What I Want in a xMOOC

Listen, I hear you – many will respond to my title and say “nothing, I want nothing from an xMOOC and I hope they all become the passing fad that they are”. I feel your sentiment, but I think there’s value in xMOOCs, as bad as the pedagogy is behind them.

1. As a training program, which most xMOOCs are, they can be incredibly useful. For base knowledge, and introductory subjects, these are appropriate tools to get learners to the next step. What I want to see from the Coursera’s and Udacity’s is that they provide more flexibility – open enrollments, work at your own pace, maybe even mini-credentials per unit (via badging?) and most importantly, multiple pathways for learning. I would love to see an online course develop multiple methods of instruction that as a student, I could opt into if I’m having trouble with a topic. That would signal to me that it’s about learning, not about profit margins – because frankly, developing multiple methods of instruction for an online course is incredibly expensive. Putting on a venture capitalist’s hat (and it’s ill fitting on me, I will admit), this could give a company an advantage in being able to leverage the data to determine which learning method is best suited to a student/learner, based on prior successes.

2. Better mechanisms for assessment. All the MOOC platforms have great testing banks, but not much else in the way of advancing assessment. Coursera’s peer evaluation is a step towards something good – but it relies on peer assessment without any repercussions – I could do a garbage job of assessing someone and it won’t affect me – there needs to be a balancing here to ensure that peer assessment is valued as important. Programatically, it’d be easy to do, make sure that feedback exists, make sure it’s longer than x characters, and make sure that there’s a mechanism for providing ways to improve (could be as simple as an explicit “ways to improve this critera”).

3. Speaking of open, for the courses that are free, I’d like to see a commitment to openness, meaning that the materials created are able to be repurposed in other contexts, easily acquired, clearly labelled and ideally in a repository. Yeah, like that will happen. The only open in xMOOC is open enrollment.

e-Learning Popularity Contests

Hi Jon K.,
I am writing you to ask a personal favor. I am trying to break the student record for the largest online class ever taught with my new class “Intro to Statistics“, which will begin June 25th.  Sign up, forward this e-mail to your friends and family and let’s set a new record!
We’ve also launched a challenge for high school students.  Winners will get a trip to Stanford University and I will be delighted to give a tour of my lab!
Sebastian Thrun, Professor
Hi Sebastian:
This is not a personal favor. I’m certain that, yes, you appreciate everyone that signs up for your lectures, videos and learning and believe that you are helping. In some ways, I think you are. I regret to inform you that I will not help you reach your goal of the “biggest” online class. I’m not interested in enrollments, I’m interested in learning. Lots of people enrolled in Udacity, lots did in fact learn. To reduce what you’re doing to a base contest to be the biggest is the sort of thing that I expect from arms races, dick measuring contests and other bigger is better attitudes. I learned some things in the building a search engine course. The biggest thing I learned was that it didn’t really work for me. I did well enough to earn a piece of paper. It was not, however, lifelong learning. Six months or so after the basics of Python, I don’t recall much about the syntax or structures. I don’t recall the reason why logic was implemented in a certain way.
You know what I do know? I recall vividly working with several of my friends trying to work out HTML in 1997. Small group, working together learning from each other. Oh yeah, we were on the Internet (newsgroups in fact) in different cities, facilitated by technology. Lets face it, more people means that you’re more likely to find some people with passion for your subject. And I’ll be big and say, maybe Python isn’t my passion. Massive distributive learning may not be a really beneficial thing. If you could find a way to make your massive course smaller, then I could see being interested. I’m sure I’m not alone.

Reflections on Week 1 of Udacity’s CS101

Udacity’s CS101 is a beginner programming course, which I’m taking (even though I’m fairly well versed in programming, having done web programming for years prior to getting into e-learning). I’m not all that interested in the content, however the introduction to Python will be interesting, and the project, building a search engine, is very appealing.  Python is a language that I’ve never learned, and always felt I should – it strikes me as a handy complement to PHP (which is bloated) and Perl (which does text processing well, but suffers in other areas).

I am in the course because I’m curious how the course works. When you have a course the scale of this, what checks and balances are there? I’m sure there’s analytics behind the platform that describe how much time the viewer spends on each page. What’s really interesting is the students in the course – many of whom have professed to be excited for homework for the first time. I’m sure the vocal ones will be pumping the tires so to speak, and there will be many who are not excited for homework, or found that the first week was just a bit too much for them – those people we’ll never hear about, because they’ll just stop and do something else. The ones who are excited for homework (and no doubt will be a soundbite that Udacity uses over and over to legitimize their approach) are excited because they are motivated (some for the first time). They signed up, they chose this course because it suits their needs, and frankly, they should be excited and motivated. It’s not often higher education gives something away.

I haven’t done the homework yet, but here’s some criticisms of the videos, and general approaches to the teaching. For those not taking here’s how a week works – several topics are broken down into chunks – usually 5 to 8 minute videos interrupted by a quiz, then another video, then an example code chunk to write, which is the best part. While the videos are good, they do take up the whole screen, so YouTube in their infinite wisdom, obscures things drawn on the screen in the video with their branding, and controls (should you want to rewind). The production values for the course are par for education, which means they could be improved by a bumper at each end, with some visual written title to further accentuate what we’re watching.  As much as I like the instructors, I don’t think their two talking heads interlude, congratulating the student, is necessary. Your students should be motivated, they signed up, they are watching – wait to motivate us (and do it in an authentic way, not wooden as this video comes across). I think the course could be vastly improved if we could have the development window and the video at the same time – that way experimenting as the video explains. I understand that cognitively, it’s not ideal, but it would be useful to actually write out the code that’s being explained and run it.

My biggest peeve is that any work done in their interface is not downloadable – at least isn’t clearly downloadable. I wish I could take those example scripts and build on them. Again, this would save me time doing the homework… something I am not surprised I do not want to do. I guess it shows how much I value an essentially useless piece of paper that will be unlikely to be recognized anywhere as an accomplishment of anything. Another issue, while this isn’t a big problem, I know how to write a couple lines of Python – but shouldn’t I actually be taught early on how to write a whole python script? You know, something as a standalone file with a dot py extension? Isn’t that the point of this – and fundamental to the use of Python (and modularity in programming…)?

At best I see this as a replacement for HR training for some – so that labour costs can go down again (hiring laypeople who are just out of high school, then run them through a series of training courses over a few weeks to get them trained how you want the job to be done, with no transferability). Maybe that’s overly critical. Udacity’s model is clearly rooted in a very American approach to education, which as a whole is outdated and certainly ripe for revolution. That’s not Udacity’s fault in any way, but as long as jobs require degrees, this will not be socially transformational for the majority of the population – unless Udacity figures out the accreditation part of the deal.  Which I suspect will require some sort of money.

With all those criticisms aside, they’ve done an admirable job in developing a free course that seems to be scalable.  They do attend to ones needs, and are quick to respond to bugs and errors that are found. The community around CS101 is quite impressive for being about a week old, and that’s in part to the efforts of the Udacity community representatives.