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:
- machine-graded, multiple-choice pop quizzes
- machine-graded, multiple-choice (substantive) problem sets
- 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.