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The MOOC Express – Less Hype, More Hope

A real-time chronicle of a seasoned professor just about to launch the fourth edition of his massively open online course.

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Last week, I headed off to Arlington, Texas, to participate in a large, international conference on MOOC education, part of the Gates Foundation funded MOOC Research Initiative (MRI). While the founders of the big, massively-funded American MOOC (“MFAM”) platforms Coursera, edX, Udacity, and Novo Ed capture most of the media’s attention, this conference was led by the small band of far less well known Canadian online-education pioneers who actually developed the MOOC concept some years earlier, in particular George Siemens and Stephen Downes who organized and ran the first MOOC in 2008, and David Cornier who forever has to live with having coined the name “MOOC”.

(There were so many Canadians in Arlington, they brought their own weather with them, as you can see from the photograph. The conference ended with participants having to change flights and book additional nights in the conference hotel, as a severe ice storm hit the area. With a return flight that happened to lie within a brief lull in the storm, I managed to get out on time, though only after a slip-sliding taxi ride at a snail’s pace to get to DFW Airport. Others had it a lot worse.)

While teams of engineers in Silicon Valley and Cambridge (MA) are building out MOOC platforms that provide huge opportunities for massive scale-up, the two hundred or so researchers and educators who came together in Texas represent the vanguard of the educational revolution that is underway. If you wanted to know what MOOC learning might look at in a few years time, you would have better spent your time at the University of Texas in Arlington last week rather than in Silicon Valley. In his October announcement of the conference, organizer Siemens described it as “the greatest MOOC conference in the history of MOOCs,” a bit of satirical hype that is almost certainly true.

You need both, of course, the technology to reach millions of people and the appropriate, quality pedagogy. For example, the movie industry required a series of major advances in motion picture technology, but fancy film cameras alone are not what gave us Hollywood. As the technology advanced, so too did the art and craft of motion picture writing, acting and directing. Similarly with MOOCs. The focus in Arlington was on the educational equivalent of the latter, human expertise factors.

To pursue the movie analogy a bit further (and with that great spoof movie poster as a visual aid, how could I resist?), the MOOC action that gets reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education and the breathless (but hopelessly off-base and over-hyped) prose of Thomas Friedman in the New York Times is the equivalent of taking an early movie camera into a theater and recording what happens on the stage.

If you want to see the future of MOOCs, you need to hang around with the instructors in the lesser known, small universities and community colleges who, for many years, have been experimenting with online learning. Most of the leaders of that loosely knit band could be found in a large, cavernous room in Arlington for two days last week – along with key figures from such new-MOOC, Ivy League players as Stanford, MIT, and Georgia Tech.

What was the take-home message? In my case, and I suspect everyone else’s, confirmation that we really don’t know where the MOOC train is taking us. The problem is not an absence of good ideas or useful leads; rather the opposite. Don’t expect a “Conference Proceedings” volume any day soon. The best summary you will find is probably the conference Twitter stream (hashtag #mri13).

The fact is, there isn’t even a clear definition of what a MOOC is. The common classifications of c-MOOC (for the original, Canadian, connectionist animal) and x-MOOC (for the later, scalability-focused, Stanford version) don’t help much, since many (most?) of the MOOCs being developed now have elements of both. Commenting on the lack of a generally accepted definition in his welcoming remarks, conference organizer George Siemens opined that it may be that no agreed definition will emerge, and that the term “MOOC” will be similar to “Web 2.0”, remaining an undefined term that “reflect[s] a mess of concepts that represent foundational changes that we don’t yet understand, can barely articulate, but that will substantially impact the system.”

Actually, I should modify my remark above that Stanford is a MOOC player. That’s not really accurate. Some Stanford scholars (including me) are developing and offering MOOCs, but the main focus at my university is research into learning in a digital age, including online learning. There is a lot of such research, but MOOCs are just one part of it. And those MOOC platform providers you keep reading about, Udacity, Coursera, and Novo Ed? They are all private companies that span out of Stanford. They are now (and  were from their creation) Silicon Valley entities, outside the university. Stanford’s original, in-house MOOC platform, eventually called Class2Go, was recently folded into edX, to be run by MIT and Harvard as an open source platform.

As the MOOC research train goes forward, don’t expect the big, Ivy League universities to exclusively dominate the leading edge of the research. The reason so many participants in the Arlington conference came from far less wealthy, and often smaller institutions is that they have been developing and using online education for years to cater to their geographically-diverse, economically-diverse, and education-preparedness-diverse student bodies. The connections made or strengthened at the Arlington conference are likely to result in many collaborations between institutions both big and small, from the wealthy to the impoverished. The Digital World is like that. When it comes to expertise, today’s academic world is just as flat as the economic one – as Siemens clearly realized in drawing up his conference invitation list.

