Gas station without pumps

2012 November 29

Online education for continuing education

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 15:20
Tags: , , ,

Tom Katsouleas, Dean of Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, provided a very upbeat view of online courses (particularly MOOCS) in a blog post Who says online courses will cause the death of universities?.  He makes some assertions without evidence that I find a bit dubious:

The bottom line, though, is that while online education poses a challenge for universities, they will ultimately improve them.

And by moving lecturing online, MOOCs allow in-person time to be more interactive, dynamic, and valuable.

Despite the challenges to universities posed by MOOCs, there are great advantages to them as well. And the best universities will be able to capitalize on those advantages to provide the best value for their students – whether that value is online or in person. Despite what some see as a threat to higher education, MOOCs will only help it get better.

This is essential the administrative view of online courses: that they are new and cheap and must therefore be for the good of higher education.

I think that Dr. Katsouleas is right in asserting that the continuing education market for engineers is one of the places where universities will first see the effect of MOOCS, both because there are more MOOCs and more advanced MOOCs available in engineering than in other fields, and because many engineers seek continuing education even without certification.  I don’t think that the MOOCs will reduce MS degree seekers much, because there is still a very large premium for the MS certification in engineering, and the engineering MOOCs available still only go up to junior-level courses.  There are already many MS-level courses offered online, and I’m sure we’ll see an increase in them, but the market for them is too small for a MOOC, so there isn’t the advertising-for-the-provider benefit which drives most of the MOOCs currently, and we’re more likely to see the standard pay-per-course fee structure for them.

I think that we will see some colleges and universities starting to accept credits from MOOCs for undergrad courses, once the problems with cheating and low-quality assessment are fixed.

PeerJ, open-access done reasonably

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:28
Tags: , ,

There is a new open-access journal—what could be less newsworthy than that?  I get dozens of spam messages a week from open-access vanity journals eager to take my money.  Most of them get discarded quickly, as being not worth the time it takes to figure out what the scam is for this one.  As an unfunded researcher who has gotten tired of chasing after grants, I can’t afford the $2000–3000 an article cost of publishing in open-access journals like PLoS Computational Biology.

So why am I writing about yet another open-access journal? One with a crummy name like PeerJ, at that?

Well, it seems that the creators of PeerJ have recognized that publishing an online academic journal need not be expensive, and that the lower costs of production can be turned into lower costs for the authors (rather than into high profits for the nameless owners of the journal).  Their model is a subscription model, but it is a subscription for authors, not for readers. For a one-time fee of $99 you can publish one paper a year; for $199, two papers a year; and for $299 an unlimited number of papers per year.  (They charge a little more if you wait until your first paper is accepted before publishing.)

There are a few gotchas: every author must pay (well, only a dozen for papers with more than 12 authors), and every author must do a review each year in order to retain their membership (they can restart a membership for $99 if it lapses for lack of reviews).  There are institutional discounts, which might be useful for a company or university, if they are reasonably priced (institutional pricing is not on their web page, just an email address to discuss it with them).

This looks to me like a reasonable model for open-access publishing, if they can make it work.  Note that unlike high-fee open-access journals, there is little incentive for them to become a bottom-fishing vanity press. They have the same sort of incentive that a subscription journal has to keep the number of papers down, as they don’t make a lot more money by publishing a lot of papers.  This leads me to hope that their editorial policies will concentrate on publishing quality papers.  They do have substantial incentive to seek out new authors, though, so they won’t fall into the trap of only publishing papers from an old-boy network, the way some traditional journals do (I’m looking at you, PNAS).

I’m even considering finishing up one of my long-neglected drafts, just so I have something to try submitting to them.

Thanks to Iddo Friedberg, whose blog post on PeerJ alerted me to its existence.

Cost of online education

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:00
Tags: , , , , ,

In Changing Universities: Online Instruction, Budget Transparency, and the Cost of Education, Bob Samuels makes a crude estimate of the cost of online courses versus mega-lecture courses (the two approaches to education popular with university administrators, because of their relatively low cost).

I believe his numbers serious underestimate the costs of both, as he only counts the costs of lecturers, and not that of TAs.  It is true that lecturers are only paid about $7500 a course, but a course of 200 students is likely to have 4 TAs, at a cost of $11000 each (more fairly, $5800 each, since the rest goes back to the University as tuition).  So the direct instructional cost is more like $31k, or $155 per student, not counting benefits for the lecturer.  He also neglects a lot of the overhead costs, like amortizing the cost of classrooms and the costs of cleaning and maintaining buildings, roads, libraries, and other essential infrastructure.    He underestimates the cost of course development for traditional courses, though he includes it for online courses (which are, admittedly, far more expensive to develop).

