset it myself in LaTeX, paid for an experienced mathematics textbook editor to edit the manuscript, and sent it off as a PDF file to Amazon’s self-publishing CreateSpace service to turn it into a book that can be ordered from Amazon. It’s called Introduction to Mathematical Thinking, and it should be available by August 1. It costs $9.99 and comes in at 102 pages. (There is no e-book option. Given the necessity of mathematical typesetting, an acceptable e-book not possible – at least for e-books that can display on any e-reader. Besides, as I mentioned already, to my mind, the MOOC itself is the true digital equivalent of a textbook.)

Incidentally, the process of self publication on CreateSpace is so simple and efficient, I suspect that low-cost, print-on-demand publishing is the future of academic textbooks.

So add writing a book to the other tasks involved in creating a MOOC.

Still, the book-writing part was easy. Though many of my colleagues find writing books a major challenge – an insurmountable challenge for some of them – I have always found it relatively painless, indeed pleasurable.

In any event, books are an ancient medium that academics and teachers have long been familiar with. Pretty well everything else about the MOOC process was new. I wrote the book before I designed the course; indeed, the book constituted the curriculum. The only new twist for me was that in writing the book I was conscious of using it as the basis for a MOOC.

With the book written, the next question was, how do I present the lectures? After experimenting with a number of formats, I finally settled on the one I’ll use this fall. It’s not the one Sal Khan uses for Khan Academy. Given his success, I started out trying his format, but I found it just did not work for the kind of material I was dealing with. I’ll say more in my next posting. There were other surprises ahead as well.

To be continued …

Help wanted!

Why am I doing this? Attempting to give a five-week, school-to-university transition course to possibly thousands of students on the Web, I mean.

I always took my teaching seriously. (When I started out university teaching in the 1970s, that was actually not a requirement for faculty; the focus was all on research. My initial appointment in the UK was as a “Lecturer”. Along with the US title of “Instructor”, those names reflected the then-expectation of what the job entailed as far as teaching was concerned.) In many years of university teaching, I always felt that as the number of students increased beyond twenty or so, the quality of the learning fell significantly. Clearly, I am not referring to lecturing — that is, providing instruction, where the students are essentially passive receivers of information. That can clearly be scaled indefinitely, through videos, and arguably that is what textbooks have always done. What can’t be scaled, is the interaction between the professor and the students — which is where a lot of the real learning takes place.

I discussed the distinction between instruction and good, interactive teaching in my March Devlin’s Angle column for the MAA. From what I read and hear all the time, I suspect that many people in the US have never experienced anything beyond instruction, at least when it comes to their mathematics education. Providing mathematics instruction (and nothing more) is like trying to eliminate starvation by providing people with fish. That alleviates the immediate hunger, but it is not a long term solution, and moreover can create a dependency on others. A far better solution is to show people how to catch fish for themselves. That is what good teaching tries to do, by trying to help students learn to think for themselves.

Mathematics is a mental activity. It is something you do. Like all activities, doing it takes effort and it makes you tired. The best way to learn how to do something is to do it. Riding a bicycle, driving a car, playing golf or tennis, skiing, playing a musical instrument, playing chess, and so on, you didn’t learn them by sitting in a classroom, listening to someone provide instruction. Of course, instruction is valuable, but only when it accompanies learning-by-doing, and is provided to the learner on demand, based on that learner’s specific needs at that instant, when it makes sense and is most readily absorbed.

A good teacher, like a good music instructor or athletics coach, begins by identifying what the student knows and can do, and then builds on that. A personal tutor can provide a complete education that way, though besides being inefficient in terms of the utilization of human expertise, one-on-one instruction suffers the significant loss of collaborative work with a small group of peers. More optimal, in my view, an experienced classroom teacher can do wonders with a class of twenty or so, split into groups of four or five for periods of collaborative work.

But with more than twenty, the dynamics change; the teacher can no longer devote sufficient time to each individual and to each group.

In my later career, when I was able to set my own class limits, I always capped at twenty (though I occasionally relented and let the number creep up by one or two, when desperate, math-requirement-short seniors pleaded to be allowed in.) So, coming back to my opening question, why on earth did I decide to try offering an online course that could attract many thousands of students, none of whom I would meet in person?

The answer was a suspicion that, with a suitable re-assessment of the goals of the course, together with a little social engineering, a different dynamic could take over. Talking to some of the Stanford professors who had given, or were giving, MOOCs, provided some anecdotal confirmation of that suspicion. So I stepped forward and volunteered to offer a five-week “transition course” this coming fall.

