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2012 October 6

Distance learning is not new

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:24
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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).

2012 August 28

Home schooling restarts

The school year at Alternative Family Education, the umbrella school for my son’s home schooling, starts tomorrow (2012 Aug 29).  We have not completely settled on everything he will do this year, but big chunks of the planning are now in place.  We’ll be meeting with his consultant teacher on Thursday (2012 Aug 30) to tweak the plan a bit.

Here is what it currently looks like he’ll be doing this year for 11th-grade courses:

Computer science

Art of Problem Solving Java Programming with Data Structures
This course is one of the few I’ve found that is Java as a second programming language. It will be more like his 6th programming language, but his most recent programming has been in Python, which is what AoPS uses for their first course. Although AoPS classes are usually fairly intense, I expect this one to be fairly straightforward, as my son has been exploring computer science concepts well beyond what the course covers. It will mainly be a disciplined way to make sure that he has Java syntax mastered and gets a good review of data structures, since he currently has rather scattered concepts in data structures.
Science Fair??
He has not yet committed to doing a science fair project this year. If he does one, it will probably be in computer science—perhaps continuing last year’s project, perhaps starting something new, perhaps taking one of the projects he’s been doing recreationally and turning it into a science fair project.


UCSC Math 30 Mathematical Problem Solving??
This Fall quarter course in math problem solving seems intended mainly for prepping students for the Putnam math prize exam. The course is currently full, but we are hoping that enough students will drop after they find out how tough the problems are that the professor will allow him to register through UCSC Extension.
UCSC Computer Engineering 16 Applied Discrete Math
This Winter quarter course covers the fundamental math needed for computer science (combinatorics, mathematical induction, Boolean algebra). I’ve taught it myself a few times in the past, but I think that it would be worth the money to have him take it in a class environment with a different instructor. If he doesn’t get into Math 30, he might take this Fall quarter. Both the Fall and the Winter professors are good—I think he might get on better with the Winter one, though.

Science and Engineering

Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism
We’ll be continuing with the Matter and Interactions book, doing the second half this year. I think we’ll do a week or two to finish off Chapter 13 on thermodynamics first, as there are a couple of labs that I bought cool toys for but didn’t have time for last year. I’ll continue posting info about what we do on this blog, collecting the physics posts in forward order.
Robotics Club
We’ll continue the Santa Cruz Robotics club, but not enter the MATE competition this year. I don’t know whether this will be a course or just recreational this year. A lot depends on who is in the club and how much guidance they want.


WEST Ensemble Players
West Performing Arts will be doing two teen productions this year: The Imaginary Invalid by Molière and The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. He plans to be in both.
Dinosaur Prom Improv Troupe
He joined WEST’s teen improve troupe last year and plans to continue with them this year. There is likely to be a large overlap in membership between the WEST Ensemble Players and Dinosaur Prom.


English is probably the subject that my son has had the worst problems with, due to writers’ block.  It looks like there are a couple of courses being offered by AFE this year that should work fairly well for him:

Leadership & Communication

Fall semester only. I quote the AFE ad:

Leadership and Communication is a course for high school students … . If you want to communicate with greater confidence and make a difference in life, join this course to become a more effective speaker, listener, and writer. Learn how your own and others’ communication styles influence your relationships, gain more confidence and skills for job interviews, learn how to present your ideas persuasively, and focus on communication skills that are of particular interest to you.
To receive the full 5 English credits, at least three hours of research and study time outside of class weekly will be an integral part of the course.

Dramatic Literature
Spring semester only. This is preparation for the trip to Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland in the spring. I probably won’t be able to go on the trip this year, but my son had a good time last year and wants to do it again.
Writing Tutoring
He’s been working with a writing tutor/educational therapist this summer on overcoming his writing block. We’ll probably continue that this year, focusing on timed writing (like SAT essays and in-class exams).


He did not finish the world history through history of science course that he started last year, though he put in a fair amount of time (including over the summer). We’re thinking of scaling it back and having him do just the reading for the rest of the material, since it is the writing that bogs him down. He could probably finish the reading in a week or two, without putting in much effort.

