Sunday, November 10, 2013

MOOCs, and faculty members as "lead" learners

I've been asked recently, once during an interview with a MOOC provider and once at a meeting with a giving foundation, about the characteristics of colleges and universities that might take to adapting MOOCs for use in their on-campus courses. There are varied reasons that institutions might use MOOCs. Most discussed are top-down, administration-imposed motivations for MOOC use, at junior colleges, larger public universities, and even at research 1 universities (RU/VH). But my response in both recent discussions was that small liberal arts colleges were the most interesting case to me. According to the Carnegie Classification (, these might be small (S4) residential (R) colleges, somewhat rural so that faculty live nearby too.
I am guessing that faculty at small, residential schools might enthusiastically embrace the opportunity to use MOOCs, for reasons other than workload reduction; I think that their students would embrace it as well, at least in part because their professors do.

I've only witnessed the "behind-the-scenes" of one small residential college to any significant extent,  but as I describe to other people the behind-the-scenes that I experienced, most recently in NYC at the foundation meeting, some give a knowing smile and affirm that mine is not a unique experience. These are schools in which the CS program, for example, might have 2-4 faculty members, some shared with Mathematics or other programs, with a total of AT MOST 20 majors spread across all fours years. Faculty and students are a tight-knit community, having dinners and participating in other events together. The number and variety of course offerings is limited to what a larger program might view as the absolute core, with faculty members focused on teaching those. A "boutique" course like Artificial Intelligence (ha!) might be offered on occasion. There are also reading groups and other informal learning with faculty and students that are part of the community practice. This is one setting where faculty members actively learn with students, and while the possibility of an "exotic" course like Machine Learning is improbable, its something that faculty and students would both welcome.

This is the setting where MOOCs may be a godsend for all involved, welcomed with open arms, so that students and faculty can learn from advanced courses like Machine Learning, which would not be offered without the MOOC, or in olden times, without a visiting faculty member to campus to teach it.

To me, the defining characteristic is that faculty are unafraid to learn side by side with students, and that students respect and enjoy a faculty member in the learning role, at least with respect to some of the advanced coursework that they wouldn't otherwise enjoy. I am guessing that faculty and students alike would both want the faculty members as "lead" or "elder" learners within the cohort. Such a setting can, of course, exist at larger colleges and universities too, and its where I see the MOST gratifying experiences with MOOCs in the classroom.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Crowd-sourced Curricula

For the past couple of years, in Spring 2012 and Spring 2013, the end of semester project in my database course was the design of a database to support an educational social network (, where online educational materials -- video and otherwise -- can reside, be endorsed by compatriots in social networks, be decomposed into micro structures (e.g., in the way that , and now YouTube, allows indexing of particular segments in videos) and composed into macro structures, with individual topic videos formed into "courses" and online courses (e.g., MOOCs) being formed into curricula; users in the social network can endorse (or renounce) constructs at all of these levels -- micro, macro, and a lot of in between -- with opinions at one level influencing constructs at lower and higher levels.

The project was inspired by my work on the Chancellor's Social Media and Digital Technology Committee (, but particularly the vision of the unbundled university (; -- what is unbundled can and will be reassembled, and according to the early visionaries, reassembled in a wealth of ways.

The crowd-sourced micro structures are interesting, and I'll address them at some point, but I've been enamored of late with crowd-sourced macro structures, particularly crowd-sourced curricula. This slide from an ITHAKA S+R talk (  illustrates that even in October 2012 (not even a year ago -- seems like ages!) someone could piece together what amounted to a CS bachelor's from free, online classes.

This slide is the first in a four-slide sequence showing the possibilities of a CS major online ( ).

In the educational social network context, individual and alternative paths through the course repository ( get endorsed and rejected, until some emerge as consensus favorites. Just before drafting this post, I searched on Google for "crowdsourced curricula" (no quotes) and sure enough, found this: "Crowdsourcing Curricular Design (Helps & Grant, submitted) at -- a nice paper sketching out a similar vision, though with some interesting differences, some of which I really like, perhaps most notably that the crowd-sourcing be by educational professionals, better insuring that the macro structures that emerge aren't the "easiest", but the most pedagogically sound. The paper also has some interesting background that I didn't know of previously.

Attention on macro-level, curricular constructs is receiving increased attention because of a new partnership between educators at Vanderbilt University and University of Maryland ( In particular, Doug Schmidt and Jules White of Vanderbilt and Adam Porter of the University of Maryland are organizing the first transinstitutional MOOC sequence -- not to be confused with a jointly offered MOOC (singular), but a sequence of two, with Porter's Apps development MOOC serving as a soft prerequisite to Schmidt and White's Pattern-Oriented Software Architecture MOOC. This sequence is a curriculum-level construct, an important nascent step towards crowdsourced curricula.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Don't Forget About Regional Brand!

Lots of schools are developing online programs to increase revenue, notably through increased enrollments, or perhaps to protect against falling enrollments in the future. While there are projections of modest increases in enrollments in institutions of higher education in the near future ( ), they "do not take into account such factors as the cost of a college education, the economic value of an education, and the impact of distance learning due to technological changes". These are such important factors that I think their exclusion from analysis makes projections rife with uncertainty, because the rules are changing.

Usually, when a university offers an online course (e.g., a MOOC) or a much more comprehensive online program (e.g., Vanderbilt's School of Nursing MS programs: the emphasis is on reaching students across the World, and because travel and part-time residency can be expensive in terms of time and money, allowing students to be solely online, never having to travel to Vanderbilt (or whatever university we happen to be talking about) is important, particularly for older adults, in contrast to 18-22 year olds, who want to continue their education, but can't take time away from work and/or family.

In addition to revenue, online programs can spread and reinforce a university's brand worldwide, entering the university's name into interpersonal discussions around the World, perhaps attracting some students to attend the school in person, in addition to attracting others online.

In all this attention to reaching the World though, we shouldn't forget about the importance of regional brand and other attractions of our institutions to OUR region (I'm reminded of the movie "Rudy", the scene where Coach Dan Devine of Notre Dame tells his football players before a home game with Georgia Tech that "No one, and I mean no one, comes into OUR house and pushes us around." :-).