Expect to see MOOC pioneer Stephen Downes leading a lot of the action, as the head of a new, $19 million, 5-year R&D initiative for the Canadian National Research Council. Keep your eyes too on Siemens himself, who at the conference announced his move from Athabacsa University in Canada to be a professor in, and executive director of, the  University of Texas at Arlington’s new Learning Innovations & Networked Knowledge (LINK) Research Lab. (So new, it doesn’t have a website yet!) Track conference keynoter Jim Groom, who whiled away the time holed up at snowed-in DWF Airport to draft this summary of the gathering.  And don’t overlook the University of Prince Edward Island, where Dave Cormier and Bonnie Stewart brave the weather of the far North East. There are a whole host more. Check the list of recipients of MRI grants for other names to follow, and remember that this is just the tip of, dare I say it under the circumstances, the iceberg.

And never, ever forget to read the excellent (and highly knowledgable) ed tech commentator Audrey Watters, who was invited to attend the Arlington conference but had a scheduling conflict. New readers interested in MOOCs, start here.

Recent headlines may have given the impression that MOOCs were a short-lived bubble, and the experiment has largely failed. Nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, even the much reported business pivot of Udacity was a familiar event in Silicon Valley, as I argued in a commentary in the Huffington Post.

As Siemens put it in his conference welcome, “the ‘failure’ of MOOCs is a failure of hype and an antiquated notion of learning,  not a failure of open online learning.”

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Evaluation rubrics: the good, the bad, and the ugly

A real-time chronicle of a seasoned professor just about to launch the third edition of his massively open online course.

With the third session of my MOOC Introduction to Mathematical Thinking starting on September 2, I am busy putting the final touches to the course materials. As I did when I offered the second session earlier this year, I have made some changes to the way the course is structured. The underlying content remains the same, however – indeed at heart it has not changed since I first began teaching a high school to university “transition” course back in the late 1970s, when I was a young university lecturer just starting out on my career.

With the primary focus on helping students develop an new way of thinking, the course was always very light on “content” but high on internal reflection. A typical assignment question might require four or five minutes to write out the answer; but getting to the point where that is possible might take the student several hours of thought, sometimes days. Students who approach the course thinking it is an introductory course on logic – some of whom likely will, as they have in the past,  post on the course forum that they cannot understand why I am proceeding so slowly and making such heavy weather of the material – will, if they don’t walk away in disgust, eventually (by about week four) realize they are completely lost. Habituated to courses that rush through a pile of material that required mostly procedural mastery, they find it challenging, and in many cases impossible, to slow down and adopt the questioning, reflective approach this course requires.

My course uses elementary linguistics and formal logic as a vehicle to help develop new thinking skills that are essential for university mathematics majors, very valuable for STEM majors, and of considerable value for anyone who wants to lead a more rewarding life. But it is definitely not a course in linguistics or logic. It is about thinking.

Starting with an analysis of certain features of ordinary language, as I do, provides a starting point that is accessible to everyone – though because the language I examine is English, students for whom that is a second language are at a disadvantage. That is unavoidable. (A Spanish language version, embedded in Hispanic culture, is currently under development. I hope other deep translations follow.)

And formal logic is so simple and structured, and so accessible to a beginner, that it too is well suited to an introductory level course on analytic, and in particular mathematical, thinking.

Why my course videos are longer than most

The imperative of a student devoting substantial periods of time engaged in sustained contemplation of the course material has led to me making two decisions that go against the current grain in MOOCs. First, the pace is slow. I speak far more slowly than I normally do, and I repeat each point at least once, and often more so. Second, I do not break my “lectures” into the now-almost-obligatory no-longer-than-seven-and-ideally-under-three-minutes snippets. For the course’s second running, I did split the later hour or more long videos into half-hour sections, but that was to make it easier for students without fast broadband access, who have to download the videos overnight to watch them.

Of course, students can speed up or slow down the videos, they can watch them as many times as they want, and they can stop and start them to suit their schedules. But then they are in control and make those decisions based on their own progress and understanding. My course does not come pre-digested. It is slow cooking, not fast food.

Learning by evaluation

The main difference returning students will notice in the new session is the much greater emphasis on developing evaluation skills. Fairy early in the course, students will be presented with purported mathematical proofs that they have to evaluate according to a grading rubric.

At first these will be fairly short arguments, designed by me to illustrate various key features of proofs, and often incorporating common mistakes beginners make. Later on, the complexity increases. For those students who elect to take the final exam (and thereby become eligible to earn a Distinction grade for the course), evaluation will culminate in grading three randomly assigned, anonymized exam submissions from fellow students, followed by grading their own submission.

Peer evaluation is essential in MOOCs that involve work that cannot be machine graded, definitely the category into which my Mathematical Thinking course falls. The method I use for the Final Exam is called Calibrated Peer Review. It has a long history and proven acceptable results. (I describe it in some detail on my MOOC course website – accessible to anyone who signs up for the course.) So adopting peer evaluation for my course was unavoidable.

