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!

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