Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Lecture? What lecture?

It was clear last year, and is clear again just two days into the course, that many students go directly to the exercises without watching any instructional video or reading the text. They might, perhaps, read a worked example or two, but often not even that. Others teaching MOOCs have had the same observation.

So every time an exercise refers to something in the lectures, there are people who don't know what it's about or where to find the necessary tools, and some of them get very upset.

I've been musing on the differences between this approach and what happens on campus. 

Students in my Berkeley classes come to lecture; here is an excellent summary of what motivates students to come to class. Quite simply, they find lecture an efficient way to learn what they need. And when students gather for lecture, the campus class develops a sense of community that is reinforced several times a week.

There's no such physical community in a MOOC where the lone student clicks away at a personal screen. When students are by themselves, it takes considerable discipline to focus on lectures about something as detailed as the material in 2X. It's all too tempting to go directly to what they feel is the immediate practical goal: solving the exercises. 

That's understandable. It's also predictable that they'll have trouble with some of the work, which they would quite likely not have had if they had taken the recommended route of studying first.

What's interesting is what they choose to do at that point. Last year, I had assumed that a student who got stuck on an exercise would go to the lectures for a refresher – there's a lecture-by-lecture guide for reading and practice. Many do, I'm sure, and of course I tend not to hear from them. But many simply post unhappily to the forum and wait for someone to answer. 

I'm no longer surprised by it. In an effort to point out that the materials are designed with a sequence in mind – go through the lectures, try the practice, then do the exercises – this year I added a Suggested Path through the course, and am beginning every Reading and Practice guide with, "This guide assumes that you have watched Section xx .." 

Will it help? Only a little, probably. There's self-selection involved, after all – students who make a bee line for the exercises aren't likely to read another document or even the top of the Reading and Practice page.

It's a curious puzzle for a teacher. How do you teach a student group whose defining property is that it's hoping to skip the actual teaching?

More visible, though, are those who are highly engaged with the details of course content. "You know, that wasn't the best example," says someone; and you know, he's right (at least I think he's a he; you never know from user IDs). "You said such-and-such in Lecture n.m, professor; can I extend that this way?" You can indeed; nice observation. "Typo at time x:y of Lec n.m." So there is, and it's a good thing you came along because nobody else spotted it for a year. "I don't get this. I've tried such-and-such and it didn't work. Can someone help?" Well it's because ... together with the other students, we find a new way to explain.

These, also, are lone students clicking away at a personal screen. But their attention is as lively as that of any of my students on campus, and their contribution to the atmosphere of the MOOC is enormous. In a week when I'm getting ready to show the class that one or two people are unlikely to have a noticeable effect on the average of a large group, I have evidence once again of how just a few active, thoughtful students can enhance the experience of thousands of others.

Thank you Lukan27, McCloud77, RobParker, Sarahfaye, and others whom I will try to name as the weeks pass.


  1. It would be greate to have 2 week per session. Why so pressure?

  2. His lectures are very clear and very interesting, it's my first time in MOOC's and have had problems in interpreting UTC since I had not handled before and using the platform. But today I clear the methodology and use of the platform. And so it understood that this is for the unified participants overall time management. Also sets the excecise grade 1, 2 and 3 were not when developing the Reading and Practice Sets for Exercise 1-3 and remain overwhelmed. I inscribie in this course, recording 3 hours a week, but what I've seen today demand more time and I like it for the same level of demand for participation so I'm going to schedule more hours (up to 9 maybe).

    How long you think it prudent to devote to have adequate compliance with this course or courses in MOOC's?

    My most sincere congratulations to the way it interacts and leads this course.

    1. The pace of the course is roughly the same as it is at Berkeley. Most weeks, students attend spend about 1.5 hours in lecture, another 1.25 hours in problem sessions, and another 2-5 hours studying the material and practicing problems. The practice time varies widely across students on campus as I'm sure it varies among students in the MOOC.

      Also, many MOOC students don't use English in their daily lives, and so simply working out what is being said takes more time than it would in their own language.

      I hope that once you get even more used to the course, you'll be able to spend fewer than 9 hours per week. Why not start with about 6 hours, and see how that goes?


      Prof. A.

  3. I am also a professor, though I teach a very different subject: writing. Your discussion here mirrors some of my experience, and kudos to you for being willing to do this MOOC.

    Another puzzling thing I find is how unwilling some students are to pursue their own learning. For example, I hit Exercise 4.8 in the course text and realized that I wasn't sure what the difference was between RMS and SD. I reviewed my notes and the lecture, and I still wasn't sure. I figured I missed something small. So...off I go to Google, and voila, I find that when I thought I was calculating RMS, I was actually calculating SD: RMS uses the values themselves, not the differences.

    Even Wikipedia has some terrific information for certain kinds of questions, and I struggle daily to get students to want to find out for themselves.

  4. Thank you for your observations, in this and past posts, about your experiences with MOOCs - I particularly appreciate your comments about what is and isn't equivalent about Stats 2 and Stats 2x.

    I work in a public school system helping teachers develop instructional skills and knowledge, this year with a particular focus on assessment and grading practices and engaging students with a range of online, interactive learning tools. As such, I'm taking the course for two reasons: to extend my understanding of statistics so I can better understand educational research literature and for an experiential understanding of the challenges of engaging students online. I can say that in these first weeks, I'm learning on both fronts.

    I agree, as you said in an earlier post, that it would be preferable to have the course available continuously. In my case, the first week of class coincided with a long-planned destination wedding that made for the not so difficult choice of attending to the exercise sets or visiting tropical beaches! But I caught up with the material and finished up week 2 on time and expect to be able to do so going forward.

    What I would characterize as a flexible pass rate of 50% for the course allows me to focus on the learning the has to happen and balance that with my other responsibilities. I've skipped some of the practice sets based on my previous learning but also appreciate the online textbook and videos that allow me to study some material more deeply than the course requires.

    In summary, with the exception of the defined course offering timeline mentioned above, this Stats 2x is a good fit for me, practically and philosophically - there are clearly defined standards presented within a flexible framework and the emphasis is on personal responsibility for ones learning and the learning itself rather than a grade.

    1. Glad it's working, though even just a couple of days ago I put in another plea to have the course be open all the time with no deadlines or grades. But apparently students want a certificate, and so there has to be some definition and record of completion, and so there have to be deadlines, and so ... it begins to pick up the less desirable features of an on-campus class.

      Welcome to 2X. Best,

      Prof. A.