I recently gave a talk at the Metroplex Math Circle in Dallas. The goal of the talk was not just to teach some concepts relating to recursion, but to display the value and the process behind playing and exploring in mathematics. We filmed the talk and it is available here.
Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution fame recently wrote a great article about his experience with MOOCs and his opinions about their value. Tabarrok’s article drew some critique from others who are more skeptical of the value of MOOCs, and I wound up discussing some of the points with a friend. In the discussion, I echoed what I considered the better nuggets of critique on MOOCs, and this seemed to be taken (perhaps briefly) as opposition to MOOCs.
MOOCs are awesome. Anyone who doesn’t see what a valuable thing they are isn’t paying attention or has some kind of mental block. That I critique MOOCs shouldn’t be seen as adversarial. I just think it’s important to critique MOOCs so that we understand and utilize them better. I have a habit of criticizing things and people that I love. The point is to be constructive, though I think the world may be so full of destructive and often political criticism that it’s hard not to instinctively view critique as opposition.
In thinking through some of my own experiences with online education, it occurs to me that my experience teaching online (leveraging my time to many thousands of students) was in a format that hasn’t yet been talked about as much. At AoPS, I created something I’ll call LOCs and LOOCs (example here). A LOC is a Large Online Course and a LOOC is a Large Open Online Course. The difference is one of scale. And while LOCs and LOOCs are less discussed than MOOCs, they exist all over the internet at this point.
Why distinguish between LOCs, LOOCs, and MOOCs? Because they might just serve different purposes and coexist in the future of education!
Critics of MOOCs lament the scarcity of personal interaction, and they may be correct in pointing out that this is a reason why the ratio of enrollments to completions is high for MOOCs. I doubt many proponents of MOOCs deny this. But is that really a flaw? As people experience MOOCs more, will this ratio decline (perhaps because people get better at choosing the MOOCs they invest time in) or even go up (because the option to test the waters is extraordinarily valuable!)?
I suspect that some people will find that they need more hand-holding than a MOOC provides. I don’t see this as a flaw of MOOCs—just a problem that should be considered as we reengineer educational systems. This is where LOCs provide a solution. The instructor/student ratio is lower in a LOC, allowing for a greater degree of guidance. MOOCs try to do this by encouraging more peer-to-peer interaction, which is wonderful. But within certain topical niches, that may not be enough. In those cases, a great number of human hours is required, and that means investing in courses that aren’t free. That’s where a LOC provides an appropriate alternative.
Perhaps my outlook is wrong and that MOOCs will evolve to squash the need for LOCs. Perhaps! Technology is moving forward at such a dramatic pace that much is possible. However, in the 9 year existence of the AoPS school I helped build, the price of courses has increased by nearly an order of magnitude while simultaneously increasing in popularity as word spread (almost entirely without press or significant advertisement). Certainly some of this is the result of intentional underpricing at the point of inception of the school, but I can attest (and I suspect he’d probably agree at this point) that the AoPS CEO himself erred to the downside in his estimations of how many students would enroll and how much they would pay. The LOCs at AoPS have proven well designed in the balance of scaled and personal interaction.
All of the interaction in AoPS LOCs is still online, which is to say that LOCs, LOOCs, and MOOCs are together transforming education, expanding alternatives and growing together.
And we should continue to critique the results—brutally. Good ideas can take a pounding, and the beating they take forces evolution at a rapid rate. The best is certainly yet to come. The door is just opening, and online education is still in its infancy.
The following is a small list of things we believe:
Education is crucial to building the best world we can build.
Education leads to personal fulfillment.
Education leads to better relationships.
Education leads to enlightenment. Education is enlightenment.
Education is about learning to believe in yourself.
Education is about holding a student’s hand through early successes to nurture that belief.
Communities strengthen the educational process.
Technology can improve education, but we must be careful to understand exactly how.
Regardless of all technology, caring about people leads to greater education. (And greater education leads to caring about people.)
The best education involving igniting the intrinsic motivation of a learner.
Nothing compares to seeing inspiration and education brighten somebody’s life.
One last thing: we believe in our ability to improve education. For everyone.
Suppose we found a second easily inhabitable planet, and that we somehow found a way to get there relatively quickly – perhaps after just a few months or years of travel. A great many science fiction novels begin with this premise, or something close. Such stories pursue a variety of themes: social and cultural, economic, societal, personal, and so on. New frontiers. New opportunities. New circumstances for exploring human nature.
A few sci-fi novels explore the theme of education. Perhaps too few. Few enough that while science fiction has led us to explorations of life outside of Earth, industrial benefits of mining asteroids, the possibilities of extraterrestrial colonization, and many other practical pursuits, little progress has been made in developing a new system of education.
Solutions have certainly been explored, often with great fan fare. Yet here we are. We gripe more than ever about education. We face most of the same challenges in improving our educational system, and many new ones as well. Despite the investment of many billions of dollars in new educational technologies, our system appears little improved from that of the age before the widespread use of personal computers and computing devices.
We’re doing it wrong. And we’re not learning from our mistakes.
At Gliya, we’re engineering solutions to educational problems, starting from a different frame of reference. We’re not asking ourselves how we might fix the current educational system.
We base the solutions we engineer at Gliya on the answers to a different question: How would we build an educational system from the foundation up for a new civilization we colonized today?
There are, of course, many possible answers to this question. The best answers lie both in a practical assessment of the available technology we can apply to the problem, and also a broad interpretation of technology.
So far several of our answers to this question are in open beta, but what you currently see at Gliya is just the first of several steps: social software, nonlinear curriculum, and adaptive learning technology. Over time we’ll add videos and applets to support these features. But the biggest leap is unique, and it’s coming soon. Stay tuned.