Friday, March 29, 2013

On a turquoise cloud

The final is over with no glitches on our side. I won't know for a while how the students did or how many of them took it, but the forum seems generally happy.

So for this one day I'm taking a break. On a turquoise cloud.

No, that's not me finding my inner poet. It's Duke Ellington, and I'm celebrating my son's appearance on iTunes.

Just in case people think Stat professors have no other lives ...

He's in high school now, but he was 12 then and oh, how smoothly he sent those high notes soaring ... He sings with the Pacific Boychoir Academy and it was an honor for him to record with Marcus Shelby and his jazz orchestra, one of the finest jazz ensembles in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Students in Berkeley see me at cafes and stores and performances and so on. But students of the MOOC know me only as The Voice. It's very strange. So every now and then I'm going to throw something like this into the blog, because some students are reading it.

I'm on the Board of the Pacific Boychoir. It's a way of giving something back for the joys the PBA has brought to the life of my family.

Armando Fox, Director of BerkeleyX, is on the Board of the Altarena Playhouse, a local theatre.

We have to find the hours in the day for all this, but hours are there to be found if you're willing to forego sleep. I've become very familiar with how the house feels at 3 a.m.

Tomorrow the whole routine will start again: making slides, recording the voice-over, putting together exercise sets, double checking the schedule, trying to figure out a way to make the discussion forum more organized, wishing I had the students in front of me ...

But not today. Today I'm a lady of leisure.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Does anybody really know what time it is?

That song was by a band called Chicago. In 1969. Way to show my age ...

The MOOC experiment is cultural as well as educational. Nowhere was this more starkly evident than in the horror generated by the moment at which the first assignment set came due.

It didn't matter that the course policies said Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). The horror split into three main categories:

1. "The deadlines should be in East Coast time, because EdX is in Boston."

2. "The deadlines should be in Pacific time, because Stat2X is in Berkeley."

3. "The deadlines should be in my time here, because I'm here."

All three are understandable, but each has its problems:

1-2. One of the beauties of an online course is that it's not in any fixed physical location. It's in The Cloud, wherever that is. Clouds drift. Where somebody's office is doesn't determine where the work is done. For example, Stat 2.3X won't start till the semester is over in Berkeley; I might handle that one from several different time zones.

3. Students move, even across time zones. We don't want to keep track of where they're working from, and we can't have each student setting his or her own time zone for each assignment, specially when many students aren't clear about time zones at all.

So we stayed with a single time zone - GMT - which is the platform default and is a standard across the world. Using GMT forces us as course developers to do what most of our students do, which is to arrange our working hours to meet deadlines set in a different time zone. It's an excellent way for us to stay aware of how students have to organize their time.

That said, every deadline that appears on the class website should have a time zone attached to it. And that's not happening. Why? Because it's not possible in the current state of the platform. However, EdX is responsive to concerns and is working on it. Let's hope we'll soon be able to display time zones along with times.

Until that happens, we're stating GMT (also spelled out as Greenwich Mean Time) in bold at the tops of assignments, since stating it once didn't do the job.

And that's as much as we're going to do. We will not have countdown clocks nor reminders sent by email shortly before deadlines. There are other priorities for our overworked engineers; most students finish their work long before the deadlines, anyway.

As for the song, a guy walks up to the singer and asks him for the time "that was on my watch," and the singer subjects him to a "does anybody know and does anybody care" philosophical non-response. You can't help feeling sorry for the poor guy who was probably just trying to catch a bus.

Good song, though, for when you're feeling grumpy about the rat race.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Why do this?

The press asked Philip if he's getting paid for Stat 2X.

Members of my family asked me that too. Their question was more detailed: am I getting paid per student?

Family are always good for a laugh.

No, we're not getting paid. Statisticians who want to make money aren't at universities.

We both still have our regular responsibilities at Berkeley. Moreover this year I happen to be Chair of a bunch of committees; Philip, may the saints preserve him, is Department Chair. Time does not hang heavy on our hands.

So why are we doing this?

I won't speak for Philip, but part of his motivation certainly derives from the fact that about 16 years ago he began writing his online text, long before Berkeley was ready to think seriously about online education.

For me, the new medium offers an irresistible opportunity to demystify my subject for the world. Statistics has a way of scaring the daylights out of people, or bewildering them, or making them suspicious. "Lies, damn lies ..." One way or another they end up hating it. Here's my chance to explain why I think it's sensible, useful, and fun. I do that every year in large intro classes on campus. Now I can reach the teenager who is irritated at her high school for making her use formulas she doesn't understand, the doctor who took some stats ages ago but wants a refresher, the people who just want to make sense of what "statistics have shown." And apparently I can also reach my friends' mothers. I hear some of them are taking the course.

If I need still more motivation, all I have to do is remember growing up in India. I've seen the inequity of the best education being the province of the wealthy. I know how people can hunger for knowledge that's just beyond their reach.  I was fortunate to learn from many superb teachers, but I know how it feels to have teachers who show no mastery of their subject. I know the frustration of studying from materials that are paltry and sloppy. I know what it's like to long for someone to just put some decent study materials into one's hands.

So that's what I'm trying to do. I'm putting what I know about my subject, as simply and clearly as I can, freely into the hands of anyone who has access to the internet.

Did I say I'm not getting paid? I take it back. I'm well rewarded, not with dollars but with the privilege of getting to do this.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Welcome, reckless reader.

The MOOC (massive open online course) is the hot topic du jour in education. The Governor of California is a fan. The New York Times has hailed The Year of the MOOC. Harvard and MIT provided a number of MOOCs on their EdX platform a couple of years ago; last year they were joined by Berkeley; and now EdX is a consortium of universities all over the world. MOOCs, apparently, are the Thing To Do.

Are they going to work? Jerry Brown hopes so, but The Times has now gone all Eeyore.

Well, there's only one way to find out. So Philip Stark and I have stuck our necks out and are teaching Stat 2X, a MOOC on intro Stat.

Let no-one accuse us of exercising due caution.

This blog is intended as a sort of diary of observations and stories about Stat 2X. But I know myself. It's going to wander where my mind takes me. Read at your own risk.