Taking stock of the MOOCs landscape: past, present, future

I found myself thinking out loud about the evolution of the MOOC landscape so far. To get feedback and share my view on the past, present, and future of the landscape, I’ll share this.

In the beginning, MOOCs were focused on openness: make the content available and the people will come. And the people did come, in thousands and hundreds of thousands, but we quickly found that the experience in these MOOCs was not actually replacing the experience of the in-person class. No one would argue that taking a MOOC was actually equivalent to taking the comparable college course.

So, MOOCs evolved. Some of the directions in which they reinvented themselves were aimed more at differentiation: MOOCs became shorter, less directly analogous to comparable college classes, more varied in the range of topics covered, and more specific in the number of topics covered in any one MOOC. As an analogy, instead of a poetry MOOC, we’d have a series of MOOCs each focused on individual poets or movements in poetry. These changes were driven by market demand, even though they took MOOCs away from their original position as open-access college courses.

However, other MOOCs evolved in the opposite direction. In other places, MOOCs recognized the difference between traditional college classes and MOOCs, and they moved to rectify these differences. I, personally, would identify three key areas in which the early MOOCs differed from traditional classes: feedback, accreditation, and context. A major criticism of MOOCs has been the lack of interaction. It’s been suggested that MOOCs are fine for autodidacts, but the majority of learners need feedback to improve; the learning sciences supports this as well. Students also do not take college courses simply to learn; the valuable diploma or credential at the end of the journey is one, if not the, major motivating factor behind participation in traditional college. Students also rarely take classes in vacuums: each class builds on previous classes, and in turn becomes the foundation for future classes.

Initially, MOOCs missed these elements of traditional college courses. There was little feedback due to the difficulties in scaling personalized feedback. MOOCs were meaningless on resumes and in portfolios; anyone could claim to have completed any MOOC, and there was little knowledge as to what completing a particular MOOC actually meant. MOOCs were mostly one-off courses, absent the context of a broader unit.

In contrast to the differentiation mentioned previously, MOOCs have also evolved to address these initial weaknesses. This is clearly evident in three of the most prominent MOOC providers: Coursera, edX, and Udacity (note my prior disclaimer).

Coursera’s Verified Certificates and specializations address all three of these issues. A Verified Certificate carries with it an assertion that the work was, in fact, completed by the individual, mimicking the need for a form of accreditation. Specializations are series of courses developed to provide a broader view of a particular topic, injecting the context that is missing from one-off courses. Specializations culminate in a capstone project, where (I presume; I haven’t completed one yet) the student receives the feedback that is lacking in traditional MOOCs.

Udacity’s Nanodegree credentials are similar. A human coach interacts with the student, interviewing them live on the skills they have obtained, allowing the assertion that the individual receiving the credential really mastered the skills. Nanodegrees focus on jobs’ entire skillsets rather than individual skills, providing critical context. Throughout the program, students receive feedback from coaches, peers, and external code reviewers on their work, allowing for a true iterative feedback and refinement cycle that one would expect in a traditional classroom.

Of course, Coursera and Udacity differ in critical ways. Coursera maintains (in my opinion) openness as the guiding principle; Verified Certificates are kept relatively cheap ($50 per course at present, leading to ~$300 for a specialization depending on the number of courses). Although these changes inch toward the functions of traditional college courses, they remain distant: the identity verification is easy to fool, and the amount of feedback still pales in comparison to traditional courses. Udacity moves to more closely address those traditional college functions: identity is asserted through real-time face-to-face interaction with a coach rather than an automatic system, and feedback is available constantly from coaches, peers, and external reviewers (both of which connect to the higher cost of a Nanodegree credential than a Coursera specialization). However, the underlying nature of the moves is the same: both have moved to provide a form of accreditation (or at least identity verification), individualized feedback, and broader context.

These changes should not be overly surprising. MOOCs have followed a traditional Gartner hype cycle: the initial hype was overblown, but MOOCs are starting to find their place. I would argue we’re at the beginning of the slope of enlightenment with regard to MOOCs, well on our way to the plateau of productivity. Some might argue we’re further along; students are already getting jobs based on completion of these online programs, which can certainly be argued to be indicative of a productive industry.