The first time I offered the course, I delayed peer evaluation until the final couple of weeks, when it was restricted to the final exam. Though things went better than I had feared, there were problems. The main issues, which came as no surprise, were, first, that many students felt very uneasy grading the work of others, second, many of them did not do a good job, and third, the rubric (which I had taken off another university’s Internet shelf) did not work at all well.

On the other hand, many students posted forum comments saying they found they enjoyed that part of the course, and learned more in those final two weeks than in the entire earlier part of the course.

I had in fact expected this would be the case, and had told the class early on that many of them would have that reaction. In particular, evaluating the work of fellow students is a very powerful, known way to learn new material. Nevertheless, it came as a great relief when this actually transpired.

As a result of my experience in the first session, when I gave the course a second time this spring, I increased the number of assignment exercises that required students to evaluate purported proofs. I also altered the rubric to make it better suited to what I see as the main points in the course.

The outcome, as far as I could ascertain from reading the comments student posted on the course discussion forum, was that it went much better. But it was still far from perfect. The two main issues were the rubric itself and how to use it.

Designing a rubric

Designing a good rubric is not at all easy for any course, and I think particularly challenging for a course on more advanced parts of mathematics. Qualitative grading of mathematical arguments, like grading essays or works of art, is a holistic skill that takes years to acquire to a degree it can be used to evaluate performance with some degree of reliability. A beginner attempting evaluation needs guidance, most typically provided by an evaluation rubric. The idea is to replace the holistic application of a lifetime’s acquisition of tacit domain knowledge with a number of categories that the evaluator should look for.

The more fine-grained the rubric, the easier it will be for the novice evaluator, but the more onerous the grading task becomes. The rubric I started with for my course had six factors, which I felt was about right – enough to make the task doable for the student yet not too many to turn it into a dull chore. I have retained that number. But, based on the experiences of students using the rubric, I changed several categories the first time I repeated the course and I have changed one category for the upcoming third session.

In each of the six categories in the rubric, the student must chose between three levels, which I name Novice, Apprentice, and Practitioner. I chose the names to emphasize that we are using evaluation as a way to learn, and the focus is to measure progress along a path of development, not assign summative performance judgments of “poor”, “okay”, and “good”.

The intention in having just three levels is to force a student evaluator to make a decision about the work being assessed. But this can be particularly difficult for a beginner who is, of course, lacking in confidence in their ability to do that. To counter that, in this third session, when the student enters the numerical value that course software will use to track progress, the numerical equivalents to those three categories are not 0, 1, 2, but 0, 2, and 4. The student can enter 1 or 3 as a “middle value” if they are undecided as to which category to assign.

Using the rubric

Even with “middling” grades available for the rubric items, most students will find the evaluation process difficult and very time consuming. A rubric simply breaks a single evaluation task into a number of smaller evaluation tasks, six in my case. In so doing, it guides the student as to what things to look for, but the student still has to make qualitative judgments within each of the categories.

To help them make these judgments, the last time I gave the course, I provided them with tutorial videos that take them through the grading process. I record myself grading the same sample arguments that they have just attempted to evaluate, verbalizing my thinking process as I go, explaining why I make the calls I do. They are not the most riveting of videos, and they can be a bit long (ten minutes for some assignment questions). But I don’t know of any other way of conveying something of the expertise I have built up over a lifetime. It is essentially a modern implementation of the age-old apprentice system of acquiring tacit knowledge by working alongside the expert.

Unfortunately, as an expert, I make calls based on important distinctions that for me jump from the student’s page, but are not even remotely apparent to a beginner. The result last time was, for some questions, considerable frustration on the part of the students.

To try to mitigate this problem (I don’t think it can be eliminated), I changed some aspects of the way the rubric is formulated and described, and decided to introduce the entire evaluation notion much earlier in the course. The result is that evaluation is now a very central component of the course. Indeed, evaluating mathematical arguments now plays a role equal to constructing them.

If it goes well – and based on my previous experience with this course, I think it will go better than last time – I will almost certainly adopt a similar approach if and when I give the course in a traditional classroom setting once again. (A heavy travel schedule associated with running a research lab means I have not taught a regular undergraduate class for several years now, though an attractive offer to spend a term at Princeton early next year will give me a much welcomed opportunity to spend some time in the classroom once again.)

Evaluating to learn, not to grade

One feature of a MOOC – or at least a MOOC like mine that does not offer college credit – is that the focus is on learning, not acquiring a credential. Thus, grading can be used entirely for formative purposes, as a guide to progress, not to provide a summative measure of achievement. As an instructor, I find the separation of the teaching and the grading extremely freeing. For one thing, with the assignment of grades out of the picture, the relationship between teacher and student is changed significantly. Also, it means numerical grades can be used as useful indicators of progress. A grade of 35% can be given for a piece of work annotated as “good” (i.e., good for someone taking an introductory course for the first time). The number indicates how much improvement would be required to take the student to the level of an expert practitioner.

