Wednesday, May 1, 2013

"The equivalent of a Berkeley course"

That's the aim of BerkeleyX.

A laudable goal, and one that I should share.

Then why do I keep remembering Bertie Wooster's insight about Shakespeare?

 " ... sounds well, but doesn't mean anything."

[Stop. Stop. If you were just about to post an outraged comment about Bertie's opinion, stop, and go look him up. There's a magical world waiting for you.]

The medium is not equivalent; requirements aren't equivalent; the students most definitely aren't equivalent. So what's equivalent?

Well it's my course, and MOOCs haven't been around long enough for there to be a historical perspective about this, so I'm simply going to decide.

Here's what I know to be equivalent.
  • I teach Stat 2X at the same level at which I or most of my colleagues would teach Stat 2 in Berkeley. I've asked for the same prerequisite (high school arithmetic) and assign the same level of exercises.
  • I am as attentive to pedagogy, clarity, and effectiveness of the lectures as I am in Stat 2.
  • The Stat 2X text, while not often used in Stat 2 (we use Statistics (4th ed) by Freedman, Pisani, and Purves; not available online), is used in Stat 21 and is written by a department colleague and co-instructor of Stat 2X. It is inspired by FPP and other texts by our colleagues, and provides a high quality introduction to statistics freely online, in the spirit of EdX.
  • My regard for students in the two classes is equivalent. The student populations are entirely different in their backgrounds and goals. But they're all my students, all tens of thousands plus three hundred of them, and my responsibility for all of them is the same.
  • The size of the class notwithstanding, I do my utmost to interact with Stat 2X students as I do with students on campus. My aim is to be accessible, relaxed, and helpful to students who are working and need the help. To others I am either neutral or flatly unavailable, depending on how they choose to conduct themselves. In university classes I've never been particularly indulgent of rudeness or the inability to deal with basic course logistics. In that respect too Stat 2X is the equivalent of Stat 2 and every other course I teach. 
  • I expect students taking a university course to know how to take a course. In both Stat 2 and 2X, I post the course policies and schedule on the website on the first day once and for all, and I follow them. I expect students to know what's on the course website, to have access to a device that tells the time correctly, and to manage their own schedules and calendars. Student reaction varies in the two courses but my approach is equivalent. Many students have a logistical glitch here and there during the term, so I always drop an assignment or two from the final grade in Stat 2 as well as Stat 2X.
This is almost equivalent:
  • There's a range of quantitative and logical reasoning skills among students in Stat 2 as there is in Stat 2X; the 2X discussion forum indicates that the range is wider in 2X than in 2, extending further in both directions. As in Stat 2, I reach most students but not all. In Stat 2, the proportion left unsatisfied is very small. My guess is that in Stat 2X there is a larger proportion who remain unhappy either because they don't understand or because they could go much further with the material if I would only give them the opportunity.
And these are not equivalent.
  • In Stat 2, during every lecture I connect in person with each student; attendance is high, and I've become quite skilled at conducting a conversation with hundreds of people.  I can't do that in 2X. In the forum I can connect with a vocal minority, but the majority are a black box. This affects everyone's perception of how the class is going.
  • In my campus Stat 2 class, every point the students earn is in an in-person closed-book fixed-time test with little to no partial credit. From the point of view of the work required of students, Stat 2X is a different universe.
  • Cheating: I knew this would happen as it has happened in other MOOCs, but it's still stunning to see how swift and organized people are about posting questions all over the internet and gathering answers. I'm trying hard not to let this kill my motivation, as it's unfair to the students who are honest. It's such a pleasure to look at my hundreds of students in Stat 2 and know that the work that I get from them is theirs alone, unaided. (As for the effect that cheating has on faculty interest in course certificates or grade distributions, maybe another time in another post ...)
  • Student support for each other, and the confidence to go further with the material or look at it from a variety of perspectives is greater in 2X. In part this is due to many students being well past the undergrad stage and in occupations where they've had to look beyond what's right in front of them. There is much more of this than I expected, and it's a delight.

  • Student expectations of what can or should be provided to them are so different it's almost comic. Stat 2 students just expect to find stuff on the course website and figure out what they're supposed to do; there's no angst nor fuss; it's just how courses work. I believe this is very much influenced by them being in the same room as all their classmates three times a week; it's hard to approach the instructor with, "I myself personally would be happier if you further provided me with ..." when there are hundreds around you who are obviously fine without it. Not so in Stat 2X, where for some students isolation leads to a lack of recognition of the experience of others or at least a lack of inhibition about asking for extra service.

[Which I would actually have considered providing, had it not been prefaced with:
"I am a very busy person," (I know the feeling), "and am doing this course over and above all my other responsibilities," (you and me both), "and I love your lectures but really, you're pretty far down my list of priorities," (thanks for sharing, 'cause I really needed that motivation to make you a priority), "and I won't read what you've posted," (perish the thought), "so could you please take some extra steps to make things easier for me?" Can't. Too busy looking for a wall to hit my head against.]

