Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Gates Foundation gets involved in MOOCs

There's big news in the world of MOOCs today: Establishment Opens Door for MOOCs

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding that effort as part of $3 million in new, wide-reaching MOOC-related grants, including research projects to be led by ACE, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and Ithaka S+R, a research group that will team up with the University System of Maryland to test and study the use of massive open online courses across the system.

It seems that all the news about MOOCS involves their movement toward some sort of accreditation, even though the MOOCs themselves continue to protest (too much?) that they don't want any part of that:

They have repeatedly said the company has no desire to become an accredited, credential-issuing institution, arguing that it will be an extension of higher education, rather than a direct competitor. Ng and Koller have also shown little interest in pushing a pathway to college credits for Coursera’s offerings, at least until now.

While the Gates Foundation involvement will bring both visibility and massive resources, Joshua Gans wonders if this whole effort isn't heading in the wrong direction: Accreditation and MOOCs: How about we just don’t do it.

The alternative is that they just wanted to learn. That means that when lectures are prepared, the professors involved don’t have to worry about what will be on a test and what is testable. They can just teach. And there is a difference. You can go on digressions, add potential sources of confusion and discomfort all without the potential come back of “is this going to be on the final.” Now the professors on CourseRA haven’t yet broken from their learned shackles of teaching what can be examined but the ones on Udemy seem to move on that path. That is just my assessment, you can all decide for yourselves. But my point is that MOOCs offer that potential. Think too of the non-academic contributions of Vi Hart and CP Grey among others. This is pure knowledge people and it is what it looks like when there is no test involved. Think also about the radical teaching styles in Codeacademy, Treehouse, and LearnStreet; not to mention the Khan Academy which is in a league of its own.

For my own part, I'm not interested in credit, I'm not looking for a degree, and I'm not likely to pay additional money for a certificate or other document from the MOOCs. I guess I'm that weird guy that just wants to learn.

Is Gans right? Am I the target audience?

Meanwhile, Alex Tabarrok focuses his attention on the fundamentals of the new approaches: Why Online Education Works. Tabarrok is strongly optimistic about the potential:

Technology is rapidly changing how much interaction can occur online. The future is lectures plus intelligent, on the fly assessment. The GRE, for example, is a computer-adaptive test—when you answer questions correctly you get a harder question; when you answer incorrectly you get an easier question. The adaptive nature of the test makes it possible to zero in more quickly on true ability. The future of online education is adaptive assessment, not for testing, but for learning. Incorrect answers are not random but betray specific assumptions and patterns of thought. Analysis of answers, therefore, can be used to guide students to exactly that lecture that needs to be reviewed and understood to achieve mastery of the material. Computer-adaptive testing will thus become computer-adaptive learning.

I think we're at the point now where the technology is operational, the educators are starting to become comfortable with how to use it, the existence of an audience is thoroughly established, and the institutions are at least willing to debate how things should proceed.

One signal event that I'm looking for is: when will the various offerings (Coursera, Udacity, edX, etc.) start to include more advanced material? So far, it's mostly been "Intro to this, Intro to that".

That is, what I've seen, at least in the fields with which I'm familiar, is introductory (college-level) material, survey material, and summary material. Relatively few of the classes that I've seen have gone beyond that 1st-year or 2nd-year undergraduate level of offering.

For example, in the Computer Science arena, Tim Roughgarden's classes at Coursera are superb.

But when will we see a Coursera-type delivery of something like MIT's graduate school class in algorithms: 6.851: Advanced Data Structures? (Note that MIT already makes the lectures for 6.851 available online, and they're superb; thanks MIT! But 6.851 may be something of an exception; 6.854 only appears to make the instructor's notes available).

Would giving something like 6.851 the "Coursera treatment" be a valuable next step? Or is it indeed better to develop the infrastructure for accreditation, credit transfer, and certification?

In the meantime, I'll just continue being a happy student :)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for mentioning us! ~Joanne from