To be sure, students who encounter this use of grades for the first time find it takes some getting used to. They are so habituated to the (nonsensical but widespread) notion that anything less than an A is a “failure” that they can be very discouraged when their work earns them a “mere” 35%. But in order to function as a school-to-university transition course, it has to help them adjust to a world where 35% if often a respectable passing grade.

(A student who regularly scores in the 90% range in advanced undergraduate mathematics courses can likely jump straight into a Ph.D. program – and some have done just that. 35% really can be a good result for a beginner.)

One final point about peer evaluation is an issue I encountered last time that surprised me, though perhaps it should not have, given everything I know about a lot of high school mathematics instruction. Many students approached grading the work of others as a punitive process of looking to deduct points. Some went so far as to complain (sometimes angrily) on the discussion forums about my video-streamed grading as being far too lenient.

In fact, one or two even held the view that if a mathematical argument was not logically correct, the only possible grade to give was 0. This particular perspective worried me on two counts.

Firstly, it assumes a degree of logical infallibility that no living mathematician possesses. I doubt there is a single published mathematical proof of more than a few paragraphs that does not include some minor logical slips, and hence is technically incorrect. (Most of the geometric proofs in Euclid’s Elements would score 0 if logical correctness were the sole metric!)

Second, my course is not a mathematics course, it is about mathematical thinking, and has the clearly stated aim of looking at the many different aspects of mathematical arguments required to make them “good.” Logical correctness is just one item on that six-point rubric. As a result, at most 4 of the possible 24 points available can be deducted in an argument is logically incorrect. (Actually, 8 can be deducted, as the final category is “Overall assessment”, designed to encourage precisely what the phrase suggest.)

To be sure, if my course were a mathematics course, I would assign greater weight to logical correctness. As it is, all six categories carry equal weight. But that is deliberate. Most of my students’ entire mathematical education has been in a world where “getting the right answer” is the holy grail. One other objective of transition courses is to break them of that debilitating default assumption.

Finally, and remember, this is for posterity, so be honest. How do you feel?

I’ve written elsewhere that I think MOOCs as such will not be the cause of a revolution in higher education. Rather they are just part of what is more like to be an evolution, though a major one to be sure. From the point of view of an instructor, though, they are providing us with a wonderful domain to re-examine all of our assumptions about how to teach and how students learn. As you can surely tell, I continue to have a blast in the MOOCasphere.

To be continued …

The MOOC will soon die. Long live the MOOR

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

The second running of my MOOC (massive open online course) Introduction to Mathematical Thinking ended recently. The basic stats were:

Total enrollment: 27,930

Number still active during final week of lectures: ca 4,000

Total submitting exam: 870

Number of students receiving a Statement of Accomplishment: 1,950

Number of students awarded a SoA with Distinction: 390

From my perspective, it went better than the first time, but this remains very much a research project, and will do for many more iterations. It is a research project with at least as many “Can we?” questions as “How do we?”

From the start, I took the viewpoint that, given the novelty of the MOOC platform, we need to examine the purpose, structure, and use of all the familiar educational elements: “lecture,” “quiz,” “assignment,” “discussion,” “grading,” “evaluation,” etc. All bets are off. Some changes to the way we use these elements might be minor, but on the other hand, some could be significant.

For instance, my course is not offered for any form of college credit. The goal is purely learning. This could be learning solely for its own sake, and many of my students approached it as such. On the other hand, as a course is basic analytic thinking and problem solving, with an emphasis on mathematical thinking in the second half of the course, it can clearly prepare a student to take (and hopefully do better in) future mathematics or STEM courses that do earn credit – and I have had students taking it with that goal in mind.

Separating learning from evaluation of what has been learned is enormously freeing, both to the instructor and to the student. In particular, evaluation of student work and the awarding of grades can be devoted purely to providing students with a useful (formative) indication of their progress, not a (summative) measure of their performance or ability.

To be sure, many of my students, conditioned by years of high stakes testing, have a hard time adjusting to the fact that a grade of 30% on a piece of work can be very respectable, indeed worth an A in many cases.

My typical response to students who lament their “low” grade is to say that their goal should be that a problem for which they struggle to get 30% in week 2 should be solvable for 80% or more by week 5 (say). And for problems they struggle with in week 8 (the final week of curriculum in my course), they should be able to do them more successfully if they take the course again the next time it is offered – something else that is possible in the brave new world of MOOCs. (Many of the students in my second offering of the course had attempted the first one a few months earlier.)

Incidentally, I think I have to make a comment regarding my statement above that the MOOC platform is novel. A number of commentators have observed that “online education is not new,” and they are right. But they miss the point that even this first generation of MOOC platforms represents a significant phase shift, not only in terms of the aggregate functionality but also the social and cultural context in which today’s MOOCs are being offered.