All that begs the question: what’s next? What’s next for the MOOC landscape? For me, the elephant in the room goes back to accreditation. Academic honesty is a major problem for traditional education, and it is exacerbated in online education. When you can’t see your student, how do you guarantee the student is, indeed, responsible for the work? Coursera addresses this through pictures after each assessment and keyboard pattern matching, but these only guarantee that the student was at the computer when the work was submitted. It’s trivial to have a friend send you answers. Until this can be resolved, I do not foresee Coursera’s certificates having much value in the market. Udacity’s measures are effectively impossible to circumvent, but they present a challenge for scale: there is a linear relationship between the number of students and the amount of employee time necessary to verify them.

Accreditation is not as simple as identity verification, however. Even if I knew that a person I was interviewing had personally completed a particular Coursera course, I still would likely not put much stock in it. The majority of Coursera courses I’ve taken can be passed without learning anything simply by gaming the quizzes and assessments. Accreditation of these courses and programs needs to not only focus on identity verification, but also the strength of the material and the accompanying assessments. What can we actually assert that a student completing a given class has learned? Until that element of accreditation comes along, I do not foresee the simply identity verification approach as sufficient to make these credentials worthwhile. (Sidenote: I do not mean the above as a general critique of Coursera; as far as learning is concerned, I appreciate that iterative improvement on assessments is permitted, and it connects strongly to Coursera’s emphasis on openness and accessibility.)

In the absence of accreditation, validity can be built in other ways. Graduates from the Nanodegree program at Udacity, for example, do not need to rely solely on the value of the program name because they also leave with a portfolio of projects demonstrating their knowledge. Some Coursera specializations mimic this as well, and it is possible that reputations may build up organically over time based on the strength of past program graduates. However, I feel there is a more efficient possibility for MOOCs and other online classes to go through a true accreditation process to verify the value and reliability of a given course. With such a process, demand for these credentials would rise as their value on a resume or application would rise as well. This would also open up demand for MOOCs to much broader populations: schools and universities could supplement their course catalogs with accredited MOOCs, entire degree programs could be constructed based on MOOCs from numerous different universities, and current classes could benefit from global audiences working in tandem with traditional students. In my opinion, accreditation is the chasm standing between the present state of MOOCs and the promise of MOOCs.

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Disclaimer: I Work for Udacity

Disclaimer: I work for Udacity. I have to give that disclaimer in many things I write because I’m writing about things very core to Udacity’s business. There’s the risk for a major conflict of interests. You’d be entirely within your rights to dismiss anything good I say about Udacity as mere self-preservation.

So, I want to make something perfectly clear: I don’t believe in Udacity because I work for Udacity. I work for Udacity because I believe in Udacity.

When I started work with Udacity a little over a year ago, I came aboard initially very specifically to work on our Knowledge-Based AI class for the Georgia Tech OMSCS. The true “development” phase of the class ended in December of 2014 with the end of the first offering. At that point, it would have been entirely natural for me to leave Udacity: the project I joined to work on was done, and so it was time to move on to other things. The timing would have been perfect, frankly: I defended my dissertation four days after the course ended. If there was ever a time to switch, that was it.

Truth be told, when I joined Udacity, that was probably the closest thing I had to a “plan”. I honestly didn’t have a real full plan, but I know that I wasn’t looking past the Knowledge-Based AI course at first. I knew I’d have options at the end of my PhD, and I already had more than a couple connections waiting for me to graduate.

Udacity, however, won me over. Never before in my life had I been so consistently surrounded with people that shared my passion for education. I had never seen such a group that was so obsessed with not only educating people, but with learning how to educate people. Outside academia, I had never seen a group of people so invested in the science side of education, in experimenting and testing and failing and learning. Perhaps most significantly, I had never seen a group of educators who so adamantly loved their students. I don’t mean ‘love’ as in simply enjoyed; I mean ‘love’ in the truest sense of the word, a group that earnestly wanted to improve the lives of their students.

It’s for that reason that I say: I work for Udacity because I believe in Udacity, not the other way around. There are lots of other reasons I believe in Udacity, from the amazing corporate culture to the relevance of the OMS and Nanodegree programs in addressing the cost of higher education to the opportunity to work with a student body that I love as well, but it all starts with the above. As an educator, I cannot imagine a more perfect place to work (setting aside the fact that my ultimate passion is K-12 education, not college education).

