Thursday, May 30, 2013

MOOC partnership in the classroom

First, a riddle:

Q. How is MOOC news like a bag of potato chips?

A. First, you can't stop eating them, and then you can't stop offering them around to all your friends, regardless of how bad they make you all feel the rest of the day.

Here, from the Chronicle, is what a MOOC-infused class looks like:

The San Jose State instructor ran his edX-infused course as in a fairly standard "flipped" format. He would instruct students to watch Mr. Agarwal's short lectures before each class session. Mr. Ghadiri spent the first 10 minutes of each class answering questions from his students about the MIT professor's lectures. Then he typically spent 10 minutes giving his own lecture: a summary of the most salient themes from Mr. Agarwal's lectures, plus some original material. 
After that, Mr. Ghadiri divided the 86-student class into groups of three and had them do worksheets on the lecture material. The instructor and his teaching assistants fanned out across the classroom, observing the teams and giving them tips when they were stuck. Finally, Mr. Ghadiri gave the students a quiz to take on their own. Mr. Ghadiri says he wrote all his own quizzes and worksheets.

So, as an instructor, you get to:
1.  Repeat another person's lecture, emphasizing what he or she thought was important. The students thus get the MOOC information twice. Wasn't the flipped classroom supposed to save time?
2. Answer questions about another person's lecture.
3. Create worksheets and quizzes.
4. Grade worksheets and quizzes.
5. Spend extra time prepping by watching another person's lecture.
6. Tutor students.

The fun part is all outsourced--getting the information together, presenting it to a live group of students with plenty of interruptions and extemporaneous ideas exchanged.

But don't despair.  You still get to grade.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Temple Grandin smacks down Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule: a MOOC post

Over at Wired, in "Your Genes Don't Fit: Why 10,000 Hours of Practice Won't Make You an Expert," Temple Grandin and Richard Panek take on Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule. Citing Gladwell's well-known example of Bill Gates's computer opportunities, she describes her own similar experience:
Now let me tell you the other side of that story. In the late 1960s, when I was a student at Franklin Pierce College, I had access to the same terminal as Gates — the exact same Teletype terminal. The school’s computer system tapped into the University of New Hampshire’s mainframe. So I had as much access as I wanted, and I had as much firepower as I wanted, and it was all free. And you’d better believe I wanted to spend as much time as possible on that computer. I love that sort of stuff; I love to see how new technology works. The computer was called Rax, so when I turned on the computer, a message would type out on paper: Rax says hello. Please sign in. And I would eagerly sign in.
And that was it. I could do that much — but that was all. I was hopeless. My brain simply doesn’t work in a way that allows me to write code. So saying that if I’d spent ten thousand hours talking to Rax, I would be a successful computer programmer, because anyone can be a successful computer programmer, is crazy.
I say: Talent + 10,000 hours of work = Success. Or to put it another way: Nature + nurture = Success.
Others say: 10,000 hours of work = Success. Or to put it another way: Nurture = Success.
This one-size-fits-all approach to learning seems to me the fallacy--okay, one of many fallacies--of the MOOC paradigm.  Even if you grant the following MOOC cheerleading points, which are repeated ad nauseam as fact by The New York Times--
  • That all classes, everywhere in universities, are terrible 1000-person lectures where bad Podunk U teachers drone on to disengaged students;
  • That bad Podunk U teachers, which includes everyone not in a MOOC affiliation, only know how to lecture from yellowing notes and have no idea how to engage students in discussion;
  • That video lectures are much, much better than in-person lectures because they are shiny and from "the best of the best";
  • That those who are against MOOCS also hate baseball, puppies, and humanity
--you are still left with this question: how do you tap into students' varying talents and abilities? 

A MOOC will let you put in the 10,000 hours. It's never going to know the difference. Will it lead to inevitable success, though?

I'm not talking about learning styles but the differences in individuals that you see in any class where there's discussion--that is, any humanities class. They all have talents, but how do you reach them? 

Do you think that Eager Keener in the front row, who has her hand up for 30 minutes out of a 50-minute class, would do well in a MOOC? She might, but how would she (1) receive the affirmation that she so obviously craves and at the same time (2) learn how to share attention and listen to other members of the class without a real live teacher who brings out those abilities?

