Saturday, April 13, 2013

Can you MOOC?

In 2012, The New York Times declared it ‘The Year of the MOOC’, or Massive-Open-Online-Course.

MOOCs are changing the way people learn, educators teach, and who can participate in learning. When early internet evangelists called the internet the “ultimate leveler”, this is probably what they may have meant. Soon, it may not matter where you are, you will still have access to the same high quality of education.

Initially, the concept evokes high hopes for educational equality, together with some valid concerns for method, rigor, the value of face-to-face learning and costing.  At the moment, MOOCs are more common for college level courses, but they are already encroaching into the high school niche.

How are MOOCs different from traditional online courses? The latter charge tuition, limit enrollment and ensure a higher level of interaction with instructors. MOOCs are generally free and well, massive. Some estimates have the median number of students enrolled in a MOOC at an astonishing 33,000!  Visualize Ohio State crammed into one classroom all at the same time, learning the same thing and from the same instructor.

Who can attend a MOOC?

Almost anyone, and from anywhere.

You need an internet connection and a browser. New compression algorithms have made even low bandwidth solutions adequate for an online class. Thus, infrastructure matters less.    

Coursera, the largest MOOC Company, reported in August of 2012, that of its first million users, 62 percent were from outside the U.S., led by students in Brazil, India, China, and Canada. Coursera’s largest MOOC forum in China has more than 12,000 members.

At the RSA Security Conference in February 2013, Dan Boneh, a Professor of Cryptography at Stanford, told an audience I was in, that the largest contingent for his popular crypto online class, outside the US students, was from Chile! Go figure.

Theoretically, a single MOOC on a particular topic could accommodate every student in the world.  (That ignites some intriguing ideas about content, standardization, validation, cultural influence, language…..but I will postpone those questions for another time).

How is K12 education being impacted?

A new, free online project dubbed a "MOOC-Ed," or a massively open online course for educators, is the work of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based advocacy organization and the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, at North Carolina State University's College of Education. The 7-week class is specifically designed for school and district leaders, including superintendents, principals, curriculum directors, tech directors, finance officials, lead teachers, and others responsible for planning the use of technology in K-12.  They hope to plant the seed of MOOC understanding to the current generation of primary and secondary educators.

The fact is, worldwide there is a global teacher shortage in K12. Almost 2 million new teaching positions need to be filled globally to ensure access to a primary education by 2015.

In the US alone, we need almost 250,000 new STEM teachers over the next decade. Now imagine how MOOCs might help fill that gap.

How much does it cost to attend a MOOC?

A week ago, President Bill Clinton speaking before his Global Initiative, spoke of the way higher education is delivered in the US, and the need for “dramatic change”, which could be driven by the accreditation of massive open online courses.
“A lot of people will have student debt that goes beyond the federal student loan program. I think the only sustainable answer is to find a less expensive delivery system,” President Clinton told Times Higher Education. MOOCs may well be the key to driving down costs, which as we all know have risen beyond inflation for many years now.

Currently, MOOCs are free, and are serving as an experiment of sorts. But commercial enterprises are showing a serious interest, and the monetization of MOOCs will soon follow. MOOC providers want to keep courses free to students, but "for these to work they're going to have to be sustainable and bring some amount of money in," says Michael Horn, a co-founder of Innosight Institute.

The hope is that we would be able to benefit from the economies of scale. Should a class for 100 students cost as much as the same one for 15,000 or 100,000?  Quite unlikely.

Who are the big MOOC players?

In a report in 2012, Moody's Investor Service called MOOCs a "pivotal development" that has the potential to revolutionize higher education. Investors are getting very interested.

EdX, the $60 million collaboration between MIT and Harvard, is a MOOC. Both universities have made a plethora of courses available to anyone for free. EdX has said it plans to eventually charge a fee to students who want to receive a certificate upon completion. Would you pay a few hundred dollars for a certificate from Harvard or Stanford? Resumes may start looking very different soon.

In fact, Harvard is so interested in MOOCs, they are asking alumni to donate their time and intellects in the rapidly expanding field of online education.

Stanford is one of Coursera's partners and Dr. Ng, one of the principals at the company, is also Associate Professor of Computer Science at Stanford. Coursera now offers courses from 33 of the biggest names in postsecondary education, including Princeton, Brown, Columbia, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Johns Hopkins, and Duke among others. Overseas universities from Lausanne, Munich, Paris etc. are also participating.