Of course, you don’t have to believe any of this. The value of much of what I write in this blog depends on me being earnest, and this is exactly the kind of thing I’d write to convince you I’m earnest. I hope I’ve at least convinced you to give me a chance, however.

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Are open online education and quality online education mutually exclusive?

In the past, I’ve touched on a distinction I see in the landscape of higher education. It is this distinction that leads me to say that programs like Coursera and edX and programs like Udacity and the Georgia Tech OMS are not competitors, but rather represent two largely different goals of education: openness and quality.

Of course, I hate using the word ‘quality’ because it implies that open education cannot be high-quality, which is not what I mean to suggest. Rather, what I mean to suggest is that openness and quality often get in the way of one another. Developing open courses for a platform like Coursera almost inherently dictates that costs must be extremely limited. Offering a course through Coursera does not bring in a tremendous amount of money; even the Verified Signature track, I would speculate, barely pays for the human effort required to grade assignments and verify identities. Developing open courses can be an act of either marketing or altruism, but in either case, there is a natural impetus to keep costs low. The outcome, of course, is nonetheless fantastic: the world’s knowledge presented by the world’s experts on that knowledge in a venue that everyone can access. Even if the cost pressure demands that this information can only be presented in the traditional lecture model, the outcome is nonetheless incredibly desirable.

That openness is largely driven by the internet’s ability to deliver content to massive audiences for low costs. However, that’s not the only thing that the internet can do in service of education. The internet also has features and frameworks that can create educational experiences that go beyond what we can do in traditional classrooms. Many traditional college classes are delivered in the same lecture model as the aforementioned Coursera courses, but pedagogically we know that this model is largely ineffective. It is not chosen because it is effective, however; it is chosen because professors’ time is valuable, professors are very often experts in the subject matter rather than in teaching itself, and the lecture model is arguably the easiest way to present material. There are exceptions, of course, but I don’t think I’m being controversial in suggesting these ideas as generally true.

What the internet gives us, however, is a mechanism by which content can be produced once to be consumed by millions. This is part of the reason the openness initiatives work: professors can film the course once and make it available to the masses rather than having to reteach it semester to semester. But while in some places that is an impetus for openness, we may also use that as an impetus for quality. Let’s invent some numbers to make it clearer. Let’s imagine that a class of 50 students are each paying $100 to take a class; this means that the class must cost no more than $5,000 to deliver each semester. However, if the class could be developed once and re-used ten semesters in a row, that means that the same class now can cost up to $50,000 to develop, allowing for much more investment into the quality of the class.

This, of course, is a gross simplification, but it is intended to portray an elegant truth: when we use the internet to deliver content to a much larger population with the same amount of work, we can either pass on the savings to the students (the openness route), or we can reinvest the money into the development of the courses themselves (the quality route). We can ask less investment of the students, or we can give the students more for the same price.

Coursera, edX, and the traditional MOOC community take the former, providing content for a fraction of the cost because it can be delivered to so many people. Udacity, the Georgia Tech OMS, and other more expensive programs take the latter approach, reinvesting that money into creating higher-quality programs in the first place. Both these sides are critical. I don’t like living in a world where education is gated by such a massive monetary investment, and MOOC services are doing a world of good to reduce the barriers to education. At the same time, I love education itself, and I recognize that there are phenomenal things that the internet can do to improve education — but they come with a significant development cost.

Of course, this hasn’t actually answered the question: I’ve shown how openness and quality are distinct and often conflicting goals in online education, but can we accomplish both? Is it possible to create high-quality education that is also openly available for little to no monetary cost? It may be. At present, this is in some ways what the Georgia Tech OMS is doing: nine Georgia Tech courses are available for free to the world, and they are infused with a more significant initial investment that pays significant dividends in the quality of the instruction. This is accomplished because, in some ways, this free offering is “subsidized” by the students taking the actual Masters. This model is incomplete, however, as there is still valuable education locked within the for-cost program. OMS students are not paying for the videos; they are paying for the access to professors and TAs, the access to projects and assignments, and the ultimate “verified certificate”: the Masters diploma at the end of the program. However, this direction at least illustrates that it may be possible to use one offering in service of the other and improve both openness and quality at the same time. For now, however, I regard the two as distinct, exclusive, and desirable goals.