Or what about Slouchy McBaseballcap, who sits in the back row and is terrified lest his cool be shattered by answering a question?  Sitting for 10,000 hours in front of a computer screen might be just his cup of Red Bull, and in fact, he probably does it already with WoW or Minecraft or something. But how is he going to recognize other talents for analysis, writing, and discussion if there's no live teacher? 

If 10,000 hours in front of a screen were all that mattered, Sunrise Semester would have educated everyone already. But there's more to it than that. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

On Writing: 5 Internet tricks that compel (and sometimes annoy) readers

In flying a lot on Delta recently, I looked at the in-flight magazine while waiting for takeoff (no iPads allowed) and, fueled with rage, was just about able to fly without the plane. The magazine featured  a  special cheerleading section on MOOCs transforming education. Sample quotation: "Who wants to take a course from some professor at Podunk U when you can learn from the best of the best at Harvard and MIT?"


Due to the research trip and some life events (some positive and some not), I'm having to restart the writing schedule. I started wondering what would happen if we all took a leaf from the web in terms of writing.

1. Breaking prose into smaller sections and subsections.  This is an old truism for web writing, of course, and Twitter and Facebook have made it into an art form. Even a long news item on a web page is constantly broken up every 200 words or so by an invitation to click away to a related story.

Are current academic books and essays more likely to be broken into smaller sections because of this? Books always have had chapters, of course, but now books have subsections every few pages. I've noticed this with some of the recent books I've read, but maybe that's just the books I've read and not a trend.  What do you think?

2. Is standard narrative now less compelling than a Q & A or random format? I'm asking this in question form because the types of articles that would usually get a standard headline at, say, the Reuters site often gets a headline recast as a question by the time it gets to the Huffington Post. No matter how much I think I know the answer, a question always compels me to click on it--and, judging by the ubiquity of the making-headings-questions format, I must not be alone. Think also about books like Paula Byrne's The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, in which a life is told through objects rather than in a standard narrative.

3. Numbers in titles.  This is another compelling (but annoying?) trend, and one that often leads to one of the most annoying web developments, the slideshow. You see a title like "5 Unsafe Bridges" and click on it, only to find that the actual information requires more clicking.  But it works. Is it because you know exactly how many nuggets of information you're getting, like the old Liberty magazine tradition of posting reading times?

Would people buy more academic books if they were called things like Ten Things You Need to Know about Charles Dickens or TMI: Five Sexy George Eliot Heroines and How She Punishes Them?

4. Visualization and humor and the graphic rendering of texts. We like humor on the internet, and we like cats, and so what better way to learn about gender performativity than "Judith Butler Explained in Cats"? Putting together this kind of presentation could help students learn, especially if they're creating the presentation. Could someone create, and would you assign, a theory comic book? Or would it be better to assign students to collaborate on making and illustrating one (each choosing an author) and then sharing it with the class?

5. I don't really have a fifth point, and if I did, I'd make a slide show to make you work for it.  It's just that the numbers in titles are always some multiple of 5.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Writing inspiration: on time and timing

When I was a kid, summer days and Saturdays were a gift. This was before all the play dates and soccer scheduling that kids have now, so if you were up and dressed and breakfasted by 8 or 9  a.m., the whole day was yours.  In fact, if you weren't out and on your bike and knocking at a friend's door by about then, your mother might say, as mine did, "If you can't find something to do, I can find you something, like cleaning your room." All the moms did this, and all the kids were outside and around the neighborhood.

I vividly remember that exciting feeling of waking up and having the whole day ahead of me, as though it were a present. On the first few days of summer, the feeling of having that free time was almost overwhelming. What to do first? Put on a play? Make a camp in the woods out back to play "old-fashioned days," which was one of our favorite things?  It wasn't an endless summer, like that clip that Historiann posted the other day, but it was close.

I'm feeling a little that way this summer. I'm not teaching summer school (obligation #1 removed) and have been in touch with the editor (obligation #2 and feeling of guilt removed). I've made a long-anticipated trip to the archives (obligation #3 removed and incentive gained), and, although there's still some mandatory travel ahead, I'm seeing what I hope are some good and productive days ahead.  I also have a good sense, as I did not in previous summers, of what needs to be done, though I'm still overwhelmed a little by what needs to be done first (which chapter?).