Other popular MOOC platforms include Udacity, and the very popular Khan Academy, the latter endorsed by none other than Bill Gates himself. In September, 2012, Google launched a MOOC-building online tool. More MOOCs are on the way.

David Stavens, formed Udacity with Sebastian Thrun and Michael Sokolsky after more than 150,000 signed up for Dr. Thrun’s “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” leaving the entire higher education community astonished and immediately taking notice of this staggering number.

Do we learn differently with MOOCs?

We most certainly do. But this is also an opportunity to increase learning about how people learn. Studies might help provide new insight into when students get fed up with lectures, how men and women react differently, and how online forums can stimulate better performance. 

At Stanford, the Learning Analytics Group comprises graduate students, researchers, professors and others from the fields of education, computer science, communication and sociology. They collect data on when students complete assignments, take exams, watch videos, participate in forums or do peer assessment. The hope is that this data will assist in assessing progress, predict performance, and identify problems to improve the MOOC experience with better outcomes.

How is this impacting brick and mortar classrooms?

The University of El Salvador, is the only public university in that country. It spends $60 million a year to teach 50,000 students, and its budget is so limited that it can only accept about one-third of applicants. Can a MOOC help here? You bet. The arrival of MOOCs is adding to an already “huge pressure” to expand university access by bypassing the brick buildings altogether.

While MOOCs could be an opportunity to improve education in poor regions, they are also profoundly threatening to bad professors and to weak institutions in any region. Would you go to a poor class in your neighborhood or one from Harvard, MIT or Stanford online? And it doesn’t matter if that bad class is in North America or Bolivia.

Are MOOCs easier for students?

MOOCs may have previously provided general classes intended to serve as primers on a subject. Attempts are now being made to make MOOCs just as rigorous as those in a traditional classroom environment.

Gautam Kaul, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, will soon teach the latest iteration of his “Introduction to Finance” class, but this isn’t your standard MOOC. Kaul went a different route for the course he created. He offered up a class that he says is just as intensive as what a Ross MBA student would sit through. He is answering the question, “Is this high quality?” In this case, it is.

Will MOOCs be taken seriously?

Some people think so.

Dr. Agarwal, who leads the EdX project, predicts that “a year from now, campuses will give credit for people with EdX certificates.” He expects students will one day arrive on campus with MOOC credits the way they do now with Advanced Placement.  But, will employers give them credence?

Downsides of MOOCs?

There are plenty of skeptics and they have some legitimate concerns.

Language skills can certainly present a barrier. Dropout rates are very high. In many ways, students are testing the waters just like the educators.

Andrew Delbanco, a professor of American studies at Columbia University, in an article in the New Republic titled “MOOCs of Hazard” talks about the loss of face-to-face teaching. MOOCs are unlikely to be able to meet the high thresholds and benefits of a university campus class. Feedback and interaction with the instructor remains a challenge. How do you make the massive feel intimate? Details to be worked out.

Can learning be scaled up this much? That is another question. Is there a limit to how many should participate in a MOOC? Grading is still a problem. Cheating is an unpleasant reality. “We found groups of 20 people in a course submitting identical homework,” says David Patterson, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who teaches software engineering. Udacity and EdX are now going to offer proctored exams.

2012 may not have been the Year of the MOOC for rank and file educators, but it is commanding the attention of a large swath of beneficiaries participating in these experiments, and of the thought leaders in education who are attempting to conceptualize and shape this new realm.  MOOCs present an interesting adjunct to the traditional brick and mortar experience, particularly for those who previously lacked access due to geography or wealth.  I applaud all the subject matter experts who post such information for free. It still takes work.

They are educating all of humanity one MOOC at a time.


Saturday, April 6, 2013

Outsourcing Critical Thinking to Google.

One of my favorite questions to a young prospective job applicant goes like this:

Imagine you are on a deserted island with no phone or other internet enabled device. You have never been to NYC. Now, if I asked you how many Thai restaurants are in NYC? How would you try and find that out? What considerations might be important to answer this question?

Responses have varied, but here are some which are fairly common for the Millennial Generation:

"So, like, can I call someone who has a computer?" 
No, remember you don't have a phone.

"Hmm... can I walk to an internet cafe?" There are no cafes here.

"My friend lived in NYC. I could ask her". There is no post office or phone booth here to call or mail from.

....and so it goes. 