US History, Grades 9–12
Rather than trying to create a custom-tailored US history course, we’ll just have him take the one that AFE is offering. He has had excellent US history courses in 5th and 7th grades (more content than the high-school US history course I had), so a standard US history course should not be too onerous, as long as the writing is not overdone. (Actually he wrote better and got better instruction in writing in his middle school history classes than in any English classes he’s had.) I quote the AFE description:

Students will explore the history of our country.
This is a two semester course, 5 credits each semester. It will include reading, writing, and projects in and out of class, as well as occasional field trips.


Spanish 4
He’ll take the community college Spanish course in the Spring semester.

2012 July 1

Out In Left Field: Two ways to ensure learning

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:48
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Katherine Beals, in her Out in Left Field blog, had a post about evaluating whether a student has actually mastered the skill they are supposed to be learning: Two ways to ensure learning.

She starts with the observation that with multiple-choice questions (the favorite format for online and clicker questions) it is easy to be misled by students choosing the right answer with only very limited understanding. I believe that most teachers are aware of this problem, though few know how difficult it is to make really good multiple-choice question that has distractors for all the more common misunderstandings.

She goes on, though to point out that the current math teacher “obsession with having them explain their answers to math problems” is not the right solution to the problem.  To see whether students really understand the math, one should “construct math problems whose solutions are unlikely to be found by any means other than by using the skill in question.”  Not only are such problems easier to check for correctness, they  also do not discriminate against kids who can do the math but struggle with English writing.

She also points out that showing your work requires “problems complicated enough that there’s actual work to show; work that, if written out systematically, helps the students at least as much as the teacher.”

I’ve noticed that my son, who used to strongly resist writing out his work in math classes, now does quite competent, clear write-up for his Art of Problem Solving classes (both the precalculus and the calculus classes).  I think that there were at least three factors leading to this change:

  • The AoPS problems were difficult enough that you couldn’t just write down the answer from solving the problem in your head on on a calculator.  Multi-step reasoning is needed for most AoPS problems.
  • The teacher for his AoPS classes gave detailed feedback on the problem set—not just right or wrong, or a simple “show your work”, but feedback on the writing style and on the math shown (like what assumptions were made but not written down and why the lack of the assumption would make the math wrong).
  • The AoPS homework forum also gave students a place to present their work to people (not just the teacher) who were interested in understanding the solutions.  Writing clearly was rewarded by fellow students expressing their appreciation of a clear solution. Students also saw examples of both good and bad style and learned to recognize the difference in their own writing.

Note that the AoPS math writing is very different from the multi-page papers that I saw from the Math Academy at my son’s former school (he was not in the Math Academy).  Those papers were rather light on math and heavy on descriptive writing—good writing exercises, but not much math content.  The AoPS homework write-ups were very intense mathematics, and the writing was judged by how clearly it expressed the math to a mathematician.

2012 April 18

Distance learning for gifted kids

Suki Wessling, a local writer who is home-schooling her kids, recently wrote an article about distance-learning oppoturnites for gifted kids: Boutique distance learning offers variety for gifted kids – National gifted children | We have not used any of the “boutique” services she mentioned, nor, for that matter the large services like Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth or Stanford’s Education Program for Gifted Youth.

There are several reasons we’ve been reluctant to use many on-line courses:

  • Many are quite expensive. EPGY courses are around $500 to $750, plus $50 registration and shipping fees, JHU-CTY courses are $500–$1280.  I’d want to know that the course would be a very good fit and of higher quality than a corresponding community college class (about $300) before committing to an online course.
  • Too much screen time.  My son already spends more time in front of a screen than is healthy (as do I, so I can’t chide him too much). At least with community college classes he gets the exercise of bicycling to the class (in fact, this provides so much exercise that it counts as his PE class: about 4 hours a week).
  • Difficulty in finding courses that fit his educational needs and interests.  There are undoubtedly a number of courses that would be an excellent fit for him, but it is very difficult to distinguish them from other courses that have similar descriptions but would be at the wrong pace, wrong level, or have too much busy work.