On the whole, I find "equivalence" being measured almost entirely by what the instructor provides. That is dangerous. It assumes, tacitly, that a "class" is something an instructor can plop down in front of a student and step back. But it's no such thing. A class is what the instructor and students create together.

So I'm not making "equivalence" the goal; I'll never reach it, and I don't want to teach something that's "equivalent" to something else I'm already teaching. Why would I want to do more of the same? I'd rather make the two different and worthwhile in their different ways. If I had the choice, 2X would be open all the time, with no grades or certificates; just visits by Prof. A. to the forum at pre-announced times.

But that's for another day. Today I have to start putting together Stat 2.3X.


  1. When I saw the term equivalence in the discussion forum I was wondering how can they (the online and the university course) be equal - they never can be.Each has a unique identity and I think it is impossible to equate the two or more correctly replicate one another as we are using two different media and methods though the bottom line remains the same - transfer of knowledge from teacher to student. As long as that remains the same the other metrics could vary.I for one am very happy with the course per se and yes I keep asking for more exercises ;)Plodding along with exercises somehow makes me more confident.Maye because as a child I my Mother would make me plod along through huge volumes of books and I remember reducing huge surds down to zero or one. There are some who get a concept down in one reading whereas for some they need repeated reading or repeated work to nail down concepts into their long term memory and I for one have seen that what I keep in long term memory are those which I have done repeatedly in various variations in the initial few reads.Different people may have different methods!!

    I was also stunned to see how people immediately post questions online to get a "free ride" but I think that these would be young people (I hope) who do not understand the difference between a "degree" and " learning".Being a teacher I have seen students who do "excellently "in some undergraduate courses and do miserably in applied postgraduate courses for the very reason that they do not apply what they learn and I am afraid that those who look for those quickfixes are unlikely to do well in actual jobs.

  2. "Can't. Too busy looking for a wall to hit my head against." :D whole paragraph would be great for stand up comedy

  3. "But they're all my students, all tens of thousands plus three hundred of them.." Thanks Prof. Ani for effecting instant bonding so naturally. Whenever I read your blog or even go though portions of stat2x, scholarly traits apart, the imprint left is that of a very noble and truthful human being. ....Arvind

  4. Hi Prof A. I very much appreciate your post and agree with most of what you say. I especially like how much you care about giving us a chance to learn the same material you teach your Berkeley students without dumbing it down. I do feel however that I need to clarify something because you 3rd to last paragraph hit home given your reply to our thread in the forums. I think you mistook the intent of some of my post and perhaps others like it. When I spoke of priorities I was in no way making a negative statement, just a statement of fact. The deeper question is why IN SPITE of this, so many of us choose to take the course? No one is forcing us to take it. We will not be able to use to earn a degree. We are making a choice between spending our time with you vs. maybe getting a little extra rest (which at least in my case, it is something I'm very much in need of) or doing other, perhaps just as important, things. We choose to do this because we want TO LEARN FROM YOU. Is this not a good thing? So yes, this is my lowest priority. It has to be, I cannot chose to not finish a project from work or do the homework on my for credit course in order to spend more time on this one. I would not be a responsible adult if I did. But I still want to take this course because I want to learn. It is too good an opportunity to take an elite level course to pass up! I sincerely wish I had more free time and then I could take as many of the wonderful courses on this site as catch my attention. And give them all the required attention. But of all the courses that caught my eye, yours was one of the two that I thought was a MUST take. I think you should take it as a compliment that I'd rather listen to your video on the bus at the end of a long day than to play yet another video game (that is when I'm not so tired I fall asleep). And I'm sure many others us feel the same way. Are we not at least part of the reason why you are doing this project?

  5. Equivalent to a traditional course:

    The lecture quality, lecture delivery, textbook, workload, due dates. To me, this is the value of a college course. There are lots of brief educational videos out there on Youtube. But a Mooc has a sustained academic focus on a topic, with the same professor both building up your knowledge and challenging you to demonstrate it, week after week. It's still amazes me that I'm able to consume a high-quality comprehensive body of material like this, at home, for free.

    Not Equivalent:
    The actual grading is wildly more forgiving here in Mooc land, to the point of absurdity. I mean, getting two tries on homework and exam questions, and a hurdle of 40% to pass? Why would people even feel the need to cheat with the bar set this low?

    The edX course completion certificate is nice, but hardly worth printing out. In this day and age when in-person, full price liberal arts degrees result in barista employment, I can't imagine any employer to be swayed much by a Mooc certificate.

    Better by far would be to explain to a job interviewer the passion for a certain topic that led you to the course material in the first place, or being able to relate an applied use of new found knowledge to a particular problem.