I think he’s right that the University is not going to save significant amounts of money by offering big courses online, and that going online may actually raise costs, but his analysis is not careful enough to establish that.  The UC Online pilot project has spent a lot of money developing very few courses. The edX consortium has also dedicated huge amounts of money to deliver a very small number of classes—confirming my view that edX is primarily and advertising vehicle for MIT and Harvard, rather than an education-delivery vehicle.

The cost of developing traditional courses can be fairly high. I’ve spent about 400–500 hours developing a new lab course, even before preparing any of the lab handouts or ordering the parts for the students, which will take another 100 hours (more than full time over winter break). At my current salary and benefits, that is a development cost of about $30k. Delivering the course to 20 students will cost another $30k–40k (counting my time, ⅓ of a course for a lecturer, and an undergraduate group tutor), for a cost of around $3500/student. Of course, in future years, the class size will double, the development costs will have been amortized, and we may even alternate years between Senate faculty and a lecturer, reducing the cost to about $1000/student, as he estimated for somewhat smaller classes.

Incidentally, if you are interested in what goes into designing an engineering lab course, I’ve been making notes on the course design on this blog.   I’m up to 86 blog posts (about 200–300 pages) of notes for the course design—and I still haven’t started writing up the web pages or course handouts.

I’m still strongly of the belief that it is in courses like this lab course that the University is strongest, and that attempts to reduce the cost of education with mega-lectures and online courses reduce the quality much faster than they reduce the cost.

2012 November 28

Faculty discussion of online courses at UCSC

This afternoon I attended a Faculty Senate panel discussion on the future of on-line courses at UCSC.  A couple of the panelists had already taught on-line courses, and their presentations were particularly interesting.

One had taught a hybrid course where half the students attended live lectures and the other half watched videos of the lectures.  Both halves had required weekly hands-on discussion sections, so the course wouldn’t scale to MOOC sizes.  The bottom line was that there was no significant difference in performance between the on-line and live-class halves of the class, and that students spent a lot less time looking at the videos than predicted.  (The class has been offered 4 times to about 300 students each time, so this was not a small sample.)

The other professor is currently teaching a tiny boutique class (14 students, I think he said), using software that lets him lecture from his office, with a whiteboard window, a little web-cam video feed, and a chat window.  I’ve used similar software in conversations with the Global Physics Department (whose meeting tonight I missed, because of the panel discussion, but they were just discussing the College Board’s plan to split AP Physics B into two courses, which I’m not all that interested in).  When I gave a presentation to the GPD, I found it very difficult to present material on the whiteboard, talk, and watch the chat box all at the same time.  I asked the professor about this problem at the reception afterwards, and he said that with a small, quiet class, he can usually keep up, but if everyone chats at once, stuff scrolls off screen before he can read it.  He thinks that the technology might scale up to 60 students with a very non-interactive lecture style and sleeping students (I exaggerate his description), but not beyond that.

Another professor presented a course that is going to be offered soon that takes the form of a self-paced e-book (on calculus).  He showed a couple of features of the e-book, and I think that it has many of the bells and whistles that math bloggers have expressed an interest in seeing in math e-books.  Personally, I did not find the examples he showed very appealing, but I’m not part of the target audience. (He also loves math history, which I have always found to be a tedious addition to math books, so I’m really not part of the target audience.)

Some of the panelists just raised questions for us to think about, though they went by so fast that I don’t think anyone in the audience will remember more than one or two of them—the questions they were thinking about before coming to the meeting.  I hope that the Committee on Teaching or the Committee on Educational Policy will send out the list of questions as e-mail.

One thing that disturbed me about this meeting was the average age of the attendees. I think I was well below the median age there, and I’m turning 58 this week.  If we are talking about the future of online education at the university, then we absolutely need to be talking with the people who will be the faculty in that future.  It can’t be only us old farts who will retire in the next decade (and the professors emeriti, who have already retired)—where were the assistant and associate professors?  I’d be very surprised if there were more than 4 assistant or 6 associate professors there.