Regarding the context, not only have many of us grown accustomed to much of our interpersonal interaction being mediated by the internet, the vast majority of people under twenty now interact far more using social media than in person.

We could, of course, spend (I would say “waste”) our time debating whether or not this transition from physical space to cyberspace is a good thing. Personally, however, I think it is more productive to take steps to make sure it is – or at least ends up – a good thing. That means we need to take good education online, and we need to do so for the same reason that it’s important to embed good learning into video games.

The fact is, we have created for the new and future generations a world in which social media and video games are prevalent and attractive – just as earlier generations created worlds of books and magazines, and later mass broadcast media (radio, films, television) which were equally as widespread and attractive in their times. The media of any age are the ones through which we must pass on our culture and our cumulative learning. (See my other blog profkeithdevlin.org for my argument regarding learning in video games.)

Incidentally, I see the points I am making here (and will be making in future posts) as very much in alignment with, and definitely guided by, the views Sir Ken Robinson has expressed in a series of provocative lectures, 1, 2, 3.

Sir Ken’s thoughts influenced me a lot in my thinking about MOOCs. To be sure, there is much in the current version of my MOOC that looks very familiar. That is partly because of my academic’s professional caution, which tells me to proceed in small steps, starting from what I myself am familiar with; but in part also because the more significant changes I am presently introducing are the novel uses I am making (or trying to make) of familiar educational elements.

The design of my course was also heavily influenced by the expectation (more accurately a recognition, given how fast MOOCs are developing) that no single MOOC should see itself as the primary educational resource for a particular learning topic. Rather, those of us currently engaged in developing and offering MOOCs are, surely, creating resources that will be part of a vast smorgasbord from which people will pick and choose what they want or need at any particular time.

Given the way names get assigned and used, we may find we are stuck with the name MOOC (massive open online course), but a better term would be MOOR, for massive open online resource.

For basic, instructional learning, which makes up the bulk of K-12 mathematics teaching (wrongly in my view, but the US will only recognize that when virtually none of our home educated students are able to land the best jobs, which is about a generation away), that transition from course to resource has already taken place. YouTube is littered with short, instructional videos that teach people how to carry out certain procedures.

[By the way, I used the term “mathematical thinking” to describe my course, to distinguish it from the far more prevalent instructional math course that focuses on procedures. Students who did not recognize the distinction in the first three weeks, and approached the material accordingly, dropped out in droves in week four when they suddenly found themselves totally lost.]

By professional standards, many of the instructional video resources you can find on the Web (not just in mathematics but other subjects as well) are not very good, but that does not prevent them being very effective. As a professional mathematician and mathematics educator, I cringe when I watch a Khan Academy video, but millions find them of personal value. Analogously, in a domain where I am not an expert, bicycle mechanics, I watch Web videos to learn how to repair or tune my (high end) bicycles, and to assemble and disassemble my travel bike (a fairly complex process that literally has potential life and death consequences for me), and they serve my need, though I suspect a good bike mechanic would find much to critique in them. In both cases, mathematics and bicycle mechanics, some sites will iterate and improve, and in time they will dominate.

That last point, by the way, is another where many commentators miss the point. Something else that digital technologies and the Web make possible is rapid iteration guided by huge amounts of user feedback data – data obtained with great ease in almost real time.

In the days when products took a long time, and often considerable money, to plan and create, careful planning was essential. Today, we can proceed by a cycle of rapid prototypes. To be sure, it would be (in my view) unwise and unethical to proceed that way if a MOOC were being offered for payment or for some form of college credit, but for a cost-free, non-credit MOOC, learning on a platform that is itself under development, where the course designer is learning how to do it, can be in many ways a better learning experience than taking a polished product that has stood the test of time.

You don’t believe me? Consider this. Textbooks have been in regular use for over two thousand years, and millions of dollars have been poured into their development and production. Yet, take a look at practically any college textbook and ask yourself is you could, or would like to, learn from that source. In a system where the base level is the current college textbook and the bog-standard course built on it, the bar you have to reach with a MOOC to call it an improvement on the status quo is low indeed.

Again, Khan Academy provides the most dramatic illustration. Compared with what you will find in a good math classroom with a well trained teacher, it’s not good. But it’s a lot better than what is available to millions of students. More to the point, I know for a fact that Sal Khan is working on iterating from the starting point that caught Bill Gates’ attention, and has been for some time. Will he succeed? It hardly matters. (Well, I guess it does to Sal and his employees!) Someone will. (At least for a while, until someone else comes along and innovates a crucial step further.)

This, as I see it, is what, in general terms, is going on with MOOCs right now. We are experimenting. Needless to say – at least, it should be needless but there are worrying developments to the contrary – it would be unwise for any individual, any educational institution, or any educational district to make MOOCs (as courses) an important component of university education at this very early stage in their development. (And foolish to the point of criminality to take them into the K-12 system, but that’s a whole separate can of worms.)

