Home > math education > Report from an MSRI MOOC conversation

Report from an MSRI MOOC conversation

March 3, 2014

I am back from Berkeley where I attended a couple of hours of conversations about MOOCs last Friday up at MSRI.

It was a panel discussion given mostly by math and stats people who themselves run MOOCs, and I was wondering if the people who are involved have a better sense of the side effects and feedback loops involved in the process. After all, I’m claiming that the MOOC Revolution will lead to the end of math research, and I wanted to be proven wrong.

Unfortunately, I left feeling like I have even more evidence that my fears will be realized.

I think the critical moment came when Ani Adhikari spoke. Professor Adhikari is in the second semester of giving her basic stats MOOC, and from how she described it, she is incredibly good at it, and there’s a social network aspect of the class which seems like it’s going really well – she says she spends 30 minutes to an hour a day on it herself, interacting with students. I think she said 28,000 students took it her first semester in addition to her in-class students at Berkeley. I know and respect Professory Adhikari personally, as I taught for her at the Berkeley Mills summer program for women many years ago. I know how devoted she is to good teaching.

Even so, she lost me late in the discussion when she explained that EdX, the platform which hosts her stats MOOC, wanted to offer her class three times a year without her participation. She said something to the effect that MOOC professors had to be “extra vigilant” about this outrageous idea and guard against it at all costs.

After all, she said, at the end of the day the MOOC videos are something like a fancy textbook, and we don’t hand out textbooks and claim they are courses, so we by the same token cannot hand out MOOC videos (and presumably the social networks associated with them) and claim they are courses.

When I pressed her in the Q&A session as to how exactly she was going to remain vigilant against this threat, she said she has a legal contract with EdX that prevented them from offering the course without her approval.

And I’m happy for her and her great contract, but here are two questions for her and for the community.

First, how long until someone in math or stats makes a kick-ass MOOC and doesn’t remember to have that air-tight legal contract? Or has an actual legal battle with EdX and realized their lawyers are not as expensive? Or believes that “information should be free” and does it with the express intention of letting the MOOC be replayed forever?

Second, how much sense does it make to claim that you and your presence are super critical to the success of a MOOC if 28,000 people took this class and you interacted at most one hour a day? Can you possibly claim that the average student benefitted from your presence? It seems to me that the value proposition for the average MOOC student is very similar whether you are there or not.

Overall the impression I got from the speakers, who were mostly MOOC evangelists and involved with MOOCs themselves, was that they loved MOOCs because MOOCs were working for them. They weren’t looking much beyond that point to side effects.

There was one exception, namely Susan Holmes, who listed some side effects of MOOCs including a decreased need for math Ph.D.’s. Unfortunately the conversation didn’t dwell on this, though, and it happened at the very end of the day.

Here’s what I’d like to see: a conversation at MSRI about the future of math research funding in the context of MOOCs and a reduced NSF, where hopefully we come up with something besides “Jim Simons”. It’s extra ironic that the conversation, if it happens, would be held in the Simons Theater.

Categories: math education
  1. Guest2
    March 3, 2014 at 8:25 am

    Very interesting.

    “…she explained that EdX, the platform which hosts her stats MOOC, wanted to offer her class three times a year without her participation.”

    Comment: This is Taylorism, in its worst manifestation. Automated, completely alienated labor (Marx). No question about it. Not even TA’s needed?

    “She said something to the effect that MOOC professors had to be “extra vigilant” about this outrageous idea and guard against it at all costs.”

    Comment: Ha. Not likely to work for long. Contracts? Contracts are only as good as the lawyers you hire to write them and to enforce them, since they are not self-enforcing.