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Recommended Reading: Accredible Partners With Udacity To Provide Context To Nanodegrees

A few days ago, I asked the question, Should there exist accreditation for independent online courses? The gist of this question is that without context, without independent assessment, and without standards, it’s difficult or impossible to make sense of the meaning behind many available online credentials.

Accredible seems to exist to address this concern: to create a platform by which we can attain a standard look at what a student’s performance in the course really means. The article writes:

In the case of traditional higher education, institutions themselves lend brand credibility to a student, signaling to employers that the student has some base knowledge and skills. Yet, from an educational perspective, this system is imperfect. It is rooted firmly in reputation rather than students’ actual learning. Accredible’s new API brings transparency to student learning online without adding additional work for the content platform or the end user.

The rest of the article can be seen here.

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What’s the difference between online learning and distance learning?

At the Georgia Tech OMSCS, we talk a lot about how our program is the first of its kind. The homepage for the OMSCS states, “the first accredited Master of Science in Computer Science that students can earn exclusively through the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) delivery format and for a fraction of the cost of traditional, on-campus programs.”

However, that description might not be entirely accurate. Georgia Tech OMS courses are neither massive (although they’re getting there) nor open (admission is still required). At the same time, the OMSCS is far from the only online Masters offered at Georgia Tech. So is all the hype just hype?

In my opinion, this speaks to the difference between distance learning and online learning, and the difference is critical. Distance learning has been around for ages through correspondence programs and other similar structures. Some of them are very good. Most online Masters programs today are simple extensions of distance learning programs. In previous years, one would receive course materials in the mail, and mail completed schoolwork back; now, students receive course materials over the internet, and upload completed assignments back. The internet makes distance learning easier, and at times can improve the experience through features like forums, but it does not inherently fundamentally change its structure.

The majority of online Masters programs are distance learning programs of this kind. With Georgia Tech’s online Masters programs, students in the distance learning sections view live or filmed lectures, upload the same assignments, and are graded by the same TAs. The only major difference is geographic: rather than being physically in the room of the lecture, the students are distributed. This is, in my mind, the heart of the distinction between distance learning and online learning: distance learning as nearly as possible identically recreates the in-person process. It may use the internet to do so, but the fundamental structure between distance learning and in-person learning remains the same.

Online learning, on the other hand, aims to leverage the internet not to duplicate the in-person experience, but rather to improve it. Improvement, of course, can come in many ways. Online education can be developed to reduce costs by leveraging MOOC principles, and in fact, this is one of the general guiding principles of the OMSCS: leveraging the internet to deliver an experience that is just as good as the in-person experience at a fraction of the cost. Online learning does not stop there, though. Automated feedback, communities of practice, and several other pedagogical techniques find unique places in the online medium. I’ve talked about a few of these unique benefits in the past, like the ability to transfer course ownership to the students and the natural emphasis on positive activity rather than negative, and I believe we’re only scratching the surface of the ways in which online education can actually improve on the in-person classroom experience.

I, of course, can be accused of bias in that, as an instructor and developer of the Georgia Tech OMS, I want to see it succeed. However, the inverse is true: I work on the Georgia Tech OMS because I believe it will succeed. I’m excited to work on it because while most programs out there are using the internet to improve on distance learning, the Georgia Tech OMS is about using the internet to create new and improved educational experiences altogether. Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with distance learning, and it presents some very rich opportunities of its own. Distance learning is all about increasing access to the same quality education, and that is an incredibly important. I’m excited, though, to work on online learning and find ways to use the internet to make higher education more affordable, more accessible, and more effective.

So, if you’re ever asked why we ballyhoo the Georgia Tech OMS so much when online programs, even from highly reputable universities, are becoming common, the reason is that the OMS is about online learning, not distance learning. It’s very different, and it may lead to great things.

