Archive for April 20, 2012

Udacity’s CS101: Who are you talking to?

When Carnegie Mellon University’s cognitive tutors first went into the classroom, Janet Schofield went with them.  She’s a social scientist who wanted to see what happened when this advanced technology got into real classrooms.  One of her findings was that, as predicted, the students would work individually with the technology, giving the teacher the opportunity to wander the room and give one-on-one time to individual students. The teacher could provide personalized instruction.  That did happen, but not in the way that you might hope.  The teacher spent most of the time with the best students.  Why not?  Those were the students most interesting to talk to.

Sebastian Thrun and Dave Evans of Udacity came to Georgia Tech this week, and talked about the completion of their CS101 course.  100,000 people signed up for the course, but that was just providing an email address — no cost, no commitment.  50,000 visited the site before the first assignment, and 30,000 completed the first assignment — one of those is probably a better measure of who was serious about taking the course.  10,000 completed the course. There are blog posts around from both completers and non-completers.  3,000 got a perfect score, which is great for Udacity and their business model. (Thanks to Dave who vetted these results for me.)

Sebastian was exuberant.  He says that he can’t go back to lecture teaching anymore, since on-line courses reach so many student.  “You move the needle so much!”  I asked how he knew that he moved the needle.  He admitted, “I don’t. We don’t know what they knew coming in. But we get told about the effect we have on these students. I get these great emails!”  He talked about how empowering it was for students to complete their programming assignments, how much the students said that the course changed their lives.  “It’s a thrill ride for the instructors!”

I believe Sebastian when he says that.  I bet that a Udacity class is great fun to teach.  Key to Udacity and similar online course platforms is a rapid feedback loop.  They know what’s going on in the class all-the-time, from all the instrumentation on every problem, and from all the message boards and email traffic.  They hear a lot, from really good students.

Is the Udacity (and maybe Coursera) model effective for more than reaching the best students, beyond the ones who are willing to put in the big effort? It’s an occupational hazard, of being a professor in a state university and of being a computing education researcher who studies how non-CS majors learn CS, that I worry about those who start but struggle.  I am a state employee, and ultimately, work for the state taxpayers who want to have their children educated.  I measure my success (and failure, too) on how well I serve the whole class.  Retention matters to me. I care about motivating students to care about computer science. And I hear from the students who drop out or fail: in terms of course reports, in terms of failing grades on assignments, in terms of tears at office hours.  If I only talked and listened to the top students, the job would be easier.

From hearing Dave and Sebastian, I don’t think that they’re arguing that they are replacing the state university, nor that they are reaching everybody.  They have a new kind of educational technology that speaks to a particular audience, and they are exploring it.  I don’t worry about Sebastian and Dave.  I more worry about those who don’t see the students that Udacity isn’t talking to.  There are lots of stories on the Internet about how Udacity represents the future of university education.  If you want to have more well educated students, if you want to improve graduation rates, you have to speak with the students that might not be so much fun to talk to — the ones who make you invent new approaches to motivate and engage, who question what you teach and why you teach it.  Udacity solves a particular problem.  It’s not necessarily the answer to the problems facing higher education.

April 20, 2012 at 8:19 am 26 comments


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