Posts tagged ‘MOOCs’

What I learned from taking a MOOC: Live Object Programming in Pharo

I wrote this post a month ago, before COVID-19 changed how a great many of us teach in higher education. It feels so long ago now. I thought about writing a different post for this week, one about how I’m managing my large (260+) Senior-level User Interface Development class with projects. But I realize — I have a ton of those kinds of posts in my to-read queue now. We’re all being bombarded with advice on how to take our classes on-line. I can’t read it all. I’m sure that you can’t either.

So instead, I decided to move this post up in the queue. It’s about taking the students’ perspective. I worry about what’s going to happen to students as we all move into on-line modes. I wrote my Blog@CACM post this week about how the lowest-performing students are the ones who will be most hurt by the move to on-line — you can find that post here. This is a related story: What I learned about MOOCs by taking a MOOC.

I received in February my certificate of success for the MOOC I took on Pharo. I have not, in general, been a big fan of MOOCs (among many other posts, here’s one I wrote in 2018 about MOOCs and ethics). This MOOC was perfect for what I needed and wanted. But I’m still not generally a MOOC fan.

I’m a long-time Smalltalk programmer and have written or edited a couple of books about Squeak. I’m building software again at the University of Michigan (see the task-specific programming environments I’ve posted about). Pharo is a terrific, modern Smalltalk that I’d like to use.

A MOOC on Pharo matched what I needed. I fit the demographics of a student who succeeds at a MOOC — I already know a lot about the material, and I’m looking for specific pieces of information. Pharo has a test-driven development model that is remarkable. You define your classes, then start writing tests, and then you execute them. You can then build your system from the Debugger! You get prompts like, “You’re referencing the instance variable window here, but it doesn’t exist. Shall I create it for you?” I’ve never programmed like that before, and it was great to learn all the support Pharo has for that style of programming.

Yes, it was in French. They provide versions of the videos dubbed in English, and the French version can display English captions. I preferred the latter. I had French in undergraduate, which means that I didn’t understand everything, but I understood occasional words which was enough to be able to synchronize between the video and the captions to figure out what was going on.

My favorite part of the MOOC was just watching the videos of Stéphane Ducasse programming. He’s a very expert Smalltalk programmer. It’s great seeing how he works and hearing him think aloud while he’s programming. But he’s very, very expert — there were things he did that I had to re-watch in slow motion to figure out, “Okay, how did he do that?”

The MOOC was better than just a set of videos. The exercises made sure I actually tried to think about what the videos were saying. But it’s clear that the exercises were not developed by assessment experts. There were lots of fill in the blanks like “Name the class that does X.” Who cares? I can always look that up. It’s a problem that the exercises were developed by Smalltalk experts. Some of the problems were of a form that would be simple, if you knew the right tool or the right option (e.g., “Which of the below is not a message that instances of the class Y understand?”), but I often couldn’t remember or find the right tool. Tools can fall into the experts’ blind spot. Good assessments should scaffold me in figuring out the answer (e.g., worked examples or subgoal labels).

I ran into one of the problems that MOOCs suffer — they’re really expensive to make and update. The Pharo MOOC was written for Pharo 6.0. Pharo 8.0 was just released. Not all the packages in the MOOC still work in 8.0, or there are updated versions that aren’t exactly the same as in the videos. There were things in the MOOC that I couldn’t do in modern Pharo. It’s hard and costly to keep a MOOC updated over time.

My opinions about MOOCs haven’t changed. They’re a great way for experienced people to get a bit more knowledge. That’s where the Georgia Tech OMSCS works. But I still they that they are a terrible way to help people who need initial knowledge, and they don’t help to broaden participation in computing.

March 23, 2020 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Using MOOCs for Computer Science Teacher Professional Development

When our ebook work was funded by IUSE, our budget was cut from what we proposed. Something had to be dropped from our plan of work. What we dropped was a comparison between ebooks and MOOCs. I had predicted that we could get better learning and higher completion rates from our ebooks than from our MOOCs. That’s the part that got dropped — we never did that comparison.

I’m glad now. It’s kind of a ridiculous comparison because it’s about the media, not particular instances. I’m absolutely positive that we could find a terrible ebook that led to much worse results than the absolutely best possible MOOC, even if my hypothesis is right about the average ebook and the average MOOC. The medium itself has strengths and weaknesses, but I don’t know how to experimentally compare two media.