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Developing Innovative Ideas: First Week Impressions

As mentioned previously, I’ve started one more Coursera course, Developing Innovative Ideas for New Companies: The First Step in Entrepreneurship, part of University of Maryland’s Entrepreneurship: Launching an Innovative Business specialization. Here are some of my first-week impressions:

  • To pick up on my ongoing thread of discussing production values, the production values here are relatively low. Audio fluctuates regularly, a couple of the video clips are almost indecipherable, and parts of the course just use filmed in-person lectures. I mentioned last post that part of what will define whether open courses are considered by the outside world is the reputation they develop, and toward that end, the production values matter: if a course is perceived as amateurish, it’s less likely to garner a positive reputation in the world compared to a course that is regarded as professional and constructed for the online medium.
  • That said, there’s something nice about watching an in-person lecture — or, at least, a well-done in-person lecture. We’ve had students comment on the value of the pair teaching approach, and the in-person lecture mimics some of those things. Hearing different students providing different ideas to a prompt is more engaging than a single talking head.
  • So, it would be good to be able to offer both, right? That’s actually exactly what this course does: it has separated “Classroom Experience” and “Studio Experience” videos. It’s an interesting idea, but I don’t think it really works, personally. The problem is that the two videos for a particular topic repeat the same material, which definitely decreases the incentive to actually watch both; but without watching both, you lose the benefits of the studio version (efficiency, polish, conciseness) or the classroom version (discussion, brainstorming, conversation). The optimal solution would be to find ways to incorporate the “classroom experience” benefits within the “studio experience”, but that connects back to the old notion of openness vs. quality.
  • The assessments in this course are very weak it seems, just a few quizzes (unless I’m missing something entirely). I speculate, though, that that’s because the course is part of the broader specialization, and there is a strong expectation that the course will be taken as the first step, not on its own. Unlike the other specialization I’ve been looking at, this one actually starts by outlining the overall specialization, and it’s called back to that big picture a couple times already.
  • Despite the above criticisms, I’m thoroughly enjoying the content in this course. While it’s a typical lecture model for the most part, the lecturer is engaging, and the material moves at the right pace. The connections to businesses that we’re all familiar with really does a fantastic job of reinforcing the principles covered in the class. It’s the lecture model, which isn’t ideal, but as far as lectures go, they’re quite good.
  • Unrelated to this class, Coursera would truly benefit from a meta-interface that draws some of the content of individual courses out into the dashboard. It’s a bit demotivating to individually check several different pages to ensure I’ve met all due dates for a set of classes, and there’s no reason there couldn’t be a single dashboard listing these different deadlines.
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Should there exist accreditation for independent online courses?

One of the earliest takeaways from the handful of online courses I’m taking at the moment (Emerging Trends & Technologies in the Virtual K-12 Classroom, Learning How to Learn, and Astronomy: Exploring Space & Time, as well as a few days in Planet Earth and You) is that there exists a radical difference in the scope of different courses. Emerging Trends can be completed in a day if desired. Astronomy: Exploring Space & Time requires a much more significant time investment for the videos, but the interactive elements are relatively light, restricted to short quizzes and writing assignments. Planet Earth and You was much more significant, and decently approximated the amount of time I recall dedicating to traditional on-campus courses.

On the one hand, this is fantastic. Online learning has previously had the strength of not having to arbitrarily fit lessons to pre-determined time slot: if a topic takes more than a class period to instruct, it’s not necessary to arbitrarily break it up halfway through, and if it takes less than a class period to instruct, it’s not necessary to pad it out or randomly combine it with another topic. These courses reflect how that same idea can be expanded to an entire course. Not every course needs to be a three-hours-per-week 16-weeks-per-semester course. If a topic can be learned in 10 to 20 hours total (as Emerging Trends’ “2-4 hours per week, 5 weeks of study” guideline indicates), then let it be learned in that time frame.

On the other side, however, what does that say about how the world interprets these courses? A Bachelors is a Bachelors, a Masters is a Masters, and there exists some general understanding of what those degrees mean. The school from which a degree came has some influence, but universities have spent decades of time building up reputations to differentiate a Stanford Bachelors from a Samford Bachelors. Moreover, there are around 2500 four-year universities in the United States, and while that’s a large number, it isn’t intractable as far as developing an understanding of the different equivalence classes of universities.

There are currently around 1500 Udacity, Coursera, and edX courses combined, just to take three of the biggest organizations as examples. In the three years since these three organizations launched, they’ve developed almost as many courses as there are four-year institutions in the country. If the scope, depth, and rigor of individual open courses on these platforms is going to vary this much, how then will the world learn to interpret what it means to have a credential or certificate from these courses?