Experimentation and rapid prototyping are fine in their place, but only when we all have more experience with them and have hard evidence of their efficacy (assuming they have such), should we start to think about giving them any critical significance in an educational system which (when executed properly) has served humankind well for several hundred years. Anyone who claims otherwise is probably trying to sell you something.

A final remark. I’m not saying that massive open online courses will go away. Indeed, I plan to continue offering mine – as a course – and I expect and hope many students will continue to take it as a complete course. I also expect that higher education institutions will increasingly incorporate MOOCs into their overall offerings, possibly for credit. (Stanford Online High School already offers a for-certificate course built around my MOOC.) So my use of the word “die” in the title involved a bit of poetic license

But I believe my title is correct in its overall message. We already know from the research we’ve done at Stanford that only a minority of people enroll for a MOOC with the intention of taking it through to completion. (Though that “minority” can comprise several thousand students!) Most MOOC students already approach it as a resource, not a course! With an open online educational entity, it is the entire community of users that ultimately determines what it primarily is and how it fits in the overall educational landscape. According to the evidence, they already have, thereby giving us a new (and more accurate) MOOC mantra: resources, not courses. (Even when they are courses and when some people take them as such.)

In the coming posts to this blog, I’ll report on the changes I made in the second version of my MOOC, reflect on how things turned out, and speculate about the changes I am thinking of making in version 3, which is scheduled to start in September. First topic up will be peer evaluation – something that I regard as key to the success of a MOOC on mathematical thinking.

Those of us in education are fortunate to be living in a time where there is so much potential for change. The last time anything happened on this scale in the world of education was the invention of the printing press in the Fifteenth Century. As you can probably tell, I am having a blast.

To be continued …

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 …

How are MOOCs organized?

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

With exactly one week to go before the second edition of my MOOC Introduction to Mathematical Thinking goes live, my TA and I have been working feverishly to get everything ready — a task far more complex and time consuming than preparing for a traditional (physical) course. (If you have been following this blog since I launched it last summer, when I started to plan my first edition of the course, you likely have some idea of the complexities involved.)

MOOCs continue to be in the news. Just last week, NBC-tv used my course as an illustration in a news story (4 min 21 secs) they ran about the American Council on Education’s recommendation that some Coursera MOOCs be considered eligible to receive college credit.

But what exactly is a MOOC and how are they organized? The easiest way to find out is to simply sign up for one or more and take a look. They are all free (at least, all the ones everyone is talking about are free), and there is no requirement to do any more than hang around online and see what is going on. If you do that, you’ll find that they all exhibit some differences from one another, as well as many similarities. Moreover, almost everyone giving a MOOC approaches it as an experiment, so they often change from one edition to the next.

Taking my own MOOC as an illustration, when the course website opens to registered students next weekend (Saturday March 2), they will initially find themselves in a website populated with several pages of information about the course structure, together with a bit of background information relevant to the course content, but none of the lectures, assignments, quizzes, problem sets, or tutorials will be available. Those are released at specified times throughout the ten weeks the course will run, starting with Lecture 1 on March 4.

For a sample of a lecture, see this short clip (7min 16 sec) from Lecture 1 on YouTube. (But note that Coursera videos are much higher resolution than YouTube, so the YouTube video is hard to follow — it’s purely an illustration of the overall format of the lectures.)

One of the main informational pages the students will see describes the various components of the course. Here, verbatim, are the contents of that page.

Basic elements of the course

Consult the Daily timetable (see link on left) on a regular basis to see what is due at any one time.

1. Lectures – videos presented by the instructor.
2. In-lecture quizzes – simple multiple-choice questions that stop the lecture, designed to assist you in pacing and monitoring your progress.
3. Assignment sheets (one for each lecture) – downloadable PDF files to work through in your own time at your own pace, ideally in collaboration with other students. Not graded.
4. Problem sets (one a week for weeks 1 through 8) – in-depth problems like those on the assignment, but with a deadline for submitting your answers (in a multiple choice format). Machine graded.
5. Tutorial sessions – the instructor provides (video) comments and answers to some of the previous week’s assignment problems.
6. Reading assignments – downloadable PDFs files providing important background information.
7. Final exam – a downloadable PDF file that you will have one week to complete before participating in a peer review process. Required to be eligible for a grade of completion with distinction.

Lectures

Lecture videos are released at 10:00AM US-PDT on Wednesdays. (Weeks 1 and 2 are slightly different, with lectures released on Monday and Wednesday.) Each lecture comprises one or two videos, with each video of length 25 to 35 minutes if played straight through. Completing the embedded progress quizzes will extend the total duration of a video-play by a few minutes, and you will likely want to stop the playback several times for reflection, and sometimes you will want to repeat a section, perhaps more than once. So you can expect to spend between one and two hours going through each lecture, occasionally perhaps more.