I wish I had the data to answer the question "how many older adults who are going through online programs would like to attend formal classes in person from time to time?" I wonder about this question because I wonder whether we are overlooking an important population in all this focus on online education -- older adults living within 120 miles (or so) of our university. These are people who may want to take a degree program ONLINE MOST OF THE TIME (because of work and family), but who are close enough that they can and do aspire to attend in person at least from time to time, to meet the professor and their student colleagues! Indeed, some may have grown up wanting to attend our school; they may want their children to attend our school.

I also wonder whether, at some point, as more and more institutions develop online programs that we won't hit saturation points. Our rankings as a university and rankings of our programs will distinguish us among other online programs to be sure, but it will be our region and the possibility of face-to-face interactions from time to time, that may also distinguish us to regional online students, in our lesser known programs if nothing else.

Moreover, there is much in oped pieces of late about the danger that lesser-known schools face as a result of the rush into online education by many leading institutions. I would extend this to concern for lesser known programs within well-known schools. But I also imagine that the regional affiliation of a small, lesser known school can be a strength, even in the institution's design of online programs. The trick to exploiting regional affiliation, I think, is to design online programs that are intended to be online most of the time, but that allow students to participate in person from time to time, perhaps with in-person attendance happening if and when the student wants (because the online component is synched with an on-campus offering), or requiring (or allowing) students to meet with the professor as a group during selected times of varying duration. This latter condition, of having predominantly online students attend in person at selected times, is built into some programs, but even in these cases, can these programs be further refined to be explicitly concerned with the regional online student? I think so.

There is lots to investigate before concluding that we can leverage high-quality regional brand (deserved, I hope!) to attract regional students to online programs. How good does the brand need to be and how much the desire to participate face-to-face from time to time, before tipping scales towards a predominantly online program at a regional institution, over a globally better known program? Even if institutions aspire to move beyond regional affiliations, they can still embrace those affiliations -- those affections that those in their region hold for them, and certainly I would expect that smaller schools should seek strength in region. An irony may be, however, that only schools with some (inter)national reputation will be able to exploit regional brand in the manor that I am considering -- schools without reputation at a larger geographic scale than their immediate region may have insufficient draw within their region; but they may nonetheless be able to have appeal for other niche populations -- this larger idea of consciously looking for your institution's niche populations was an interesting point by Arthur Kirk, President of Saint Leo's, a pioneer in online education. In the case of Saint Leo's, niche populations include students of the Catholic faith and students in the military, but my thoughts about region grew as a special case of his imperative to identify special populations.

Its probably no accident that "Rudy" came to mind earlier, a story about a young man in love with Notre Dame -- he grew up loving it! "Dreams make life tolerable" is another well-known "Rudy" quote, and we can design programs that allow the possibility of on-campus experiences, certainly a dream for some, in an otherwise online framework.


Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Local Learning Communities, Twitter, and Tobler's Law

Derek Bruff recently posted a summary of this week's discussion of Vanderbilt's local learning group focused on Anthony Robinson's COURSERA geography MOOC ( Derek's summary is posted here:

I wrote a response in Comments that is awaiting moderation, but it's a blog post in itself and I have few spare cycles, and so that comment will do double duty!


I have not participated in the local meetings this past two weeks, but I HAVE participated in the local group, thanks to #vandymaps (and thus, twitter), and into the future, maybe more blogging. Apropos your post Derek and this week's discussion, I've been reflecting on the social experience as well. Why have I spent 8 hours each of the past two Sundays on this class, when I am otherwise SLAMMED? This qualifier ("slammed") shouldn't be underestimated in what follows.

I am attempting the MOOC (#mapmooc), in part, because of an interest in geography and I like maps! But that's insufficient to explain 8 hour Sundays, I think -- in fact, I'm sure. 

In part, the attempt is also motivated by the idea that a Director for a digital learning institute should actually take and finish a MOOC, rather than only auditing MOOCs, though I don't think that explains the 8 hour Sundays either -- I could always complete "the next MOOC" rather than this one.

It strikes me that I mostly owe my stick-to-itiveness in this case to #vandymaps.  Initially, #vandymaps was a local learning community (I did skype in from Washington state for the pre-MOOC-kickoff meeting with all my local colleagues, huddled around a table -- very nice). A few of the #vandymaps people I would have counted as friends at the time of our pre-MOOC meeting (and still do, btw!! :-), but most of you I didn't know well, or not at all. Nonetheless, #vandymaps is still grounded in a local learning community (Todd Hughes's big, warm welcome to the group is as an important a qualifier as "being slammed" though with the opposite sentiment). But for me, this local community is one that (a) I am currently operating in virtually through twitter, and that (b) is being expanded through twitter to include others.

Its no accident that I used the #vandymaps hash tag to label the local group!

For me, I had enough social ties with people in #vandymaps initially that even virtual interactions were affective and therefore effective, so I see the "persistence" characteristic as directly causal in my case, but the locality characteristics (in my case) is causal of that. (This group is not shy about computing metaphors, so think Bayesian networks!!! :-)

Another exciting aspect of this MOOC experience is learning twitter. Apropos this, and the influence of "local" and "community", is my nascent but growing interactions on twitter. Here is a tweet that links some themes in these comments:

"28 Jul: Rocketing towards distinction in #mapmooc :-) The local group, #vandymaps, is such a great help -- a variant on Tobler's law!!!"

This has been re-tweeted and favorited by others -- VERY neat, but I only just learned of this (because I am only just learning twitter!). So, this doesn't explain my two previous 8 hour Sundays either, but these and other acknowledgements on Twitter (by non-local, as well as local persons) might be an influence on my future in this course.

But this connection between Tobler's Law and local learning communities is really interesting. Recall that Tobler's Law says that "Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things." The Law doesn't ascribe a causal direction. Even though I am operating virtually with #vandymaps, they are "more relevant" to me than the world (at least so far as my #mapmooc behavior to date is concerned)-- its interesting, and will receive much more thought. It's also bringing me back to tried and true sentiments of "think global and act local" and "soldiers fight for their countries but die for their friends", and thinking through more variants on themes of locality, friendship, collegiality, obligation, reputation, etc. More later, I hope!

I see the importance to locality and Tobler's Law (directly or indirectly causal) to other activities too, most recently the 5 hours I spent on a big multi-institution proposal this weekend -- why? Because it was being headed by Vanderbilt, I'm part of this community (though not a co-PI) and "we" were all in this together, though all working virtually and asynchronously (but not through twitter :-) There are studies on locality and collaboration btw -- will dig those up for a scholarly article.