The purpose of transition courses is to introduce students to mathematical thinking. In the high school mathematics class, the emphasis is on mastery of procedures for solving problems. As many students discover, and as many teachers instruct them, an effective way to succeed is to approach a new problem by looking for a template — a worked example in a textbook, or these days presented on a YouTube video — and then just changing the numbers. (That is actually a valuable skill in itself, but that’s another topic.) University mathematics, on the other hand — at least the mathematics taught at university to future math and science majors — has a different goal: Learning how to think like a mathematician. And that is something most of us initially find extremely hard, and very frustrating. I’ll elaborate in future postings, but for anyone unfamiliar with the transition problem, let me give an analogy.

If we compare mathematics with the automotive world, school math corresponds to learning to drive, whereas in the automotive equivalent to college math is learning how a car works, how to maintain and repair it, and, if a student pursues the subject far enough, how to design and build their own car.

I was one of the early pioneers of transition courses back in the late 1970s, and wrote one of the first companion books, Sets, Functions, and Logic. (It was written for the UK market, but it did make it into a US edition, though many American students, used to full-service textbooks, found it hard going.) So it was a natural for me to see if, and how, the teaching of such material could be ported to the Web as a MOOC.

The benefits of doing so would, of course, be significant. Not least, high school students could attempt it prior to going to college, and college frosch taking a (physical) transition course would have a secondary source for what many find an extremely difficult transition.

The particularly fascinating part to me, as a professor, is figuring out how to take a learning experience that works in a small-group setting on a campus, and create a functionally equivalent experience online. Note that I said “create a functionally equivalent experience;” I did not say “replicate the classroom experience.”

By far the greatest problem is how to provide the personal, expert feedback that is essential to good mathematics learning. Web delivery is fine for providing instruction, but that is just a part of learning, and a minor part at that, as I discussed in that March Devlin’s Angle I referred to earlier. Taking stock of the goal and the available resources, however, there were some hopeful signs.

First, the whole MOOC concept finally took off late last year (with Sebastian Thrun’s Stanford AI course) largely because Stanford and the now independent spinoff company Coursera built innovative new platforms. (Just last week, MIT and Harvard announced that they too were launching their own platform, edX.) Listening to some of my Stanford colleagues describe their experiences giving their first-generation MOOCs, I began to see the opportunities the new platforms (which are still under development) offer.
I’ll examine some of the affordances the new learning medium provides in future postings. (I’m still learning myself.) In the meantime, I need to assemble a small army of volunteers. This is where I’ll need help — possibly your help.
One of the things we’ve learned already about MOOCs, is that a key component is the creation of a strong online community. Learning is all about human interaction. The technology just provides the medium for that interaction. In offering my math transition MOOC at the start of the fall term, when many colleges and universities offer their own transition course, I am inviting any instructor who will be giving such a course, together with their students, to join me and my MOOC students online, making interaction with other students around the world a part of a much larger learning community.
In my May Devlin’s Angle post, I put out a first call for involvement of my fellow MAA members. Here, in summary, is what I wrote there.

I’m going to make my course just five weeks long, starting in early October. By incorporating participation in my Stanford course as part of your students’ learning experience, everyone could benefit. For one thing, your students are likely to be inspired by being part of an educational revolution that for millions of less privileged people around the globe can quite literally be life changing.

Because they will be supported by being part of a physical learning community, with the personal support of you, their instructor, your students will be highly empowered, privileged members of that online community. They can take advantage of your support so that they can help others. And as we all know, there is no more powerful way to learn than to try to teach others.

For that student half way round the world, perhaps working alone, trying to improve his or her life through education — by learning to think mathematically — the potential benefit is, of course, far greater. Helping that unknown young (or not so young) person make that step might just help inspire your own students to put in that bit of extra effort to master that tricky new transition material. Everyone wins.

If my Stanford MOOC draws a student body in the tens of thousands, which it might, based on the experience of my colleagues here, there is no way I and a couple of graduate TAs can provide individual feedback to every student. But if instructors and their students across the US join me, then maybe we can collectively achieve something remarkable.

I am making my MOOC deliberately short, five weeks, so participation will leave most of the semester open for participating instructors to concentrate on giving their own course, perhaps using their students’ initial experience in the MOOC community as a springboard for the rest of the course. I will make it a basic vanilla transition course, so other instructors can build on it.

