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.