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