Working for scale

John Markoff posts an interesting item about evaluating the success of MOOCs. (Aside: tell me again what the difference is bewteen an MOOC and distance learning?) There’s been a lot of chatter about the fraction of students registered for a course that actually complete all of ites requirements—numbers like 10% are being kicked around.

Markoff emphasizes the point that 10% of a class of 100,000 is nevertheless more than 100% of a class of 500 in a conventional freshman lecture course. And, as one of the panelists at the Frontiers in Education conference in October pointed out, there’s a lot of uncertainty about how many of that hypothetical 100,000 are serious registrants. When the course is free and there’s no cost to dropping out, a lot of students will sign up on a whim. Some registrants are even other instructors, checking out how their colleague handles this new environment.

Leta has participated in two classes offered by Coursera in the past year and has been very pleased with the results. Meanwhile, I’ve been fairly busy with traditionally structured classes:

  • Short-term training in proprietary software technology. Three days of slideware and coding exercises — what Andy Hunt calls sheep-dip training. Moderate value for the money: I did refer to the class workbook a couple of weeks ago for some code samples. Having the instructor on hard was useful when I got stuck.
  • Foreign language instruction from Fairfax County Public Schools. Classroom time with a native speaker, a workbook for writing exercises, and a DVD with lots of listening drills. Good value for the money.
  • The Natural History Field Studies program from Audubon Naturalist Society and Graduate School USA. Each course is different, but it’s usually a blend of reading, lecture, writing, giving presentations to the class—and field trips. Moderate to excellent value for the money, depending on a couple of factors, but every field trip has been worth it. Some of the courses are reviewed by an accrediting agency: these have been the most challenging and the most valuable.

Markoff considers Duolingo, a web site for language instruction that doesn’t precisely fit the MOOC model, but it is operating at that scale, with roughly a million users. I could see myself giving it a try.

I need seven credits to finish my NHFS certificate. I think MOOCs have a ways to go before they can capture the five-senses experience of a cordgrass salt marsh.

MOOCs are scaling up the evaluation of students by problem sets and short writing assignments. I wonder how they can deal with evaluating spoken contributions: speaking a foreign language, giving book reports and oral presentations.