Of course, you don’t have to be an instructor or a student in a transition class in order to participate. The course is totally open and free. You simply have to register (online) and start the course. So anyone who is familiar with the material — who already can think like a mathematician — can help out.

Those of us in education know how it can change lives. Growing up in a working class area of the UK in the early Post Second World War era, a free education provided by the government changed mine. Now, through technology, I can return the favor by helping others around the world change theirs. Please join me this fall as we learn how to teach the world.

Let’s teach the world

This coming October, I’ll be offering my first MOOC — massive(ly) open online course — one of a growing number of such offerings that have started to emerge from some leading US universities over the past few months. In this blog, I’ll chronicle my experience as it happens, and hopefully get useful feedback from others. This introductory post is a shortened version of my May 1 blogpost on Devlin’s Angle for the MAA.

Higher education as we know it just ended. Exactly what will take its place is not at all clear. All that can be said with certainty is that within a few short years the higher education landscape will look very different.

That is not to say that existing colleges and universities will suddenly go away, or indeed change what they do – though I think both will occur to varying degrees in due course. What is changing now is what classifies as higher education, who provides it, how they provide it, who will have access to it, how they will obtain it, and how it will be funded. Distance education, for many years the largely-ignored stepchild of the higher education system, is about to come of age.

This is not just my opinion. My own university, Stanford, recognizes what is going on, and is taking significant steps to lead and stay on top of the change, and a number of Silicon Valley’s famed venture capital firms, who make their fortunes by betting right on the future, have sunk significant funding into what they think may be key players in the new, higher ed world.

Last fall, Stanford computer science professor Sebastian Thrun used the Internet to open his on campus course in artificial intelligence to anyone in the world with Net access, and 160,000 students from 190 countries signed up. Some 22,000 of those students finished the course, receiving “certificates of completion” signed by Thrun (and co-teacher Peter Norvig of Google), but no Stanford credit. (For that, a student has to be on campus and officially registered; annual tuition is $40,050 and entry is fiercely competitive.)

Demonstrating the entrepreneurial spirit that Stanford faculty are famous for, Thrun promptly left Stanford to found a for-profit online university, Udacity. With Udacity receiving financial backing from a large Venture Capital firm, the MOOC – massive open online course – suddenly came of age. A short while later, two more Stanford computer science faculty, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, secured $16M of venture capital funding to launch a second Stanford spin-off company, Coursera, a Web platform to distribute a broad array of interactive courses in the humanities, social sciences, physical sciences, and engineering.

Initial courses offered on Coursera include, in addition to several from Stanford, offerings from faculty at the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton. Stanford president John Hennessy appointed a blue-ribbon panel of Stanford faculty to develop a strategy for developing, and delivering, online courses. For free. To the world.

Not wanting to be left behind, just this week, MIT and Harvard announced the launch of edX, a joint effort to mount their own MOOC distribution platform, with each institution committing $30M to the project.

Yes, you read that correctly. The faculty, the universities, and the new platforms are making the courses available for free. All the funding is coming – for now – from for-profit investors and the private universities themselves. Why are they doing that? If you have to ask the question, you don’t really understand the Internet and how it changes everything. Think Napster and the music industry or Skype and the telephone industry. Like the settling of the American territories in the nineteenth century, the initial focus is on establishing a presence in the new land; monetization can come later – almost certainly in ways very different from today’s.

Computer-assisted, distance learning is not new, of course. Stanford was one of the universities that pioneered it the 1960s; many universities have for several decades offered adult professional education courses for a fee, largely to raise funds; and there are the for-profit online schools like the University of Phoenix. More recently, led by MIT, a number of universities started making recordings of their regular courses, together with course materials, available online for free. So what has changed now?

The answer is the platform and the target audience’s experience and expectations have changed. What has been missing so far is the active participation of the distant student in a learning community. Building on technology developed at Stanford to support flipped classroom experiences for its regular students, Udacity and Coursera have secured the major investments required to build scalable, robust platforms that can take the small learning seminar and create a similar experience across the Internet.

A generation that has grown up on the Web has taken to the new online learning medium like fish to water. For instance, during the term when Thrun made his AI course available online, most of the Stanford students enrolled in his class stopped attending his lectures and took their information delivery online, at times convenient to them. But the convenience of Stanford students is not what the MOOC initiative is about. What excites me and my colleagues is the possibility to reach millions who currently have no access to any university at all.

Welcome to the age of the MOOC.



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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