Wednesday, September 26, 2012

First shot at characterizing MOOCs -- what are the relevant attributes? (Using a Coursera history course as an example)

Last month I watched portions of Google's Inside Search MOOC and posted a short description of its structure.

Now I am watching Coursera's History of the World since 1300, taught by Princeton history professor Jeremy Adelman.

I am not trying to evaluate the course in this post, but to use it as an example in an effort to develop a set of characteristics or dimensions we can use in describing online courses. (We also need classification schemes for course levels, student goals, etc.). I've also compiled a set of screen images illustrating various characteristics of the course.

Course attributes or dimensions

  • Synchronization: This is a lockstep class in which a cohort is synchronized over twelve weeks as opposed to self study. I do not know whether or not the lectures and other material will be archived for self study after the class ends.
  • Ordering: Ordering of this course is strong since all students follow the same path throught the weekly modules as opposed to students selecting arbitrary modules or following suggested paths through the course material.
  • Presentation style: The presentations are lecture style as opposed to the over-the-shoulder conversation style of the Khan Academy or Udacity.
  • Lecture format: There are two one hour lectures per week. They are broken into four or five segments running from around 6 to 20 minutes.
  • Video presentation modes: There have been five video presentation modes -- (a) image of the professor superimposed next to a slide on a large simulated display screen, (b) full screen image of the professor speaking, (c) full screen image of a slide with the professor narrating, (d) full screen image of the TA speaking in a control room, (e) simulated conversation between the TA and the professor. Mode a is by far the most common. Modes d and e are used very sparsely. The efficacy of these alternative modes of presentation can be tested in controlled studies.
  • Linearity: The video is linear. The interactive quizzes are separate.
  • Production location: The video is shot in a studio, not a classroom, lecture hall or person's desk.
  • Recording quality: The audio and video quality is excellent (resoltions, frame rates and audio characteristics can be quantified).
  • Face to face synchronization: This course is hybrid, run in parallel with an in-class offering, as opposed to Internet only.
  • Lecture slide format: The lectures use simple slides -- either a single image or very few words versus more complex slides.
  • Subtitles: There are optional subtitles in various languages. The first lecture segments now have English, Spanish, Portugues and Indonesian subtitles. The translation is evidently being done shortly after the lecture is recorded.
  • Transcripts: There are one phrase per line transcripts (with and without time codes) to support the subtitle translators, but no natural paragraph transcripts.
  • Instructor control of display: The professor uses an iPad to change slides and draw highlights on the slide display.
  • Video controls: play/pause, raise/lower volume, skip back/forward, increase/decrease speed, and toggle full-screen. There is no clickable, slide level index. Skip back is very useful if one's mind wanders for a short time. The ability to increase/decrease playback speed is particularly valuable in giving the user control over the experience and as a tool for research into the effect of playback speed on comprehension and retention.
  • Grading and certification: There is no grading or certification for this MOOC.
  • Interactive quizzes: Most segments are followed by a quiz.
  • Quiz format: The quizzes focus on recall -- each (so far) consist of four true/false questions. Feedback is correct/incorrect only.
  • Machine graded assignments: The short answer quizzes are graded automaticall.
  • Subjective assignments: A 750-word essay every two weeks with peer feedback.
  • Textbook: There is a recommended $90 textbook. The book is not required, but it was written specifically for this course by a team of five coauthors, including the presenting professor.
  • Audio recording: The lectures have not included supplementary audio recording to this point.
  • Video recording: The lectures have not included supplementary video recording to this point.
  • Other supplementary material: There is a checklist of places and terms for each lecture.
  • Guest lectures" The course includes "global dialogs" -- weekly conversataions between Princeton students in the class and a guest speaker. Questions for the guest speaker are submitted in advance and voted up/down.
  • Regular communication: There is a weekly letter from the professor on course mechanics and content.
  • Synchronous office hours (Q and A): Neither the professor nor the TA hold syncrhonous office hours.
  • Staffing: There is a single TA who helps with the preparation of the quizzes and other material.
  • Intellectual property: The video lectures are copyrighted by Professor Adelman as opposed to his employer (Princeton university), the host (Coursera) or a Creative Commons licence.
  • Course origin: The course was not "born digital" -- it was repurposed from a tradtional class.
  • Cost: The course is free
  • Professor's Forum: Jeremy Adelman and Melissa Teixeira Discuss Weekly Lectures
  • General Discussion: Discussion and questions about the course.
  • Topical Forum: History and Technology: Please post discussions and questions specifically about technology.
  • Topical Forum, Ideas and Faiths: Please post discussions and questions specifically about ideas and faiths.
  • Topical Forum, Environment: Please post discussions and questions specifically about the environment.
  • Topical Forum, Empires, States, and Politics: Discussion and questions specifically about empires, states, and politics.
  • Topical Forum, Commerce, Production, Economy: Please post discussions and questions specifically about commerce, production and economy.
  • Lectures: Please post discussions and questions specifically about the lectures.
  • Global Dialogues: Submit questions for upcoming Global Dialogues at Princeton or discuss past Dialogues.
  • Study Groups: Find friends and arrange meet ups!
  • Readings: Discussion and questions about the suggested readings.
  • Assignments: Use this thread to discuss issues related to the assignments.
  • Additional Materials for Reference and Research: Use this thread to discuss additional materials for reference and research.
  • Who we are?: Use this forum to discuss and post questions about who we are, where we are from and why we should care.
  • Technical issues: Bug reports on the content of videos or web platform issues.

