Open to the prospects of improvements in education

A colleague and I attended a lecture at ACT several years ago. The speaker was a visiting professor. He spoke about the use of computer programs to grade essays. Later, at lunch here on our campus, I told my colleagues that I had attended a presentation on this topic. They responded immediately with claims that no computer program could ever replace a human grader. I ask, “How do you know? Don’t we need an experiment before we can offer an opinion?”

In fact, the speaker at ACT did not claim that software can replace teachers. He freely conceded the limits of the available software. It does not evaluate all the qualities of writing that we think are important. It can be fooled. However, he had also surveyed English teachers. He knew how many student-written papers teachers read and annotate with suggestions for improvement. The number is small. A computer program can give more immediate and frequent feedback to a student than can a human teacher. Even if that feedback is in some ways inferior to the teacher’s guidance, its immediacy and frequency can make it an important complement to the teacher’s guidance.

The speaker at ACT had given the same stack of essays to a computer program and to a group of experienced English teachers. The teachers and the software produced similar scores. The software produced its scores more rapidly and more consistently.

At another meeting of professors, I heard one claim that Duolingo could never substitute for the kind of instruction in foreign languages that professors offer in face-to-face instruction. Again, how do we know if we do not test the proposition? After we have compared the proficiency of students who have completed Spanish 101 and 102 against those who have completed 200 hours of study with DuoLingo, we can comment on the relative strengths of the two ways of learning.

I have several times heard teachers of foreign languages tell me about their sampling of lessons on Rosetta Stone. They had compared their experiences and drawn similar conclusions. I did not doubt the validity of some of their criticisms. However, they also sounded too eager to find evidence that confirmed opinions that they had held before testing the product. New educational media are evolving rapidly. We will need to evaluate new educational media both objectively and repeatedly if we are to understand their potential.

Maybe Rosetta Stone and Duolingo will not rob teachers of their jobs but will instead free them to teach at a higher level than before, to students who are better prepared and more motivated than those whom they have seen in the past?

I have a long-standing interest in continuing education. I continue my own education not only to learn more computer science but also to test the waters and break a path for my students. I bring reports back to my classroom. I tell my students that they will need to continue their education after leaving college. I work hard to familiarize them with the means by which they can do this.

During my career I have completed short (one or a a few days) courses offered at the Argonne National Laboratory, in the National Science Foundation’s Chautauqua Program, and at conferences (e.g., the Association for Computing Machinery’s SIGGRAPH and the Mathematical Association of America’s MathFest). I enrolled in a course at Motorola University. The Motorola Corporation has long been a leader in supporting the continuing education of its employees. I visited both the campus in Schaumburg, Illinois and the campus in Tempe, Arizona. I have purchased self-study courses from my professional society. I have purchased recorded lectures from The Teaching Company (The Great Courses).

In the last few years, I have been studying German with Babbel, DuoLingo, and Rosetta Stone. I have been studying computer science, mathematics, and entrepreneurship with Coursera and Udacity. MOOCs made a big splash six or seven years ago. I am learning more and learning more easily and with more enjoyment than I did with any of the older media.

I now ask students in my courses to enroll in MOOCs. Coursera and Udacity still allow students to audit courses for free. I am not yet requiring students to complete MOOCs. My students see and hear leaders in our field. They gain experience learning with a resource that will be important to them later. They discover what other students of computer science know and can do. They find benchmarks against which to measure their own progress. With these MOOCs, my students can peek inside the classrooms of some of world’s best universities.

Udacity and Coursera invite students to keep trying until they produce nearly perfect work. The companies have designed courses with the expectation that all students who persevere will master the lessons. Their goal is not to determine which students have learned 90% of the lesson, which have mastered 80%, and who has got only 70% of the answers right—their goal is to get everyone to near 100%. Of course, some students will get there more quickly than others, but after all is said and done, who will care whether it took a student 3 months or 6 months to learn how to write programs for the iPhone, if that student can write programs expertly?

I also work to free students from fears of failure and to provide abundant opportunities for correction, revision, and improvement.

Udacity, Coursera, and Duolingo encourage students to answer one another’s questions. They have made it easy for students to collaborate through online fora. Subscribers to Duolingo, for example, post questions and answers about the permissible ordering of words in a sentence, distinctions between nearly synonymous words, and so on. Native speakers often join these discussions. I have found great value in this feature of the language learning program.

Presentations in MOOCs are short. Brief quizzes appear frequently in the lessons. Students learn computer science by building software. The instructors provide numerous examples from which students can learn and borrow.

I also design my courses around projects, encourage teamwork, divide my presentations into small pieces, and couple my presentations to the creative work that my students are doing in the laboratory.

I visited the offices of Udacity last spring. If MOOCs threaten us, it is not because they are delivering instruction through a different medium. It is rather because they are designing courses in a very different way. Teams design their courses. A course is not the work of a single professor working behind a closed door, drawing upon notes composed at home during the summer break. The teams at Udacity include diverse expertise and talents. Some members present the material. Others design projects, quizzes, and rubrics. Teachers do not stand alone in front of a camera. Other teachers are in the room observing, commenting, and directing. Every part of the finished course is visible to the whole world. The company measures, records, and analyzes every response of every student. The company continuously revises every course.

I do not know how MOOCs might work for those who want to study fine arts or humanities. The phrase “online education” covers a lot of ground. I urge my colleagues to avoid letting a bad experience with one kind of online education prejudice them against new kinds.

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