Thursday, August 2, 2012

Online Education: Is It All It's Cracked Up To Be?

MOOCs —Massive Open Online Courses — are all the rage these days.  These are systems that allow hundreds of thousands of learners from around the world to take classes complete with video lectures and robo-grading, completely for free.  One of the big names is Coursera.

Daphne Koller recently gave a TED talk about Coursera from her perspective as a co-founder.  She painted a very encouraging picture of the results they were seeing, making the platform look very good.  And in many cases, she had some data to back it up.

For instance, she was able to show a visualization of the kinds of wrong answers students were giving for a particular assignment, and discussed how that helps instructors in discovering and repairing student misconceptions.  The data also points to the effectiveness of interrupting video lectures with questions that student must answer correctly before moving on.

But the glowing review of how well students are learning with Coursera isn't the whole story.  There are still issues, ranging from high drop-out rates to the inability to grade certain kinds of assignments.

Koller does address the latter problem in her talk.  She admits that robo-graders cannot currently grade critical thinking in disciplines like the humanities (Coursera deals with this with peer-grading).  But others have argued that robo-grading doesn't really work all that well even for subjects it is used for, like math.

Math educator and PhD student Dan Meyer doesn't believe math is a subject that can be automatically graded by computers, and is disappointed that ed-tech entrepreneurs don't seem to understand this:
[T]he message from Silicon Valley and the message from our best math classrooms contradict one another more often than they agree. On the one hand, Silicon Valley tells students, "Math is a series of simple, machine-readable tasks you watch someone else explain and then perform yourself." Our best classrooms tell students, "Math is something that requires the best of your senses and reasoning, something that requires you to make meaning of tasks that aren't always clearly defined, something that can make sense whether or not anyone is there to explain it to you."
(I'd argue that the same goes for other subjects that are seemingly easy to grade, like computer science.)

I haven't yet tried any MOOCs personally (though there are a few I'd love to take someday).  I am relying on others' experiences to get the big picture.  For example, Lorraine Hopping Egan shared the following when I posted Koller's talk on Google+:
I took a swing at the Stanford course on game theory. The profs are super well-informed on the topic, of course, but not so great at creating videos that are clear, let alone interesting.

After three weeks or so, I decided I was better off learning the material on my own (which I had done with a Great Courses series on the same topic—far better produced).

The benefit would have been more social interaction, study groups that worked (they fell apart, IME), and some challenges that are more interesting and creative. Not asking to be spoon-fed or entertained. But, given, the audience (tens of thousands) and the hunger for this knowledge, it seems to me there's a high market for well-produced graduate level classes.
(Context: "Mine was one experience—one course from one university— and I'm not a typical student (having graduated a few decades ago).")

Hack Education's Audrey Watters had this to say about her completed Coursera course after failing to finish a similar Udacity offering:
[When writing about Udacity] I said I “wasn’t sure” about the level of difficulty, the forums, or the “robot-grader.”  I am sure about those those latter elements now: robot-graders can be incredibly frustrating, and forums can make for poor learning communities.
But while there's work to do, the goal of making education accessible to everyone around the world is a good one.  As Mark Guzdial points out, these online courses are experiments, and we need to do more of them to figure out what works.  It will be worth it.


Anonymous said...

I've not taken a MOOC yet, though a few looked intriguing. I usually find video lectures incredibly off-putting, so that has been a barrier to my attempting a MOOC.

I also worry about robograding, even in programming classes, where I/O checks can do a lot, there is no substitute for thoughtful feedback on the style of the programming and commenting.

Gail Carmichael said...

Yeah, I agree about video lectures. I haven't run into any I REALLY like. It often seems like the videos capture exactly what I don't like to see in classrooms (one-way lectures).

Collin said...

Took the game theory course on coursera and enjoyed it. Didn't pay as careful attention as I would have in a live in-person real-time class, but then I wouldn't have taken one of those.

For me it was a good trade-off: I probably wouldn't have actually read a book (to be honest), and so the deadlines on the problem sets were a Good Thing.

re video lectures: these were OK by me. I've taken classes through Stanford's TV network (late '70s) -- these were real-time on black-and-white (really "grayscale") analog TV sets.

The robo-grading was OK for this class but I think it would be very limiting for a math or programming class. Heck, I hated robo-grading when I took a "CAI" class on set theory (again Stanford in the '70s)....

Anonymous said...

Probably MOOCs have a long way to go before they can even be considered along with Brick-and-mortar classes. But they surely brings something different to the table. And one of that is You get to learn from the best people in the field. You get to see things from their perspective .

I completed Sebastian Thrun's robotics-ai class by Udacity. And i think it was worth the time and effort. The lectures sure are one way but they try to make as interactive as possible. But i think the the enthusiasm and persona of the professor does a lot to bridge the gap. Sebastian was just awesome! Auto-grading was an issue, but i think thats something that can improve over time.

As someone interested in computer science, i look at MOOCS as a way to learn more about new domains in CS. Sure the value of a MOOC may be nothing compared to your real education degrees in your resume, but an employer surely can judge your self-motivation and urge for knowledge from the MOOCs you did.

Gail Carmichael said...

Good points Collin and binaryandbetween.

I'm looking forward to trying the new Khan CS tutorials, because their promise seems to be that they will offer experiential education first, and lecture video material when it's needed (just-in-time teaching). This seems to have a lot of potential in terms of the future of MOOCs perhaps?

Anonymous said...

I use Phodphad! ( ) to learn almost anything online. Its very useful and I highly recommend Phodphad! . Hope it helps. Thanks.

Lorraine said...

As a follow-up, here's an informative article (and lots of great comments) comparing Udacity, Coursera, and a couple of other MOOC's, with some data on who "attends."

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