#digilit #jiscdiglit #highered #edreform #MOOC #pedagogy #EDUCAUSE #bonkopen

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Feed+, a cool Chrome app for creating Google Plus RSS feeds

I've been known to rant a bit about the lack of Blogger's features in Google Plus (here is an example).

Well, Google has ignored my rants so far, but Eric Koleda, a Google engineer, has written Feed+, a Chrome App that helps. With Feed+ you can create an RSS feed for the public posts of a specific person or for a Google Plus search.

As you see below, the user interface is perfectly simple. You just enter the URL of the person's profile or the search terms and click on Preview to be sure the feed is what you expect. If it looks good, click on Add it launches Google Reader and you can subscribe with a single click. (Of course you must create a Google Reader account if you do not already have one).

Want to build similar scripts of your own? Check out Google Apps Script.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Massive, open, online classes -- presentation scales, does interaction?

Coursera has added 17 universtities to their list of collaborators, bringing the total to 33. They have reached over 1.3 million students in 195 countries and raised raised $22 million in venture capital and received $3.7 million in equity investments from Caltech and Penn.

Not a bad start for a company that was founded last fall and funded in April.

But, many, including me, have wondered whether it is possible to capture the peer-reinforcement and contact of a classroom online. Coursera (and others) hypothesize that students can communicate with each other online -- if there are 10,000 people in a course, someone in some time zone is going to be working on the same lesson at the same time as you.

Students have taken interaction a step further, with course-specific groups meeting face to face. As of this morning, 7,839 Coursera students had formed 1,119 communities on in 1,014 cities and 2,824 Udacity students had formed 478 communities in 453 cities.

Coursera Meetup cities

I live in Los Angeles, so checked to see what was happening around here. It turned out that there are 78 registered Courserians in Los Angeles and smaller numbers in the many cities making up the metropolitan area.

Coursera meetups in Los Angeles (partial)

The three largest Coursera community cities are Stanford with 979 members, New York with 241 and San Francisco with 213. But the most interesting to me are the next three -- Bangalore with 183 members, London with 172 and Moscow with 144.

Courera meetups in Bangalore, India

This reminds us that online education is a global phenomena. Courses are being offered in many nations and students from many nations are taking them.

In Version 1 of the book, Gutenberg pruduced copies of hand written bibles. In Version 1 of the motion picture, we put cameras in front of stage plays. Version 1 of radio featured oral drama. Version 1 of television resembled vaudeville and stage skits. Etc.

Version 1 of the online course was to teach the same class from the same textbook using the same PowerPoint slides and videos that come with the textbook, substituting email and threaded discussion for face to face meetings in a classroom. The results have been OK, but not spectacular.

Coursera and many others are experimenting with Version 2. They have massive scale in their favor, and perhaps student-organized meetups and online groups for peer grading and feedback will enable them to scale interaction as well as presentation.

Movies, Version I

Television, Version I


Update 7/10/2013

Coursera has raised an additional $43-million. Investors must have confidence in their ability to eventually make money. For more on this investment in Coursera and their plans, see this article.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hybrid MOOCs

I wrote an earlier post contrasting the goals of the typical introductory statistics course with Sebastian Thrun's goals for the statistics MOOC he recently taught at Udacity.

