Monday, July 29, 2013

Sam Joseph on MOOCs for Hawaii Business Magazine

I was recently interviewed by Hawaii Business Magazine's Pavel Stankov on the subject of Massive Open Online Classes or MOOCs

Pavel: So first off, tell me about the public class that you taught online at HPU? What class was it? How long was it taught?

Sam: The class was the combined CSCI 4702 Mobile programming and MULT 4702 Mobile Design classes, and was taught over the usual 14 weeks of the HPU Spring semester this year.  It's a class that I've been teaching in one form or another at HPU and UHM for about 8 years, and focuses on the design and programming of applications for mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones.

Pavel: Who pitched the idea for that and how successful was the course? Did anybody drop out?

Sam: I designed the course myself and I pitched the idea that HPU should trial it as a public beta.  I would say the course was moderately successful :-)  I continue to get the positive feedback that I have gotten from students on this course as I have over the years.  All of the official HPU students enrolled in the course completed it, and the public format enabled some who had previously failed the course to
retake and successfully complete the course.  The majority of the non HPU students taking the course did not complete it, but I still got positive feedback from them.  I don't know that "dropping out" as a concept is particularly useful for students who are not studying for credit.  If for-credit students "drop out" it is clearly a negative event where a student has paid for support in their learning process, and for whatever reason, feels that they are not getting what they expect from a course.

When casual "MOOC" students are taking a course it is much more like they are receiving an encyclopedia.  They are gaining access to a set of materials that they can take and pick from as they please.  Since in the HPU public course trial we were not certifying their abilities I don't believe that their "drop out" rate of non-HPU students indicates the relative success or failure of the course.

Pavel: Would it be considered a MOOC, if it's not delivered through Coursera, edX, or Udacity? Was there a third party at all, or was it offered directly from HPU, just open to the public?

Sam: The first MOOCs were offered before Coursera, EdX or Udacity existed so I don't think that
who provides a course says anything about whether it should be considered a MOOC or not.
Whether we consider something a MOOC or not depends on four things, specifically it being
a course, it being available online, it being available to the public, and it being taken
by a large number of students.  Our online public course trial had around 20 students combined so I think it qualifies more as a SOOC (Small Open Online Course) than anything else :-)  I used the free and open Google Sites framework to host and deliver the course along with other free open source tools and Google App Scripts that I programmed myself.

Pavel: What class are you currently teach through edX? What is the turnout? What are the expectations and what do you hope to achieve through offering it? Have you offered a course of such a scale before? How do you feel about it?

Sam: In collaboration with UC Berkeley's Professors Dave Patterson and Armando Fox I am facilitating CS169X Software as a Service through EdX.  The current instance of the class
has over 13000 students enrolled and close to 250 teaching assistants.  The expectation
is that we can spread as widely as possible the concepts of software engineering craftsmanship.  My personal hopes are that by being closely involved in this course that my own HPU Software Engineering course will become even more valuable to the students taking it, in terms of the quality of the curricular materials they have access to, and the range of other learners they can interact with.

Sam: One of the key values of delivering a for-credit class publicly with a mix of for-credit and casual students is that the students get to mix with a much wider range of learners.  Students can take part in collaborative learning with people from all over the world, who in many cases bring fantastic industry experience with them to the class.  My involvement in this summer's EdX course is the first time that I have taken a major role in a class of this scale and I am extremely excited about it.  I see the combination of MOOC delivery systems such as EdX with personal scaffolded collaborative learning experiences such as pair programming and group projects revolutionizing the nature of the educational experience.

Pavel: What are the challenges for a MOOC instructor? What is the hardest part? The easiest part?

Sam: The challenges are having a continous flow of information with questions from students coming in constantly 24/7.  All materials have to be of exceptionally high quality. The hardest part is often just switching off for a moment to refresh yourself.  Delegation is the combined hardest and easiest part.  Given the 250 or so teaching assistants I have to control myself not to dive too deep on problems from individual students the moment they come up, leaving the teaching assistants to triage the challenges the students are facing.  The MOOC instructor must listen carefully to their teaching assistants balancing when to jump in with their expertise so as to benefit the maximum number of students possible.

Pavel:  If you were to start over, and change something in the way you approach your MOOCs, would you do so?

Sam: I am making an ongoing effort to change MOOCs so that they move away from the one size
fits all mode of learning, and focus on the individual.  I think real time interaction
with fellow MOOC students and open-ended projects of consequence to the individual
students is the key.  Certain Stanford Coursera classes have trail-blazed in this regard such as Scott Klemmer's HCI course, however I think we can go a lot lot further.

Pavel: How do you address the issues of academic honesty?