So I have the time, or at least some of what I need, and the timing is right.  It's not an endless summer, but I counted up the days and I can, with luck, get it done.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

EdX finds a way around SJSU Philosophy Department's Principled Stand

From Community College Spotlight, which asks a question that we've all asked more than once around the blogosphere: "Is Online Learning for Steerage?"

Apparently the SJSU Philosophy Department's principled stand on EdX's course doesn't matter because--surprise!--EdX found a way around it:
Provost Ellen Junn said nobody had told the philosophy department to use the Sandel course, however several professors said they felt pressured to offer it. Peter J. Hadreas, who chairs the department, “said that administrators had now arranged to offer it through the English department, reinforcing his concerns that it would be taught by professors who are not trained in philosophy and would be especially reliant on the edX materials.”
Nice to know that disciplinary content doesn't matter to some administrators when free and shiny courses are involved.

In K-12 news, students in Louisiana were surprised at being signed up without their knowledge for the for-profit courses (called Course Choice) offered by the private company FastPath Learning.  FastPath offers a free tablet for signing up, and you don't even have to pass the course or turn in the tablet at the end.

Pop quiz, since we are being MOOC-like today: Where does the money for FastPath Learning courses come from?
a) the already limited funding for classroom teachers
b) administrative savings
c) all the high-tech bigwigs promoting it

Bonus question: In all likelihood, the EdX philosophy course will be "facilitated" or whatever glorified tutoring option is available by
a) tenured faculty who have already said "oh, hell no"
b) part-time faculty who fear losing their jobs if they say no

In the MOOC tradition, you can score these answers yourself.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Short blogging break and some MOOC articles

Travel and a research trip, about which I'll write later, but for now, a couple of thoughtful posts on MOOCs:

An article on the MOOC business model by CUCFA President Robert Meister:

Sample: The educational Commons you propose is one in which the private owners of instructional platforms like Coursera will appropriate without exchange profitable information that can eventually be used to determine how much rent can be charged for access to the “Common” based on our personal, demographic, academic, and income profiles. (For this purpose you could correlate our unique user identity and online performance with other databases in existence or yet to be developed.) The free educational “Common” that Coursera’s business model promises is already programmed to be enclosed as private property. Your eventual entry fee can be dynamically priced (like airline tickets) to reflect the changing levels of student optimism or desperation about the future on which your long-term marketing strategy relies.

"Is College Moving Online?" by Nathan Heller at The New Yorker.

Sample: “I was surprised at the outcome,” David W. Wills, a professor of religious history at Amherst, told me. “It seemed to come down the road as something that was going to happen.” Wills started out being open to moocs, he said. But the more he heard the more his concerns grew, and none of edX’s representatives seemed able to address them. “One of the edX people said, ‘This is being sponsored by Harvard and M.I.T. They wouldn’t do anything to harm higher education!’ What came to my mind was some cautious financial analysts saying, about some of the financial instruments that were being rolled out in the late nineties or early two-thousands, ‘This is risky stuff, isn’t it?’ And being told, ‘Goldman Sachs is doing it; Lehman Brothers is doing it.’ ” The language he heard from edX, he said, was the rhetoric of tech innovation—seemingly to the exclusion of anything else—and he worried about academia falling under hierarchical thrall to a few star professors. “It’s like higher education has discovered the megachurch,” he told me.
He and others worried about what this might do to smaller preachers. “I have to say, it turned my stomach to think that we were going to be making decisions about other people’s jobs in a discussion to which they were not party,” Adam Sitze, a member of the department of law, jurisprudence, and social thought at Amherst, told me. “Some very brilliant people are at institutions that are not wealthy.” In a meeting, one of Sitze’s colleagues, the political theorist Thomas L. Dumm, described the conveyance of moocs to weaker universities as “eating our seed corn.”
And from earlier in the article:
“I could easily see a great institution like Harvard having a dynamic archive where, even after I’m gone—not just retired but let’s say really gone, I meandead—aspects of the course could interlock with later generations of teachers and researchers,” Nagy told me. “Achilles himself says it in Rhapsody 9, Line 413: ‘I’m going to die, but this story will be like a beautiful flower that will never wilt.’ ”
Comment: There's a thin line between immortality as a beautiful flower and immortality as an undead zombie that eats the brains of the living.   