The usual statistics course is required in many physical and social science majors and its goal is to teach students to evaluate statistical arguments and prepare them for advanced statistics courses if they pursue a research career.

Thrun's is a short, elective, general studies course and his goal is to inspire students. In describing his course, he wrote that 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."

Much of the material in the traditional statistics course can be captured in short, interactive MOOC video lessons, but what of the motivation and enjoyment Thrun seeks to provide? Can we deliver that in a MOOC?

Hybrid MOOCs may do the trick.

Let me use a course I teach in a conventional classroom as an example. It is an introductory digital literacy course geared to the Internet era -- a general education class in which I present the skills and concepts one needs for success as a student and after graduation as a professional and a citizen.

I have developed modular course material that can be presented in person or shown as Udacity-like interactive videos.

But, that is only part of the class. Much of our classroom time is devoted to "discussion," in which I present and we discuss current developments. I prepare these discussions each week and no two are alike. Discussion topics might include difficulty they had with the previous week's assignment -- common misconceptions. I also include things that occurred to me to add to the previous week's presentation after the class was over or things that came up in one section, but not the other. (I teach two sections).

I also maintain a class blog on which I post current events that are relevant to our class, and we discuss them. For example, this week part of our discussion period was devoted to a post on Google's Kansas City fiber project. That post gives us plenty to talk about that is relevant to our class -- data transmission speeds and prices, the roles of public and private infrastructure, the digital divide and possible applications of very high speed connectivity.

Capturing and maintaining the portion of the class that I spend on prepared presentations for a MOOC would be expensive, but doable.

I've not tried it, but I would like to capture the ephemeral, discussion portion of the class as well. I would do that by having a weekly class meeting. It could be a face to face meeting in a room with students taking the course or it could be online, for example in a Google "on air" hangout. (Good coverage of a studio classroom would be expensive). Either way, the class session would be broadcast on the Net.

Those watching the broadcast in real time would be able to ask questions and make comments during the class. That might be done through chat with a screener or with some sort of voting-up scheme.

Regardless, the broadcast would be recorded for archival viewing by students who were not able to watch the live session. The chat stream, transcripts and other ancilary material would be available as well.

A hybrid class would be expensive to produce, but it could serve a mass audience. Is anyone doing this sort of thing? Do you think it would be effective?

#mooc #highered #edreform #pedagogy #bonkopen #educause

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?


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.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Google and Kansas City push to narrow the digital divide

We have covered various aspects of Google's gigabit connectivity trial in Kansas City. Their plan is to install fiber first in areas of the city, "fiberhoods," with high demand for the service, as measured by the percent of households willing to pay a $10 pre-registration fee.

The deadline for pre-registration was midnight last night, but, as of last Friday, the map of fiberhoods that had met their goal reflected the digital, cultural, racial and income divide in Kansas City, Missouri.

Google and the City worked hard to bridge the divide. The threshold to qualify for fiber was higher in affluent areas than poor. For example, in the circled area on the map shown below, only 5% of the households had to register in order to qualify.

Furthermore, on August 31st, Google adjusted some of the thresholds to make it easier for poor neighborhoods to qualify.

During the last weekend of the six week registration drive, Google and the City worked overtime to close the gap. They held meeting, walked door to door, deployed an ice-cream truck refitted as mobile registration site, and more.

The map below shows that many fiberhoods east of the traditional Troost/Paseo Avenue division line met their thresholds during thd weekend push. (This map shows Kansas City Kansas as well as Missouri). Google reports that 63 fiberhoods qualified during the last week of the registration drive and that at least 180 out of 202 have qualified for service. They will announce the final tally on the registration drive and publish a fiberhood installation schedule next Thursday.

This is important for two reasons. Google will give free gigabit connectivity to all schools, hospitals, libraries and other public facilities in qualifying fiberhoods. That will mean more to a school in a poor neighborhood than an affluent neighborhood.

Furthermore, while Google will charge subscribers $70 per month for gigabit access, they offer free 5 mb/s DSL connectivity to those who wish to pay less. (Households that elect free connectivity must pay a $300 installation fee in 12 monthly $25 installments).

