Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Math MOOC – Coming this fall. Let’s Teach the World.

Higher education as we know it just ended. Exactly what will take its place is not at all clear. All that can be said with certainty is that within a few short years the higher education landscape will look very different.

That is not to say that existing colleges and universities will suddenly go away, or indeed change what they do – though I think both will occur to varying degrees in due course. What is changing now is what classifies as higher education, who provides it, how they provide it, who will have access to it, how they will obtain it, and how it will be funded. Distance education, for many years the largely-ignored stepchild of the higher education system, is about to come of age.

This is not just my opinion. My own university, Stanford, recognizes what is going on, and is taking significant steps to lead and stay on top of the change, and a number of Silicon Valley’s famed venture capital firms, who make their fortunes by betting right on the future, have sunk significant funding into what they think may be key players in the new, higher ed world.

Last fall, Stanford computer science professor Sebastian Thrun used the Internet to open his on campus course in artificial intelligence to anyone in the world with Net access, and 160,000 students from 190 countries signed up. Some 22,000 of those students finished the course, receiving “certificates of completion” signed by Thrun (and co-teacher Peter Norvig of Google), but no Stanford credit. (For that, a student has to be on campus and officially registered; annual tuition is $40,050 and entry is fiercely competitive.)

Demonstrating the entrepreneurial spirit that Stanford faculty are famous for, Thrun promptly left Stanford to found a for-profit online university, Udacity. With Udacity receiving financial backing from a large Venture Capital firm, the MOOC – massive open online course – suddenly came of age. A short while later, two more Stanford computer science faculty, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, secured $16M of venture capital funding to launch a second Stanford spin-off company, Coursera, a Web platform to distribute a broad array of interactive courses in the humanities, social sciences, physical sciences, and engineering.

Initial courses offered on Coursera include, in addition to several from Stanford, offerings from faculty at the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton. Stanford president John Hennessy appointed a blue-ribbon panel of Stanford faculty to develop a strategy for developing, and delivering, online courses. For free. To the world.

Yes, you read that correctly. The faculty, the universities, and the new platforms are making the courses available for free. All the funding is coming – for now – from for-profit investors and the private universities themselves. Why are they doing that? If you have to ask the question, you don’t really understand the Internet and how it changes everything. Think Napster and the music industry or Skype and the telephone industry. Like the settling of the American territories in the nineteenth century, the initial focus is on establishing a presence in the new land; monetization can come later – almost certainly in ways very different from today’s.

Computer-assisted, distance learning is not new, of course. Stanford was one of the universities that pioneered it the 1960s; many universities have for several decades offered adult professional education courses for a fee, largely to raise funds; and there are the for-profit online schools like the University of Phoenix. More recently, led by MIT, a number of universities started making recordings of their regular courses, together with course materials, available online for free. So what has changed now?

The answer is the platform and the target audience’s experience and expectations have changed. What has been missing so far is the active participation of the distant student in a learning community. Building on technology developed at Stanford to support flipped classroom experiences for its regular students, Udacity and Coursera have secured the major investments required to build scalable, robust platforms that can take the small learning seminar and create a similar experience across the Internet.

A generation that has grown up on the Web has taken to the new online medium like fish to water. During the term when Thrun made his AI course available online, most of the Stanford students enrolled in his class stopped attending his lectures and took their information delivery online, at times convenient to them.

Is this the beginning of the end of physical universities? I doubt it. Though online courses are excellent for in-career professional learning, the absence of being a member of a physical community makes them a poor substitute – arguably no substitute – for a traditional college or university when it comes to providing first-pass education. But what about the millions (make that billions) in the world who do not have access to a university education? “Let’s teach the world” is a buzz phrase you hear increasingly among the Stanford faculty these days. And Stanford is putting resources into making this attractive dream a reality.

What makes it fascinating to a faculty member, is figuring out how to take a learning experience that works in a small-group setting on a campus, and re-creating a similar – or equivalent – experience online. Having decided last December that I would offer a math MOOC this fall, I found myself at once faced with a number of challenges.

By far the greatest problem is how to provide the personal, expert feedback that is essential to good mathematics learning. Web delivery is fine for providing instruction, but that is just a part of learning, and a minor part at that, as I discussed in the March Devlin’s Angle. At first, it seemed an impossible task. But with Stanford and the now independent Coursera building innovative new platforms, I began to see the glimmer of opportunities. Over the coming months, I’ll use this forum to write about my progress. And hopefully get your assistance.

My focus for this first foray into this new educational landscape is the high school to university transition. As every university mathematics instructor knows, many students encounter difficulty going from high school math to college-level mathematics. Though the majority survive the transition, many do not. To help them make the shift, colleges and universities often have a transition course. I myself developed one of the first transition courses in the late 1970s, when I was teaching at the University of Lancaster in England.

Such courses typically comprise a mix of some elementary mathematical logic, proof techniques, some set theory through to an analysis of relations and functions, with a bit of elementary number theory and introductory real analysis thrown in to provide examples.

Given the problems students typically have when they meet this material for the first time, doing this at a distance is a challenge. Even if they did well at math in school, most beginning university students are knocked off course for a while by the shift in emphasis, from the K-12 focus on mastering procedures to the “mathematical thinking'' characteristic of much university mathematics. Clearly, offering such a course as a MOOC is a huge experiment.

This is where you come in. (I hope.) One of the things we’ve learned at Stanford from offering MOOCs, is that a key component is the creation of a strong online community. Learning is all about human interaction. The technology just provides the medium for that interaction. In offering my math transition MOOC at the start of the fall term, when many colleges and universities offer their own transition course, I am inviting any instructor who will be giving such a course, together with their students, to join me and my MOOC students online, making interaction with other students around the world a part of a much larger learning community.

The result could be a total failure. I won’t know until I try. On the other hand, anyone who joins me might just find themselves at the start of something major, new, and exciting. The online learning revolution is going to happen, and existing educational institutions are going to have to adjust to it, just as the music industry did to the iTunes revolution. Why not jump on the train as it is leaving the station?

I’m going to make my course just five weeks long, starting in early October. By incorporating participation in my Stanford course part of your students’ learning experience, everyone could benefit. For one thing, your students are likely to be inspired by being part of an educational revolution that for millions of less privileged people around the globe can quite literally be life changing.

Because they will be supported by being part of a physical learning community, with the personal support of you, their instructor, your students will be highly empowered, privileged members of that online community. They can take advantage of your support so that they can help others. And as we all know, there is no more powerful way to learn than to try to teach others.

For that student half way round the world, trying to improve his or her life through education – by learning to think mathematically – the potential benefit is, of course, far greater. Helping that unknown young (or not so young) person make that step might just help inspire your own students to put in that bit of extra effort to master that tricky new transition material. Everyone wins.

If my Stanford MOOC draws a student body in the tens of thousands, which it might, based on the experience of my colleagues here, there is no way I and a couple of graduate TAs can provide individual feedback to every student. But if instructors and their students across the US join me, then maybe we can collectively achieve something remarkable.

I am making my MOOC deliberately short, five weeks, so participation will leave most of the semester open for participating instructors to concentrate on giving their own course, perhaps using their students’ initial experience in the MOOC community as a springboard for the rest of the course.

By the time I post next month’s column, I hope to have more details available. In the meantime, I ask anyone giving a transition course this fall to consider joining me in this experiment. The only cost is our time. There is no need to make any advance commitment to me or to Stanford. At this stage, all I ask is that you consider joining me. I believe we will all benefit. Let’s teach the world.