To put myself in the position of an employer, if a prospective employee had a verified course certificate from Coursera on their resume that I had not yet heard of, that would presently be somewhat meaningless to me; this is not because the certificate has no value, but just because I have no hope of knowing the certificate’s value at a glance, nor is it feasible to maintain a comprehensive knowledge of all the open courses I might see. This is a tremendous challenge to the value of these programs. Paying for a certified certificate is, for many, based on the belief that the ability to prove you completed a course is powerful. But if the people to whom you would offer that proof have no knowledge of what kind of knowledge and achievement that certificate represents, it remains somewhat meaningless.

This discussion comes dangerously close to the general discussion of accreditation. How does an employer know a certain college degree is valuable? Because it has been accredited by an independent organization. That knowledge of the program’s value and rigor has been offloaded to an external group for assessment. Just like a bank checking with a credit agency before deciding whether to give a person a loan, so also a business implicitly checks with an accreditation group before offering a graduate a job.

I wouldn’t argue that we need accreditation in the traditional sense for online courses; after all, many courses that wouldn’t pass a pass/fail accreditation process are nonetheless very valuable, even if they don’t necessarily demonstrate anything reliable about the students themselves. Based on my first impressions, I can’t say that hearing that a teacher has taken Emerging Trends & Technologies would mean much to my impression of them, but there is still lots they may have learned in the course. Rather, I feel what might be necessary is just a somewhat standardized classification system. Just like on-campus classes are assigned a number of credit hours based on the amount of work they require, so also online classes could be assigned a number or classification of virtual credits based on the rigor, reliability, and scope of the course itself. That, in turn, might lead to even greater programs: instead of a single university building up a Coursera specialization, it could instead be assembled from multiple universities’ courses on the basis of their virtual credits.

But apart from the solution, I feel the problem nonetheless exists and is waiting to be addressed: accreditation fulfills a function in traditional education; should online education have something to fulfill the same function?

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Emerging Trends & Technologies in the Virtual K-12 Classroom: First Week Impressions

Here are my first week impressions from UC-Irvine’s Emerging Trends & Technologies in the Virtual K-12 Classroom (or Emerging Trends for short from here on out) course:

  • An interesting mixed paradigm: the content of this course is ungated, but it also runs on a tighter time schedule. Whereas Learning How to Learn is completely self-paced and you can take as long as you want to complete it, Emerging Trends requires the course be completed by the deadline, a five week period. But whereas Astronomy: Exploring Space & Time and Planet Earth and You both feature weekly deadlines leading up to that deadline, Emerging Trends has no such intermittent deadlines. It’s an interesting mixed paradigm, and it likely is the most applicable to the OMS, where we run on a semester schedule but can nonetheless provide materials early. In Knowledge-Based AI, for example, we aim to provide students with as much material in the first week as possible so that if a student wants to work ahead, they have the flexibility to do so.
  • Although for most courses I’ll be commenting on the structure and delivery (because, let’s be honest, 100% of a geology course could be completely false and I’d never know the difference!), this course will be interesting because I feel positioned to comment on both the structure and the content.
  • After the first week, this comes across to be as a strong, concise survey course. On the one hand, in a relatively short amount of time, a significant amount of content was communicated. On the other, that content was not communicated very deeply, nor was it demonstrated very concretely. Most of the content remained at the level of broad questions to ask oneself when selecting a piece of technology, with some attention given to why to ask those questions and little given to how to actually execute those questions in a real setting. That’s not a problem at all for a course of this scope, but it’s worth noting that anyone with a basic background in educational technology likely already knows everything covered in the course’s first week.
  • This, combined with the two other Coursera courses I’m taking (along with the one I started and withdrew from when it became clear it wasn’t ready for public release), has made me start wondering a bit about the scope of online courses, but that’s a topic for another blog post.

Those are my first-week impressions of Emerging Trends & Technologies; I’ll return with an overall course review at the conclusion of the course.

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Astronomy: Exploring Space and Time: First Week Impressions

As I mentioned Monday, I started my first Coursera course this week, University of Arizona’s Astronomy: Exploring Space and Time. Here are some informal impressions from the first week:

  • This is my first Coursera course, so right now I’m not sure what to attribute to this particular course and what to attribute to Coursera as a whole. I’ll err on the side of discrimination and assume these are characteristics of the individual course.
  • A major problem to address in designing courses is the difference between thinking about the course and thinking about the content. We want to minimize how much time students have to think about the details of the course administration — deadlines, where material is located, etc. — and emphasize thinking about the content itself. For this course, there is certainly a learning curve with regard to navigation, but the course has thus far done a good job of attempting to lay out a fairly clear path. Of course, that’s a bigger challenge to do week-to-week than just at the beginning, so we’ll see how it develops.
  • The course is gated and synchronous. In other words, content is released on a schedule, and there are deadlines throughout the course rather than a more open-ended and self-paced approach. On the one hand, from my involvement with courses administered at Georgia Tech, this is certainly more pragmatic: synchronicity helps with grading, allows peer feedback opportunities (which this class uses), and encourages ongoing interaction amongst students. However, it also creates artificial barriers to content, punishes both high- and low-achieving students by enforcing a certain pacing, and may not be feasible for many students due to real-world obligations and constraints. These are, of course, issues for all online courses to wrestle with, but it’s worth noting how they play in this particular course. I’ll be interested to see how some of Coursera’s on-demand Verified Certificate programs work.
  • I wrote about this more extensively in my previous blog post, but the nature of Coursera’s open communities creates some issues. In addition to those problems, the course has been damaged first by an incredibly rude student insisting on replying to every thread and dismissively mocking anyone who disagrees with him, and second by a student posting a cluttering number of links to articles with little follow-up or discussion. The first was dealt with quickly by Coursera, fortunately, but the second doesn’t really represent a problem that can be fixed by administration: there will always be gaps between polite conduct and actual rules, and I’m not sure what to do when someone falls in the gap between the two. Interestingly, many of the strengths I noted about discussion boards online earlier actually can become weaknesses in a more open classroom: when everyone can propose their own discussions, much more noise enters the fray, making it more difficult to find those topics that will appeal to you individually.
  • A common criticism among MOOC critics is that MOOCs are good at replicating lecture-style college classes, but that lecture-style classes aren’t the goal. I see that at play strongly in this class. As far as a lecture-style class goes, the class is excellent: the presenter is pleasant, explains things very nicely, and has — at least so far — constructed the class with a good, natural pace and ordering of topics. At the same time, however, the lessons are most certainly lectures: the vast majority of the recorded video is spent looking at him, and the majority of visuals are static. There are some well-placed video clips, but it’s very easy to see a near-direct translation of this course to a traditional lecture-based college classroom. There are lots of animations, interactive activities, and more that could have nicely complemented the lessons and leveraged the opportunities presented by doing this class online, but so far it stays at the level of lectures.
  • I would be remiss to note the above without also mentioning the cost: those types of interactive exercises, innovative presentation styles, and extra resources cost money to develop, and the free nature of Coursera courses makes that difficult. Given how little the course costs, the course is absolutely amazing. There are certainly a lot of great things that could be done to make the course even better, but there would be a significant cost associated with them.

That last point is a good, succinct reflection of a portion of my present attitude toward online education. Many online educational platforms, especially Coursera and edX, emphasize, in my opinion, open-access. The top goal for these services is access to the material. That’s a fantastic mission, and I’m thrilled that great groups are pursuing this. At the same time, I strongly feel that online education has another opportunity: to do education incredibly well. Through things like automated feedback and tutoring systems, big data to uncover common misconceptions and errors, and polished, pedagogically sound instructional environments that can be mass-deployed much more cheaply than professional development, the internet can bring a different kind of educational revolution.

Of course, I’ve ignored the elephant in the room, which is assessment and feedback — that’s simultaneously the most important element of the educational experience and the hardest to replicate at scale with an open audience. In the first week, the only assessments were a pair of short multiple choice quizzes, but greater assessments are coming next week, so I’ll hold my thoughts on that for now.

As always, in the interest of full disclosure: I work for Udacity, so one could always argue that any criticisms I have of Coursera are inspired by my own biases toward my company. I don’t regard Coursera as a competitor for us at Udacity, though, for the reasons stated in the final point above.

 

 

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MOOCs and online agendas

During my first week in one of the Coursera MOOCs I’m taking, University of Arizona’s Astronomy: Exploring Space and Time, I observed something rather interesting in the community portion of the course. At first I was going to simply include it in my first week impressions, but it brings up a bigger issue that I think is worth examining more thoroughly.

I don’t want to go into the details of it, but early in the course, a thread sprung up started by someone claiming the earth is only 6,000 years old. Obviously, this claim has no place in a science class. While the claim was brought informally by saying, effectively, “Here’s what I think, how about everyone else?”, the responses that followed took, in my opinion, an evangelical turn.