Most never reach the point at which they actually begin to solve the problem. They are too busy trying to find out how they can get to someone who might get them to Google!

Critical thinking needs imagination, insight, and even thinking outside the box. What is far more common nowadays, is thinking "in the box" - which in this case, is  the "box" in your pocket (your smartphone) or even in your hand (tablet). 

The next time you ask a Millennial a question, notice how quickly they reach for their phones. The phone is an extension of their mind. Not tomorrow. Today. 

If Google can answer it - why should I know? I don't need to know, because Google knows!  That space in the head, and the critical skills which working a problem bring to the fore - may be under some threat. This should concern us. There are some really smart folks in Silicon Valley from this same generation who are inventing remarkable technology, and in turn are making this world a more connected and hence a more informed place - a better place. 

But there seems to be a large segment of that same generation which is just as comfortable outsourcing critical thinking to the smart devices which they own. 

Another manifestation of the same technology is a seeming lack of focus. Time is now being lived in very small segments as we multitask through a plethora of competing distractions. This is turn makes sustained focus on one issue much more difficult and is bordering on a lost art. We live in a time where everything important needs to be said in 140 characters or less, and then we move on. Some studies have shown that it can take us between 4-8 minutes before we can refocus after a distraction.

More analysis and studies of these phenomenon will need to be done before any long term trends can be identified with any precision.  

Was a previous generation just as alarmed when calculators first became ubiquitous? Did they worry that math would become a lost art?

Time will tell...

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Can your “attention”, change you?

About a hundred years ago, scientists discovered a very unique characteristic of the smallest objects. At the quantum level, particles behaved differently when you “looked” at them. More precisely, these tiniest of particles, changed from a wave to a point, simply by being observed. When not being observed, they could exhibit wave like form. But the moment you turned your “attention” to them – they changed. They became pin points.

If you want to see a great rendition of this mysterious phenomenon, watch Dr. Quantum explain it with the help of the now famous double-slit experiment.

A hundred years after this discovery, we are still not sure why this is? We can replicate the experiment at will. Physicists have tried to “fool” the particles into somehow not “knowing” that they are being watched. Some of these experiments have been rather complicated and very clever. And yet, alas, the result has always been the same. You simply cannot fool these tiny particles. Look at them, and they will change. Every time!

About 2600 years ago, another scientist performed a very similar experiment. He did not have the labs available to his modern day counterparts. He did not even have microscopes. But he had, what in many ways, may be the ultimate laboratory – his own body.

He discovered, that if you moved your attention over your own body, and did this in a deliberate and careful scan, the nature of the tiniest particles of the body, would change (just like the double-slit experiment). Focus long enough, with enough practice, attention and discipline; and magic could happen. You might even become enlightened.

This ancient scientist, named this process Vipassana or insight. His name was Siddhartha Gautama. He lived in the India of old. Many of us know him today by his simple honorific – The Buddha.

Today, Vipassana meditation is the underpinning of Buddhist meditation and is a pillar of the oldest lineage of Buddhism – Theravada. It is the lineage taught by The Buddha himself.

What is Vipassana? Well, ‘insight’ can be a complicated thing.

However, in its simplest form, Vipassana meditation requires the practitioner to use a concentrated, focused and quiet mind, as the only tool, to scan each area of one’s own body with pure attention. You observe. And when you “feel” something on the observed part of the body - you move to the next part of the body. You might feel an itch, a breeze, a tingle, pressure, heat, cold – it could be anything. You simply observe it in a non-judgmental manner, and once observed, you move on to the next spot on your body. That simple.

And you scan your body again and again, over days, even months, or even years. The simple act of observation, changes the nature of our very being, particle by particle. And nothing more than observation is required to begin this process.

Today, we can see how experiments in the lab are overwhelmingly conclusive and provide resounding evidence that attention changes the nature of things. Literally!  
Turn your attention to yourself, and you too will change.

Evidence also suggests, you will likely change for the better. Vipassana meditation (and other forms of meditation) are known to make the practitioners more compassionate, more joyful,  peaceful and balanced, and increasingly happier. Matthieu Richard, a biologist who worked at the Pasteur Institute before becoming a monk in 1968, and who is now dubbed “the happiest person on earth” has been a meditator for over five decades.

Attention, is a very powerful thing. ‘Watch’ where you look. You are changing your environment with your attention. You may even be changing yourself.