The lecture videos are not carefully crafted, heavily edited productions. If you want a polished presentation of the course material, you can read the course textbook. My goal with the lectures is to provide as best I can the experience of sitting alongside me as we work through material together. And, guess what, I often make mistakes, and sometimes mis-speak. I want to dispel any misconception that mathematicians are people who generate perfect logical arguments all the time. We’re not. We just keep going until we get it right.

In-lecture quizzes (Ungraded)

Each lecture is broken up by short multiple-choice “progress quizzes”. The vast majority of these in-lecture quizzes are essentially punctuation, providing a means for you to check that you are sufficiently engaged with the material.

Slightly modified versions of the quizzes will also be released as standalones at the same time as the lecture goes live, so if you do not have a good broadband connection and have to download the lecture videos to watch offline, you can still take the quizzes. In which case, you should do so as close in time to viewing the lecture as possible, to ensure gaining maximim benefit from the quizzes in monitoring your progress. The standalone quizzes are grouped according to lecture.

Completion of all the quizzes is a requirement (along with watching all the lectures) for official completion of the course, but we do not record your quiz scores, so quiz performance does not directly affect your final grade. If you complete the quizzes while watching the lecture (the strongly preferred method, as it helps you monitor your progress in mastering the material), you do not need to complete the standalone versions.

BTW, you may notice that it is possible to speed up video replay up to a factor of double speed. This can be a useful device when watching a video a second or third time. Going beyond 1.50 speed, however, can sometimes lead to problems with the display of the quizzes (besides making me sound like a chipmunk (though some may find that an enhancement).

Course assignments (Self graded)

An assignment will be released at the end of each lecture, as a downloadable PDF file. The assignment is intended to guide understanding of what has been learned. Worked solutions to problems from the assignments will be demonstrated (video) or distributed (PDFs) in a tutorial session released the Monday following the lecture (so in Weeks 2 through 9). The tutorial sessions will be released at 10:00AM US-PDT.

Working on these assignment problems forms the heart of the learning process in this course. You are strongly urged to form or join a study group, discuss the assignment problems with others in the group, and share your work with them. You should also arrange to assess one another’s answers. A structured form of peer review will be used for the final exam, when you will be graded by, and grade the work of, other students, randomly (and blindly) assigned, so it will help to familiarize yourself beforehand with the process of examining the work of others and providing (constructive) feedback.

Problem Sets (Machine graded)

Each Wednesday (in weeks 1 thtough 8), following the lecture, a for-credit Problem Set will be posted, with submission due by 9:00AM US-PDT the following Monday. The scores on these problem sets will count toward the course grade. Though the Problem Set has a multiple-choice quiz format, these questions are not the kind you can answer on the spot (unlike most of the in-lecture quizzes). You will need to spend some time working on them before entering your answers.

Though you are strongly encouraged to work with others on understanding the lecture material and attempting the regular assignments, the intention is that you work alone on the Problem Sets, which are designed to give you and us feedback on how you are progressing.

Tutorial sessions

The tutorial sessions are more than mere presentations of solutions to the previous week’s assignments and problem session. They are really lectures based on problems that the student has already attempted. You can expect to expand your knowledge of the course material beyond the lectures. Not all questions on the assignments sheets and problem set will be considered in the tutorial session.

Final exam (Peer graded)

Though the lectures end after week 8 (apart from a tutorial on the final assignment), the final two weeks are intended to be highly active ones for any students seeking a grade of distinction, with considerable activity online in the various forums and discussion groups. This is when you are supposed to help one another make sense of everything.

At the start of week 9, an open-book exam will be released, to be completed by the end of the week. Completed exams will have to be uploaded as either images (or scanned PDFs) though students sufficiently familiar with TeX have an option of keyboard entry on the site. The exam will be graded during week 10 by a calibrated peer review system. The exam will be based on material covered in the entire course.

As with the weekly Problem Sets, the intention is that you work alone in completing the final exam.

NOTE: The process of peer reviewing the work of others (throughout the course, not just in the final exam) is intended to be a significant part of the learning experience and participating in the formal peer review procedure for the final exam is a requirement for getting a grade of distinction. In principle, it is during week 10 that stronger students will make cognitive breakthroughs. (Many of today’s professors really started to understand mathematics when, as graduate student TAs, they first helped others learn it!)

Course completion and final grade

There are two final course grades: “completion” and “completion with distinction”. Completion requires viewing all the lectures and completing all the (in-lecture) quizzes and the weekly problem sets. Distinction depends on the scores in the problem sets and the result of the final exam.

