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2012 October 6

Distance learning is not new

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:24
Tags: , , , , , ,

The current frenzy about Massively Overhyped Online Courses is creating new words (like MOOCopalypse, which I saw in Mark Guzdial’s blog), but this is not the first time there has been such a frenzy over distance learning.  Nicholas Carr, in MIT’s Technology Review wrote an article, The Crisis in Higher Education, in which he pointed out the parallels to the postal courses that were rage in the 1920s, with four times as many students taking them as were enrolled in all the colleges and universities.  Almost exactly the same hype about distance learning was written then as is being written now about MOOCs.

That is why I’m bothered by comments like Dennis Frailey’s “Distance education in general and MOOCs in particular are a case in point. Certainly these techniques are in a relatively immature state and there are plenty of lessons learned that those promulgating these techniques have failed to pay attention to. But we should be figuring out how to make them work, not griping about why they won’t.” Distance learning is not in an immature state—it is a very mature business which is being faced with a potentially disruptive technology that makes the least useful part of the process cheaper, in much the same way that television did.

There is certainly value in distance learning, and I have personal reasons to respect it highly.  For example, a few decades ago, my mother went back to college in her 60s to get an AA degree with a combination of correspondence courses from the University of Illinois and local community college courses.  She might not have been able to do that without the correspondence courses—it certainly would have been much harder for her and some of the written literary discussions she had with UofI faculty would never have happened.

I value current online courses also: my son is now taking a third online course from Art of Problem Solving (Java and data structures—previously he’s had Precalculus and Calculus from them). But these courses are not MOOCs—they are small, boutique classes tailored for unusual students like my son.  One of the most valuable parts of the courses is the detailed feedback on the hand-graded assignments, which includes tips for ways to improve proofs, shortcuts that were missed, and ideas for further exploration.  The grading also provides feedback on mathematical writing and presentation, which few high-school teachers provide. It is that sort of close attention that I’m paying AoPS for,  not the chat-room lectures (though my son finds those a bit easier to learn from than books or video lectures).

Despite the very good success we’ve had with Art of Problem-Solving courses, I did not sign him up for their WOOT class on advanced problem solving in math this year.  Instead, I spent even more money to get him into a somewhat similar class at UCSC (Bruce Cooperstein’s Math 30: Mathematical Problem Solving).  I don’t know that Cooperstein is any better as a teacher than the AoPS math teachers (they have some great teachers with impeccable credentials in contest math), but the face-to-face social interaction with mathy college students is a benefit that AoPS only weakly simulates.  The exercise he gets from cycling up the hill to campus 3 days a week is another benefit, as is having a real college math course on his transcript and possibly a faculty recommendation letter when it comes time for him to apply to colleges.

We hope to sign him up for applied discrete math in the winter for similar reasons.  Note: even if we wanted a Coursera or edX course on the subject, there isn’t one available.  There is a community college course with substantially they same content as the UCSC course (they copied the UCSC course about 20 years ago), but I have reason to expect a somewhat higher level and faster pace from the UCSC professor. I’ve also co-taught with the professor teaching the course in the winter, and I think my son will get on well with her style. I believe that for my son the UCSC course is worth the higher price (about $1400 per course, instead of under $200 for the community college course, if Cabrillo even offers it this year), though for other subjects (like Spanish language instruction) the community college offers a better value/cost ratio.

I don’t know that the decisions I make about my son’s education are in any way representative of other parents of high school and college students—I know I’m an outlier in many financial decisions (no car, no cell phone, no cable TV, no loans, paid-off mortgage on a small house, …).  But I  know that the best college courses I’ve taken or taught don’t look much like MOOCs.

Now I’ve got to stop wasting time on writing blog posts and get down to doing my grading for my bioinformatics course.  I’ve done the part that could be automated (checking the I/O behavior of the programs), though for 15% of the class I had to make some tweak to what they submitted in order to test the program fairly—a more automatic system would simply have rejected the code as “unworking”. Now I have to read and comment on the code and documentation style.  That’s the hard and time-consuming part, but it is also the most important part.

I don’t have a lot of time for grading this weekend, as I’ve got a lunch-time meeting today with 7 new Regents’ Scholars whom I’ve agreed to mentor, and tomorrow there is a faculty association (union) meeting that I promised some faculty in my department that I would report on to them.  I’ve been a dues-paying member of the faculty association for a long time, but they never seem to do anything, so I’m curious whether they now have concrete plans or if they plan to revert to being the Santa Cruz Parking Association (the derogatory name I gave them shortly after I joined, when all they did was waste time complaining about the cost of parking permits, which I thought were already under-priced).



  1. As one of your past students, I’d like to express my appreciation for the amount of time you put into grading programming assignments. The feedback was very helpful to me — many mistakes when starting are subtle and difficult to self-diagnose. Google is a helpful aid but won’t help when you aren’t aware of your own mistakes. On the topic of distance learning, might be an interesting course for your son. It’s a course on building computers, starting from the very basic and going up. I’m planning on starting the course with my younger brother next weekend.

    Comment by Edward Liaw — 2012 October 6 @ 19:53 | Reply

    • Thanks for the feedback,Ed. It is helpful when I’m struggling to keep up to know that students actually read the comments I make. I’m about half done with grading this assignment, but I deliberately started with the worst ones (the ones that did not pass the I/O check), so things should be getting easier. I’m hoping that the new “scaffolding” assignment, which concentrates on creating a reusable structure for later programs, will make the later assignments somewhat easier to read, as the code should be better organized. I’ll see next week, when I get the fasta2fastq and fastq2fasta programs, which are just a little more ambitious than the old first assignment, though less ambitious than the assignment that last year’s instructor tried to start with.

      I’ll have my son look at nand2tetris, though he’s not shown much interest in anything below assembly language so far, so starting from the bottom up may not appeal to him.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 October 6 @ 20:31 | Reply

  2. I have a student whose schedule wouldn’t accommodate my class so we decided she should sign up for a mooc and then meet once a week to get the feedback she might get from my class. She chose the CS intro at Coursera. She signed up as self study because the class wasn’t “in session”. However, when she got to the end of her first unit, she discovered that the exercises, quizzes and tests were no longer available. So she switched o the Udacity intro where the materials are all always available.

    I think this might be a good use of a mooc for a high school student. We’ll see how it goes. I’ve mentored students through paid online courses before. I find with CS, it’s easy to get lost/frustrated early on, and not having immediate feedback can mean that students give up on CS altogether.

    Comment by Laura — 2012 October 7 @ 05:14 | Reply

    • I had a couple of grad students wanting to take a Coursera course that was already half over for credit, but I pointed out that there was a limit to the number of transfer courses we accepted and that accepting an undergrad MOOC for graduate credit would probably require a departmental vote, not a routine approval by the grad director. The problem they were addressing was that the two courses they needed to complete their coursework had been scheduled at the same time. That is one of the problems with being an interdisciplinary department with courses required from several different departments—we don’t control the scheduling of the courses, and the conflicts that our students have are often see as weird, unlikely events by the other departments. (I believe that the conflict here was between a large undergrad bioethics course and a small graduate machine learning course.)

      I think that Coursera courses to replace high school courses is more likely to be a reasonable substitution than to replace grad courses or even good undergrad courses.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 October 7 @ 09:52 | Reply

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