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Thursday, August 02, 2012

MOOCs

I haven't posted in about a month. A combination of traveling, vacation, moving to Atlanta and getting started as chair. I appreciate why Michael Mitzenmacher stopped blogging as he became department head. I'll try to post once a week but no promises.

Last week I attended the CRA Snowbird meeting, a biennial meeting of CS chairs and other leaders in the field. The big topic this year: Massively Open Online Courses or MOOCs. Coursera just a couple weeks ago had their big announcement with their line-up of universities that will produce courses including Georgia Tech.

John Hennessey, president of Stanford, gave the CRA keynote address arguing that MOOCs will save universities. He puts the untenable costs of universities at personnel costs (faculty salaries) are making colleges unaffordable (not sure I fully agree). He argued that MOOCs will help teach courses more effectively. The hidden subtext: fewer professors and probably fewer universities, or as someone joked, we'll all be branch campuses of Stanford.


As pointed out by a few at the meeting there is nothing essentially computer science about MOOCs. But it's hard to ignore the CS influence: The Stanford courses that started the new MOOC era were in computer science, Coursera and Udacity are led by computer scientists, as are the MOOC centers at Stanford, MIT, Georgia Tech and many other schools. With great influence comes great responsibility so let's be sure to do it right.


About the only thing people could agree with is that the we are in the very early stage of MOOCs produced by major universities and nobody is sure where we are going. MOOCs may completely change higher education in America and around the world. Or they won't.

13 comments:

  1. The only thing I will say about MOOCs is that it is important to consider the number of people who complete the course, rather than the number of people who sign up, as a measure of their success. From my experience, a 10% completion rate would be a generous overestimate for most Stanford-style MOOCs (see my comment on Richard Lipton's post http://rjlipton.wordpress.com/2012/07/17/an-education-tsunami/).

    What this means is that by far the majority of people who complete a course in the subjects offered by these MOOCs are still doing so in a traditional university. In fact, you only need to lump together three or four universities to beet most MOOCs. MOOCs do not yet have the orders of magnitude increase in reach over traditional courses that is sometimes claimed.

    This does not mean that MOOCs won't become dominant in the future, but we do need to think about the reasons for high dropout rates when we are considering what technologies and approaches to education to adopt in our own universities. If, as I suspect, the lack of personal contact turns out to be a major factor, then adopting them in universities may not be as cost effective as some people seem to think. We may still need the same number of faculty that we have now, but they will have to focus more on interaction with students than with lecturing. It may be a good thing if they are able to do that, but it won't be cheaper.

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    1. of the over 65,000 who signed up for the HCI course that was run via Coursea, how many started? how many finished? how much do we know they learned?

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    2. I signed up for some courses but did not complete the course. For the reason was that I didn't need to. And it was not a priority, so when I have higher priority works to do I stop spending time on the courses.

      Still, there might be also something about the design. For example, having a schedule for assignments can be cause of the problem. Finishing the course is not my job, I follow the course as much as I can in my free time. And availability of free time changes over the the and does not strongly correlate with he course schedule. More fundamentally it can be a result f lack of incentives to finish an online course in the specific time frame.

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  2. Well the barrier to entry is also much lower. Someone thinks "Quantum Mechanics, awesome! I always wanted to learn that!" Never mind that they've never heard of "eigenvalue" or "conjugate tranpose". I suspect out of the vaunted "100,000 students" a good number fall into this category.

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  3. The same basic premise of MOOCs has existed forever: cheap, mass-production-like education. They're called library cards. Knowledge has always existed for free but that hasn't put Universities and colleges out of business because they're not the same thing. MOOCs, traditional lectures, and even smaller online lectures are not at all comparable.

    And anyone who starts the conversation with criticizing the salaries of faculty is an idiot or a liar or somewhere between that spectrum. It is obvious to anyone without an ideological bent that the cost of higher ed is a failure on the part of state governments to support it and make it affordable for its citizens.

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    1. Cut out the middle-management that does little or nothing or gets in the way and you would save a ton. When the assistant to the associate has their own assistants to answer the phone and act as receptionist to their office while they spend half their time doing water cooler gossip, there's something very wrong.

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  4. Who pays for systems like Coursea? Someone has to pay. Students?

    How much does a University get paid for offering a course for free to the masses?

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  5. Per Lance's figures, CCC attendance has stagnated for a generation, while the world's population has nearly doubled and its computational capacity has increased ~100X. As Krusty the Clown says: "Uh oh. That's not good."

    One lesson: whatever the problems that challenge academia may be, we can be reasonably assured they're not new.

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    Replies
    1. Are you seriously proposing that all healthy conferences grow exponentially?

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    2. "Anonymous", hopefully the complexity theory community can conceive more interesting questions than the particular one you asked. After all:

      --------
      "Good, he did not have enough imagination to become a mathematician".

       — Hilbert's response upon hearing that one of his students had dropped out to study poetry.
      ---------

      Good answers depend upon good questions, that in turn are founded upon good postulates.

      So would you care to ask a different question, that perhaps is founded upon different postulates?   :)

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    3. Sidles appears to post random nonsense much of the time, often off topic as if he wished he had a blog of his own with an audience but lacking one he tries to hijack this one. Here rather than answer the question he insults the poster and sidesteps any attempt at being on-topic.

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  6. Hmmm  … and the boiling-frog response of academia to the generational challenge of these now-structural deficits, provides little reason to foresee substantial near-term improvement.

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  7. So there's no sense reflecting upon Stephenson … eh, "anonymous"?   :)

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