Wednesday, May 1, 2013

"The equivalent of a Berkeley course"

That's the aim of BerkeleyX.

A laudable goal, and one that I should share.

Then why do I keep remembering Bertie Wooster's insight about Shakespeare?

 " ... sounds well, but doesn't mean anything."

[Stop. Stop. If you were just about to post an outraged comment about Bertie's opinion, stop, and go look him up. There's a magical world waiting for you.]

The medium is not equivalent; requirements aren't equivalent; the students most definitely aren't equivalent. So what's equivalent?

Well it's my course, and MOOCs haven't been around long enough for there to be a historical perspective about this, so I'm simply going to decide.

Here's what I know to be equivalent.
  • I teach Stat 2X at the same level at which I or most of my colleagues would teach Stat 2 in Berkeley. I've asked for the same prerequisite (high school arithmetic) and assign the same level of exercises.
  • I am as attentive to pedagogy, clarity, and effectiveness of the lectures as I am in Stat 2.
  • The Stat 2X text, while not often used in Stat 2 (we use Statistics (4th ed) by Freedman, Pisani, and Purves; not available online), is used in Stat 21 and is written by a department colleague and co-instructor of Stat 2X. It is inspired by FPP and other texts by our colleagues, and provides a high quality introduction to statistics freely online, in the spirit of EdX.
  • My regard for students in the two classes is equivalent. The student populations are entirely different in their backgrounds and goals. But they're all my students, all tens of thousands plus three hundred of them, and my responsibility for all of them is the same.
  • The size of the class notwithstanding, I do my utmost to interact with Stat 2X students as I do with students on campus. My aim is to be accessible, relaxed, and helpful to students who are working and need the help. To others I am either neutral or flatly unavailable, depending on how they choose to conduct themselves. In university classes I've never been particularly indulgent of rudeness or the inability to deal with basic course logistics. In that respect too Stat 2X is the equivalent of Stat 2 and every other course I teach. 
  • I expect students taking a university course to know how to take a course. In both Stat 2 and 2X, I post the course policies and schedule on the website on the first day once and for all, and I follow them. I expect students to know what's on the course website, to have access to a device that tells the time correctly, and to manage their own schedules and calendars. Student reaction varies in the two courses but my approach is equivalent. Many students have a logistical glitch here and there during the term, so I always drop an assignment or two from the final grade in Stat 2 as well as Stat 2X.
This is almost equivalent:
  • There's a range of quantitative and logical reasoning skills among students in Stat 2 as there is in Stat 2X; the 2X discussion forum indicates that the range is wider in 2X than in 2, extending further in both directions. As in Stat 2, I reach most students but not all. In Stat 2, the proportion left unsatisfied is very small. My guess is that in Stat 2X there is a larger proportion who remain unhappy either because they don't understand or because they could go much further with the material if I would only give them the opportunity.
And these are not equivalent.
  • In Stat 2, during every lecture I connect in person with each student; attendance is high, and I've become quite skilled at conducting a conversation with hundreds of people.  I can't do that in 2X. In the forum I can connect with a vocal minority, but the majority are a black box. This affects everyone's perception of how the class is going.
  • In my campus Stat 2 class, every point the students earn is in an in-person closed-book fixed-time test with little to no partial credit. From the point of view of the work required of students, Stat 2X is a different universe.
  • Cheating: I knew this would happen as it has happened in other MOOCs, but it's still stunning to see how swift and organized people are about posting questions all over the internet and gathering answers. I'm trying hard not to let this kill my motivation, as it's unfair to the students who are honest. It's such a pleasure to look at my hundreds of students in Stat 2 and know that the work that I get from them is theirs alone, unaided. (As for the effect that cheating has on faculty interest in course certificates or grade distributions, maybe another time in another post ...)
  • Student support for each other, and the confidence to go further with the material or look at it from a variety of perspectives is greater in 2X. In part this is due to many students being well past the undergrad stage and in occupations where they've had to look beyond what's right in front of them. There is much more of this than I expected, and it's a delight.

  • Student expectations of what can or should be provided to them are so different it's almost comic. Stat 2 students just expect to find stuff on the course website and figure out what they're supposed to do; there's no angst nor fuss; it's just how courses work. I believe this is very much influenced by them being in the same room as all their classmates three times a week; it's hard to approach the instructor with, "I myself personally would be happier if you further provided me with ..." when there are hundreds around you who are obviously fine without it. Not so in Stat 2X, where for some students isolation leads to a lack of recognition of the experience of others or at least a lack of inhibition about asking for extra service.

[Which I would actually have considered providing, had it not been prefaced with:
"I am a very busy person," (I know the feeling), "and am doing this course over and above all my other responsibilities," (you and me both), "and I love your lectures but really, you're pretty far down my list of priorities," (thanks for sharing, 'cause I really needed that motivation to make you a priority), "and I won't read what you've posted," (perish the thought), "so could you please take some extra steps to make things easier for me?" Can't. Too busy looking for a wall to hit my head against.]

On the whole, I find "equivalence" being measured almost entirely by what the instructor provides. That is dangerous. It assumes, tacitly, that a "class" is something an instructor can plop down in front of a student and step back. But it's no such thing. A class is what the instructor and students create together.

So I'm not making "equivalence" the goal; I'll never reach it, and I don't want to teach something that's "equivalent" to something else I'm already teaching. Why would I want to do more of the same? I'd rather make the two different and worthwhile in their different ways. If I had the choice, 2X would be open all the time, with no grades or certificates; just visits by Prof. A. to the forum at pre-announced times.

But that's for another day. Today I have to start putting together Stat 2.3X.