пятница, 7 февраля 2014 г.

Learning: MOOCs

I first attempted to do MOOCs when the whole thing started with Andrew Ng’s ‘Machine Learning’ and Sebastian Thrun’s ‘Introduction to AI’ back in 2011. For sure, both the ‘Machine Learning’ that I chose to take then and the courses, which followed, impacted my life significantly not only allowing me to explore loads of interesting stuff, but also enhancing my study at the university and to some extent forming the scope of my interests. This made me think a lot about the new phenomena of MOOCs and how they fit into our life and the world of education.

Socrates used to say that “The beginning of wisdom is a definition of terms”, so let us first specify what we are talking about. The acronym MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course – that is an educational course more or less freely available on the internet and hardly requiring any equipment apart from a connected laptop or tablet. For me MOOCs are all about universities and professors coming to the web, but there also exist such platforms as Pluralsight, which look more like trade schools of the internet. I will focus mainly on the ‘academic’ MOOCs, because I am not that experienced with Pluralsight so far (which is definitely a big fault of mine), although some of my arguments may apply to the latter as well.

First of all, I believe that rapid growth of MOOC platforms is an absolutely positive thing – indeed, it is difficult to see an event of dropping barriers to education as something bad. This seems to be the key feature of online courses: they allow people lacking time, money or other resources to enroll into a university to get access to high-quality learning materials on the subject they want. To me personally the availability of such courses means two things: first, even after finishing the BMSTU I am still able to extend my education, while working a full-time job. Second, and more important, despite the fact that I was born and live in Russia I now have access to numerous classes taught by professors of famous western universities. I remember how it first struck me back in 2010 when I picked the UC Berkeley CS61c ‘Machine Structures’ course by Dr. Dan D. Garcia. That wasn’t the modern kind of online education experience – just a set of audio recordings from the lecture room somewhere in California. While there were no in-lecture quizzes, verified exams and other stuff that one gets from, say, Coursera, in exchange for that I could hear students asking questions or answering those from the lecturer and that was amazing – it literally felt like I was attending lectures in Berkeley! ‘Machine Learning’ course that appeared in 2011 lacked this kind of sensation, but it was full of all the above things like quizzes designed to increase students’ involvement into the process of purely online education, so it awarded me with a great chance to deeply learn a lot of interesting stuff from a Stanford professor. Several years ago none of us could imagine studying from the world’s best tutors at no cost – not even interrupting our daily routines – and now virtually everyone with a PC, laptop, tablet or even a smartphone has such an opportunity. Ain’t that great?

The idea that the key feature of MOOCs is granting access to the foremost instructors in different branches of science, technology and liberal arts brings me to another characteristic of online education – it is fully demand-driven. What I mean by this is that students chose the courses, which seem worthy to them and, since they pay nothing for attending, one can easily drop the class after a while if it does not meet their expectations. Furthermore, people freely share their opinion on the quality of learning materials, therefore creating a kind of open market of education. For those, who attended universities, for example, in USA this might seem not that valuable, but in most Russian higher education institutions the curriculum is more or less fixed and after picking a field of specialization students frequently have little or no choice in terms of courses and tutors – you get mostly what is prescribed for you this year. Such a system has substantial drawbacks – most notably, it fails to encourage teachers to improve the courses and makes students less motivated to study what they are given. Thus the advent of MOOCs and the freedom of choice associated with them was for me like a breath of fresh air in the world of rigorously defined study programs.

Finally, the availability of numerous amazing courses through such platforms as Coursera, Udacity and MIT OCW combined with modern social media, which is all about sharing everything you happen to find, plays towards increasing the popularity of education. Indeed, if your Twitter or Facebook feed throws at you links to Nuclear Physics, Introduction to Genetics or History of USA from time to time, one day you may decide to learn some of these subjects and devote some time to an appropriate course instead of spending it in Karazhan raids (or what’s there hot now). And yes, I am somehow sure that the more people know about Quantum Physics, the better the world we live in is going to be.