The broader issue at play is this: when we teach a course in person, we tend to assume that the majority of people in the class are students whose primary “agenda” for the class is to either learn the material or get a good grade. In my ten years in academia, I can’t think of an instance of ever worrying about whether additional agendas were at play. This is largely because of the major obstacle to participation in an in-person college degree program: you’re paying a ton of money and dedicating an enormous amount of time, which would deter people with more subtle agendas.

In Coursera and other MOOCs, however, anyone can join, and for free. What is to deter competing agendas from entering the fray? In these MOOCs, there will be people who sign up and participate in these courses with agendas rather than to learn from the course’s stated purpose. There will be churches that consider it an act of evangelism to try to educate these people studying the origins of the universe on the earth’s “true” origin. There will be special interest groups that see classes on climate change or other environmental issues as opportunities to change the conversation in their favor or sow doubt when no doubt ought to exist. There will be political organizations wanting to present a biased view of history that is favorable to their platform. These MOOCs risk becoming battlegrounds rather than learning opportunities. We see this already on other social media platforms, where teams of people are paid by particular groups to try to sway the conversation in one way or the other; there is no obstacle that I can see to prevent open online courses from being subjected to the same kind of astroturfing.

When we think of college courses (or at least when I do), we think of them as opportunities for groups of learners to explore a topic together, typically guided by an expert in the field. When people are entering these courses with their own agendas that directly conflict with the material of the course, that opportunity is compromised.

So what do we do about this? I’m not sure. One could argue in favor of a heavy-handed approach, that anyone arguing for pseudoscience or false science in a college science course is simply kicked out; but the targets of that heavyhandedness would likely take this as a sign that science fears their alternate viewpoints and would sooner silence them than engage them in discussion. Those political groups would insist that it is we scientists who are concealing an agenda in our MOOCs. That is, of course, not the case; but an introductory science course is not the place to get into debates with people that have no intention of ever changing their viewpoint. Complicating matters further, though, is that for some of these people, their participation in these MOOCs is earnest: for many, this may be the first time they’re exposed to the scientific process, and they are willing to learn, and if we merely dismiss them as another fundamentalist with an agenda we miss the opportunity to introduce them to a broader view of the world.

So, a heavyhanded response is likely not the best option. Do we engage them in authentic discussion? That is a risky endeavor. For one, engaging in a discussion with completely unsubstantiated viewpoints risks giving them undeserved legitimacy. For another, any authentic discussion depends on both parties discussing on the same grounds; if we disagree on fundamental truths, then we may not ever meet a resolution. If we debate with someone who does not understand or believe the nature of evidence and theory-building, there is no shared understanding that can arise. It is a waste of our time and a needless distraction for the class.

If both shutting them down and engaging them in discussion are undesirable, what then can we do? Right now, my only idea is a third option: attempt to prevent them from entering the class in the first place. Of course, we can’t and shouldn’t do “interviews” for admission to a class for the same reasons stated above, but there are other ways that we can limit the participation of people with little desire to actually authentically learn. The first to come to mind for me is to introduce a barrier to entry. Attach a cost to pushing for your agenda. When anyone can “walk” in and start spouting off with their views as if they are as qualified as the professor, it is unsurprising that we get people promoting their views rather than engaging with course content. If a cost is associated with doing so, I would argue you limit the number of people who enter with an agenda rather than the desire to learn. Of course, this introduces the side effect of potentially preventing authentic learners from joining the class as well; however, we know that paying students are already far, far more likely to complete courses anyway. Depending on how you explain this data, this would mean that either those students who no longer join when there exists a price were not likely to complete the course anyway, or that forcing those students to pay will increase their likelihood of completing the course. Either option is desirable, though it is up for debate whether those would be the actual effects.

This isn’t all or nothing, of course. One could imagine a hybrid model where the payment associated simply gets you access to the community features, but that the content is available for free. This would preserve Coursera’s MOOCs’ desired openness while also attempting to safeguard its courses from outside influences. And, as a happy side effect, the money raised through this mechanism could go toward funding the classroom experience, paying for graders, compensating professors for their time, and building up the platform. I know I’d be very curious to see how the community for this class operated if I had the option of only interacting with those students also paying to participate in the course.

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