My personal feeling is that UCSC should not invest large amounts of money in online education.  It does not seem to be much cheaper than conventional teaching methods, and UC does not have a good track record for providing infrastructure cheaply, nor for running businesses.  I think that UCSC should be concentrating its shrinking resources on the things where there is enormous value added by being a UC: on lab courses and small seminar courses where students get direct hands-on experience and interact with faculty.  If this means outsourcing the teaching of the 1000 students a year taking precalculus,  well, that’s too bad, but high schools and community colleges can teach those courses ok.  I don’t believe that UC should be teaching precalc—certainly not to a quarter of each incoming cohort!

Unfortunately, the budgetary pressure in recent years has been towards eliminating small grad courses and expensive-to-teach lab courses, and creating more and more mega-lecture courses.  These mega-lecture courses are relatively easy to replace with MOOCs, since the teaching in mega-lectures has already been degraded almost to the level of video lectures, with no interaction for most students. Once you start moving to a factory model of education, it starts becoming “obvious” to outsource the production to cheaper labor elsewhere, or to look for “economies of scale” that allow you to mass-produce a course.  I’m not convinced that there are economies of scale in education—I don’t think that it is really more cost-effective to teach 1000 students at once than 20 students at once.  You can make the course cheaper per student, but the cost in quality is pretty high.

The calculus e-book looks like a promising alternative to big lecture courses, though I suspect that not that many students will slog through it without someone holding their hands and cheering them on.  Even my son, who is very interested in math and quite good at it, finds it much easier to learn in the context of a class with regular meetings and feedback from the teachers than in a self-paced course with the same content—lack of time-management skills ruins self-paced courses for most students.  Of course, there is no reason that e-book has to be used in a self-paced course, but adding math coaches or teaching assistants to the course raises the cost of offering it to nearly the levels of a conventional  course. Furthermore, the time, money,  and effort involved in creating such an e-book means it is unlikely that UCSC will create many such resources.

The chair of the Committee on Educational Policy suggested that there would be a market for on-line courses in bioinformatics from UCSC, since UCSC is an acknowledged world leader in bioinformatics.  And it is true that there might be a market, but as the teacher for our core graduate bioinformatics course, I don’t think that our quality of education would survive a transfer to on-line format.

My “lectures” are very interactive—I try to get students to derive things like the Smith-Waterman algorithm and the forward-backward algorithm for HMMs from reasoning about how to break problems into sub-problems for dynamic programing.  I could present the algorithms in a textbook-like way in a quarter the time, eliminating the long waits for students to digest and idea and suggest a next step, eliminating the cold calls, eliminating the checks for understanding at every key point, … .  I can teach a group of 20 students in the same room with me, but I’d lose most of the useful feedback in an online setting.  I’d also lose the chats with students between classes—e-mail and forums do not bring up the same issues that come up when I stop by the grad office to get more hot water for my tea. Even recording my extemporaneous presentations would flatten them—I’m likely to be just enough nervous about making mistakes on camera that I’d play it safer, doing pre-canned examples, rather than riskier live-action math and algorithms that show how I think about problems, rather than just showing “the solution”.

Just Monday, when I was presenting a numeric example of computing HMM probabilities, I made a serious mistake that amounted to multiplying by two transition probabilities instead of just one in the first step.  It was caught by one of the students, and I could correct it and go on.  Today, after we together derived the more general recurrence relation for the forward algorithm, one student suggested an optimization that wouldn’t quite work, and I could point out that it was exactly the same as the mistake I had made near the end of Monday’s lecture.  With an online course, either the mistake wouldn’t have happened in the first place (if I polished my examples before presenting them, following a script rather than extemporizing), or the students would not have had the involvement to correct me or to propose optimizations that didn’t quite work.  Having a small class that has been encouraged to present ideas, to challenge me when I may be making a mistake, and to ask questions when they don’t understand is crucial to my teaching style, and having a record of the class is likely to ruin that.

I sometimes deliberately make mistakes and hope for the students to catch them—if they don’t, I have to spend more time stepping them through the pitfall, so that they can see it and avoid making the same mistake themselves.  At the beginning of the quarter, the students were pretty shy about saying anything, but I now have over half the class participating on a regular basis,  and even the weaker students are willing to ask about potential errors, though they ask more timidly than the stronger students, since there is a bigger chance that they are misunderstanding something, rather than pointing out my error.  Encouraging the students to correct my mistakes does get me more feedback about misunderstandings, when their attempts to correct something that is actually already correct highlights where they did not quite grasp a concept.

