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Re: [Phys-L] MOOC proliferation

A few days ago the Beantown Globe carried an article by:
Joseph Aoun (president of Northeastern University)
"A shakeup of higher education"

It made a lot of sense to me. Aoun wisely did not claim to know
exactly what is going to happen, but he discussed some plausible
scenarios and discussed some of the unsolved problems. I agree
with his bottom line:

Whether the MOOC phenomenon becomes a boon or bane to higher
education remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: It will
change higher education forever.

Aoun identifie "assessment" as an unsolved problem in connection with
MOOCs. I would add that "assessment" is the sucking chest wound in
K-12 education in most of the US right now.

It interesting to contemplate the continuum between the following extremes:
a) tutoring, where there is high cost, maximum hand-holding, and
continual minute-by-minute assessment, and
b) MOOCs, where there is minimal cost, minimal hand-holding and (so far
at least) not much in the way of high-quality assessment.

A traditional classroom sits somewhere between those two extremes.

As I mentioned a few days ago, the folks on this list can use MOOC
materials on occasion to /supplement/ what they are doing now. This
is not the currently-common view of how MOOC materials are "supposed"
to be used, but there is nothing to prevent it. This can be seen as
the mirror image of the long tradition of using tutors to supplement
the instruction on occasion.

None of us knows exactly what's going to happen, but we know /something/
big is going to happen. The only sensible way to proceed is to consider
all the plausible scenarios. Any institution that doesn't figure out
how to get on this bandwagon is going to wind up as roadkill.

We should think real hard about the assessment issue, to see if technology
can help with that. We don't want MOOCs to become synonymous with MOOLL
i.e. massively open online lousy lectures. It would be much better to
have EITMOORs i.e. excellent interactive tutoring via massively open
online robots.

There will always be a cost/benefit tradeoff. Lectures (whether online
or otherwise) will always be near the cheap and not-optimally-effective
end of the scale. My point is that if we can manage to spread the cost
over thousands or tens of thousands of students, we should be able to
aim higher. We shouldn't simply use a video camera to record a lecture.

For starters, somebody should record some highly interactive tutoring
sessions now and then, rather than lectures only. Seriously, this
has been part of entertainment and pedagogical communication for thousands
of years: the interaction between Glaucon and Socrates, the interaction
between Simplicio and Sagredo, the interaction between Click and Clack,
the interaction between Adam and Jamie, et cetera.

More generally: there needs to be a *lot* more interactivity than
anything I have seen in the current crop of MOOCs. Imagine the level
of interactivity you get from a good tutor ... or from a video game.

I've worked as a video-game designer and as teacher, both in lecture
situations and in one-on-one situations. I'm not saying an online
course should be "just like" a video game ... but it shouldn't be
"just like" a lecture either. We can do a lot better. Even a
reasonably-sized "lecture" course has lots of interaction.

Even a plain present-day web page is vastly more interactive than the
MOOC stuff I've seen, insofar is it has hyperlinks you can click on
if you want tangentially-related information, and then there is a
"back" button so you can go back and resume where you left off. The
MOOCs I've seen would benefit from better navigation, which is
something that could be arranged at verrry modest cost.

This is intimately connected with the assessment issue, because one
of the oh-so-many uses for an assessment is to help decide where to
go next. This is a huge part of the job description for any teacher,
tutor, or game designer. Of course much depends on where the student
wants and/or needs to go next, but the teacher plays a role in the
decision also.

The idea of robot-assisted navigation based in part on the results of
a quiz has been around for 50 years that I know of, possibly longer.

Also, speaking of things that are reasonably interactive, cheap, and
not lecture-like ... phys-l itself can be considered a long-running
high-quality example of an online master class in physics pedagogy
... 16+ years and counting.

Still, navigation and interactivity take a back seat to assessment.
That is the moose on the table. If you can do a good job on that,
I reckon most of the other problems will solve themselves. If you
can't do a good job on that, the whole enterprise will be severely
stunted and crippled.

The flip side of assessment is accountability. Teachers assess the
students, and then students, alumni, administrators, politicians
and various other parties try to hold teachers accountable. The
current crop of "standardized" assessments are in the Epic Fail
category, and the current notions of accountability are the same,
only worse. A major player in this area is ETS, and for decades
now I've thought they were not very good at their job ... and they
don't seem to be getting better.

This is a fixable problem. There are some testing agencies that are
good at their job. UL approval means something. Good Housekeeping
approval means something. A pilot certificate issued by the FAA means
something. The FAA doesn't micro-manage the instruction process, but
they apply a comprehensive test at the end of the process.

I'm not saying I know how to do online assessment properly, but
I know something needs to be done. I would settle for a system
where some of the critical assessment is done in person, not online,
at significant expense ... even if the rest of the program is
online and free.

The related but slightly smaller elk on the table is lab work and
other hands-on experience. When I was an undergraduate, my friends
and I all got jobs in various research labs on campus IMHO that's
the best way to actually learn something. Also having a real
non-busywork problem you reeeeally want to solve and not quite
knowing how to solve it is the best motivation to go learn stuff.

Can an online/distributed/virtual university do a good job of
arranging entry-level high-tech jobs for students? I don't know.
Most brick-and-mortar universities are not very good at this,
either, but it's something we need to think about as part of
the education system of the future.


Last but not least, let me add my prediction that technology
will be a game-changer at the high school level, not just at the
college level that Aoun is focusing on. Indeed it has already
been happening for years ... with slightly different details and
a different name: homeschooling. There is a lot of online support
for that, including interactive discussion groups as well as mail-
order kits to support experiments and other hands-on activities.
Most of it is not online or open, but it exists, and it is a
source of hints about what works and what doesn't.