While 5 mb/s sounds slow compared to gigabit connectivity, the fastest DSL speed Verizon can offer me in my middle class Los Angeles neighborhood is 3 mb/s for $29.99 per month. At that rate, I could pay off a $300 installation fee in ten months.

(Verizon does not offer fiber service in my neighborhood, but, where they do, they charge $89.99 a month for 75 mb/s service).

I would expect less contention for backhaul with Google DSL than Verizon since they are provisioning for gigabit service. Five mb/s customers will not add much load.

Google's free DSL service will be more important to many households on the wrong side of the digital tracks than their gigabit service. It will provide very usable speed to newly connected households.

I have said a lot about Google's effort, but, as Timothy B. Lee points out, Kansas City is an active partner. To attract Google, Kansas City taxpayers offered power, office and equipment space and more.

This is a good example of blended public-private investment. It reminds me of Stockholm where the municipal government provided "middle mile" fiber then invited private companies to compete using that infrastructure.

Lee points out that some right-wing commentators have claimed the Kansas City project shows that industry (Google in this case) can build exellent infrastructure without government guidance or subsidy. That is clearly not the case in Kansas City. Hundreds of cities applied to participate in this pilot study, and I am sure they all offered various incentives to Google.

Google and Kansas City cannot bridge the cultural, income and digital divide by themselves, but they are making laudable effort and I applaud them.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Telegeography report: International Internet capacity grows to 77 Tbps

Telegeography has published new statistics on global Internet capacity and utilization for fans of the "big picture." (Click the chart to enlarge).

Total international capacity is up to 77 Tbps, a 40% increase over last year. Average international internet traffic grew 35% in 2012, down from 39% in 2011, and peak traffic grew 33%, compared to the 57% in 2011.

The growth rate is slowing due to caching in content delivery networks and increasing saturation of broadband markets in developed nations, but broadband adoption in developing nations, the spread of Internet video and increased mobile connectivity will fuel growth for many years to come.

You can drill down for details on individual cables on this interactive map.

we've come a long way since the first undersea cable in 1858.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Politicians using media, from Roosevelt's fireside chats to Obama's Ask me Anything

President Roosevelt used radio -- "fireside chats" -- to communicate with the American people. President Eisenhower was the first to campaign on television and Kennedy used it effectively. One can argue that President Obama is the first president to effectively use the Internet.

The most recent example of his use of the Internet was the live "ask me anything" (AMA) session he held at earlier this week. Reddit users typed questions for the president and he answered the ones that were voted up. The questions he took and his replies are shown below.

In our class, we talk about the implications of the Internet for individuals, organizations and society. Internet chat and AMA provides a new way for a candidate to campaign and for an official to interact with the public. In that sense it is reminiscent of President Roosevelt's fireside chats.
You can see the questions President Obama replied to along with his answers below. It is a mix of personal (he's a Bulls fan, eats with his family then goes back to work, and plays a game of basketball or golf every week) and political dialog. You also hear a conversational tone -- "Hey everybody -- this is barack" -- not the polished public speech voice.

Here is what he had to say:

"Hey everybody - this is barack. Just finished a great rally in Charlottesville, and am looking forward to your questions. At the top, I do want to say that our thoughts and prayers are with folks who are dealing with Hurricane Isaac in the Gulf, and to let them know that we are going to be coordinating with state and local officials to make sure that we give families everything they need to recover."

SharkGirl: We know how Republicans feel about protecting Internet Freedom. Is Internet Freedom an issue you'd push to add to the Democratic Party's 2012 platform?

Obama: Internet freedom is something I know you all care passionately about; I do too. We will fight hard to make sure that the internet remains the open forum for everybody - from those who are expressing an idea to those to want to start a business. And although their will be occasional disagreements on the details of various legislative proposals, I won't stray from that principle - and it will be reflected in the platform.

PartyInYourMouth: How are you going help small businesses in 2013 and 2014? and what if any bills are you going to impliment for small businesses, in 2013, and 2014?

Obama: We've really focused on this since I came into office - 18 tax cuts for small business, easier funding from the SBA. Going forward, I want to keep taxes low for the 98 percent of small businesses that have $250,000 or less in income, make it easier for small business to access financing, and expand their opportunities to export. And we will be implementing the Jobs Act bill that I signed that will make it easier for startups to access crowd-funding and reduce their tax burden at the start-up stage.

karlfranks: Who's your favourite Basketball player?

