Saturday, December 29, 2012

.. among other things, "imagine ELIZA passing calc ii?" (updated)

there has been a lot of discussion about the phenomenon of MOOCs (i.e. massive open online courses) but i've come across very few discussions by academic mathematicians.

there's a new opinion by k. devlin, though. in true mathematical fashion, he avoids grand-standing predictions in favor of a few valuable insights. one of them is:
At the level of the individual student, MOOCs are, quite frankly, not that great, and not at all as good as a traditional university education. This is reflected (in part) in those huge dropout rates and the low level of performance of the majority that stick it out. But in every MOOC, a relatively small percentage of students manage to make the course work to their advantage, and do well. And when that initial letter M refers not to tens of thousands but to "millions," those successes become a lot of talented individuals.

One crucial talent in particular that successful MOOC students possess is being highly self-motivated and persistent. Right now, innate talent, self-motivation, and persistence are not enough to guarantee an individual success, if she or he does not live in the right part of the wor[l]d or have access to the right resources. But with MOOCs, anyone with access to a broadband connection gets an entry ticket. The playing field may still not be level, but it's suddenly a whole lot more level than before. Level enough, in fact. And as with Google search, in education, "level enough" is level enough.
it's a good point.

one could make the argument that successful MOOC participants exhibit more persistence than on-campus students, because they wouldn't have the benefit of a community of peers to signal that they should study more or allocate time to do the work. unless they have actively looked for study partners in her/his local area, MOOC participants are on their own and their success is truly theirs ..

.. provided that the MOOC participants actually do their own work, of course.

so maybe the article title "the darwinisation of higher education" is apt;
nature also rewards those species that try their hand at camouflage.

i may be cynical, but then again, i'm also a mathematician who appreciates certainty and tries to pay attention to nonexamples.

my experience with web homework, though possibly unrelated, comes to mind. here was the setup:
  • since the questions were multiple-choice, the grading was automatic;
  • since they were allowed several chances to get each problem right,
    often without time limits and with possible access to wikis and online examples,
    most students had very good scores. many even had close-to-perfect ones.
there was always a lot of variation in their in-class quiz scores, though.

even if all of my former students were entirely ethical and did everything by themselves (in that they asked no other humans for help) there still remained a difference between what they did on a computer and what they did on their own.
" [thinks]
'on their own'

that betrays my biases. there's nothing wrong with looking everything up and putting it together, i suppose, especially if one always has access to the internet.
on the same token, an information engine like wοlfram α can probably do simpler but similar tasks and more efficiently, too.

many fellow educators may agree with me that most test problems in entry-level maths courses are essentially algorithmic; in fact, "good" exam problems are hard to write and i think it takes a nontrivial amount of work to write a challenging problem that requires little of either axiomatic proof or purely algorithmic computation. this suggests (but does not prove) that successors of these programs could soon perform that much better than our students on the same tasks; if you even go so far as to believe in the singularιty, then it shouldn't be that far in the future.

so as the pundits like to say, if we need new workers for an "information economy," then why should they be human workers, if machines can do a systematically better job? on a related note, imagine an eliza program passing calculus ii? that would be both very cool and very scary.
to be continued later:
some ideas on how to make money from this,
and what might go wrong.

added: evening, 8 jan 2013:
never mind. as i expected, my idea's not original and they already thought of it.
Coursera recently announced another route to help students earn credit for its courses — and produce revenue. The company has arranged for the American Council on Education, the umbrella group of higher education, to have subject experts assess whether several courses are worthy of transfer credits. If the experts say they are, students who successfully complete those courses could take an identity-verified proctored exam, pay a fee and get an ACE Credit transcript, a certification that 2,000 universities already accept for credit.

indeed, if they think that students are going to (be tempted to) cheat, then they may as well make money on it ..

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