The problem with current-generation MOOCs

MOOCs, or massively open online courses, is a platform for knowledge delivery. In their current iteration, they are lectures and videos and assignments placed online. MOOCs have been hailed as a great revolution in education. I do not agree. The MOOC certainly represents an advancement, if only because resources are available much more widely as a result.

But they are not what they could be.

So, first, why do people think that the MOOC model will revolutionize education? There are several great reasons. (1) They place courses online, where content delivery is much cheaper (a big issue with ballooning tuition prices). (2) A MOOC can be taught by the best professors in the world. The Feynmans and Lewins of the world could be the physics teacher of everyone in America! (3) you don’t need to worry about enrollment issues like too many students needing to take the class. Those definitely represent advancements over certain elements of the brick-and-mortar.

However, it is too reliant on the old model of lecture->practice->test. This is a pretty unengaging model of learning, and regardless of its method of content delivery, people miss a lot of information in this style. Because of that, I don’t see this current iteration of the MOOC replacing the classroom element.

With a few tweaks, I think the model could be improved significantly. What about, for example, a model where tests, practice, and lectures are interwoven seamlessly? Something more like the video game model (for a single topic): instruction -> test -> test -> instruction -> test -> test


The classroom will disappear

One of the most obvious features of college is also, in my opinion, one of the least useful. Classroom are not where real learning takes place: an average student in a lecture demonstrates about as much brain activity as they do when watching TV. In other words, a lecture can be interpreted as boring entertainment. On the other hand, the brain is much more engaged when playing video games because they are interactive, just as it would be easy to stay focused when a zombie is trying to eat your brains. They require an immediate response.

So, why did I title the post as I did? I think that the classroom is eventually going to be replaced by a new model enabled by better technology.

MOOCs, or massively open online courses, have given a brief glimpse of the new direction, but they are only the smallest step in this new direction. Video games are a better model here. So imagining we can provide content to each student individually which is already possible in MOOCs, what elements needs to be included to make this work?

(1) Something visual. Remember text-based adventure games? There’s a reason why everyone went to “video” games. They are more engrossing. Life is visual, so we probably need a visual element. What would that look like? For military history, you could easily create a historically accurate real-time or turn-based strategy game. For engineering, you could create a visual solver geared towards education (several of which already exist with some limited functionality). It may be a little tougher for certain other genres, like literature, but you could potentially do some adventure game. This part is conceptually easier, even if tough to execute.

(2) The ability to tailor content to a person’s skills. This should be possible through a big data approach similar to how Amazon suggests new products. Other people who viewed the same things as you viewed this other thing as well, so you probably will too. In an educational context, this would be: others who got this problem wrong got similar problems right after being shown some other problem, therefore you will get that other problem next. Using this approach, you could probably do all learning via problems, with no need for lectures at all. Skeptical? Video games use that strategy to teach some pretty complex concepts. I think it could be done here too.

(3) A way to generate a massive amount of content. In order to use the big data approach, you would need an enormous bank of problems for any given topic. There is no way that a small team could generate enough problems to make this work, so we probably need some mechanism for user-generated problems.

(4) An error-finding tool or algorithm if we use user-generated content. There are generally a lot of errors in user-generated content, but certain techniques like level editors (in this case problem editors) in video games or the user review process used by Wikipedia can be used to iron those out.

(5) Immediate feedback. There is nothing more immediate than falling into a pit and getting a game over when you misjudge the jump, and so video games are excellent models for this. A huge problem that currently limits the usefulness of homework is the 1-2 week delay between doing the work and getting the feedback.

(6) Some obvious measure of advancement, like badges or levels or achievements. This is another reason why video games are so addictive. People put an enormous amount of time into incredibly frustrating tasks in order to get a badge. Think: like every game ever. It is sometimes incredibly frustrating to master a new concept, and this is an effective way to keep people invested.

The wonderful thing is that none of these elements are new. Everything has been done before, albeit in non-educational contexts. Therefore, there should be no reason why it couldn’t be implemented in education. Now all that remains is to do it (although that part will, as always, be a thorny problem).

Learning Like Water: The End

I attempted to learn like water this semester of college, and I do not think it worked. Here’s why.

I missed things.

Like a quiz, a final exam, numerous hand outs, and about 60% of the total lecture time.

I am sure that missing a final exam caught your attention. Yes, it happened. One of my professors decided in class to unofficially change the final exam time (with unanimous approval), and I did not hear about it. Since it was unofficial, he let me take the exam at a different time. Phew. I also missed an in-class quiz.

In some classes missing the lectures was a bigger issue than in others. One of my classes had no textbook and the material was pretty obscure (read: tough to find online), so it was here that I had the most trouble. The professor posted about half of his notes online, but I relied heavily on other students for the other half. I prefer not to need to mooch off everyone else’s efforts. I am not sure how to handle this obscure-material problem.

I did not focus well enough.

My original plan was to use class time to study on my own. That ended quickly when I had assignments due right after a class. In those cases, learning the new material took a backseat (who would have guessed?). I have a feeling that the structure is a problem here, but I have not identified the exact reason.

I could not shrink it to two weeks.

At the beginning of the semester, I proposed my compressed-schedule idea to each of my professors. Each said some variation of “you are welcome to get ahead, but you cannot get behind.” In other words, I could only conduct my experiment if I was willing to do a whole class in two weeks AND do two weeks worth of all of my other classes. That would require a huge amount of extra work at the beginning of the semester, and by the time I got to the last class at the end of the semester I would have little left to learn in that class. Not quite what I hoped for, to say the least, so that idea died. Oh well.