Obama: Jordan - I'm a Bulls guy.

Silent1mezzo: What's the recipe for the White House's beer?

Obama: It will be out soon! I can tell from first hand experience, it is tasty.

Suzmerk: What are you going to do to end the corrupting influence of money in politics during your second term?

Obama: Money has always been a factor in politics, but we are seeing something new in the no-holds barred flow of seven and eight figure checks, most undisclosed, into super-PACs; they fundamentally threaten to overwhelm the political process over the long run and drown out the voices of ordinary citizens. We need to start with passing the Disclose Act that is already written and been sponsored in Congress - to at least force disclosure of who is giving to who. We should also pass legislation prohibiting the bundling of campaign contributions from lobbyists. Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn't revisit it). Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.

Fifth Surprise: What was the most difficult decision that you had to make during this term?

Obama: The decision to surge our forces in afghanistan. Any time you send our brave men and women into battle, you know that not everyone will come home safely, and that necessarily weighs heavily on you. The decision did help us blunt the taliban's momentum, and is allowing us to transition to afghan lead - so we will have recovered that surge at the end of this month, and will end the war at the end of 2014. But knowing of the heroes that have fallen is something you never forget.

Daveforamerica: What is the first thing you'll do on November 7th, win or lose?

Obama: Win or lose, I'll be thanking everybody who is working so hard - especially all the volunteers in field offices all across the country, and the amazing young people in our campaign offices.

hmlee: I am recent law school graduate. Despite graduating from a top school, I find myself unemployed with a large student loan debt burden. While I'm sure my immediate prospects will improve in time, it's difficult to be optimistic about the future knowing that my ability to live a productive life -- to have a fulfilling career, to buy a house, to someday raise a family -- is hampered by my debt and the bleak economic outlook for young people. I know that I'm not alone in feeling this way. Many of us are demoralized. Your 2008 campaign was successful in large part due to the efforts of younger demographics. We worked for you, we campaigned for you, and we turned out in record numbers to vote for you. What can I say to encourage those in similar situations as I am to show up again in November? What hope can you offer us for your second term?

Obama: I understand how tough it is out there for recent grads. You're right - your long term prospects are great, but that doesn't help in the short term. Obviously some of the steps we have taken already help young people at the start of their careers. Because of the health care bill, you can stay on your parent's plan until you're twenty six. Because of our student loan bill, we are lowering the debt burdens that young people have to carry. But the key for your future, and all our futures, is an economy that is growing and creating solid middle class jobs - and that's why the choice in this election is so important. The other party has two ideas for growth - more taxs cuts for the wealthy (paid for by raising tax burdens on the middle class and gutting investments like education) and getting rid of regulations we've put in place to control the excesses on wall street and help consumers. These ideas have been tried, they didnt work, and will make the economy worse. I want to keep promoting advanced manufacturing that will bring jobs back to America, promote all-American energy sources (including wind and solar), keep investing in education and make college more affordable, rebuild our infrastructure, invest in science, and reduce our deficit in a balanced way with prudent spending cuts and higher taxes on folks making more than $250,000/year. I don't promise that this will solve all our immediate economic challenges, but my plans will lay the foundation for long term growth for your generation, and for generations to follow. So don't be discouraged - we didn't get into this fix overnight, and we won't get out overnight, but we are making progress and with your help will make more.

gobearss: How do you balance family life and hobbies with, well, being the POTUS?

Obama: It's hard - truthfully the main thing other than work is just making sure that I'm spending enough time with michelle and the girls. The big advantage I have is that I live above the store - so I have no commute! So we make sure that when I'm in DC I never miss dinner with them at 6:30 pm - even if I have to go back down to the Oval for work later in the evening. I do work out every morning as well, and try to get a basketball or golf game in on the weekends just to get out of the bubble. Speaking of balance, though, I need to get going so I'm back in DC in time for dinner. But I want to thank everybody at reddit for participating - this is an example of how technology and the internet can empower the sorts of conversations that strengthen our democracy over the long run. AND REMEMBER TO VOTE IN NOVEMBER - if you need to know how to register, go to By the way, if you want to know what I think about this whole reddit experience - NOT BAD!


You can see the transcript and thousands of comments on Reddit.