  2. lanewalker2013
    March 3, 2014 at 8:48 am

    I have done adjunct work in the past fearing I wouldn’t make it as a high school teacher. If I counted the hours I put into those positions I would have to say I made significantly less than minimum wage. Students are the ones who benefit, not just financially, but because many adjuncts are retired and do it for the love of teaching. It would be difficult for me to get full-time because the colleges save a ton of money with adjuncts. So it isn’t just PhD’s who are in this boat. Students have often gotten the short end of the research stick because their professors were focused on research. The real villain-profs may have retired, but I suspect the trend you describe will follow the way of adjuncts as universities downsize. This does not mean there will not be a need for mathematicians in research. I think technological developments point to the idea research is occurring in industrial settings. In a free market, some of us have to choose between dream jobs that force us to eat cat food and not-so-hot spots that provide a living wage. Who would have thought someone who survived 90 hours of mathematics course work would find themselves scratching clay for work? But I think the good news is that a strong mathematics background is the ticket to a wide variety of employment options with some cross-training. There were some posts on a previous topic about no jobs for STEM majors. I have tried to find someone in a stem job that agrees STEM is saturated but have come up null. The consensus from my electrical, chemical, and computer science connections is they are frequently approached about other positions. Nuclear took a hit with the tsunami, and civil jobs are more scarce, but many new STEM careers are evolving. Math and math research gives STEM an engine to run on.


  3. March 3, 2014 at 11:23 am

    I don’t think that a MOOC, in which the professor spends 30 minutes per day interacting with thousands of students, is a substitute for a “real” course. A MOOC is more like an enhanced textbook, or a set of “Great Courses” DVD’s. Only exceptionally motivated students can get a good education from these. For the rest of the students, they are maybe more like “adult school” courses, where people have fun and learn a little, but it is not very serious and everyone has busy lives to get back to.

    One could be optimistic and think of online teaching as providing new tools to improve teaching, and automate the “boring” parts, so that the teacher can spend more time on two-way interaction with the students. Good lectures available for free online may raise the bar (sorry about the sports metaphor) for live teachers and encourage them to rethink their teaching and make more effective use of class time.

    A pessimist might worry that current courses will be replaced by MOOC’s plus assistance and grading provided by adjuncts. We’ll see. It is perhaps a good time to reflect on what a course is and what we are offering students. I certainly think that it consists of more than just a collection of canned videos plus a discussion forum.


  4. quasihumanist
    March 3, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    I hate to be a pessimist, but I think we’re thirty or forty years too late.

    Being younger, I get to blame older folks. 😛 I think this is an exemplary case of “First they came for the classicists…”


  5. a
    March 3, 2014 at 2:32 pm

    I’m curious about what specifically she meant by “28,000 students took it”. Does that mean 28,000 students signed up for it, or completed a reasonable percent of the assignments, or passed the course, etc? What was the attrition rate? What was the grade (or whatever analogue the MOOC may have used) distribution? Is there any place where such statistics are provided?

    My main concern with MOOCs is that they are so doggone hard to complete! (I tried one).


    • March 3, 2014 at 2:33 pm

      I believe 28,000 finished it.


      • a
        March 3, 2014 at 10:52 pm

        I don’t know anything about MOOCs but that seemed hard to believe even for me, and since no one else chimed in with actual details, and since I’m procrastinating on grading exams, I looked into it myself…apparently she has a blog at http://stat2x.blogspot.co.uk
        that gives some of the details. The April 2, 2013 post claims the following:
        Number of students enrolled on the last day of Stat 2.1X: 52,661
        Active in the last week: 10,609
        Earned certificates: 8,181
        If you define “completion” as “earned certificate,” the completion rate is 15.5%.

        If I’m not mistaken, I think the course lasted 5 weeks, which is much shorter than a typical college course (but there was 2.2x, 2.3x offered subsequently, but no data was provided for how many continued onto those).

        Regarding stat 2.1x that began in Feb 2014 and is currently going on, its enrollment according to the Feb 22, 2014 blog post:
        “A mere 26,000 registered students at the moment: intimate, compared to the almost 55,000 with which 2.1X ended up last year. ”

        So half the number of enrollees this time around than last…conclusion: MOOCs are on the decline! haha, fun with statistics, I’m not being serious.

