Archive for March, 2013

Overcoming the legacy of prior education

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

We’re now into the third week of the course. The numbers are down on the first edition, almost certainly because the six months that have passed have seen the appearance of hundreds of other MOOCs students have to choose from. But the numbers are still huge. As of today:

Total registration: 27,014

Active students last week: 9,608

Total number of streaming views of lectures: 120,925

Total number of lecture downloads: 35,888

Number of unique videos watched: 87,155

Number of students submitting homework assignments: 5,552

Based on what we (my TA, Paul, and I) learned when I gave the course the first time last fall, I made some changes this time round. Paul and I discussed those changes in a video-recorded discussion we had with media host Angie Coiro just before edition 2 launched, that I referred to in my last blog.

Although the overall numbers are down by about 60%, the profile of the class activity is very similar. The most obvious one, the huge drop in numbers from the total number of enrollments to the number who are still active in week three, has been discussed ad infinitum, often being referred to as “a big problem with MOOCs.” As I observed in a recent blog in the Huffington Post, I don’t think there is a problem at all. The drop off is just a feature of what is a very new form of human experience. Old metrics are simply not appropriate, “retention rate” being one such. (Unless you pay attention to the base for the retention computation, in which case MOOC “retention” is not that different from retention in traditional college education.)

Some of the early research into MOOC participants that has been carried out by my colleagues at Stanford (including studies of my first MOOC) has already demonstrated what we suspected about why so many drop out of MOOCs: many people who register for a MOOC never have any intention of completing the course, or even getting beyond sampling one or two lectures and perhaps attempting one or two of the assignments. Some are motivated by pure curiosity into this new phenomenon, others just want to get a flavor of a particular discipline or topic, and doubtless others have different reasons.

For example, one reason some students enroll that I had not anticipated, reflects the fact that a MOOC offers a large number of eyeballs to be accessed. A very  small number of students enrolled for my course in order to advertise products. (At least, that was one reason they enrolled; they may also have wanted to learn how to think mathematically!) In the long run, this may or may not turn out to be a positive thing. Certainly, the products advertised in the discussion forums for my course (at least the ones I saw) were all education related and free. (Moreover, I also included my own course-related textbook in my short list of suggested – but not required – resources.)

Still, the very wide reach of MOOCs means we are likely to see new kinds of activities emerge, some of them purely commercial. The example I cite above, though right now a very isolated one, may be a sign of big things to come – which is why I mention it. There is, after all, a familiar pattern. The Internet, on which MOOCs live, began as a military and educational network, but now it is a major economic platform. And textbooks grew from being a valuable educational support to the present-day mega-profit industry that has effectively killed US K-12 education.

Talking of which (and this brings me to my main focus in this post), the death – or at least the dearth – of good K-12 mathematics education becomes clear when you look through the forum posts in a MOOC such as mine, which assumes only high school knowledge of mathematics.

To be sure, generalizing is always dangerous, particularly so when based on comments in an online forum, which always attracts people with something to complain about. (Case in point: See my Twitter feed when it comes to banks, United Airlines, and bigoted politicians.) But with that caveat in mind, some themes become clear.

First, many forum posters  seem to view education as something done to them, by other people who are in control. This is completely wrong, and is the opposite of what you will find in a good university (and a very small number of excellent K-12 schools).  “To learn” is an active verb. The focus should be creating an environment where the student can learn, wants to learn, and can obtain the support required to do so. There is no other way, and anyone who claims to do anything more than help you to learn is trying to extract money from you.

Second, there is a common view of education as being primarily about getting grades on tests – generally by the most efficient means (which usually means by-passing real learning). In education, tests are metrics to help the student and the instructor gauge progress. That does not prevent tests being used to assess achievement and provide credentials, but that is something you do after an educational experience is completed. Their use within the learning process is different, and everyone involved in education – students, instructors, parents, bureaucrats, and politicians – needs to be aware of the distinction.

Even worse, is the belief that a test grade of less than 90% is an indication of failure, often compounded by the hopeless misconception that activities like mathematics depend mostly on innate talent, rather than the hours of effort that those of us in the business know is the key. (Check out Carol Dweck’s Mindset research or read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. Better still, read both.)

This is compounded by the expectation that a grade of 90% is possible within just a few days of meeting something new. For example, here is one (slightly edited) forum post from a student in my class:

Right now I want to quit this class. I don’t understand ANY of it. Hell I don’t understand anything regarding to math except basic equations and those barely. When asked to give a theorem on why something (let’s say a right angle) is that way my answer always was “it is because it is”). So now I don’t know what to do. I got 14 out of 40 … 14, and the perfectionist in me is saying might as well give up … you gave it a shot … there is no way to catch up now. The person in me who wants to learn is saying to keep trying you never know what will happen. And the pessimist in me says it doesn’t matter – I dumb and will always be dumb and by continuing I am just showing how dumb I am.

In this case, I looked at other posts from this student and as far as I can tell (this is hard when done remotely over the Internet) she is smart and shows every indication she can do fine in mathematics. In which case, I take her comment as an indication of the total, dismal failure of the education system she has hitherto been subjected to. No first-line education system should ever produce a graduate who feels like that.