Thanks, Derek, for the post!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Principle of Mapping Involving Precision and Accuracy

In the Coursera Map course that I am taking (, we were asked to place virtual pins on an interactive world map. Many students drilled down deeply to very specific locations in order to place their pins, some of these deliberately lying a bit so as not to reveal their exact location. Others placed their pins at coarse renderings on the map, without drilling down deeply at all, BUT NONETHELESS their pins appeared in rather arbitrary locations when the user drilled down and the map was viewed at a higher resolution. I wrote the following to the course discussion board, with a few revisions here to contextualize it. These maps represent digital tools that we may want to use in Vanderbilt MOOCs and we may want to improve on them.


I was one of those who drilled down to the building level in placing my pin, and was quite exact (an exact location in the city of Nashville). I saw one posted pin that was in the middle of Vanderbilt stadium and other pins looked haphazardly placed. Some of these may have been placed intentionally in (modestly) wrong places, as many have outlined on the boards. But some of these may have been placed in the Nashville region at a COARSE grained (low resolution) map by people who did not drill down deeply at all.

                                    snippet from ESRI-generated map on PennState course site
My placement was precisely where the faculty apartment is at McGill Hall (top right yellow pin), but another person's pin in the middle of Vanderbilt stadium, Dudley Field -- mistake?

These latter pin placements were accurate at the grain level in which they were placed, but (unintentionally) wrong at finer grained renderings of the map.

Shouldn't there be a precision principle of interactive maps like that provided in the class (analogous to rules of precision for floating point numbers I suppose)? Shouldn't there be some functionality for interactive maps, perhaps a research topic, that I can identify data with a region in a low resolution rendering of a map without being wrong at higher resolution when a user drills down. I can think of strategies to do this, but given the ambiguities of regions that this course has already made us aware of, there must surely be some fleshing out of these ideas.

I had the same question a couple of years ago when I started placing pictures on Google maps, most very precise down to a few square feet, but I also wanted to place some pictures on a larger region (e.g., a museum, a park, a city) with NO implication that these pictures were intended to be accurate at a finer grained level. (I wrote about this very fun exercise as well -- see; beyond being fun though, its also a story that is illustrative of a point that is central in the Coursera-hosted PennState Map course -- that maps and geospatial tools/concepts can be central in telling stories!!!)

To the geographers out there -- is anyone doing research on implementing methods that enforce a precision principle of interactive maps?

BTW -- I think that a significance of this precision principle relates to issues of privacy. I'm guessing that those people who do NOT want to precisely identify their location, or identify their demographics (e.g., age, gender) with their own location, are probably sensitive to misidentifying someone else's residence with them (or with their demographics) -- at least I think that many would be sensitive to that.

But if placing a pin (or picture or ...) on a low resolution rendering of a map "accidentally" places the pin on someone else's residence at a higher resolution, then this misrepresenting of the makeup of that residence is exactly what could happen!

MapMooc, a Location Anonymity Index, and a World Connectness App

I have "audited" several MOOCs, hanging in there a bit before dropping out because I have just too much going on at work. I am now taking a geography MOOC (, and doing it with a  group of Vanderbilt colleagues, which I think will help complete this course. That I loved geography as a kid will help, and that I have a class project in mind will help too -- of creating a map of digital learning resources across the Vanderbilt University campus; I think I will end up using crowdsourcing to create this thematic map, with graduate student, staff, and faculty input.

My wife and I listened to a couple of intro lectures while packing up in Bellevue, WA before returning to Nashville. I spent most of this morning reading course material and reflecting on some of the course questions for Week 1, and contributing to the discussion board. Here are some of the questions.

1) What is scary about potentially losing control over your geospatial privacy?

2) What are some positive things that could come from openly sharing your personal location with others?

3) What about geospatial privacy has really changed over time? 200 years ago, would it have been possible to live in your current location without your friends and family knowing where you were most of the time?

Given that the number of discussion board posts is huge, it seems like a reasonable strategy is to join a "temporally local" cohort of discussants, so I contributed to another thread begun just this morning, then went to a couple of "suggested" threads based on keyword matches, and started my own thread on defining a "Location Anonymity Index" (LAI) in answer to question (3) above. As you might guess, as a computer scientist, I am very inclined towards developing metrics like the LAI for all kinds of things. Here it is with modest revision of my MOOC discussion board post.

3) What about geospatial privacy has really changed over time? 200 years ago, would it have been possible to live in your current location without your friends and family knowing where you were most of the time?

Much of my time is spent at work and home, and I think that the number of people who know precisely where I am for a large amount of time, is NOT that different from 200 years ago. In theory, there might be some people who I don't know (e.g., in government agencies), but who know or can access my location from social networks and cell phones, so the theoretical possibilities about location awareness are certainly different now than from 200 years ago. Also, a trip across town or across country would have left my precise location uncertain for long periods of time 200 years ago, and these intervals of location uncertainty are very much shorter today.

All considered, I wonder if it's reasonable to define a "location anonymity index" (LAI) that represents the expected error in OTHER PEOPLES' GUESSES of MY location (at particular times or across all times). A impractical way of computing my location anonymity index is to ask each person (on Earth!) where I am located and then measure the average difference between where I really am (known by an oracle) and where each person guessed I was. There are all kinds of complications to be worked out, like how "I" am identified (e.g., by name, by picture, by driver's license #, etc), and how "my location" is identified (e.g., at what grain size -- region, city, GPS,…? how difference between each guess and my actual location is measured?).

By this theoretically possible, but practically impossible measure, my location anonymity index (LAI) has probably not changed much in the past 200 years, because the vast majority of other people would be making wildly uninformed guesses, BUT ALSO because the much fewer "interested-in-Doug" persons (my wife, family, co-workers, friends) would make very accurate guesses on my location the vast majority of the time (Doug is home at …, Nashville, TN; Doug is at work at Vanderbilt), so even if we reduce the number of people who we ask to guess my location to those who are "interested", my location anonymity index probably doesn't change much over 200 years if measured in this way.

I think its interesting and important to consider the case where we change the computation of a location anonymity index (LAI) from simply asking people "cold" (uninformed), to the case where we allow each person to use technology available to them (e.g., Google, Bing, libraries, newspapers, supermarket rewards programs) to find important facts about me (e.g., home, work, blogs, …) BEFORE their guess on my location. This variation gets much closer to measuring the "worst case" situation where someone might be looking for me that wants to cause me harm.