From the paragraphs above one may suggest that I believe MOOCs are so great that they will totally replace contemporary universities in a year or two. Clearly, that’s not going to happen any time soon and, as every coin has two sides, there exist both positive and not so positive aspects of online education. Some features that will prevent online courses from occupying the place of institutional higher education come from their advantages, which I described above. Most notably, in the way of moving fundamental education to the web stands the freedom given by the MOOC platforms, which I praised so much. The problem with it lies in the fact that proper education must involve studying certain amount of things, allowing the student to form a consistent picture of the world, reason better and develop the skill of learning new stuff. Universities usually deliver this through requiring students to do some amount of disciplines not directly related to their chosen field of study in addition to taking proper set of courses on the subject of specialization – fixed curriculum serves this purpose well. Even though I don’t like this approach with all its drawbacks, it also has advantages – in particular, it ensures that a student is exposed to certain classes, which are important to their education not only from the standpoint of professional skills, but also in terms of the breadth of their knowledge and personality. Both these things are crucial for developing an ability to think better and develop consistent mental models of the world, which permit professionalism and effectiveness. The western universities, which, as far as I know, don’t impose strict curriculum, achieve this goal through requiring students to earn a portion of their course credit somewhere away from their primary field of study. On the other side, MOOC platforms now focus on courses themselves and hardly provide a developed curriculum in any form. There are certain exceptions like Khan Academy with its Knowledge Map, although generally the scope is limited to one or two courses, whereas upon their completion students are not given much clue on where to go next and which of the available courses might serve as a good continuation for the one they’ve just finished. (Well, recently I got an email from Coursera introducing the new Specializations feature, so apparently they are taking some steps in this direction.) Needless to say that none of the existing online education platforms ships physics packaged with liberal arts courses – although that won’t be the most clever thing to do, no other mechanisms to encourage students to broaden their learning experience are used as well. All this means that a student pursuing the goal of getting higher education through MOOCs now can achieve this only in case in addition to strong inner motivation they do understand that they need to combine deep specialization in some disciplines with exploring the areas beyond them. I believe that MOOCs will gradually come to developing long-term programs of study and helping their students with determining and achieving their educational goals, but now students have to do much in this field on their own to make their online learning purposeful.

I repeated the word ‘motivation’ several times above and that’s another area where traditional universities seem to outrun their online counterparts. The truth is that to learn consistently most of us need at least some degree of external motivation, helping us to return on-track when we become a prey of our own laziness or burn out as a result of studying too hard. To some extent, this problem might be eased by the presence of a high-level study program with carefully defined requirements and goals, of which I have spoken in the last paragraph. However, universities take this idea further and in most cases try to push students back to class whenever they perform too bad. In Russia, for example, you risk being expelled in case you fail to follow the curriculum with proper pace, and deans with all their administrative folk tend to remind students of this from time to time. A nice thing to mention here is my diploma project, which focused on exposing students’ academic performance data to the analysis tools in an attempt to find those who really risk facing serious problems. The fact that administrative staff pays some interest to such projects shows that universities really try to help students through the long way from enrollment to graduation and even though I don’t always like the methods used for this, in many cases they succeed at preventing major failures, so that students finally arrive at the defense of their diplomas. The MOOC platforms, which we have nowadays, hardly do any job of this kind – moreover, I am not sure how could they do something like this. Still, that’s another reason why these newcomers can’t easily provide people with broad and full education delivered by traditional institutions. At the same time, none of the issues that I described so far seems to me as serious and obstacle on the MOOCs’ way to replacing universities as the fact that they actually pursue different goals. 

To see this we should try to understand why the possession of a diploma is such an important factor for our potential employers. First of all, diploma does serve to prove that a candidate has some knowledge in a certain field – here online education platforms might be as good as any university. However, I believe that employers pay attention mostly to their candidate’s experience and skills relevant to future job and about this kind of things a diploma can say much more than a dozen certificates from Coursera. The idea is that spending several years in university provides one with much broader experience than just taking courses: students have to follow certain rules, collaborate a lot with both their tutors and fellows, stick to the schedule and even be persistent enough to spend several years on working towards quite elusive goals with little feedback. Even though MOOC platforms try to do their best at providing some of these things – for example, much is done to ensure that team playing is in place – they are still far from traditional institutions and some time will pass before they will learn to teach most of the skills so important for modern worker. In other words, sooner or later MOOCs will deserve employers trust, but much has to be done to make this possible.
The Massive Open Online Courses are rising rapidly and will certainly occupy their own niche in the competitive field of education. This will inevitably lead to universities losing some of their grounds, because the advantages of MOOCs like the availability and freedom, which they give students, are obvious. Furthermore, some things, which I listed as their shortcomings, might become less significant in future because both the platforms develop themselves continuously and our patterns of life and job change shifting people’s priorities, including those of employers. At the same time, universities will most likely preserve their place in the world of science, research and education, but they will have to adapt to the new, constantly changing realities. All this leads me to a conclusion that the field of education will undergo major transformations in the nearest future, after which both the new and old institutions will find themselves doing the job, for which they suit best. That said I guess the next generation will study in ways significantly different from those that I have experienced.

As for me, even though I got my diploma last year, I still want to take the advantages of the free education made possible by the MOOCs. For this year I have a modest goal of completing at least five courses in different areas, which will hopefully help me better understand the world as well as boost my skills. Besides, I have also found that taking online classes is a great way to have some rest from coding and other stuff that I do routinely. That said, I strongly encourage everybody to go through the list of courses available on Coursera, Udacity, MIT OCW, Stanford Online and elsewhere to pick a class or two, if you are not enrolled yet. I decided that the Algorithms Part 1 from Princeton University will be a good point to start for me. Wish you good learning!

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