Certainly, in learning something new and challenging, getting over 30% in the first test, less than a week after meeting it for the first time, is good. In fact, if you are in a course where you get much more than that so quickly, you are clearly in the wrong course – unless you signed up in order to fine-tune something you had already learned. Learning is a long, hard process that involves repeated “failure”. And (to repeat a point I made earlier) anyone who says otherwise is trying to extract money from you.

Turning to the third theme emerging on the course forums, there is a perception that the most efficient way to learn is to break everything down into the smallest possible morsels. While an important component of learning – if the breaking down is done by, and not for, the student – it is just the first part of a two-part process. The second part, which is by far the most important, and is in fact where the actual learning takes place, is putting it back together into a coherent whole. Textbooks and YouTube videos can provide morselized edubits (I just made that word up), and they do so by the bucketload. What they cannot do, is deliver real learning.

Suitably designed, I see no reason why MOOCs cannot be made to provide good learning, at least up to sophomore college level in many, if not most, disciplines. But a key to doing that is to leverage the power, not of machines, but of people. For fairly well understood evolutionary reasons, human learning is a social activity. We learn best from and with other people. That is how we are built!

Part of the benefit from learning in a social context is that it can offer the learner not just feedback, but also the – at a fundamental level, more important – human support that people need to succeed in education. You can find both of these in a MOOC. Within a short time of the student above posting her feelings, another student responded with this:

Hi. Don’t be discouraged. This course will give you the opportunity to think in a different way. I took the course last year and struggled with most of it. I am taking the course again as I find the subject of mathematical thinking fascinating. My scores this time round are better than the last time which indicates that given enough time even the most mathematically challenged can improve! Only have one caveat for you. If you don’t enjoy the struggle in trying to comprehend and feel that it is not worth the effort then maybe this course is not for you.

With that comment we can see one huge benefit of MOOCs. (At least, all the time they are free.) You can take them as many times as you need or want.

The one essential ingredient in order to take advantage of the huge opportunity MOOCs offer, is knowing how to learn. That should be the main ability graduates of the K-12 system get from their education. Unfortunately, with the current US (and elsewhere) system built around “being taught” and “being tested,” only a few students emerge with that crucial ability, and the ones who do usually say it is in spite of their school education.

The problem, by the way, is not the teachers. Certainly, most of the ones I meet agree with me, and are very clear as to what the problem is: a system that simply does not give them the freedom and support that is necessary for them to really help students learn. (See Jo Boaler’s excellent, well researched book What’s Math Got To Do With It? for a distressing account of how the current, overly micro-regulated system fails our students in the case of mathematics.)

Okay, that’s enough ranting for one post. Let me finish with a couple of examples where MOOCs are already working well. One student in my MOOC posted the following comment:

I have taken this course on a whim to get myself back in gear to return to school in the fall. I always despised the math classes that I was forced to attend in high school and early college. I was frustrated with the endless formulas and cookie cutter style problem solving. If you can solve one you can solve them all so being forced to endlessly solve these equations and proofs over and over seemed to be a futile act of nonsense.

Heading into week three three of this class, my mind has been completely changed. I not only enjoy this more logic based math, but have, in the course of some personal reading and problem solving, discovered i have a knack for it. I have found the challenge of solving more and more difficult problems from a few books i have purchased much more gratifying and interesting than any other area of previous study.

I would like you know that I now plan to switch majors to mathematics. I would like to thank you and your team for an eye-opening experience.

Oh, all right, I admit that included more ranting about US K-12 education. But, heavens, it is bad, and it is likely to remain so all the time that real, knowledgable educators are not part of the conversation, with all the important decision being made by people whose primary interests are profits or political career advancement. (BTW, I have nothing against the profit motive. Heavens, I have two for profit companies of my own and am talking with colleagues about launching a third. But financial ROI is not the same as educational ROI – and again, anyone claiming otherwise, as one head of a major textbook publisher did not long ago, is motivated by the former. I do have something against many politicians, but then I am an American citizen, so after what we have experienced in the past four years, I would.*)

Here’s the other example, this one sent to me in an email, rather than posted on the course discussion forum.

I am enrolled in your course “Introduction to Mathematical Thinking.” It is incredible. You have alleviated my fears that my college professors will have the same attitude towards mathematics that my high school teachers do. Mathematics is beautiful and certainly emotional. I am surrounded at school by people who believe mathematics is systematic. Through all of the videos you have posted so far and your archived NPR clips, I am now confident that mathematics is the direction I want to pursue. I am excitedly awaiting next week’s lectures. 

With tears in my eyes and more gratitude than I know how to express,

It’s that kind of feedback that makes teaching one of the most rewarding professions in the world. It’s why people become teachers. If society would just get off teachers’ backs and let them get on with what they were trained to do, what they know how to do,  and what they want to do, we’d all be a lot better off. (Check out Finland.)

To be continued …

*ADDED LATER IN RESPONSE TO A QUERY FROM AN OVERSEAS READER: The problem is the complete refusal of the Republican Party to cooperate with a now twice-elected President of the US, in governing the country as they are all elected and paid from public funds to do, choosing instead to drive the country, and with it most of the world, to the brink of financial and thence  social disaster.



MOOCs are So Back to the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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