Sam: Academic honesty is an issue in a class that tries to offer credit for a largely one size fits all method of assessment.  My personal approach to academic honesty is to award credit for unique individual contributions.  To the extent possible within the contexts of HPU, Berkeley and EdX I make all my classes dependent on a students ability to offer unique individual project work.  In a class where projects are developed incrementally it quickly becomes clear if an individual is trying to attribute the work of others to themselves, even in the online context.   This is of course more complicated at large scales, but I believe we have the seeds in place to make academic honesty effectively a non-issue, and you are likely to see some very exciting developments in this regard over the next 24 months or so.

Pavel:  What is your take on the peer-grading approaches offered by some MOOC providers? Do you suppose there might be a better technology to control for plagiarizing?

Sam: I think peer-grading is an interesting approach.  I've used it in some of my classes, and I've taken MOOC classes in which it has been used.  I don't think it is yet quite in a form that delivers an ideal learning experience but it's an excellent start.  Since I teach programming and design, plagiarising is not quite the issue that is in other classes such as English and History, however it is still a concern.  I have also been taking a very interesting MOOC on cheating in online classes, and I think it's a mistake to focus on plagiarism and how to control it.  I believe the focus should be on igniting the imagination of individual students.  The key is for the instructor or teaching assistant to get to know the individual students personally, and ask them what it is they are really excited about doing.  The focus should be on providing a framework, scaffolding if you will, that enables the student to do something that they are excited about, giving them access to the tools that allow them to achieve their dreams.  I would argue that plagiarism and academic dishonesty comes largely from students not being interested in performing the academic exercises they are being set.  The solution is not to ask how to control plagiarism through technology, but what is it that interests an individual student?  Unlock the interest of the individual student and they will have no incentive to be academically dishonest; they will be truly motivated to create something of quality, and developing the necessary skills to support that.

Pavel: Do you think some classes are better suited to be taught through a MOOC than others? Which ones?

Sam: Given the form of the current MOOCs from providers such as Coursera, EdX and Udacity, I would say that computer science courses are particularly well suited to being taught through a MOOC.  One might argue that introductory courses are also well suited to MOOCs, however I am not sure I agree.  I think the being suited to a MOOC depends on who's perspective we are talking about, e.g. educator, student, institution etc.  However with the new technologies that are rolling out in terms of remote collaboration software such as Google hangouts, Multiway Skype screenshare etc. the majority of classes can be taught just as well in MOOC format, if not better than at a physical institution.  Although a clear exception would be those courses that are attempting to train or instruct in the use of expensive specialist equipment that is not available to the individual at their home.

Pavel:  Under what circumstances should colleges and universities award academic credit for third-party MOOC providers?

Sam: At the moment I think it's not in colleges and universities interest to award academic credit for third-party MOOC providers unless assessment has been verified through proctored examinations.

Pavel: How do you see the development of MOOCs in the observable future?

Sam: Difficult to say although my personal hope and plan is that MOOCs will become a lot more accessible and personal with MOOCs supporting students to talk in real time with their peers and instructors.

Pavel: Is there anything in particular about Hawaii that makes our location different when it comes to online higher education?

Sam: Hawaii of course has a large military presence; and military students really must have online education due to the nature of their work.  Of course Hawaii is also geographically isolated meaning that the range of educational choices is not what it is in other areas, making online education particularly valuable to Hawaii residents.

Pavel: How do you react to comments that MOOC are undermining higher education? For instance, some people are inclined to say that if awarded with academic credit, they would have no incentive to physically go to school when they can take everything online for free or a symbolic fee? Do you think this is a valid argument? Do you think this is a problem for faculty?

Sam: I guess the argument is that as MOOCs start awarding academic credit then many students might not attend a bricks and mortar "academy", thus undermining higher education institutions?  I think it's entirely possible that MOOCs may undermine higher education institutions that are not offering the highest quality of courses and value for money to their students.  I don't think that anything that itself promotes education can undermine education unless one posits that students receive some particular benefit from attending a physical institution that they cannot receive online.  Individuals have been taking distance and online courses around the world for many many years.  Here in the UK the Open University has been delivering higher education without physical institutions for some 30 odd years, and the UK still has a very strong set of higher education institutions in the physical domain.  I think it is an open question as to the value that students receive from attending a physical institution, and the most important thing in a free market is that of choice.  Students should have a free choice as to where they look for support to achieve their learning goals, and should not be paying over the odds for the support they receive.  I think the only challenge that MOOCs and other educational technology developments present for faculty is for those faculty who are not delivering the highest quality educational experience possible, and for those institutions who are charging over the odds.

Pavel: Finally, is there anything that you want to add, or a question that i should have asked you?

A general comment would be that globally I think we have education back to front.  Rather than asking what skills we should be teaching students and what subjects they should be learning, we should be asking our students what excites them, what they want to learn and what they want to build.