MathThink rides again

It’s been two years since I last wrote a post to this blog. Originally, that hiatus came about because other issues took most of my time, and besides, my Coursera MOOC Introduction to Mathematical Thinking had reached a steady state, and the only input required of me was to show up on the class discussion forum once a day for the ten weeks the course ran, and interact with the class—or at least, the minority of registered students who were themselves active on the forums.

My absence became considerably longer because, faced with a need to generate revenue in order to survive as a company, Coursera rebuilt their course platform, tailoring it to a more production-line, largely instruction-based approach to education than the “Let’s take a typical, highly interactive Stanford course structure and make it available on the Web” that inspired many of the original MOOC pioneers, of which I was one. (Strictly, the Stanford group were x-MOOC pioneers, in deference to the Canadians who, a few years earlier, had created the very first MOOCs, subsequently renamed c-MOOCs, with the “c” standing for “connectivist”, not “Canada”. See here for the tortuous history.)

Coursera‘s shift—I would not go as far as to call it a pivot, though I think that Silicon Valley beloved term does apply to pioneering xMOOC-provider  Udacity‘s move to the corporate training market—was totally understandable, given their need to survive as a for-profit company. Unfortunately, many of the features they eliminated from their original platform left my course completely un-runnable.

It has taken almost a year, working with a Coursera engineer, for me to rebuild my original MOOC into something that will run on the new platform. That new edition of MathThink, as we insiders all called the course, launches on January 9. On the whole, I am pretty happy with it. I think many people will find it useful. But it is no longer the course I originally created (or rather, ported from the real classroom to a virtual one), and after the first run in early 2017, I will no longer play an active role. (That great, 1972 Douglas Trumbull sic-fi movie Silent Running comes to mind, with me corresponding to the Bruce Dern character. I know, I view education in a romantic way. I think most educators do. Why else would we do it?)

At some point, I may find the energy and the enthusiasm to re-create something like the original MathThink on the Open EdX platform, which, as a nonprofit, Open Source academic project, is not subject to the commercial pressures on a for-profit company. (Though in a subsequent post I will indicate why I think it will differ in significant ways from my original MathThink.)

While taking a successful course and removing features I found valuable was a frustrating task, the reason I approached it in a sanguine  fashion was that I had long been aware of the numerical realities of my course. Of the 40,000 or so who would typically register, around 5,000 would complete the Basic Course, lasting eight weeks, and of them around 1,000 would continue to complete the two-week capstone experience I called Test Flight, where they were given an opportunity to experience the role of a professional mathematician. Of those, at most maybe 100 (that is one hundred) would have actually had the fully interactive experience I had been trying to take from my physical classroom onto the Web, involving regular interactions with me and my small army of volunteer Teaching Assistants.

For reasons I gave in an earlier post on this blog, on January 2, 2014, I was more than happy to put in the effort to reach that one hundred or so students around the world. For me, the “massive” part—being able to “reach” tens of thousands of students—was simply a way to find that one hundred or so I would react with on a daily basis for ten weeks. That was more than ten times the number of students I would really interact with in a physical classroom. I was sorry to have to give up that twice-yearly fix of global mathematical outreach, where I was given a real opportunity to change a small number of lives dramatically for the better (and, like all MOOC instructors, I was able to do just that). But there was no way I could feel bitter about it. No company can survive when its core market is one hundred, and moreover, many of that one hundred  were unable to pay anything for the experience.

So, the old MathThink is dead. Long live the new MathThink.

Meanwhile, get ready to meet MOLEs: Massive Online Learning Experiences. That concept is the (potential) jewel I was able to identify when I was raking through the ashes of my original MOOC. As I continually tell my students (including my MOOC students), “failure” is something to be looked upon, not as an ending, but as a learning opportunity that can lead to starting something new. (Google “Edison + lightbulb + failure”.)

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5 Responses to “MathThink rides again”


  1. 1 Jon Awbrey December 26, 2016 at 3:26 pm

    Happy Thinking-Outside-The-Box-Ing Day❢

  2. 2 Edward December 27, 2016 at 8:14 am

    As a MOOC taker, I was sad to see many great courses vanish from Coursera in the shift. If you Google for the best computer science courses on Coursera, only 3/5 or so are still there (most notably Jeff Ullman’s Automata and Dan Grossman’s Hardware/Software Interface are gone). In any event, I look forward to taking your MOOC in two weeks and hope to interact with you there.

    • 3 Keith Devlin December 27, 2016 at 6:37 pm

      Yup! I think we all learned that trying to put a reasonably good university experience online is not financially viable as a for-profit enterprise. Open EdX is, I believe, and example of the only way to go — at least as long as the supporting institutions continue to put money into it.

  3. 4 BB January 3, 2017 at 2:16 pm

    Coursera committed e-seppuku with their horrible re-design, to quote a colleague MOOC-student, and has probably killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. Not only does the self-paced model take away the community feel (forum interaction has close to disappeared at the new Coursera) that made MOOCs much more than just a textbook with videos, the new site lacks a lot of features the old site had, is totally user-unfriendly and can be considered a complete failure from a website design perspective. By putting (submission of) graded work behind a paywall, Coursera scared away the last couple of interested students (and especially the people that took courses as refreshers and played a big role in the forums to guide younger/novice students) and finally, giving infinite re-tries for graded work, diminishes the value of a Coursera certificate to something close to zero.

    It is great to see that some of the best Coursera courses are moving to other, more user-friendly and more in the good old Thrun-Norvig-MOOC-spirit platforms. For example, Automata can be found here https://lagunita.stanford.edu/ and Intro to Astronomy here https://extend.duke.edu/ and Useful Genetics moved to edX. Hope professor Devlin (and professor Ghrist, I’d like to add) will find the energy and time to also make the transition to (open-)edX some time.

    For now I’d like to thank professors Devlin and all the others MOOC professors for their time and commitment to a great community of students that Coursera once was.


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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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