  6. Hello Prof,

    I am one of the "busy" students but, unlike many (e.g. the ones mentioned in your post above), I think you have already done more than enough for us. It's up to us as students getting free knowledge to fit into the system as much as possible and restrict our suggestions to areas that make the whole experience better for the majority of participants rather than wishing that the course would be tailored to suit our sometimes unique personal circumstances.

    Regarding the certificates: given the extent of cheating going on I propose we do away with these altogether- this will at least eliminate a big chunk of those who're enrolled in the course purely to fraudulently obtain a certificate (and hopefully motivate Prof and her colleagues as they provide this course...)

  7. For myself, "equivalence" would be that I learn the same knowledge.

    Don't worry about cheaters; they only gain in the short term.

    Missed the schedule? Too busy? Overslept? Ok, so who's responsible for that? (I missed the midterm; *my* fault - I was "too busy" to check the schedule. I'll take a hug, but I'm not going to whine about it. I'll do (and did) the problems so I know how I would have done, and work to understand those I would've missed.)

    Tsunami, widespread power outage, edX servers down? That's a different animal.

    Complaining and asking for special consideration? Just imagine several thousand students asking. How could you possible handle that??? (and on a course for which we don't pay? How positively silly!)

    I'm delighted to have the opportunity to take these courses! (Stat 2.2x is my third) I'm having a great time, learning a lot, struggling here-and-there, and while I want as good a grade as I can earn, and the certificate is a nice pat-on-the-back, the knowledge is the important part.

    I'm learning as much from your lecture *style* as the knowledge you impart. You have a way of taking a complex subject and breaking it down into small digestible bits. (Prof. Stark's online book is, for me, like drinking from a fire hose! Lots and lots of dense material. Eye-opening, as I tend to write like that... No disrespect intended to Prof. Stark; more just a contrast of teaching style. And I'm grateful he did write it.) Obviously, I'm still working on saying much with fewer words... :)

    Glad to hear you're working on Stat2.3x! Looking forward to it for my next course! (I hope you're thinking of more after that!)

    Thank you for all the work you've put into the online courses!

  8. Hi Prof.,
    Having taken other MOOCs before, I have to admit you are among one of the most enthusiastic teachers. I will always remember how I was privileged to learn something like Statistics, a subject about which I never got any convincing answers, from one of the best teachers in the most palatable format.
    After 2.1x, I was all set for this course. Something that makes me all pumped up is the way you begin your course with something so obvious we see all around us and trying to add some thought to it, then a philosophy to it, then engaging us into something which we leaves us at the end of course feeling- What was I just a few minutes back? Im enlightened, I have a changed perspective of seeing things.

    You have no idea that I was in tears when I read your lines "I've seen the inequity of the best education being the province of the wealthy. I know how people can hunger for knowledge that's just beyond their reach."

    I hope few of those cheating doesn't kill your motivation as rest us already across our graduation understand worth of learning than a certificate.
    Thanks for being one of the most "obvious" teachers. And also I would be wanting for words to thank Prof. Stark for putting up that amazing online textbook.

  9. Late for commenting on, but I have to say it:

    "Too busy looking for a wall to hit my head against"

    I know that feeling. I'm sure, though, many of us are here to avoid a feeling provoked by a single voice among ten of thousands of gratitude and admiration.

  10. Equivalent? Above and beyond in my opinion! Super fantastic to be able to learn from an amazing Berkeley professor for free, and have continued access when you want to look back on a lesson. Especially if life changed mid-course. I'm thrilled to be able to continue my learning even though the course has completed. It's the learning that truly matters.

  11. Professor Adhikari:

    First, let me compliment you on your exceptional diction and thoughtful examples in Stat 2.1x.

    As for widespread cheating, for quantitative courses like statistics, the MOOC platform may yet evolve to randomize the values in the test questions so nearly everyone receives a custom test. With so much data in electronic format, randomizing relatively few questions, especially the easiest ones, should help to smoke out the cheaters. No doubt someone is charging for the answers that lead to an effort-free certificate. The MOOC license agreement should include a liability clause for destroying the credibility of your certificates, the value of which you are now learning by way of tuition donations. The ID Verified program will someday be the norm and public posting of honor-code violations may be the only deterrent.

    As for demanding students, a professor once compared undergraduates to ducks. Ducks are cute and furry and appear harmless, but they sometimes bite. After years of being bit by ducks, one starts to dislike them very much. You have taken on 50,000 ducks at once. I think it is impossible to "care" at such a scale--it is simply inhuman to do so. The best one might hope for is to provide good content and a consistent platform, much like the public library.

    To that end, the platform does not attempt to track the misunderstandings that lead to incorrect answers. Because you have so many students, your understanding of when someone has not read or retained the material, misunderstood the question, applied the wrong problem-solving approach, made a math error or cheated off an incorrect answer key could grow into something quite astounding. The system, configured by an expert, might look at my answer and ask follow-up questions to get at the root of the problem.

    Thank you for making an effort, but please prioritize your health and sanity in the face of all these ducks.

    MFCMP (not sure how to login to this platform)