Archive for March, 2020

Online education during a global pandemic

The disruption to daily life caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many aspects of our daily lives. Education, in particular, has been hit hard, with systemic education for all age groups having to go online for at least a few months, maybe longer.

I’m no stranger to the online education domain. Back in 2012, I launched the first ever mathematics Massively Open Online Course (MOOC), part of the wave of such courses coming out of Stanford University: Introduction to Mathematical Thinking. I ran that ten-week course for several years, offering two sessions a year on the Coursera platform, itself a spin-off company from Stanford. Participants back then numbered in the tens of thousands, spread all across the Globe.

It was heady stuff, both for the students and the instructional team. (I recruited a group of experienced math instructors to help me as course tutors, as we answered the many questions students inevitably have when trying to learn how to think mathematically. It’s a skill rarely taught in the school system, where the focus is mastering a set of time-tested procedures for solving certain kinds of problems. Going from that to mathematical thinking is, for most of us, a very difficult transition.)

Over those early MOOC years, more and more such courses were offered, and with more choices available, the enrollments for any one dropped steadily. In order to survive as a company, Coursera eventually had to restructure the way courses were delivered, taking them away from the original model of a regular university course — Stanford’s original goal was to deliver normally-exclusive Stanford courses available for free to the world — and packaging them so that can be used in a part-time fashion by students whose lives were already full of regular commitments.

When the numbers of students online at any one time dropped to a trickle, I and my fellow tutors eventually decided it was not a good use of our time, and we pulled out to pursue other interests.

But now we have Coronavirus, and people suddenly find themselves with lots of time on their hands, together with a need (and desire) to interact socially with their fellow humans. So I decided to jump back in to my MOOC, and work through it week-by-week along with the students. An email call to the original group of Course Mentors met immediately with eleven positive responses, leaving seven I have yet to hear from. This is an impressive array of talented, experienced math educators.

The plan is, we try to operate as much as possible as we did in the early days, creating and sustaining a vibrant online community. For that is what it used to be, and what we all missed when the realities of commercial survival for Coursera morphed the course into something else. (To be sure, that new version of the course is still of value, as students in each session who have never interacted with me personally online often tell me in emails, and comment on the course website. But to my mind, and that of my team, it is not the experience it used to be.)

Starting on March 30, then, we are going to try to recreate that original experience; both to meet educational goals and provide an opportunity for people around the world, having a shared interest in learning how to think mathematically, to come together socially in a shared online space.

I should stress that the actual course I and my team will  be involved with over the coming ten weeks is the one already on the Coursera platform. We are not changing any of the content. So students already working their way through the course can switch in to this special session if they want, past students can re-enter and experience the course with the original instructor and his team, and new students can come in and taste it for the first time. The involvement of me and my team is the only change. But as I explain below, that is likely to be a significant change.

I created the MOOCtalk blog in May 2012 when I began planning and developing my original course, using my posts as a public “laboratory notebook.” Looking back on it now, I see how I got some things wrong, but on the whole most things right. In particular, my post of September 21, 2012, just four days into the new course, seems highly relevant to the value today that such an experience might provide. That, at least, is my hope.

Here is a (lightly) abridged copy of that post, where I have omitted parts that do not seem relevant to today.

Liftoff: MOOC planning – Part 7

Published September 21, 2012

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.

END of abridged September 12, 2012 post


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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