Even if the pieces had all been in place…

I still do not think it would have worked too well. I was unable to stay disciplined enough to stick with the program I designed. I have either average or slightly above average willpower, so it probably would be a problem for many other people too. That, combined with the constraints of college classes, makes this seem pretty impractical. But at least it was interesting and it did not hurt my GPA.

Next semester’s experiment.

I still think that lectures are a poor learning tool. What other tools could enhance the value of a lecture? Here is my next plan: come up with a problem to solve during each class. Ideally, it would be a homework problem that I could work on during the lecture on that material, but I may just have to settle for a random book problem which may or may not save me time on homework.

Here are the benefits: class time is spent actively problem solving, I will not miss any announcements or quizzes, I’ll notice the thorny problems as they are taught, and I will be able to use the lecture to reference concepts as I practice.

I will flesh out the details in mid-January before the semester starts. Comments welcome!

The Feast: Learning Methods

The world is hosting a dinner party, sponsored by The Feast.  Next Friday, October 5th, the world will sit down, have dinner with friends and talk about important issue the local and global world is facing.  GE and Intel are among the companies that have given the world’s citizens some challenges to focus on.  By the end of the feast, each dinner table will have pinned down the problem they want to solve and design a solution and commit to it.

I will be hosting a dinner party next friday and the topic I want to discuss is learning.  Specifically, different learning methods.  Research screams that we don’t all learn alike–that some are better than others in certain environments.  It might be hard to accomodate every individual’s needs when a classroom can be from 10 to 200 people big.  However, I don’t think that it is necessarily that inconvenient.

For example: If a student does not get much out of the classroom, why waste an hour of that student’s learning time?  Perhaps a student learns better on his own using the book and other resources.  For that student, a teacher could, very easily and not too inconveniently, post online topics that are covered and important points to pay attention to.

However to do this, its important to understand different learning methods and which learning methods are possible for particular topics.  That and how to convey this to our teachers is what I want to discuss.  What other factors do I need to consider? See you on October 5th!

Update: Learning Like Water in College

…is extremely difficult. As I explained in an earlier blog post, I planned to test out a compressed method of learning to avoid all the losses and backsliding inherent in learning a subject over a several month period. I sent requests to several professors asking to rearrange homework deadlines, and all but one of the professors denied my request. (The one professor to accept was a statistics professor who became really excited at the chance to teach experimental design concepts and statistical analysis through the design of my experiment.) Bureaucracy is frustrating.

I have, however, been able to set-up an independent study and devote much of my time to research for a capstone project. I have just four classes with standard meeting times, but attending those classes wastes a vast amount of time (esp. with walking between classes and losing 5-10 minutes stopping one task and starting another).  It breaks up my day into significantly less productive chunks, so I will try to find a better way to block my schedule by not attending class. I have never in the past skipping more than 1-2 classes per course, but I believe this semester it will be beneficial to do so.

I shall share my strategies for teaching myself all the information as I develop them this semester.

Learning Like Water

Halfway through Scott Young’s TEDx talk about his attempt to complete a four-year MIT computer science curriculum in one year for just $2,000, I realized that I’ve seen it before. He describes how, despite the lack of access to professors, students, and all the other resources available to students studying at MIT, he felt that he had a certain advantage over those students. The most important of those advantages, in my view, was his ability to compress an entire class (normally spread over 3+ months) into as little as two days.

This reminded me of a concept from fluid mechanics: pipe flow. An odd connection, perhaps, but I think it is an apt one. A simplified equation (Darcy-Weisbach) for losses due to friction in pipe flow:

h_{Loss}=\frac{L}{D^2}*f(  stuff )

Where L is the pipe length, D is the diameter, and there is some other stuff in there that is not worth mentioning. The equation means that water flows more easily in a wider pipe and less easily in a longer pipe. So what does this have to do with Scott’s MIT challenge, and what point am I trying to make?

Scott removed the friction from learning with a method that widens his learning pipe by using many more resources and shortens it by rapidly progressing. His wider pipe (containing in it all the resources available to him across the internet) allows him to take many different routes to the end goal of understanding a subject.  If he doesn’t understand the video lectures, he checks the textbook or searches for an explanation on the web or asks a question on a message board (many exist, such as Physics Forums). Some of the many resources available on the internet which are rarely used by students: Google the subject, ask the question on message boards, email an expert to ask a question, watch lectures on the subject from other universities (MIT’s OCW and others), etc.

Using more resources has some pretty obvious benefits, but how does rapid progression help you learn? Over such a short time, you won’t forget what you just learned. If you don’t think about the material in the mean time, will you remember what you heard 7 lectures ago? If it was 3 weeks ago, probably not. If it was 3 hours ago, you probably will. The difference in learning, therefore, is that you will be free to make continuous progress rather than the two-steps-forward-one-step-back routine of repeated refreshers on old material. A side benefit: continuous progress is more emotionally invigorating.

So how can we normal, enrolled, 12+ credit hour per semester students merge this with the structure of college? There are definitely many challenges here. Attempting to convince teachers to change test schedules to accommodate your desires will probably be unsuccessful. A less radical change: ask to turn in all the homeworks at the same time between each test. This smaller exception would allow me to go through all the material in a few days (say 3), learn everything, and finish all the homework. Pending professor approval, this is how I’ll structure my semester. I’ll soon post my exact plan for mastering a month of material in just three days.

You may think that this is exactly like cramming the night before a test. In many ways, it is. In two key ways, it is definitely not. First, I will not have a test the next day. I won’t be stressed and frustrated; if I need more time to learn some particularly challenging idea, I have that time . Second, a deliberate method will make my studying more efficient and thorough than a scattered late-night-before-midterm cram session. I hope to soon see if that is how my system actually plays out. What are your thoughts, and do you have any other ideas on how to make this work?