        Anyways, I guess 8,100 getting certificates is still better than I expected. But I’m growing weary of people always advertising the enrollment number without giving supplementary data, e.g. a grade distribution, which I didn’t find (but I didn’t search hard either). I wonder how open the MOOCs are about providing this data – I have no idea. I recommend someone investigate. But I understand that all this wasn’t the main focus of your blog post. Also I wish I had MOOCs when I was in high school.

        P.S. I miss Aunt Pythia!!!


        • March 3, 2014 at 10:55 pm

          Thanks for digging. Still, 8,000 people is a lot. And they didn’t all talk to her online.


        • Alexei
          March 4, 2014 at 3:47 pm

          It is probably important to remember that one can audit classes (which I’m doing with this course).


  6. March 3, 2014 at 4:19 pm

    re “a”s comment, there are massive “dropout” rates in MOOCs as far as registration vs completion, lots of web pages/sources on this around. the original stanford 2011 AI class dropout rate was something like 85% & apparently this is not uncommon. agreed with some commentaries on this topic that the term “dropout rate” is not as accurate for online courses compared to college/university courses. anyway a big factor.


    • March 4, 2014 at 5:55 pm

      15% completion for the original AI to me sounds higher than I would have expected, given it was free, offered no accreditation and there was no penalty for non-completion.
      I think there was around a 60-70% dropout rate in the freshman year equivalent (I’m in Oz) of undergraduate, which had fees (albeit deferred) and for which at least some of the dropouts had relocated to attend.


  7. March 3, 2014 at 9:54 pm

    “Or believes that “information should be free” and does it with the express intention of letting the MOOC be replayed forever?”

    WIth respect to this point, I believe that there are cases where this has already happened, or something only slightly removed has happened.

    One example, albeit not from Maths: The Stanford ‘Introdution to Databases’ course run a number of times by Jennifer Widom is available on Coursera as a ‘standalone’ MOOC. Anyone can sign up and work at their own pace, utilising the lecture notes and videos, archived discussion pages and current discussion pages (note: last staff input 12 months ago, but last participant input 3 hours ago). So that course can continue (and is continuing!) indefinitely. I’m inclined to think that that particular horse has already bolted.
    So probably a non-Simons plan B is a good idea.
    Other universities have filmed complete lecture series and made them available along with the complete learning materials for the course – for example Harvard’s Abstract Algebra under their Open Learning initiative. I like this more than a MOOC, because you can still experience the irritation of the lecturer being interrupted by rude people talking amongst themselves and the like.
    For me that last point is part of the problem that you’re facing – I suspect that face-to-face teaching in universities has as few friends amongst students as it does amongst adminstrators as it is so often a very unpleasant experience, especially the old school lecture. Moreover, as an undergraduate I certainly experienced individual courses within my degree where poor lecturer availability meant nothing was offered beyond what is usually in a MOOC, other than the inconvenience of needing to attend a highly uncomfortable venue, and no option to replay stuff.
    Overall, I’m inclined to think that this particular horse may have already bolted and probably a non-Simons plan B for research funding is a good idea.


  8. March 4, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    continuing to read. heres an idea. how about truth in labelling? some standard levels of certification for online courses. there needs to be a 3rd party accreditation body that says there are different “service” tiers of online courses and features associated with each. some standardization/rating system. whether the professor is still involved, whether they have office hours, those are the “A” level course. then there are “B” level where the professor is no longer involved. etcetera. the whole issue of accreditation is quite complex with online courses, universities will long push back hard against more official recognition of credit there because its all a disruptive technology and threat to the quasi-monopoly. professors can decide which “tiers” of classes they are willing to work with and contract will have some recognition of the different “tiers”.


