Saturday, October 13, 2012

MOOCing again

I've finished the first week of An Introduction to Computer Networks, taught by Professors McKeown and Levis of Stanford, and hosted at Stanford's Class To Go site.

This is my fourth class I've taken this year (two cryptography classes, one statistics class), and now my third different provider (Coursera, Udacity, and now ClassToGo).

The format of the networking class is quite different from the other classes, at least so far: it is much less interactive, mostly watching videos and answering a few questions; the only background reading is a $150 networking textbook that I've been too cheap to purchase; the online slides are much more casual.

Still, I'm finding the videos worthwhile and intend to continue watching them (assuming they continue to post them).

While this doesn't make me an expert on MOOCs, it does at least make me a participant.

MOOCs have been much discussed this summer, and a few recent events are worth noting:

  1. Earlier this summer, Stanford President John Hennessy gave a keynote speech at the 4th Computing Research Association conference: The Coming Tsunami in Educational Technology. Hennessy proposes that University education has two functions:
    Universities perform two education functions:
    • Helping students learn: in class and outside
    • Credentialing: certifying students achieve mastery of a subject (grades & degrees )
    Hennessy suggests that the future of higher education is surprisingly murky:
    Online learning with lots of content of varying quality
    • Online courses will become the new textbooks.
    • Content-alone likely to be inexpensive
    • Replace of lecture function of instructors by master online lecturers
    Harder to predict what happens in credentialing:
    • Certification for post degree professional education has happened and has clear value in some fields
    • Likely to be high variability in quality of certification
    • Big question: what happens in the UG space?
    Lance Fortnow follows up on Hennessy's talk, observing that university educators have been surprisingly resistant to incorporating technological advances to improve their efficiency:
    one cannot increase the number of students to faculty without decreasing the quality of education. That's where MOOCs come in, supposedly the solution to allow faculty to be far more efficient in the number of students they can teach without reducing quality. Might help control college costs but could harm research at top tier universities and many other universities might cease to exist.
  2. In a widely-noted post, Amy Bruckman foretells doom for higher education: The Future of Universities: Everything a MOOC is NOT
    The trend over the last dozen or so years is for people who make money creating intellectual property to be compensated more and more poorly. Fewer people are making a living as musicians. Professional journalism is in crisis. Small newspapers are closing, and major ones are struggling. This hasn’t happened all at once, but like a frog in a pot, raising the temperature/economic pressure a fraction of a degree per year over the long haul has dramatic consequences. MOOCs turn education into a form of IP. The same economic pressures are going to apply.
    John Regehr echoes her predictions: University Economics and the End of Large Classes
    if large lecture classes are replaced by MOOCs, universities face a revenue collapse that will force a major restructuring. This could result, for example, in people like me being asked to cover a larger fraction of our salaries from grants. That is, the university could save money by covering only 50% or 25% of our salaries instead of the current standard arrangement where it pays 75%. Another possibility is that many professors are let go while others face much larger teaching loads.
  3. Daniel Collins, a community college professor in New York, posted a fierce online critique of Sebastian Thrum's Statistics 101.
    the course is amazingly, shockingly awful. It is poorly structured; it evidences an almost complete lack of planning for the lectures; it routinely fails to properly define or use standard terms or notation; it necessitates occasional massive gaps where “magic” happens; and it results in nonstandard computations that would not be accepted in normal statistical work. In surveying the course, some nights I personally got seriously depressed at the notion that this might be standard fare for the college lectures encountered by most students during their academic careers.
    In response, Thrum promises to improve the course
    this article points out a number of shortcomings that warrant improvements that a few students have also raised and we have noted for iteration. Some are the result of my attempt to experiment with open questions (challenge students before I provide an answer), my dedication to get rid of overly formal definitions, and my desire to place optional challenges into an otherwise basic course. But I agree with the author of this article -- and our many supporters who have voiced similar things -- that the resulting course can be improved in more than one way.

It's a year of change for higher education. We were lucky enough to be able to send our children to college, but it's not clear to me how much longer that glorious period will last. Even close co-workers of mine whose children are just a few years younger than mine will be struggling mightily to enable them to attend, with college costs (in California at least) going up 20% or more every year for the last 10 years, and with no end in sight.

The online learning activity reminds me very much of early automation efforts in many areas: the first attempts are "amazingly, shockingly awful"; people nonetheless see the possibilities; iterations and improvements result; those who retain the buggy whips predict disaster and the collapse of civilization; the newer, better approaches win out.

As Thrum himself observes, what will make or break these online learning environments is their success in building thriving, evolving communities:

I believe that Udacity owes all of our students the hardest and finest work in making amazing classes. We are very grateful for any feedback that we receive. These are the early days of online education, and sometimes our experimentation gets in the way of a coherent class.

And what is to happen of the classic university experience, whatever that might be?

I don't know, but I agree with Hennessy: the tsunami is here; things will change.

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