Archive for August 17th, 2012

Why MOOCs Look Unprofessional: MOOC planning – Part 4

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

From an educational perspective, my goal in offering a MOOC on mathematical thinking is very modest. I have not approached the task as one of developing a whole new pedagogic model. That is a future goal — for me or for others. Rather I set out to see how much we can take current university teaching (of transition mathematics material) and make it available to a wide audience. Indeed, almost all the Stanford MOOCs currently being offered are free, online versions of regular Stanford courses, in many cases running concurrently with a physical class on campus. (As I noted in an earlier post, the technology that supports these MOOCs was actually developed at Stanford in order to facilitate flipped-classroom learning in on-campus classes.)

The underlying assumption of university education — at least at major research universities (as Stanford is) — is that the principle value for the student comes from studying with a world expert in a particular domain. Though many professors at research universities do in fact put enormous effort into their teaching, what is really being offered (sold) to students is the expertise (and reputations) of the faculty. (Other parts of the value proposition, such as the prestige of the university, stem from the faculty, both past and present.) It’s a method that works well for very bright, well-prepared, and highly motivated students, but it is not ideal for everyone.

In fact, even at less prestigious universities, where there are fewer leading research faculty, and at liberal arts colleges, where the primary focus is on undergraduate education, field-content knowledge hugely outweighs pedagogical content knowledge — how to teach the subject and how students learn it. (A Ph.D. is usually required for a faculty position.) That makes universities and colleges very different from high schools.

One of the implicit purposes of  a math transition course, such as mine (as well as many other first-year courses in different disciplines), is to help incoming students adjust to the different approach to teaching. More precisely, it is to help them adjust to not being “taught”, but having someone help them learn. This is particularly significant in mathematics — at least in the US — because of the hugely formulaic, procedures-focused nature of K-12 mathematics education in this country.

My challenge then, like that facing most of my colleagues offering their first MOOC, is to figure out how to take an existing educational model, hitherto used to teach (or help to learn) twenty-five or so students in a classroom, and make it available to thousands, spread around the world.

Since my topic is mathematical thinking, the biggest, and most obvious challenge is how to compensate for the complete absence of regular interaction between the students and me, the instructor. Sure, I give lectures when I teach a physical transition class, but the lectures are one of the least significant components. They really just set the agenda for learning. In order to help the students develop the ability for mathematical thinking, I need to see them in action at the board, to read their work, and to discuss their attempts face-to-face. Learning to think mathematically is more like learning to drive or to play tennis than soaking up knowledge. You have to do it alongside an expert or coach.

It’s a challenge I think cannot be completely overcome in a MOOC. The question is, is it possible to get part-way there? I suspect it is, but we’ll only find out for sure by making the attempt. So here we are.

One thing a MOOC does offer that is not possible in a physical class — and hence is a plus — is that all the instruction and professorial-learning-assistance can be on a one-to-one basis. Sure, it’s all one way, but if you set it up right (and if your voice/personality/whatever work over an ethernet cable), then the student can get that sense of working alongside the instructor — the expert.

Though by no means the first to discover that, Salman Khan, by virtue of his huge following at Khan Academy, demonstrated just how powerful is that sense of “working together, side-by-side”. Though I share the dismay of many of my colleagues at his less-than-expert content knowledge and his almost non-existent pedagogical content knowledge (neither of which he could be expected to have, given his background), where I seem to part company with many of them is the huge significance I attach  to the way he pulls off that human-connect. For online learning, I suspect it trumps almost all other factors.

(BTW, in developing my MOOC, I soon lost track of the number of times I made a decision based on a “suspicion” — or a “guess” or  “hunch”. MOOCs are generating enough research questions to sustain several generations of doctoral dissertations in education research.)

Based on that suspicion (admittedly a suspicion comfortingly buttressed by a Khan Academy user base that numbers in the millions), Khan’s format was my starting point, as I observed in my last post. Not just the physical aspect of “sitting alongside in a one-on-one tutorial” but the associated human connect (and with it reassurance and encouragement) that Khan delivers.

In Khan’s case, his now widely familiar format originated with him informally helping his school-age relatives (who lived a long way away) with their math homework. What the viewer gets on their computer screen is, well, just “Uncle Sal”, doing what he would have done if he were really sitting alongside one of his relatives. For my MOOC, I wanted to achieve a similar outcome. Not a slick show, not a polished, rehearsed performance. Just me doing math.

Of course, the logistics of putting together a complete course that has to run automatically, and be scalable to many thousands of students around the world, many of them not native English speakers, meant that there had to be a lot of detailed advanced planning. Everything had to be scripted. But when it comes to the bits where I explain some mathematics, I put the script to one side and just start to work through the material as if I am sitting next to a student.

You might not like it. It might not work for you. You will surely despair at my handwriting. You might hate my accent. (I did cut down drastically on my jokes and puns, in deference to a multilingual audience.) But as far as I can make it, absent being physically in the same room, it’s what you would get if you were taking the course with me here at Stanford.  [Some time spent in a campus video-editing studio made my into-camera segments look a lot smoother than they were when we recorded them! If it’s digital, it’s plastic. But the goal there was to reduce the length of those segments.]

Which brings me back to my starting point: seeing the extent to which we can take existing university education and make it available to the world.

Once we can do that — and it will surely take several iterations to iron out all the kinks and make an altogether better job of it — we can look at how to change the underlying model. In addition to MOOCs making accessible to the world some aspects of university education, I think that the act of designing them, mounting them, and analyzing the results, will lead to changes in the way we organize learning within our universities.

It is because the current goal is to see how well we can deliver (current) real university education to the world for free that most of the MOOCs being offered have an unpolished, unrehearsed look. By deliberate choice, to the greatest degree we can achieve, what you see is what our (on-campus) students get. (I think this WYSIWOSG philosophy — I just made up that term —  is also one of the reasons for the success of Salman Khan — including the fact that in his case, unlike university MOOCs, he does not even lesson-plan his instruction sessions.)

So much for the most visible part of the MOOC: the instruction. But instruction is still just instruction. As I’ve said before, the learning takes place elsewhere, through other mechanisms, none of which we understand very well. So where is that educational  meat?

Now we are about to really enter speculative territory.

To be continued …

COMMENTS: As always, comments are welcome, provided they remain on topic.

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I'm Dr. Keith Devlin, a mathematician at Stanford University. I gave my first free, open, online math course in fall 2012, and have been offering it twice a year since then. This blog chronicles my experiences as they happen.

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