I’m particularly glad since I wouldn’t want to go up against Carol Fletcher and her creative team who are finding ways to use MOOCs successfully for CS teacher PD. You can find their recent presentation “Comparing the Efficacy of Face to Face, MOOC, and Hybrid Computer Science Teacher Professional Development” on SlideShare:

Carol sent me a copy of the paper from  the 2016″Learning with MOOCs” conference*. I’m quoting from the abstract below:

This research examines the effectiveness of three primary strategies for increasing the number of teachers who are CS certified in Texas to determine which strategies are most likely to assist non-CS teachers in becoming CS certified. The three strategies compared are face-to-face training, a MOOC, and a hybrid of both F2F and MOOC participation. From October 2015, to August of 2016, 727 in-service teachers who expressed an interest in becoming CS certified participated in one of these pathways. Researchers included variables such as educational background, teaching certifications, background in and motivation to learn computer science, and their connection to computer science through their employment or the community at large as covariates in the regression analysis. Findings indicate that the online only group was no less effective than the face-to-face only group in achieving certification success. Teachers that completed both the online and face-to-face experiences were significantly more likely to achieve certification. In addition, teachers with prior certification in mathematics, a STEM degree, or a graduate degree had greater odds of obtaining certification but prior certification in science or technology did not. Given the long-term lower costs and capacity to reach large numbers that online courses can deliver, these results indicate that investment in online teacher training directed at increasing the number of CS certified teachers may prove an effective mechanism for scaling up teacher certification in this high need area, particularly if paired with some opportunities for direct face-to-face support as well.

That they got comparable results from MOOC-based on-line and face-to-face is an achievement. It matches my expectations that a blended model with both would be more successful than just on-line.

Carol and team are offering a new on-line course for the Praxis test that several states use for CS teacher certification. You can find details about this course at https://utakeit.stemcenter.utexas.edu/foundations-cs-praxis-beta/.


* Fletcher, C., Monroe, W., Warner, J., Anthony, K. (2016, October). Comparing the Efficacy of Face-to-Face, MOOC, and Hybrid Computer Science Teacher Professional Development. Paper presented at the Learning with MOOCs Conference, Philadelphia, PA.

March 29, 2019 at 7:00 am 1 comment

Disrupt This!: MOOCs and the Promises of Technology by Karen Head

Over the summer, I read the latest book from my Georgia Tech colleague, Karen Head. Karen taught a MOOC in 2013 to teach freshman composition, as part of a project funded by the Gates Foundation. They wanted to see if MOOCs could be used to meet general education requirements. Karen wrote a terrific series or articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the experience (you can see my blog post on her last article in the series here). Her experience is the basis for her new book Disrupt This! (link to Amazon page here). There is an interview with her at Inside Higher Education that I also recommend (see link here).

In Disrupt This!, Karen critiques the movement to “disrupt education” with a unique lens. I’m an education researcher, so I tend to argue with MOOC advocates with data (e.g., my blog post in May about how MOOCs don’t serve to decrease income inequality). Karen is an expert in rhetoric. She analyzes two of the books at the heart of the education disruption literature: Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring’s The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out and Richard DeMillo’s Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities. She critiques these two books from the perspective of how they argue — what they say, what they don’t say, and how the choice of each of those is designed to influence the audience. For example, she considers why we like the notion of “disruption.”

Disruption appeals to the audience’s desire to be in the vanguard. It is the antidote to complacency, and no one whose career revolves around the objectives of critical thinking and originality—the pillars of scholarship—wants to be accused of that…Discussions of disruptive innovation frequently conflate “is” (or “will be”) and “ought.” In spite of these distinctions, however, writers often shift from making dire warnings to an apparently gleeful endorsement of disruption. This is not unrelated to the frequent use of millenarian or religiously toned language, which often warns against a coming apocalypse and embraces disruption as a cleansing force.

Karen is not a luddite. She volunteered to create the Composition MOOC because she wanted to understand the technology. She has high standards and is critical of the technology when it doesn’t meet those standards. She does not suffer gladly the fools who declare the technology or the disruption as “inevitable.”

The need for radical change in today’s universities—even if it is accepted that such change is desirable—does not imply that change will inevitably occur. To imply that because the church should have embraced the widespread publication of scripture, modern universities should also embrace the use of MOOCs is simply a weak analogy.

Her strongest critique focuses on who these authors are. She argues that the people who are promoting change in education should (at least) have expertise in education. Her book mostly equates expertise with experience. My colleagues and I work to teach faculty about education, to develop their expertise before they enter the classroom (as in this post). I suspect Karen would agree with me about different paths to develop expertise, but she particularly values getting to know students face-to-face. She’s angry that the authors promoting education disruption do not know students.

It is a travesty that the conversation about the reform or disruption of higher education is being driven by a small group of individuals who are buffered from exposure to a wide range of students, but who still claim to speak on their behalf and in their interests.

Disrupt This! gave me a new way to think about MOOCs and the hype around disruptive technologies in education. I often think in terms of data. Karen shows how to critique the rhetoric — the data are less important if the argument they are supporting is already broken.