In this latter variant, there is a huge difference in my LAI between now and 200 years ago, EVEN when the computation takes into account uncertainties that have to do with my "identity" (e.g., there is more than one Doug Fisher, in the world, in the US, in academia, in Nashville, etc … and this illustrates another point, which is that a LAI should take into account uncertainties in the extent to which my identity can be isolated).

Returning to questions of "geospatial privacy", which variants of LAI would be intended to measure under different assumptions, I'm not too scared about this -- I share lots of information on the Web that is intended to lessen my geospatial privacy, in particular to lessen the LAI as I conceptualize it. Nonetheless, I have been talking so far about the "average" LAI as a measure of "geospatial privacy", whereas I think most people worry about the "worst-case" -- what if someone with ill intent could locate me or who happened upon my location? Again, my latter variant of LAI with technology-informed guessers is intended to capture this worst case. In this regard, I may become much more worried about geolocation privacy as mobile technology continues to develop. For example, I recently took a photo of the Seelback Hotel lobby in Louisville, KY, and when I posted on Facebook I was prompted to tag (label) the face on an anonymous passersby who appeared in the photo!!!

Technology already exists that would allow the computer itself to do the tagging in that photo and other photos, and that possibility is unnerving, but I see some possible upsides for for giving up geospatial privacy. I am thinking about some of the positive messages conveyed by travelers like Rick Steves on world connectedness. But I also think that even some of the very unnerving possibilities like automated computer labeling of faces have some neat possibilities. I imagine jogging in Centennial  Park in Nashville TN 10 years from now, and having my wearable smart glasses tell me that it "thinks" I've seen that same passerby in Centennial Park, at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, Sweden 5 years previously. I know this sounds scary too, but I find something in that level of connectedness to other people quite intriguing.

That said, I am a lot more worried about privacy along other dimensions, such as health care (probably for reasons that are specific to the US relative to much of the rest of the World) and finances/banking privacy. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Reusing other Instructor's Assignments ... or not?

I am in the Educational Advances in Artificial Intelligence (EAAI-13), and we just concluded a session on educational repositories, particularly online repositories of homework assignments. Repositories of educational resources is a topic near and dear to my heart, but at least in the case of repositories of homework assignments, there appears to be no, little, or at best weak anecdotal evidence that assignments are being reused. At a minimum, don't we want repositories to be "instrumented,", like my (and everyone's) YouTube channel(s), so I can see downloads, likes, dislikes, and more sophisticated measures of usage that are specific to homework assignments?

Its hard to know if a homework assignment that has been posted in a educational repository is actually used by another instructor, unless an instructor who has used it, gets back to me and tells me so. There is some work in thinking about how to do this. But there is also low hanging fruit. First, we can measure downloads, but beyond this, as an educational community can take a small step towards a scholarly culture surrounding education materials by designing licenses specific to this kind of content.

For example, a license for usage of educational content could require that the material can be used by others (e.g., following any of the principles of creative commons licenses:, but additionally require that the user report back on the usage to the author (typically, the copyright holder), whether the use is as is, or derivative.

I think that this would be an incredible help to evaluating the extent and manner of use of educational material, going well beyond measuring downloads, and ultimately of evaluating the utility of educational materials to the educational community.

Let's ask people about their use, through a license that requires report back (and nothing else), rather than simply depending of the ability of inference by machine methods.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A MOOC is NOT a Textbook

When I first started using video lectures from Jennifer Widom's Database MOOC and Andrew Ng's Machine Learning MOOC in Spring 2012 for my courses at Vanderbilt, I was worried about what people might think.  I did at least two things in response. One, I started creating my own online content that others could use; giving back made me feel much better about using the content of others. Two, I cast the MOOCs as "multimedia textbooks", just the next step in a natural evolution (e.g., At the time I really did think of a MOOC as something of a "textbook." But the fact is that a MOOC is NOT a textbook, multimedia or otherwise, perhaps an obvious truth that I only reconsidered recently as I prepared for a panel presentation ( at AAUP 2013 (

Others have also advocated MOOCs as multimedia textbooks for reasons of promoting acceptance by skeptics of online education, and while MOOCs may contain material that will become part of such textbooks, MOOCs aren't textbooks per se. I think that MOOC-offering organizations acknowledge this, perhaps implicitly, in that they are entering into agreements with other resource providers, like textbook publishers, so as to augment the MOOC experience (e.g.,

Beyond stating the obvious, I am thinking aloud here about how community-developed, online, multimedia textbooks might arise.

The authors of even a mediocre textbook aspire to be somewhat comprehensive in their coverage of a field, almost always including more material than any one instructor would cover in any one course, and as importantly, a good textbook will synthesize across that material. A good textbook supports large-scale customization, as different instructors at different universities create their own course variations, each anchored by the same textbook. By and large, MOOCs aren't (yet!) designed with customization in mind. Like other courses, a MOOC is a single trajectory through a single selected subset of a field's content. Some MOOCs (and online courses before the 'MO' movement) have multiple tracks, and this is a BIG innovation relative to what's typically done with an on-campus course. Each track is a trajectory, and the differing, albeit overlapping tracks of a MOOC represent a step towards supporting choice and customization, but only a step.

While supporting limited choice, a MOOC still covers only a small part of the material that a typical textbook might cover. A textbook for artificial intelligence (e.g.,, for example, will often cover natural language processing (NLP) by computer, and different computational approaches in this area, but its rarely material that I cover. This is another example of a textbook providing the freedom to follow one of many different tracks, some that include NLP, and some not.

While courses, online or otherwise, support limited choice of trajectories through material, online repositories of educational content, such a TeachingTree ( or even YouTube ( on a much larger scale, support "unlimited" choice and customization -- these latter resources are UNDER-constrained in terms of choice, just as MOOCs are OVER-constrained, at least if we want to start thinking of such resources as "textbooks." A good textbook, one might argue, is "optimally" constrained, providing enough choice for instructors to follow different trajectories, but also providing enough structure, constraints, and guidance so that the choice is not overwhelming!

Repositories of online educational material are growing, providing ever increasing choice for educators and learners, but as yet, these repositories provide insufficient constraints and guidance on how choice can be effectively navigated for course customization. There is interest and work in using crowd-sourcing, through mechanisms such as Wikimedia, to build structure on top of these resources (e.g.,, but I think that it will take dedicated authors, working individually or in small groups, to step up to the plate and synthesize across these online resources if we are to see good-quality multimedia textbooks -- resources that effectively tradeoff choice and structure -- not too under or over constrained.

