MOOC panel in Baltimore

I’m at the Joint Math Meetings in Baltimore, Maryland, and attended the panel “Online courses: benefits and pitfalls” organized by Patricia Hersh and Dan Abramovich. It was moderated by Abigail Thompson from UC Davis, and included panelists from a variety of institutions: Robert Ghrist from University of Pennsylvania, whose MOOC on calculus has been called “beautiful,” Tina Garrett from St. Olaf College, who designed and taught a successful SPOC (small participatory online course) this summer for the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, Randy McCarthy from UIUC, and Brit Kirwan, Chancellor of the University System of Maryland.

I came in a few minutes late because as always at the Joint Meetings I saw someone in the hallway and then someone else in the hallway and then had to talk with someone else, so I missed Robert Ghrist and Randy McCarthy’s introductory comments. I regret that, especially since it sounds like Randy McCarthy has been doing work with hybrid and online education for decades. I need to hear more about this! This will be a somewhat incomplete report as a result.

The main themes of discussion included

  • how students learn, and what a math class does for students, both ideally and in practice;
  • the need for evidence-based rather than cost-based decisions on online and hybrid education;
  • the hidden costs of MOOCs;
  • the idea that mathematicians need to think about these issues rather than having decisions made for them.

I especially like the last point, as it is the reason for this blog!

Brit Kirwan emphasized from his position as administrator coming from mathematics that U of Maryland, like most colleges and universities, does not want to put into place ineffective programs. There is a lot of hype about MOOCs but there is not as much research, and he spoke about work the Maryland system is doing to compare MOOCs and traditional instruction. James Gates, from the audience, supported this point and discussed the data analytics that are possible now because of student engagement with technology. A company like Coursera or a university system like Maryland’s can get a lot of raw data about where students seem to test well, where they test poorly, when they stop paying attention to a video, when they stop doing their homework… and this is the power of MOOCs. We can apply concepts from cognitive science and test their efficacy. Otherwise, MOOCs are just an extension course. (Dr. Gates was part of the group that advised the president regarding MOOCs!)

Education is not just about knowledge absorption and regurgitation. Dr. Ghrist pointed out that he got to know some students in his really massive MOOC, and others pointed out that local meet-up groups around MOOCs do occur. Dr. Garrett said that the SPOC format preserves some of the essence of the liberal arts tradition — student talked with each other and the instructor, learning about communication of mathematics as well as problem-solving. Dr. McCarthy mentioned training teachers to work with students who are taking online classes, so that there is a guide in the flesh to help work through the course.

Someone in the audience brought up the point that college is where people bond, stay up all night together, meet future colleagues or co-founders, future spouses — what will happen if this is decentralized? Someone else brought up the question of whether MOOCs will really extend a hand to the less-advantaged or the under-represented in mathematics, or whether they will make our current polarization worse. I worry about this and a lot seems to rest on the implementation. No easy answers. Dr. McCarthy said that one of the purposes of the UIUC courses is to provide course access to rural and urban students.

Everyone agreed that motivation is currently a big factor in MOOC completion, and no one had quick answers for how to incite motivation in unmotivated students. There is some concern that less-motivated students who would have made it through a physical class would fail out of a MOOC. It’s easier to fail to watch a video than fail to show up to class three times a week, although plenty manage it. Learning how to “do college” was a concern of panelists both for 18-year-olds and for returning students.

The economics, one of my favorite puzzles, recurred several times in discussion. Robert Ghrist and Tina Garrett both said that making a MOOC or a SPOC was not cheap or a real cost-saving measure. It comes out of tenured faculty time and perhaps special pots of administration money. I asked about the position of postdocs, graduate students, and others who might participate in online education initiatives but who don’t (a) have the job security to take risks, (b) stay in one place long enough to maintain access or control of their intellectual productions. (Notice I didn’t say intellectual property, because it’s not always clear whose intellectual property it is.) There was some discussion of the fact that universities or colleges might hire adjuncts to do online courses in particular, which did not thrill me. Time to get into management I guess. There was universal acknowledgement that intellectual property and copyright rules have not yet been standardized. Patricia Hersh asked about the economics of asking recent PhDs to produce high-quality math materials for K-12 teachers. Hmmm… I have heard of no such official effort, and the economics are indeed interesting.

Acceleration was the last main theme. Dr. Ghrist had a smart 9-year-old ace his calculus MOOC. Enabling high school students and junior high students to accelerate themselves could have great economic benefits, as well as preventing boredom, a dreadful disease. What if 18-year-olds came to college already having a taste of multivariable calculus, analytic philosophy, and theory of permaculture? They could be so much more informed about what to do next, and potentially save a year’s worth of tuition $$$!

If you were there and want to add anything or think I misrepresented anything, please comment (although internet access is intermittent here so comment moderation may be slow). This is by no means a complete report and I put plenty of my own commentary in. I think the fact that mathematicians are having these conversations is great, because someone else will decide for us if we do not get involved.

Leave a Reply