October 6, 2017 at 7:00 am 2 comments

IEEE Prism on the Georgia Tech Online MS in CS Program

Nice piece in IEEE Prism about Georgia Tech’s On-line (Udacity MOOC-based) MS in CS degree.  I like how they emphasized that the program really discovered an un-met demand for graduate education.

Only after students began enrolling in OMS CS did researchers discover another unprecedented element of this massive online course. As economist Joshua Goodman of Harvard University tells Prism, he and his co-investigators found “large demand among mid-career [professionals], particularly mid-career Americans . . . for high-quality continuing education.” Indeed, demand is so robust that the program appears capable of boosting the overall production of computer science degrees in this country.Whether the new credential can fortify experienced professionals against the widespread threat of replacement by younger and cheaper workers remains an open question. For the thousands who have enrolled so far, however, the answer clearly is yes.

Source: Course Correction

August 7, 2017 at 7:00 am 1 comment

Finding that MANY students get lousy returns on online education, but SOME students succeed

The point made below is that online education does work for some students. Our OMS CS succeeds (see evidence here) because it serves a population that has CS background knowledge and can succeed online. Not everyone succeeds in MOOCs.  I don’t like the first sentence in this piece.  “Online education” can be effective.  The models matter.

Despite Hoxby’s troubling findings, it’s hard to say whether online education in and of itself is inherently problematic or whether certain models could be successful. Goodman’s research on a Georgia Institute of Technology online master’s in computer science program indicates that, if done right, an online degree can provide a decent education at a fraction of the cost.“That model doesn’t generalize very well to the broader set of people that are out there,” he said. That’s because the students in the Georgia Tech program have already proved themselves to be successful in higher education (the admissions standards are relatively similar to the school’s elite brick-and-mortar computer science program), which is often not the case for many of the 30-something students that are typical of online education programs.

Source: Damning study finds students get lousy returns on online education – MarketWatch

July 3, 2017 at 7:00 am 2 comments

MOOCs don’t serve to decrease income inequality

At this year’s NSF Broadening Participation in Computing PI meeting, I heard a great talk by Kevin Robinson that asked the question: Do MOOCs “raise all boats” but maintain or even increase income inequality, or do they help to reduce the economic divide?  It’s not the question whether poor students take MOOCs.  It’s whether it helps the poor more, or the rich more.

Kevin has made his slides available here. The work he described is presented in this article from Science.  I want to share the one slide that really blew me away.

The gray line is the average income for US citizens at various ages.  As you would expect, that number generally increases up until retirement.  The black line is the average income for students in Harvard and MIT’s MOOC participants.  The MOOC participants are not only richer, but as they get older, they diverge more.  These are highly-privileged people, the kind with many advantages.  MOOCs are mostly helping the rich.

May 1, 2017 at 7:00 am 8 comments

Passing of William G. Bowen: Walk Deliberately, Don’t Run, Toward Online Education

William G. Bowen of Princeton and of the Mellon Foundation recently died at the age of 83. His article about MOOCs in 2013 is still relevant today.

In particular is his note about “few of those studies are relevant to the teaching of undergraduates.”  As I look at the OMS CS results and the empirical evidence about MOOC completers (which matches results of other MOOC experiments of which I’m aware at Georgia Tech), I see that MOOCs are leading to learning and serving a population, but that tends to be the most privileged population.  Higher education is critiqued for furthering inequity and not doing enough to serve underprivileged students.  MOOCs don’t help with that.  It reminds me of Annie Murphy Paul’s article on lecture — they best serve the privileged students that campuses already serve well.  That’s a subtle distinction: MOOCs help, but not the students who most need help.

What needs to be done in order to translate could into will? The principal barriers are the lack of hard evidence about both learning outcomes and potential cost savings; the lack of shared but customizable teaching and learning platforms (or tool kits); and the need for both new mind-sets and fresh thinking about models of decision making.

How effective has online learning been in improving (or at least maintaining) learning outcomes achieved by various populations of students in various settings? Unfortunately, no one really knows the answer to either that question or the important follow-up query about cost savings. Thousands of studies of online learning have been conducted, and my colleague Kelly Lack has continued to catalog them and summarize their findings.

It has proved to be a daunting task—and a discouraging one. Few of those studies are relevant to the teaching of undergraduates, and the few that are relevant almost always suffer from serious methodological deficiencies. The most common problems are small sample size; inability to control for ubiquitous selection effects; and, on the cost side, the lack of good estimates of likely cost savings.

Source: Walk Deliberately, Don’t Run, Toward Online Education – The Chronicle of Higher Education

March 17, 2017 at 7:00 am 5 comments

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