So far we have only used one on-line course provider: Art of Problem Solving.  A year ago, I posted about our experience with with their precalculus course: Good online math classes.  My son did their calculus class this year with the same instructor, and we had similarly good results.  The AoPS calculus classes are not cheap ($500 with books), but they were an excellent fit for my son. If I could be assured of as good a fit in other online courses, I would be more willing to use online providers.

This year my son has been keeping time logs for his consultant teacher in the home-school umbrella.  For the AoPS calculus class that just ended, he did almost all the weekly and challenge problems, but not quite all. We added up the total hours (class and homework) for February and March, and got 56 hours—just under 7 hours a week.  His total workload for all courses (including the cycling that counts as PE) averaged 40.75 hours a week in February, which I regard as about the right amount of time for a high school student to be spending on school.  It is certainly much larger than the 2–3 hours a day that some home schoolers regard as adequate.  The main advantage for us of home schooling is not a reduction in workload, but a spending the time on appropriate work, rather than busy work or dead time.

I think that the calculus class was a good deal higher workload than the Precalculus class last year, but we did not keep time logs then, so I may be mistaken.  My son did not take any of their lower-level classes, so I can’t comment on the workload of any of them (though we did use the intro algebra and intro geometry books some earlier, and were happy with them, which is why I was willing to give AoPS online courses a chance).

My understanding is that by the end of the AoPS calculus course well over half the students had dropped, possibly because they could not keep up with the pace or the workload.  You only get your money refunded if you drop in the first 3 weeks, so a lot of families ended up wasting the tuition money.  I’m afraid of a similar thing happening if we pick an online course that is not a good fit for our son.

He will probably do one AP practice test before taking the AP Calculus BC test next month, but that should only take about 3.5 hours.  The AP test should be a good review of the essential material of the course, but so far as I can tell, the AoPS Calculus class covers more material in greater depth than the usual AP calculus BC course or the usual first-year college calculus class.  It is definitely a calculus-for-mathematicians course, with a lot of emphasis on problem solving and rigorous foundations (like using Darboux integrals, a somewhat cleaner equivalent to Riemann integrals).  Some of the differential and integral equations they had in the last challenge set seemed difficult even for me (though I must admit that ODE was never my favorite subject, and it has been over 30 years since I last did any differential equation other than a trivial exponential decay).

The AoPS courses also cover complex numbers fairly well, something that is not always done in other precalculus and calculus classes. Another gifted high school student I know has taken calculus through multi-variable calculus at the local community college.  I was amazed to find out that he’d had almost nothing about complex numbers: not even such fundamental things as Euler’s formula: e^{i\theta} = \cos \theta + i \sin \theta.  This lack came to light during physics class, when I was deriving acceleration for something moving in a circle by taking the second derivative of R e^{i \omega t} with respect to t.  It is so much easier to work with exponential functions than trig functions that it didn’t occur to me that the community college calculus classes would not have covered it.

2011 October 25

Home schooling weeks 5–8

Following up on Home Schooling week 4, this post describes our 2nd month of home schooling.  We had another meeting on Monday with the consultant teacher to touch bases and check on progress.