So, perhaps I overreacted in saying that a MOOC is not a textbook. Rather, along this continuum between over and under constraint for purposes of supporting customization and diversity of content and teaching style, a MOOC, or any other course for that matter, lies on the over-constrained end, something of an impoverished textbook at best -- though it may in fact be an excellent course!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Syncing MOOCs and Campuses

I'd like to see more MOOCs synchronized with the Vanderbilt on-campus schedule, some MOOCs synched to our Fall semester, some to our Spring semester, and some to our Maymester and two summer sessions. In fact, I'd like the flexibility of asking that any MOOC being offered by another institution (or Vanderbilt), be synchronized with the Vanderbilt schedule, so that Vanderbilt instructors (me in particular) can wrap an on-campus course around the MOOC (

Now I (and other instructors) can already use MOOC material, most notably lectures, for on-campus courses, assuming it's allowed by the MOOC host's Terms of Service agreement (because we don't want our students to be in violation of ToSs). For example, I have used archived lectures from a machine learning MOOC and from artificial intelligence MOOCs in my classes, and I am considering more of that.

But there are additional benefits to synchronizing the MOOC offering with the on-campus offering (for those instructors who want to). Here are at least two advantages.

(a) Local, on-campus students can participate in GLOBAL discussions (the most exciting benefit in my mind for changing the world, though requiring more thinking on the discussion board infrastructure), as well as local discussions.

(b) The local course can benefit from all the other infrastructure of the MOOC, including grading, but also in obtaining good-to-great teaching assistants, which in advanced classes is often a non-trivial challenge or not possible (I have written about this TA challenge and the MOOC answer earlier:

Vanderbilt can't be the only place where instructors might want to wrap their courses around the same MOOC. So, for example a Vanderbilt instructor may want to create a course in Fall semester that uses Doug Schmidt's Pattern-Oriented Software Architecture (POSA) MOOC (aka wrap a Vanderbilt course around the MOOC), but the MOOC should appropriately line up with Vanderbilt's Fall semester (e.g., the MOOC should start one week after the Vanderbilt start of classes, or about September 1). Another instructor at another institution, say in California, also wants to wrap a course around Doug Schmidt's POSA course, but ideal synchronization with that course requires a September 28 start time. For another institution in Texas, a January 15 start time; another in Japan, a Feb 1 start time; etc 

Why not allow any instructor at any institution who wants to wrap a course around a MOOC (possibly/probably/undoubtedly for a fee to the host institution and host platform) to do so by allowing an "instance" of the MOOC to synchronize with the instructor's on-campus course?

One impediment to this level of flexibility is that under some current models of how MOOCs operate, the MOOC's instructor and teaching assistants would be overwhelmed by staggering multiple MOOC instances, but why not consider a new model that allows any qualified instructor at any institution to "manage" an instance of the MOOC that corresponds to their wrapper course? Thus, everyone would still be watching the lectures by the instructor who created the MOOC, but instructors of the MOOC instances would be monitoring the MOOC-instance discussion boards, at a minimum, and farther out in time, customizing the MOOC instance in a number of other ways.

As well as allowing a multitude of on-campus courses to synch with different MOOC instances, so long as these multiple instances were still fully public (and not kept private to the institution), multiple start times would allow global students to jump between the multiple instances, where we hope there are not too many jumps and that there is some systematicity to them. So, if I fall behind in the Vanderbilt POSA MOOC instance that starts on September 1, I could later join the UNCC POSA MOOC instance that started September 25. In general, there are well-known problems with MOOCs that require students to operate on a fixed schedule -- many students will fall behind, perhaps they are working full-time jobs, perhaps because of family, etc. Staggered MOOC instances could potentially mitigate the problem that some students have in falling behind, because they can jump onto another "passing ship" if needed.

There are MOOCs that do not require that students operate on a fixed schedule, but which are completely self paced. As I've written before, I am currently dabbling in such a MOOC, deciding whether I will recommend it to my Fall 2013 students in artificial intelligence as something they should take over summer to prepare for my course, and the Terms of Service would certainly allow this  (; But a completely self paced MOOC could certainly be adapted and adopted by multiple institutions for purposes of wrapping locally-hosted (but possibly globally accessible) courses as suggested above, where the MOOC instances impose different start times, as well as different pacing. So, one MOOC instantiation can start on August 22 and be spread out over 10 weeks, and another can start on October 15 and be split across two semesters with a winter break in between.

The flexibility of a self-paced MOOC is a great advantage of that model, but as currently construed the self-paced model suggests the rather depressing scenario of me slogging out the course in isolation of my fellows, perhaps late at night, all alone. At least its depressing for those of us who are the least bit social. There is also limited or no TA support and no guarantee that a sufficient number of other participants are synched so that all students will benefit from social learning. In contrast, I think going through a course with a cohort is one of the great advantages of the typical synchronized MOOC model of limited offerings. BUT, in principle, the self-paced model allows any one instance, hosted by a given institution, to impose the scheduling necessary to define a cohort, perhaps local, but ideally (in my mind), both local and global. As above, the local instructor(s) and TAs of the MOOC instance take on many of the responsibilities that were held by the MOOC creator.

The idea of staggering MOOC instances was born of "selfish" motives (i.e., I want a Vanderbilt-centered world so far as the timing of MOOCs is concerned). This is an idea that is probably a few years out, even if proves to be a good idea at all. Plenty remains to be fleshed out. There are undoubtedly tradeoffs in the level of and ability to customize in the ways suggested. As an aside, one of my concerns is that mass customization allows for unlimited choice, which is not all good (see Barry Swartz' talk on "The Paradox of Choice" at

For those who know about object-oriented programming, I am obviously inspired by my computer science background and its attention to abstraction in all this talk about MOOCs and MOOC instances. Indeed, the extent and types of customization might be beneficially guided by an object-oriented approach, with classes, subclasses, instances, public and private, fields and shared resources (where I like intelligently-managed discussion boards as shared across instances). I will probably elaborate on the influence of computer science concepts in a post to my computer science education blog.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Making Mistakes on the Big Screen

I've been watching a massive, open, online course (MOOC) on artificial intelligence (AI), evaluating whether I should email the Vanderbilt students who will be taking my Fall 2013 AI course at Vanderbilt, suggesting that they take the MOOC over summer as (optional) prep for the on-campus course. I hope to make the decision to email the students by July 1 or so; its a decision that will depend on the overlap in the content coverage between my on-campus course and the MOOC, as well as the quality of the MOOC.