Pacing

The pacing of the lecture releases is designed to help you maintain a steady pace. At high school, you probably learned that success in mathematics comes from working quickly (and alone) and getting to the right answer as efficiently as possible. This course is about learning to think a certain way – the focus is on the process not the product. You will need time to understand and assimilate new ideas. Particularly if you were a whiz at high-school math, you will need to slow down, and to learn to think and reflect (and ideally discuss with others) before jumping in and doing. A steady pace involving some period of time each day is far better than an all-nighter just before a Problem Set is due.

Keeping track

Consult the Daily timetable on the website on a regular basis to see what is due.

SO NOW YOU KNOW!

Here we go again

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

The second offering of my MOOC Introduction to Mathematical Thinking begins on March 4 on Coursera. (The site actually opens on March 2, so students can familiarize themselves with its structure and start to make contact with other students before the first lecture.) So far, 13,000 students have registered. Last time I got 65,000, but back then there was the novelty factor. I’m expecting about 35,000 this time round.

For a quick overview of my current thoughts on MOOCs, see this 13 minute TV interview I did at Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia last November. (As the home of Skype, global-tech-hub Tallinn is particularly interested in MOOCs, of course.)

It’s been almost four months since my first foray into the chaotic new world of MOOCs came to an end, and ten weeks since I posted my last entry on this blog. I have decided that giving a MOOC falls into the same category as running a marathon (I’ve done maybe two dozen), completing the Death Ride (three), and – I am told – having a baby (I played a decidedly minor role in two). At the time you wonder why you are putting yourself through such stress, and that feeling continues for a while after the event is over. But then the strain of it all fades and you are left with feelings of pleasure, accomplishment, and satisfaction. And with that comes the desire to do it all again – better in the case of running, cycling, and MOOCing.

Coursera, we have a problem

It’s important to remember that genuinely massive MOOCs are a mere eighteen months old, and each one is very much a startup operation — as are the various platform providers such as Udacity, edX, Coursera, Venture Labs. and Class2Go (all except edX coming out of Global Startup Central, i.e., Stanford). One of the features of any startup operation is that there will be plenty of missteps along the way. Given the complexity of designing  and delivering a university course in real time to tens of thousands of students around the world, it’s amazing that to date there have been just two missteps. The first, when the instructor had to pull the plug on a MOOC on designing online courses (yes, a particularly poignant topic as it turned out) and then more recently when the instructor pulled out, leaving the course to be run by the support staff.

Notice that I did not refer to either as a “failure.” Anyone who views such outcomes as failures has clearly never tried to do anything new and challenging, where you have to make up some of the rules as you go on. We are less than two years into this whole MOOC thing, so it’s worth reminding ourselves what it took (VIDEO) the USA to put a man on the Moon and bring him back alive, and to go on and build the Space Shuttle. The pedagogic fundamental that we gain confidence from our successes but learn from our mistakes, is as true for MOOC platform builders and MOOC instructors as it is for MOOC students.

Fortunately, I survived my first test flight relatively unscathed. I may not be so lucky second time round. I’ve made some changes that are intended to make the course better, but won’t know if they do until the course is underway.

Perhaps the most obvious change is to stretch the course from seven weeks (five weeks of lectures followed by two weeks of final exam work) to ten (8 + 2). Many students in my first course told me that the “standard university pace” with which I covered the curriculum was simply too much for online students who were fitting the course around busy professional and family schedules. I doubt that change will have any negative consequences.

More uncertain in their outcome are the changes I have made to the peer review process, that forms a major component of the course for students who are taking it for a Certificate of Completion (particularly Completion with Distinction).

Give credit where credit is due? Maybe

Talking of which, the issue of credentialing continues to generate a lot of discussion. My course does not offer College Credit (and it is not clear any Stanford MOOC ever will), but just recently, the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE CREDIT)  has evaluated and recommended college credit be given for five MOOCs currently offered (by other universities) on Coursera. (Starting this March, it will be possible to take an enhanced version of my MOOC given by Stanford Online High School, for which a credential is awarded, but that course, aimed at high flying high school juniors and seniors, has a restricted enrollment and carries a fee, so it is not a MOOC, rather a course with tutors and assessment, built around my MOOC.)

But I digress. As I observed on a number of occasions in this blog and my MAA blog Devlin’s Angle, I see group work and peer evaluation as the key to making quality mathematics education available in a MOOC. So students who took the first version of my course and are planning on enrolling again (and I know many are) will see some changes there. Not huge ones. Like NASA’s first fumbling steps into space, I think it is prudent to make small changes that have a good chance of being for the better. But I learned a lot from my first trip into MOOC-space, and I expect to learn more, and make further changes, on my second flight.

Finally, if you want to learn more about my reflections on my first MOOC and MOOCs in general, and have a two hour car drive during which you would find listening to a podcast about MOOCs marginally better than searching through an endless cycle of crackly Country and Western radio stations, download the two podcast files from Wild About Math, where host Sol Lederman grills me about MOOCs.


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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