Friday, May 03, 2013

MOOC 'n' Bake

I recently listened to Jane Maas's Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the '60s and Beyond. One of the entertaining stories she tells (and they're all good) is about what happened when the people who invented Shake 'n Bake in the 1960s tried to introduce another product. (Apologies to Ms. Maas if I get the details wrong here.)

Shake 'n' Bake was wildly popular. What's not to love about seasoned crumbs that you can put in a bag, shake up with chicken, bake, and eat? It was not pretending to be fried chicken, but it was easy (and in the 1960s, cooking for most families was all about easy) and kids would eat it.

In other words, it was what it was: easy to fix and tasty. The results could be replicated in any kitchen. It was a hit.

But then someone thought, "Hey, why don't we make a product with batter so that it can be like real fried chicken? Wouldn't that be even better?" They tested this extensively, selling packets that would become batter if you added water, and debuting the finished product in focus groups. It tasted great, so they went ahead.

Then they rolled it out into test markets, where it sank like a stone. Why? The focus kitchen product tasted great. People liked it. Why wouldn't housewives buy it?

Turns out there were several reasons. First of all, who wants to knead raw chicken in a bag of goopy batter and watch said batter slide off the chicken parts? Second, if you didn't fry it in the right temperature of oil, it was a soggy mess. Third, it had an unfortunate tendency--well known to any of you who've added wet anything to hot oil--to whoosh into a fireball. The fireball thing kind of put the kibosh on the product, which was quietly deep-sixed.

In other words, only under the exact right conditions could this superior product be created. It could not be repeated en masse or by just anyone. It was a failure.

I think there's a lesson here.  There was hype, and enthusiasm, and a limited report of success that depended on a lot of conditions that couldn't be replicated in ordinary circumstances. If MOOCs are Shake 'n' Bake--and that can be good, and MOOCs can be good, for particular purposes--why are others trying to make them be fried chicken, when that requires more expertise and special preparation?

I thought of this when reading WaPo (h/t, as seemingly always, to Jonathan Rees) with this line from Eric S. Lander: "But MOOCs such as his might offer some professors elsewhere a chance to spend less time preparing and delivering lectures and more time working hands-on with students."

My question for the day: would the MOOC superprofessors be willing to reverse the roles? Would Eric S. Lander be willing to spend all HIS time "working hands-on with students" after having having the creative portion of his class outsourced to a MOOC? What if he's doing the tutoring instead of the lecturing? What if he has to spend time listening to someone else's lecture and referring to it when he goes into class to work with students? 

If there's a true commitment to MOOC principles, shouldn't there be turnabout in who's driving and who's riding shotgun? 

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

NY Times Q: "Is Cursive Dead?" (A. It's very sick!)

The New York Times has weighed in with one of my minor obsessions, cursive handwriting and poses (not, for the love of God, begs) this question: "Is Cursive Dead?"

Answer: Well, yes, kinda, sorta.

  • There's an education expert who uses "impact" as a verb and says he personally doesn't use it, so it sure is dead.  
  • An archivist who doesn't want it to disappear. 
  • An occupational therapist that says brain science (true!) shows that it helps develop portions of the brain. 
  • A handwriting expert that says a hybrid works just as well. 

My take?

  • Pro: It helps with brain development, and it reaps a more useful benefit than Baby Einstein videos. 
  • Con: On the other hand, teachers have enough to do. I'm not in the K-12 trenches, so I'm not sure that I get a vote.
  • Pro: As far as cursive becomes elective in the schools, it'll become a status marker, like languages or other such "useless" knowledge. The ruling class will know it, and by those markers will know each other. The grimy proles like the rest of us will not. If we are working on increasing class stratification in this country by educational methods as well as by redistributing wealth to the top 1%, this is just another step in the process. 
  • Addendum: I am still befuddled by how hard this culture says it works to develop everyone's brainpower and potential yet how loudly it howls whenever anyone is asked to do anything but the bare minimum of learning, saying that people are learning "frills." Since when can learning anything not about the Kardashians be considered a frill? 
  • Con: The argument "we haz the shiny things now and we type instead of write" doesn't cut much  ice if you need to handwrite something, but that can be taken care of by printing, mostly. 
Conclusion: I like cursive handwriting aesthetically and intellectually, but I can't make a case that everyone needs to know it or teach it. They do need to know how to read it, though, which one of the experts says can be done in one hour with no followup. 

Your thoughts?