Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A scathing criticism of a Udacity course and a rebuttal

I just read a devastating review of Udacity's recently completed Introduction to Statistics MOOC on the Angrymath blog. It is a long, well reasoned post with many insightful comments -- well worth reading -- but the short version is the author's summary -- "the course is amazingly, shockingly awful."

The course instructor, Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun, answered with a post of his own in which he acknowledges the validity of some of the criticisms and promises that the course will be revised. However, he goes on to explain that to him statistics is "a highly intuitive field -- a field full of magic and surprises. I aspired to share these insights with everyone, and to have students experience them by working on interesting problems."

Reading the two posts, it is clear to me that they are talking about two different courses intended for different audiences with different goals.

The Angrymath blogger is a college lecturer who teaches what sounds like a standard introduction to applied statistics course. That is a traditional, well defined course that introduces probability, descriptive statistics and statistical inference for students in a range of fields -- business, pre-med, psychology, etc. It is a semester-long course and the textbooks follow similar outlines. It also establishes background for those who will do research and will go on to take more statistics courses (including math stat).

Thrun's is a shorter course in which he is trying to interest and surprise people, not to teach them how to read the statistical analysis in a psychology research paper or to design research studies. Thrun is teaching a short, elective liberal arts course while the Angyrmath blogger is teaching a required social science course.

Can we find ways to preserve the flexibility, enthusiasm and spontaneity that is found in an inspiring general studies course in canned MOOC?

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Subsequent to this post, Udacity announced that they would be substantially revising this statistics course -- adding four new units and improving 20 of the videos to clarify topics and provide more real world examples. There will also be a new assistant teacher.