Last week I was sampling some of the MOOC online lectures, and on one there was a question from a student regarding an apparent inconsistency (on uniform cost search). I looked closer, and indeed, there was an error, stemming clearly from a "clerical" error, probably because of an interruption in the video shooting of lecture sequence.

Now this wasn't a horrific error by any means, again clearly stemming from a lapse of book-keeping, and its the kind of error that I have made plenty of times in a live, in-class lecture. The difference is that in a live lecture to 25 students or so, some student will usually speak up asking about the inconsistency, perhaps first being prodded by me because of the inexplicable look of confusion on their face, and it will often get cleared up immediately. I've also been known to deliberately plant an inconsistency to see who is paying attention, but those get cleared up quickly too.

But I don't know what I don't know, so who knows how many times a careless mistake in class has gone uncorrected!?!

Like my sometimes in-class lectures, the video's error was also the kind that, if uncorrected, could result in a conceptual misunderstanding (aka a conceptual "bug") on the part of the student, and in this case, there are potentially thousands of students. However, this particular MOOC has no required start time, its completely self-paced, so there may be an insufficient number and diversity of students taking the MOOC now so as to virtually guarantee that at least one of them will adequately address the questioner's confusion. And this is undoubtedly another issue that needs to be addressed with completely self-paced MOOCs.

In any case, I wrote a comment in response the question, noting the error, explaining what I think happened, and gave the correct answer. I got some "karma" points as a result of contributing my comment from the MOOC's host site, which is a nice touch. Within a day, as if to keep me humble, one of MY videos (on B+ tree theory), on my YouTube channel, received a comment pointing out a typo. This was an error buried in some text, easily missed, but it could result in a misconception by some students, so I was glad that I could give the person that pointed it out a thumbs up, and then respond with a comment addressing it.

These errors highlight some interesting things. First, I had thought that if one were giving a lecture for the world to view, rather than simply reviewing your notes as you rushed off to class, then the instructor would make sure that the world-viewable lecture would be virtually error free. Not so, as the MOOC lecture illustrated -- the error was introduced in what was very possibly a rushed production, perhaps a rushed video re-shoot. While I put many hours into nailing down the pedagogy of my lecture with the typo, the typo could have undoubtedly been caught by a careful second reader, and the fact that I didn't have another set of eyes to review my videos illustrates the implications of other resource limitations, like no teaching assistants.

It's tempting to think that improved technology for near real-time shooting and splicing would enable an instructor to very quickly fix errors without having to re-record the entire video sequence, and it might, but such real-time capabilities to correct local errors has to be trivial for it to be used realistically -- that same lack of available time and second eyes that led to errors in the MOOC example and my video, will also be a major impediment to making corrections -- the work to do so must be near trivial, and the technology is not there yet.

However, maybe there isn't a great need for real-time correction capabilities. After all, when the videos are on the Web, comments by a student and me to the MOOC error, stand as a correction for all future students (unless they are erased). And Kay M's correction of my video, and my confirmation, are corrections to that video, which stand "forever" thereafter! And this may actually be an improvement over the in-class situation, where some errors may go missed entirely.

If instructors' egos can take the hit, then these community corrections are probably sufficient, but they also make me a great believer in investing substantial effort in pre-production, to include rehearsal, but also post-production and editing, and investing more time and human resources into what are (in my two examples) "home-spun" videos -- you can't short-cut your way to great product.

Still, its nice to know that even the smartest and most educated people make mistakes, sometimes careless, sometimes more. To some extent though, the clunkiness and carelessness that I am seeing in some computer science MOOCs stems, I think, from a certain "volunteerism" among CS people when it comes to all things technology. For example, it was no accident that when the Web first started up in the mid-to-late 1990's that CS departments were among the first to host Web sites, but they often quickly became clunky relative to other academic sites, where these other sites were run by departments that were paying professionals to design and host sites, while CS departments were still relying on "volunteer" efforts by faculty and graduate students. You get what you pay for, and I don't expect clunky MOOCs to be around too much longer.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Becoming Part of a MOOC's Solar System

Last summer I started producing my own videos on artificial intelligence (AI) topics. These were low tech, voice-over Powerpoint slideshow presentations, with post-production with iMovie on my Mac. I posted the videos to supplement videos by other people that I was using for my Fall 2012 AI course -- mostly videos by Thrun and Norvig, Daphne Koller, and a few others. My videos often adapted the slides accompanying the free textbook I use by Poole and Mackworth ( under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 license.

Shortly into the Fall semester,  comments started being left by students of a UC Berkeley AI MOOC that was being offered through edX ( The first views were for a constraint satisfaction video, then later my biggest hit of all, for a video on iterative deepening depth first search! After getting favorable comments for the first of these by students who commented that my video had helped them with the Berkeley MOOC, I went to the MOOC's discussion board and verified that students had left a link there, which had been endorsed by others.

Since then I've posted a few other videos for my database course in Spring 2013. The B+ tree videos are a "hit", though still small potatoes by MOOC standards.

I haven't been able to produce many videos, but I have been getting a high proportion of likes and followers. It's neat.

This experience has made me conscious that there are many resources that students access outside the recognized boundaries of a course, be it online or a good old-fashioned face-to-face class. I can remember finding some astoundingly good videos, each with many thousands of views, mainly in math, produced by "amateurs", including high school and college students, as well as faculty members at various places. I remember watching quite a few good calculus videos one day in 2008 from the Arlington library. The experience was eye-opening -- there were great educational resources on the Web that students were using, and I wanted to add to these resources! There are sites like TeachingTree (, that co-locate educational video resources of based on shared concepts, allowing "the crowd" to vet quality.

I'm most intrigued by the ad hoc community that grows around a course, notably a MOOC. This isn't a stable long-term community like the collection of my Facebook friends, or a Facebook group. Rather, the participants come together because of the MOOC, participating in a shared activity. Moreover -- and this is the most interesting part, I think -- the ad hoc community extends beyond the boundaries of the MOOC itself. By virtue of my videos, for example, I was part of the larger community of the Berkeley AI MOOC. (I've used the expression "ad hoc" communities because the communities that grow around a MOOC seem analogous to what Larry Barsalou called "ad hoc concepts/categories")

I like the metaphor of a solar system, with the MOOC as a center of gravity, and other resources, like YouTube videos, brought into orbit around the MOOC. I could actually make this a truer metaphor by very strategically examining the MOOC (e.g., the Berkeley AI MOOC and/or the Udacity AI MOOC that I just signed up for), with an eye towards identifying those sections of the MOOC(s) that I am sure that some students will have trouble with or those sections that students actually identify as difficult on the MOOC discussion board, and producing remedial videos on those topics. Such strategically-produced videos would be very much in the MOOC's orbit, left there very deliberately by me.

