Daphne Koller’s TED Talk: What’s new about MOOCs
Daphne talks about the educational research that she’s drawing on. I wondered: What’s new here? Why are people excited about MOOCs?
- Mining educational data to learn about learning isn’t new. It’s an established field with a multi-year conference (http://educationaldatamining.org/EDM2012/). In fact, there’s a standard open source repository for these sorts of data for learning scientists (http://learnlab.org/technologies/datashop/index.php). (I wonder if Coursera and Udacity are contributing to that?)
- Using technology to get students to actively engage with their learning isn’t new. Instructional Management Systems had the entire K-12 curriculum covered back in the 1990’s, all based on a similar model of presentation and student activity to enhance learning.
- Getting educational content out to the developing world isn’t new. That was always one of the guiding principles of the Open University UK, and their track record (in terms of completion rates, measured learning, reach into the developing world) is much better than Coursera and Udacity.
- On-line forums are not new. In fact, the older Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) systems (like CSILE/Knowledge Forum and even CoWeb/Swiki) have well-supported claims of facilitating learning, unlike the more modern forums that don’t have similar support.
- The two-sigma effect is old (though recent attempts to replicate Bloom’s result suggest that it wasn’t tutoring but mastery learning that led to a two-sigma effect). If the point of Coursera is to get similar effects of tutoring, why aren’t they starting by studying and replicating human tutoring (as the Cognitive Tutors do), versus putting lectures on video? Lectures were the less-successful model.
Here is what I see as new:
- Video on the Internet. There is an effect of medium and distribution here. Video is compelling. We now have the ability to get lots of video created and shipped anywhere cheaply. When Roger Schank was building his learning systems at Northwestern, they spent a huge amount of effort getting lots of video burned to DVD’s that could be easily accessed. That’s simply not a problem anymore.
- They’re doing it for free. There have been lots of smallish research efforts in the past. There have been companies started that provide these technologies at scale for a cost. Free changes things, particularly with students and families today bearing a greater portion of the cost of higher education.
- There is the potential to do more, to make students feel like individuals, rather than part of a 100K herd. When I raised the question of “what’s new about MOOCs” with faculty at Georgia Tech, my colleagues pointed out the potential value of using modern, real-time machine learning and data analytics techniques to get greater insight into learning difficulties, and to better personalize the learning experience. Daphne says in her TED talk that the Coursera system could recognize the need for more remedial material and provide it. I recognize that potential, though the technology isn’t in place yet. Current MOOCs have little or no machine learning, and no attempt at personalization.But I see a problem with Coursera recognizing a need and recommending remedial material. The current MOOCs won’t be able to offer personalization for the audiences that I most care about (e.g., adult learners without previous CS background, non-majors studying CS), audiences that probably would need more background material than the top students, because those students simply aren’t there. My audiences are most likely in the 80-90% who are dropping out of MOOCs after registering. Even the most sophisticated machine learning and data analytics can’t help you to understand students who are no longer there. Until you get students who need the remediation through the system, the ML can’t learn about them, but how do you get them through the system without the ML-recommended remediation?
While I agree with the importance of reaching underserved populations, I am not convinced that MOOCs are currently having much of an effect in the developing world or to broaden participation to students who don’t have much prepratory work (say, in CS) in their schools. I wonder if it’s even possible to make a large impact on the developing world starting at higher education. Not all K-12 programs in the United States prepare students adequately for MIT, Stanford, and Harvard level classes. Can we expect that most K-12 programs in the developing world are adequate preparation? The Open University UK has always been “open,” no pre-requisites, and they provide content at that level. Coursera prides itself on offering top-notch classes. That’s valuable, but I find it unlikely that such courses also meet the needs of underserved populations.
Coursera offers demanding courses via video which only a small percentage complete — for free. That is valuable and interesting. I don’t currently see the model replacing existing courses, or working well for students who don’t have the background knowledge.
Daphne Koller is enticing top universities to put their most intriguing courses online for free — not just as a service, but as a way to research how people learn. Each keystroke, comprehension quiz, peer-to-peer forum discussion and self-graded assignment builds an unprecedented pool of data on how knowledge is processed and, most importantly, absorbed.