Other players in online education

Just a collection of things I learned about at the 2014  Joint Math Meetings:

  • There’s an organization called ITHAKA that is working on helping academics use digital technologies. It’s the folks behind JSTOR, the online journal storage organization. These are non-profit groups. On my first visit to ITHAKA’s webpage I found the link to William Bowen’s Stafford Little Lecture (the link is directly to the pdf) about MOOCs and math/ed/tech issues. The lecture makes a lot of good points and is worth a read. I feel I could have written parts of it myself were I someone who used bigger words regularly.
  • A number of sessions about flipping the classroom, using smart pens, and using other technologies in college teaching were filled to the brim. There are tons of instructors out there making use of these technologies without necessarily having a ton of institutional support or technical support. The hybrid classroom is already here. Mathematicians on their own, conducting n=1 class experiments, cannot evaluate the average effectiveness of such approaches. However, they’re actively trying to make their own individual classes the best they can be.
  • On the elementary math ed front, Reasoning Mind had a reception that I didn’t make it to. (I did a lot of research talk on this trip — the special session on Geometric Applications of Algebraic Combinatorics was fabulous!! But that means I missed some receptions!) It’s a hybrid curriculum that aims to have students work through computer-organized math problems with in-person teacher coaching as needed. I’d like to try it out. It seems a bit controversial, as some initial data in Dallas reported it didn’t work as promised and there may be some politics going on; on the other hand, the curriculum was unevenly implemented and some students didn’t really use it, so it’s hard to tell where achievement gains and losses came from.

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.

MOOCs in the media

The media has finally figured out that MOOCs may not be the salvation of America’s higher educational system. I congratulate them. For a somewhat nuanced piece of discussion, read Keith Devlin’s piece in the Huffington Post. I think Professor Devlin argues too much from anecdote in providing a few emails from students thrilled to be able to access education outside the usual system, but he does make a point that seems to be borne out by evidence: MOOCs are a great resource for motivated students who are already capable of taking advantage of them.

A lot of the recent media buzz is driven by Sebastian Thrun’s discussion of the fact that MOOCs are failing in the goals that many had set for them. Most notably, this is driven by the San Jose State University experiment in using a MOOC format for remedial math, the most notoriously difficult place to apply any educational theory at any time. Devlin accurately notes that for Thrun, the Udacity pivot is just that — a pivot, which in Silicon Valley-speak is simply what businesses do after trying an idea and finding that something slightly different might make for a better business.

And that is what I fear a lot of people are missing in the discussion — these are businesses! Academics are used to working in a non-profit world and have long experienced tension with for-profit businesses in the education sphere. Witness for instance the controversies surrounding for-profit publishing and their paywalls. Most online education companies need to make money, and even non-profit universities want to avoid losing too much money. MOOCs are one way of increasing access to educational materials, but they are not the only option. The options that survive will be the ones that have found an economic sweet spot.

Mathematics outside the academy

A big concern of many mathematicians and techy people I talk to is mathematics “outside the academy.” That is, mathematicians know that math is beautiful and get to do it as part of their jobs, but math appreciation is often not that accessible to people outside the academic-industrial complex! We can all go to concerts and art museums, for free or for a price, if we’re able to transport ourselves to the right location at the right time. But math… if you like math, do you know where to go to see some beautiful math?

Many mathematicians would argue that you can figure out some beautiful math with nothing more than a stick and some sand, like Archimedes in the legend. But that does require some prior knowledge, and it seems unfair that we don’t say, “If you really enjoyed art you’d just make some! If you really appreciated organ music you’d just play it!”

Given all that, the site Mathigon is a very enjoyable place to appreciate some mathematics. It’s beautifully designed and available to everyone who has the internet. I love the design and the thoughtfulness that went into the visual presentation. And if you want to learn something about Archimedean solids… Mathigon has got you covered!


Sketchometry is another intriguing approach to interactive mathematics, especially on touch devices. I’ve tried it out a little bit on my iPad, and while there is some learning curve, I was able to graph some functions and draw a bit.

I am particularly interested in the touch aspect of the program. Bringing the kinetic into mathematics is something a teacher can do in class if he or she thinks about it, but it is not something that is well-transmitted through a book. I (Kaisa) tend to understand some mathematical concepts best visually and kinetically. Innovative touch interfaces to math exploration programs appeal a lot!

Anyone else tried Sketchometry?