Saturday, March 29, 2014
Content and the instructor
In the previous post I wrote about the smooth operation of a course as though that is somehow separate from the pedagogy. But while many aspects of "operation" are administrative or technical, the principal factor that makes a course go well for students is clarity of instruction.
The students' experience can't be smooth if they don't understand what's being taught. Their comments on the forum and on this blog show that they've noticed my effort to make the lectures clear; my thanks to all those who have posted.
The course content was created last year and is remarkably solid, given that I was putting much of it together in real time while the course was live, after a day's work and family responsibilities, often starting at 1:30 a.m. when the neighborhood and its dogs were less likely to contribute to the audio.
The lectures were the easy part. I've thought about this material and the related pedagogy for decades, I have a great man's example to follow, and I've worked with thousands of students at Berkeley. I knew what I wanted to say, and Beamer and Camtasia did the rest. There's just a handful of errata, and I have to work out the least resource-intensive way of fixing them: it's easy to redo the videos but that also entails redoing the transcripts. We'll get it done for the next run.
I did a few new things for this year, such as creating "no pause" pdf's of the lecture slides: some of last year's pdf's ran to 30 pages per segment because they grew line by line as the videos do.
And I took a hard look at the exercises.
Every time I see a request to "please post" more exercises, and especially when people ask for entire exercise sets if they miss a deadline, I know I should explain what's involved in creating each question. Here goes.
- First, I pick the pedagogical point of the question.
- Then I pick a setting that can be used to make that point; the data have to satisfy the assumptions I'm asking students to make; preferably the setting should come from a real study and not just be made up; and it should be fairly easily understood by students all over the world.
- Then I write the question, mindful that a large proportion of students don't use English as their daily language, and that all students need to be able to answer in a way that satisfies the auto-grader.
- Then I write the solution.
- Then I decide on the number of allowed attempts, the score, and the acceptable range if the answer is numeric.
- Then all of this is entered into the EdX auto-grading system. I'm grateful to my co-workers who have done the majority of this step.
- Then the exercise is tested. That is, we try it out, entering answers that students might plausibly enter, and trying to make the system fail.
- And then, once we're satisfied, we repeat all of the above with the next question.
Before the start of this year's class, I also went through every Spring 2013 forum conversation about the exercises, editing the exercises as needed to reduce students' doubts about what the statements mean. This editing has been associated with a noticeable change in the forum: there are fewer confused posts than there were last year, and the questions are more frequently about how to solve an exercise than about what the exercise means.
That's where the instructor comes in.
No matter how good or field-tested the course materials are, students will have questions, and they need someone with experience to answer them. Students do answer each other's questions on the forum, and that's one of the main reasons the MOOC world can survive. But as course material increases in complexity, it's harder for students to help others; even the most confident students ask to have their answers confirmed by the instructor. Few students, and no machine, can guess what a student meant to ask if what they did ask seems garbled, or make a connection with something broader than what the student asked.
Students have noticed my regular presence on the forum. I think my being there helps, and we're soon going to test whether others running the forum will help just as much. But the course will not work if nobody on the faculty is active on the forum. At best it will be the equivalent of handing students a textbook and leaving them to it, and more likely it will descend into the kind of nastiness that seems to be the bane of online communities.
Few students, and no machine, can calmly insist that students keep the discourse civil so that the focus remains on subject matter and not on someone's rant-du-jour.
A course needs an instructor whether or not it's online. Whether EdX, Berkeley, and I can come up with an arrangement by which I can teach both on campus and online remains to be seen.