Longitudinal studies for understanding the nature, extent, and evolution of ad hoc communities, typically MOOC centered but not restricted to a single MOOC, undoubtedly require data mining across larger spheres of Web interactions than is currently easy to do (for anyone other than Google and a few others, that is). Nonetheless, the possibilities for understanding and leveraging student patterns in seeking remedial and advanced material, instructor incentives for creating and posting material, and the movement of people between student and teacher roles, are exciting and probably within current technical abilities – if only the data could be accessed. Currently, data mining of student behavior within a MOOC is the norm, but behavior that extends outside the MOOC isn't tracked.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Better Preparation through MOOCs

I signed up for Udacity's online course in artificial intelligence (AI) at I hope that I do well! :-)

I used many of the online lectures by the same instructors, Thrun and Norvig, as well as lectures by others (including me!), for my AI class in Fall 2012. And the student ratings of the course were good (4.25/5.0 instructor rating and 4.0/5.0 course rating), holding steady relative to my usual offering of the course.

I signed up for Udacity's AI course to preview it for possible inclusion in my Fall 2013, and not just inclusion of the lectures, but also the quizzes and exams, and perhaps even the programming assignments. My reading of Udacity's current Terms of Service (ToS) is that it does NOT seem to preclude such use, which is a change relative to previous ToSs for Udacity and others (e.g., COURSERA) that I recall, which required written approval for such use (i.e., for student work in the MOOC to be a requirement of an on-campus, for-tuition course). For example, I obtained such written approval for a previous course in Machine Learning (Fall 2012) through COURSERA ( In any case, I'll be taking a closer look at the ToS this Summer, making sure that if I use the Udacity AI course as part of my course, my students won't be in violation of the ToS. (Parenthetically, if an instructor requires students to complete MOOC activities as part of an on-campus course, its the students who will be in violation of some of the ToSs that I have seen, not the instructor!!! Or so that's how I have read those ToSs).

Regardless of whether I use the actual Udacity course as part of my Fall 2013 AI course, however, the content of the two courses is similar enough that I can give my Fall 2013 students a big head-start, should they want it, by suggesting that they take the Udacity course IN ADVANCE of my AI course. If some do that, I imagine that they will be well prepared to ace my course. Will I worry about grade inflation in that case? Not really, because it won't be grade inflation at all, but rather better preparation, plain and simple!! Used in this way, MOOCs might be a great leveling mechanism, raising the performance of students who are traditionally a bit slower, perhaps only because they are over worked in other areas or otherwise distracted (as an aside, listen to this marvelous talk on the increasing distractions of life for students today and all of us: The Paradox of Choice -- listen for the remarkable sentiment regarding student workload starting at about 5:38 min into this video).

I have the luxury of suggesting that the students enrolled in my Fall 2013 AI course take the Udacity course this summer, because the Udacity model of a MOOC is completely self-paced -- students can start at any time and progress at their own pace. Other models (e.g., COURSERA's) have a window of time in which a course should be started, with due dates (really windows of time too) for assignments, quizzes and exams. Both models have pros and cons, which I won't get into now, but one pro of the Udacity model is that I can suggest that students take the course the summer before they will take my course in Fall -- perfect timing!) I can well imagine hybrids of these models, for example by staggering start dates, but thats for another post.

My educated guess is that if I suggest that students take the Udacity course in advance of my AI course, very few, if any, will get very far. In part, this probably would stem from a number of factors -- their confidence that they can get an A in any case; they are busy with jobs this summer; if you can do the thing tomorrow, then why do it today. And this last point is one of the possible cons of the completely self-paced model. I have some experience in this area too. In 1998, Vanderbilt funded my development of an online, completely self-paced version of Vanderbilt's AI course, to include auto grading of computer programs (in the programming language Lisp) and exams (where answers to questions were given as Lisp expressions). The idea was that students, hard-pressed in those days too, could take the AI course at their own pace over Summer and then "test out" of the offering the immediately following Fall. It was a neat idea, and I still have all the Perl scripts, mostly written as I recall by one of my PhD students, Lewis Frey, but only one student finished the AI course in that way, and the option slipped away quickly -- it was an idea that was ahead of its time, even for me -- I didn't see the full implications, or anything close to the full implications of online education, or if I did understand more than I remember now, I am only in the last few years rediscovering those insights, triggered by efforts of others.

Suffice it to say though, that self pacing is really difficult, particularly in a busy world.

So, I am thinking about offering students other incentives to take the Udacity course over the summer in preparation for my course -- perhaps an option to "test out" of (much of) my course? Perhaps an option to "TA" or "tutor" in many of the overlapping areas of my course? Perhaps a "letter of recommendation" at the end of my course? Perhaps some combination? Thoughts are welcome!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Finding the Best Teaching Assistant in the World

I've received several recommendations for this article in the New Yorker (, and while its long, it is worth the read if you are interested in online, higher education. Undoubtedly, I'll return to the article from time to time.

This article alludes to the problem of staffing a course with hundreds, thousands, even tens-of-thousands of students from across the globe -- where do you find enough teaching assistants, tutors, and graders! In the case of Gregory Nagy's course on Concepts of the Hero in Classical Greek Civilization,  former instructors and former students (alums) of the traditional, on-campus, Harvard course are asked to help out (, presumably as facilitators on the online courses discussion boards, but you can imagine alums in other staff roles, such as tutors and graders. The idea of using alums to actively participate in the educational mission of the university is intriguing!

Another model that has been suggested is to use the best students in a prior offering of a massive open online course (MOOC) as the TAs, tutors, and/or graders of a subsequent offering of the MOOC. If you have 10,000 students who have completed an earlier offering, then take the best performing 500 (5%) and ask them to be graders for the next offering. Not all of them will take you up on this invitation, and the number of acceptances will probably depend critically on the job you ask them to do (grader, tutor, facilitator), but calling upon this human resource of MOOC alums can be an important component in MOOC (re)design.