Spanish 3
Nothing particularly new here.  He still likes the instructor and still is doing well on tests.  They’re learning the subjunctive now.
English reading
He decided not to revise his essay on Brave New World—the corrections needed were fairly minor, but he didn’t see much point to fussing with an essay that he really didn’t care about.  He finished his map of Gethen for Left Hand of Darkness and has started on the essay about Newspeak for 1984. The essay on Newspeak will be as much linguistics as anything else, building on his interest in conlangs. I don’t know what book is next on his assigned reading list, but probably not another dystopia. He has, of course, been continuing about a book every 2 days of recreational reading.
We’ve decided to drop the creative writing idea for this semester.  We’ll look at it again next semester, and we’ll also consider his taking a tech writing course over the summer (either this summer or summer 2013) to catch up on the writing requirements.
 He added a few more events to the timeline, so he is up to about 20 events that have some snippet of information with them.  He was able to demonstrate the timeline to the teacher this time, and he has agreed that he will (eventually) put it on-line to share with other students.  He’ll have to add links to further information (even if only Wikipedia pages) for each entry and make sure that all his images are released with a license that lets him use them.  (Many are Wikimedia images, which are all under Creative Commons license, but he has a few from other web sites that he’ll have to check on and either get permission for or replace.)
He  is mostly off-book now for the lead villain role in the play he is doing, and they have blocked most of the scenes.  I think that this play has the most lines of any of the plays he’s been in so far, but the character is a fairly simple melodrama villain, so there isn’t a lot of complexity to the part.  His improv class continues to be fun, but the average age of the kids is a bit lower than in the play production, so I think he is occasionally a bit frustrated with the quality of some of the improv.
Physics C
 We had three meetings now of the Physics lab and have been making good progress on reading the book, doing problems, writing programs, and doing lab work.  About all that is missing is doing technical writing.  I think I’ll make the students write up the modeling they’ll be doing of springs (see Physics Lab 4: spring constants and Physics Lab 4: spring constants continued).  I also had a good conversation about the physics curriculum with my airport limo driver. 
We’re on schedule for finishing Part 1: Mechanics in the Matter and Interactions text before the AP Physics C: Mechanics exam. I’ll take that exam along with the students in the spring.  Next year, my son and I will do the second half of the text, and in his senior year, he’ll do a chemistry course somewhere (probably at the community college).
 The top-of-tether box is done (other than some strain reliefs).  We have ordered waterproof strain reliefs for doing the dry box penetrations, which we hope will come in the next week.  We decided to go with those and home-made waterproof disconnects rather than IP68 connectors, since we can seal the penetrations with casting resin if needed, and the home-made connection boxes can hold some of the electronics (like the ethernet-to-USB converter).  I’m not 100% convinced that the homemade connection boxes are a good idea, but it shouldn’t cost any more than the IP68 connectors.
It took longer than planned to get the strain reliefs, because of some miscommunication between the students and me.  I was looking for a parts list to order, and they just had a list of cable measurements.  Finally my son and I sat down with the measurements and the computer and spent an hour finding and ordering strain reliefs that should meet the requirements.  (We ended up with Sealcon strain reliefs ordered from, because Digi-Key did not seem to have what we needed.)
The students have also started assembling the motor controller that I designed as an Arduino shield.  We have an earlier version that I designed that would work for them, but the newer design should be a little easier to work with if they decide to mix motors and servos.  (It also has some LEDs to show whether or not power is being supplied.)
We have a pressure sensor soldered to a breakout board now and it seems to work.  We tested it using Lego pneumatics.
In two or three weeks the machine will be ready to put in the water and start testing (there will need to be a fair amount of programming before they can actually control the robot).
Machine Learning (Science Fair)
He’s gotten the input parser written and abstract base classes for his classifiers.  He’s not been putting in much time on this project, so things are not looking good for him getting it done by science fair.  His teacher has asked him for a one-page lay-person’s overview of what his project involves.  He’ll need that for the science fair poster and report, and it would be good for him to write this in the next 2 weeks.
Calculus BC
The AoPS Calculus class has been going fine, though he is a little behind schedule on the homework.  He likes the class and the instructor, but it takes him much longer to write up the problem solutions than it should.  I don’t know whether the problem is with insufficient facility with the math or whether is it another symptom of his writing problem. 
Physical Education
He continues the usual 4 hours of bicycling a week (plus nightly sit-ups and leg lifts).  He’s biked about 270 miles since the beginning of the school year. He gets a PE credit for every 15 hours of exercise, so he has earned 2 so far.  He has 5 from 9th grade PE last year, so he only needs to earn 3 more, which will take about 3 months of bicycling to the community college.  If he takes Spanish 4 there next semester, then he’ll have cleared his required PE this year.

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