About Julian

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I teach math to kids. They teach me a lot of things, too. I think it's an even swap.

Friday, February 8, 2013

I MOOC, therefore I am

MOOCs (massive open online courses) are all the rage these days.  I have been curious - and a bit skeptical - about them, so I thought I would give one a try myself.  In the interest of full disclosure you should know that I am a skeptical thinker by nature.  I consider myself an early adopter and I have always made efforts to incorporate technology into my teaching where I think it makes sense, but I always feel there needs to be a compelling reason to try something before I expose my kids to it.

Call me compelled.

I am currently enrolled in Robert Ghrist's Single Variable Calculus course out of Coursera and the University of Pennsylvania. I have found Dr. Ghrist's approach to teaching calculus interesting, relevant, and refreshing. His introductory lessons were on Taylor Series of all things, and he expands (pun intended) on their use and meaning in his subsequent units on differentiation and integration.  He demonstrates how calculus is used in the ever-so-lofty "real world" with approximations and other applications.  He has given me great ideas for how I will be teaching the topic of series in my Calc BC class.

But, I remain skeptical.

I am a very disciplined person - not crazy, but disciplined. I floss daily.  Yet, I am having a hard time maintaining focus, staying on schedule, and doing all the work.  I have found myself skipping videos and homework.  Yes, I already know calculus pretty well and I am not learning a lot of new stuff, but this course is intended for someone who has previously seen calculus and the material is quite challenging, and I really do want to participate fully.  It's just that in my busy schedule, I find it easiest to jettison something to which I have no financial or social commitment.

I'm not the only one.

Dan McFarland, a professor in Stanford's Graduate School of Education recently offered his Organizational Analysis course as a MOOC.  He required his Stanford students to sign up and take the course and provide feedback. They were among the 44,501 students who registered for the course.  The vast majority had the same commitment issues I have with my MOOC.  Of the initial registrants, only 2,375 took the final (I couldn't find out how many actually passed), and only 291 actually wrote a paper for the class that would give them an advanced certificate of completion.

McFarland's students had mixed feelings about the course as well.  Some found the isolation difficult; when they wished to ask a question, no one was around; many found it difficult to focus on the video lectures as they sat watching them alone.   MOOCs attempt to deal with this isolation in different ways. There are discussion forums in MOOCs, but they require you to post a question and wait for a response.  Some have live lectures where you can participate in live chat, but chat rooms with thousands of people are never efficient and often distracting and can do more harm than help.

I want MOOCs to work.  They would be a great way to offer students at my small, poorly-funded school more learning options.  And they can offer access to high-level educational opportunities to people that would never dream of having such access.  Think of a poor farmer in Bangladesh learning programming or a Tibetan teenager discovering democracy through a social sciences course.  I do see them as potentially transformative.

But much work needs to be done to motivate participants.

I'm encouraged by a recent development in the course I am taking. It appears that Dr. Ghrist's course and a few other Coursera courses may be receiving accreditation which could lead to offering credit for these courses.  That would be a big step in the right direction.  But I don't see that motivating me; after all I didn't sign up for college credit in the first place.  I, and the students in Dr.  McFarland's course, have a different issue with MOOCs - the lack of social interaction.  I learn best as part of a collective, bouncing thoughts and questions off of each other.  I feed off the collective energy of a group of students working together toward a common goal.  This is true whether I'm the student or I'm the teacher.

MOOCs have potential, and that potential, in my view, includes the effect of propagating an ever-increasing malady in our society, the illness of individualism. Learn alone, achieve alone, fail alone. The "I built it" theme at the Republican convention this past summer was emblematic of this disease of "me."  I fear MOOCs and other trends in education like competency-based learning could contribute to this problem, and I worry the primary reason I got into teaching - to develop better human beings - is going to suffer if individual achievement is stressed over the accomplishments of society.  Yes, I am a "It takes a village" kind of guy, and I suspect I am a bit paranoid, but I love seeing my students collectively do great.  And I want to be part of that whenever I am a student, too.  I'm not ready to embrace the MOOC phenomenon yet.

 If you're going to MOOC, MOOC responsibly.

1 comment:

  1. I started taking a MOOC on game theory through coursera and I ran into a lot of the same problems you have. There was no credit system for the course, so there was nothing to show for it aside from the knowledge I gained from the course. On the other hand, this tends to lead to self selective classes - when I browse through the class forums I find a lot of genuinely curious people helping each other understand the course material. There isn't a whole lot of social interaction, but I think it's enough. I'm taking this course with a friend, and we can consult each other when we have problems.
    When school started up in February, I found it really easy to push back doing my homework for the course. I'm actually supposed to turn in one of the homework assignments by midnight tonight, and here I am commenting on a blog. I think that without official credit, courses would be much better off not attaching deadlines and letting the students take the course at their leisure. So yeah. Back to work. Cheers.