So, there are examples of using alums from traditional on-campus courses to staff content-similar online courses, and there are examples of using alums of online courses to staff later versions of those same courses -- what's left? As a faculty member at Vanderbilt, I want the option of staffing my on-campus courses with alums of content-similar online courses. 

The database course that I teach using Jennifer Widom's online lectures is a good example ( This course typically has about 30 students and I'm ok with one TA and one grader, if they know their stuff. But what if I could choose from among the very best students in Jennifer Widom's MOOCs on database as my TA(s) and grader(s)? Granted that as a computer science course, there is a lot of auto grading that can happen (and does happen) in a MOOC, which I can and will leverage in my on-campus offering of database, but I also want to consider the utility of human resources from MOOCs -- course alums -- in the design of my on-campus courses.

There are policy, social, and technical hindrances to using people unaffiliated with Vanderbilt as teaching assistants. Ones that I imagine offhand are

  1. privacy concerns -- before opening student work up to "outsiders", student identities would have to be protected
  2. and what of TA identities and accountability?
  3. what of compensation?

You might ask, who would want to be a grader for a course, particularly if they weren't compensated (financially)? My educated guess is that someone would want to be, those someone(s) would be very good, and a "someone" is all I need for my course of 30 students (though 2-3 would be ideal!).

What would they receive as a result of assisting in my course? They would receive a letter of recommendation from me. If there are many students who are willing to work for a relatively generic certificate at completing a MOOC, I am sure that some of the best performers, who are relevantly motivated, perhaps towards education, would happily choose to further reinforce their skills in the area of the MOOC, as my teaching assistant, for a highly personalized letter of recommendation.

I imagine there there are kinks in this approach -- kinks of policy, of culture, of a technical nature -- but the thought of finding the best TA in the world for the benefit of my on-campus students is too exciting to let go of without a lot more thought.

You might also wonder, why go the the cloud for teaching assistants -- if "its not broke, don't fix it." But sometimes the current system is broken -- some TAs don't know the material for an advanced class well enough to be an effective TA, and aren't necessarily motivated to learn at a rate that stays ahead of the students (in part because these TAs are themselves students, who are also taking classes, and who are being encouraged to get out of TAing asap and start research assistantships). And of course, some courses at some institutions won't be staffed at all under the current system, because of a graduate student shortfall. In short, there are kinks in the current, conventional approach too.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

More Bang for the Buck

The onset of highly visible, massive open online courses (MOOCs) has had much to do with re-energizing my teaching, something I posted about as a guest on the ProfHacker blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education ( My interests so far have been much more about using online educational material to improve the quality (along many dimensions) of on-campus education for students through online education, than it has been about decreasing costs of higher education, though I am very concerned with that as well. In the inaugural post of Cloud and Campus, I reprint much of a letter to the editor of the Vanderbilt student newspaper (, suggesting to Vanderbilt's current students that even if they won't benefit (directly, immediately) from reduced costs, they can benefit from increased quality.

The following is extracted from

I expect that most students know about the boom in online education, particularly massively open online courses (MOOCs). An informal survey of students attending the McGill Hour ( I recently led suggests that quite a few have actually taken or “audited” some of these courses. I opened the McGill Hour with a story of a graduating Vanderbilt senior, in a non-computer science field, who was wandering the halls of the computer science offices looking at bulletin boards the week before last May’s graduation. The long hallway was completely empty except for him and me, and he was clearly looking for something; I asked if I could help. As best as he could articulate, he was looking for some opportunity to learn computer programming in the very near future. I hesitated a little and then suggested that he take one of the excellent and free computer programming courses that were springing up online, offered by other universities. I wanted to tell him, a soon-to-be alum, that such a course was being offered by Vanderbilt, and moreover, that as an alum he could have access to Vanderbilt-produced material throughout his lifetime, perhaps with affordances that others taking Vanderbilt-produced content would not have.

There is much talk of how MOOCs and their descendants will lower the cost of higher education, and that is vitally important, but I am not expecting to see that change in the near future. Nonetheless, there are other ways of increasing “bang-for-the-buck” rather than lowering the buck — and that is by increasing the bang.

I sincerely hope that increasing the “bang” will include the establishment of online, lifelong learning opportunities for our alums, changing the very nature of what it is to be an alum. When I hear from my alma mater, it is with news of their latest and greatest, accompanied by a request for money, which is relatively easy for me to swallow because I paid a few hundred dollars a year for a first-rate education. But if my alma mater doesn’t start approaching me soon with low-cost learning opportunities, I’ll be surprised and disappointed. Moreover, a great treat as a faculty member is hearing from my former students regarding what they are doing professionally, as well as hearing about their families — and I happily reciprocate. However, I would absolutely love to engage in lifelong learning with “former” students, and not just in my offering online courses to them. I recently turned to a former Vanderbilt undergraduate student and current doctoral student at CMU with whom I was sharing a stage and told her and the audience that in five years I wanted to take a MOOC from her!

There are other ways of increasing “bang” that I can provide, even at my station. For example, I can tell a student, “Yes, I will allow you to take the graduate course in artificial intelligence, even without the undergrad course, because you did well in that free online artificial intelligence course over the summer.” In general, I feel comfortable allowing some of these online courses to stand in place of selected prerequisites of courses that I teach, even if I have no power to grant formal university credit for such courses (that latter decision is certainly above my pay grade) but the question of satisfaction of prerequisites is often at my discretion.

Another opportunity for increasing bang is about to begin, as Vanderbilt’s course offerings come online through Coursera. Courses by Douglas Schmidt and David Owens start March 4, with others to follow. Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching hopes to facilitate local learning communities around these online offerings, to include Vanderbilt students, staff and faculty. While I’ll see my colleagues on the big screen, I will be in the audience, learning new material side by side with students. Most faculty members are learning new things all the time of course, most obviously through their research and through teaching courses for the first time, but I am excited about being embedded in the learning community, modeling lifelong learning — or so I hope. Online learning may bring a sea change to on-campus education culture, again increasing bang for the buck.

I think much creativity stems from dealing with discomfort, and higher education costs must be contributing to the substantial discomfort of many students and families, in spite of some commendable efforts made in good faith by Vanderbilt to ease financial burdens. Still, I hope that students, alums and their families are all active in ideating on what Vanderbilt can do in the way of increasing the educational bang for the buck, both by leveraging online learning and in other ways.