  9. Nathanael
    March 4, 2014 at 10:33 pm

    Unfortunately, I think what we need to do is to found some universities. Or even colleges. Or even their predecessors — monasteries.
    Because this isn’t just MOOCs. Universities themselves, as we used to know them, are falling apart due to a rampant administrator vs. (faculty + students) dynamic which is destroying the rationale for students to study (for anything except professional purposes) and destroying the rationale for faculty to do pure research or teach.
    The institutional takeover means that someone’s going to have to set up an alternative, endow it, and try to set up an institutional governance structure which is immune to the current most popular forms of takeover which have been breaking existing public & private universities & colleges.
    I don’t know what to suggest but I keep thinking of the “students pay teachers directly” model on which Oxford and Cambridge were founded. Sometimes the old ways are least *corruptable*, even if also quite unprofitable.


    • quasihumanist
      March 6, 2014 at 12:05 am

      I’ve done the back of the envelope calculation a few times, and the truth is that a quality education is expensive.

      An education where students are in small enough classes to be pushed to think for themselves and debate with others requires around one employee for every seven or eight students.

      I cost my university more than $100K a year. I don’t get paid anywhere near that much, but I get benefits. Also, it takes fossil fuels and electricity to heat and power my office and the classrooms where I teach. It takes cleaning supplies to clean my office and the bathroom. (The person who does that work is included in the one employee per seven or eight students.) The library needs a budget for books, access to journals, and computers.

      Actually, given the right environment to teach (and do some research) in, I would be willing to take a large pay cut. But there are limits, and not everyone is as willing to take a pay cut as I am.

      How many people can really afford $15-20K a year for tuition alone if they have to pay it all themselves, in addition to another $10K for living expenses, living in quite frugal arrangements?


  10. John
    March 9, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    I don’t think you’re pessimistic enough:
    As a professor at a small decidedly down scale liberal arts college, I’ve been thinking about this for quite a while now. Of course, those of us in the biz are concerned for our jobs, but what’a happening to us has is or will happen to just about everyone in just about every field over the next half century or so. As technology improves as robots become cheaper to produce/print, we are going to see more and more jobs disappear. Because there will be fewer consumers, connsumer goods will have to become cheaper which will demand greater efficiency and reduced labor costs which means cutting more positions etc etc. As a result more and more money is going to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. This, of course, is not sustainable – as history has shown us before.
    In the end, Karl Marx may well have been right, about the dialectic of capitalism, he just was mistaken about the details. Capitalism is producing its own demise.


    • lanewalker2013
      March 9, 2014 at 4:45 pm

      John, You really made me think when you mentioned fewer consumers. I might be wrong, but doesn’t capitalism depend on growth to work well? I’m old enough to remember the Equal Rights Amendment, the fight for which indirectly ended up pushing the vast majority of mothers into the work force. That, along with guilt from doomsday population control advocates, minimized childbearing. As a result of the influx of mom-workers and decrease in child-consumers…yeah. But I still don’t think it was Karl Marx who had it right. Living in West Berlin when the wall was still up cured me of any leanings towards Communism. Instead, to me, it looks like the Bible thumpers who warned us about devaluing motherhood, no-fault divorce, and a few other moral issues were the ones who understood where we were headed.


      • Nathanael
        March 19, 2014 at 10:59 pm

        Naw, lane, the Bible thumpers were idiots. They didn’t understand ecology.

        In the broadest picture, we’re going through a severe population overshoot. It’s really unpleasant to be in the bust half of the cycle, as deaths from malnutrition and related diseases are the norm. Most species do this boom-bust cycle; the exceptions are the ones who control their own population growth rate and keep their population stable.

        Communism works better than capitalism for providing a pleasant environment to live in, which isn’t saying much.


  11. March 14, 2014 at 3:11 am

    Hi Cathy, on my blog (stat2x.blogspot.com) I’ve posted my answers to your questions. Best wishes,


  1. March 4, 2014 at 6:55 am
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