Even if we could somehow magically provide online all the visual cues and social interaction of the face-to-face classroom, I don’t think that we could scale up other aspects of the course: I’m already spending almost all my weekends providing detailed feedback on programs and papers for a class of around 16 students.  If we scaled the class up by even a factor of 2, we’d lose that detailed feedback, which I see as an essential part of the homework.  For many of the seniors and grad students, my reading of their programs and papers is the first time any professor has read any of their work closely—and they desperately need to hear how to fix their in-program documentation or how to reorganize their sentences to avoid flow problems.

Incidentally, in my other class (which includes many of the same first-year grad students), the students just finished doing 10-minute presentations on techniques from Teach Like a Champion.  Tomorrow, before we start reviewing the video recordings of their presentations, I think I’ll have them try to think about which of the techniques they presented that they have seen me use in the bioinformatics core course.  This year they presented Circulate, Ratio, Cold Call, the Hook, Pepper, Warm/Strict, Wait Time, No Warnings, Check for Understanding, Stretch It, Positive Framing, No Opt Out, Board=Paper, Call and Response, and Begin at the End.  I think that they’ll find that I use about half of those on a regular basis. (I leave it to my readers to guess which of these I don’t use much—those who had me as an instructor a decade or more ago might make different guesses than those who’ve had me recently, as I’ve gotten better about some things.) Note that most of the teaching techniques in Teach Like a Champion are difficult to apply in an online course.

I’m not planning to teach any on-line courses in the near future, and I’ll be putting my efforts into creating more of the interactive, lab-style courses that are difficult to replicate on-line (like the Applied Circuits course I’ve been designing for the past 5 months).  I think that the future of the university is in these high-interaction-level courses—artisanal education, not mass-produced factory education.  There will undoubtedly be a huge market for the Wal-marts of education, but that’s not where I want to work, nor where I want my son to be a student.


2012 November 27

MOOC game

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 15:48
Tags: , , , ,

I really liked a comment by Mark Urban-Lurain on Mark Guzdial’s blog:

Here’s a fun game to play with everything you read about MOOCs to help sort out the signal-to-noise ratio.

Substitute TEXTBOOK for ONLINE/MOOC COURSE to see how transformative the discussion of MOOCs is in that context.

Below are the results for above breakthrough announcement. I’ve yet to see an example that is any more exciting. Anyone have one?


The fast-moving world of TEXTBOOKS, where anyone can READ TEXTBOOKS from a world-famous university, is making new foray into the community college system, with a personal twist.

In a partnership billed as the first of its kind, the PUBLISHER edX plans to announce Monday that it has teamed up with two Massachusetts community colleges to offer computer science classes that will combine TEXTBOOKS and classroom instruction.

Beginning next term, Bunker Hill and MassBay community colleges will offer versions of a MIT TEXTBOOK that will be supplemented with on-campus classes. Those classes, to be taught by instructors at the two-year schools, will give students a chance to review the TEXTBOOK and receive personal help.

“This allows for more one-to-one faculty mentoring” than exclusively READING TEXTBOOKS, said John O’Donnell, president of MassBay Community College in Wellesley. O’Donnell added that the schools’ involvement allows edX “to test its TEXTBOOK content on a broader range of students.”

Students will pay the same amount they would for a standard class.

via edX offers a CS1 MOOC via Massachusetts community colleges « Computing Education Blog.

I think that this comment sums up a lot of my feelings about the MOOC hype: that they are mainly a rather expensive replacement for textbooks, rather than a better way of offering courses. (And by “expensive”, I mean expensive to produce, not expensive to consume, as MOOCs are currently heavily subsidized by their producers as an attention-getting gimmick and offered free, like other advertising.)

A lot of the hype about the advantages of online education (like being able to rewind and view stuff again) seems to be just a poor approximation of books (which can be reread, annotated, indexed, …) for illiterate people.  The video lecture is mostly a book for illiterates.

Of course, a MOOC is more than a collection of video lectures, as such collections have been around for a long time, but have not got the social cachet of a MOOC.  In fact, most of what makes MOOCs popular is that they are fashionable. I suspect that the fad will not last long, and that MOOCs will become just another minor part of the education landscape, increasing online education by a little bit.  Of course, in the meantime, universities will have created a bunch of high-level, overpaid executive positions to manage online education, and such positions will be damn near impossible to eliminate, even when the underlying educational enterprise is seen to be of minor educational value.

I think that MOOCs will attract primarily two groups of students: adults who want some continuing education and home school students who are desperate for content at a reasonable level.  Neither of these markets will make much of dent in traditional college education.  MOOCs will be competing mainly with “university extension” courses: those unaccredited courses that use university names without really being a significantly connected with the rest of the university.

Next Page »

%d bloggers like this: