Category Archives: MOOC

The Best and the Worst of Online Learning


by Richard White



A few months ago I signed up to take my fourth Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). We’ve discussed MOOCs here before, but it’s been awhile since I’d taken one, so perhaps it’s time for an update.

My track record with regard to these MOOCs is better than that of most people. The first one I took, a Python-based course on Building a Search Engine offered by Udacity, was far and away the best one I took. The whole MOOC craze hadn’t really started yet, and so it was clear that the instructors wanted to get this right, and that fact showed in the time and care they took in developing both the curriculum and the materials used to support the course. I followed the course, completed assignments as required, and earned a “certificate of completion” at the end of it all. Based on my experiences with that single course, I became a true believer in the concept of MOOCs.

I signed up for a couple of other classes over the course of the next couple of years, but didn’t complete either one. Udacity’s follow-up CS212 course, Programming Principles, taught by Peter Norvig, was poorly organized and poorly delivered, a disappointment all the more striking on the heels of the first course. Based on comments left on the course Discussion Board, students abandoned the course in droves. (Here’s an online review from a student as well.) I left my own comments on the Udacity Discussion Board:

…One of the important tenets of education is the idea of giving as student a problem that is just beyond their current level of understanding, along with the tools he or she needs to make that next step. In CS212, in the first unit, just about every quiz solution reveals a strategy or technique that had never been broached in the discussion to that point.

Yes, I understand that “the real world” requires one to do independent research as required. This is not “the real world”–this is an educational course that is intended to guide me in discovering the tools that I can use to solve problems. CS212, in that regard, has been a bit of a disappointment.

The third course I took was again offered by Udacity, this time a Java-based Intro to Programming course that I quite liked. It had the benefit of being taught by the author of the textbook I use for the AP Computer Science course I teach, and it was entertaining for me to hear his audio- and video-recorded development of topics that I would be teaching myself. I didn’t complete this course because I got busy prepping for school, and that seems to be a common malady when it comes to MOOCs. Without the structure offered by a regularly-timed class, there is an enormous attrition rate.

Just a few days ago, I completed the second of the four MOOCs I’ve taken, this one an Introduction to Linux offered by edX. I finished the course–a PDF certifying that fact is being readied as we speak!–but I can’t say it was a pleasant experience.

Here’s the thing. Learning is hard, and teaching is even harder. You’ve got to help students develop a coherent picture of the content and process that you’re presenting, typically with explanatory comments to help them understand why something is the way it is.

Here’s the type of video I got in this most recent course.

This is not teaching.

I survived the course only because a) I already knew most of the material in it, and b) the “final exam” consisted of 30 Multiple Choice questions, open notes and open coursework, with two tries allowed for each question and a pass-fail cutoff at 70%.

MOOCs aren’t going to go away. With a lot of planning and forethought, it’s possible to do them well. It’s also extraordinarily easy to mess this up, and it’s going to take some time for things to settle out. There are lots of challenges to be solved. How to reliably deliver good content? How to accurately gauge students’ progress? How to certify completion/mastery?

We’e seen some interesting forays into this new area of learning, and we’ve seen the ensuing land-grab by various corporations and higher-ed institutions, and the backlash that resulted from trying too much, too soon. We’ll see within a few years what we’ve decided to make of all this.

In the meantime, feel free to try out a MOOC and see how it feels. If at all possible, see if you can determine in advance how well a given course works. may be one place to start.

Good luck… and I’ll see you online.

The Intersection of Teaching, Learning, and Technology

The Intersection of Teaching, Learning, and Technology

by Richard White


When I was nine years old I read Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine, a story in which Danny and his friends Joe and Irene program a computer to do their homework for them. At that time the personal computer was still a fantasy, but the possibility of being able to have a machine handle my academic chores–my learning–was absolutely intoxicating.

Fast-forward a few years: I’d gone from programming a mainframe in high school to majoring in Computer Science in college, and then from teaching computer programming in high school on IBM PCs (pre-Internet!) to teaching AP Physics in Berkeley. I’d re-discovered the book from my childhood–there’s my name on the inside, written in my mother’s neat cursive–and read again about Danny’s hard-earned lesson: that programming a computer is not a shortcut to learning. The last page of the book, though, opens up a new possibility:

“Danny had a strange, wild look in his eyes, and a faraway smile on his lips. ‘Listen–what about a teaching machine…?'”

I began investigating the possibilities of technology-enhanced programmed instruction. The learning process for an inspired student can be a pretty straightforward process: get exposed to something new, learn a little bit about it, and then use what you’ve learned to do something interesting. For some subjects, the process of presenting information and checking for understanding is ideally suited for a computer, and I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Programmed instruction in book form had existed for years, and computer-based math instructional methods were already being launched.

I was a month or so into developing my own programmed instruction when I began to realize that this system, whatever its benefits might be, also had the effect of isolating me from the very best part of my vocation: working with students to help them understand the world around them. Teaching content, exploring with students the process of interpreting content, and perhaps most importantly, learning to develop strategies for dealing with new and unexpected situations, all demand a dynamic, creative, process that is the very heart and soul of my work. There was no way for me to write this stuff down, to program it, to “classroom flip” this aspect of my work.

That hasn’t kept me from leveraging technology where appropriate. The vast majority of my current curricular materials are online–lessons, labs, homework help, and practice tests–and students across the U.S. and abroad use these materials as a guide in their own learning. I am part of a global learning and teaching community, using technology that is faster, cheaper, and better than ever. We are actively exploring new ways that we can use that technology to improve education.

But at the heart of it all–sometimes just barely visible behind the iPads and the laptops, the email and the tweets, the websites and the Massive Open Online Courses–are students and teachers, working together, just as we always have.

And there is nothing that will be able to replace that.

MOOCs and You

MOOCs and You
Richard White

Doug Johnson, as always, has words of wisdom over at Blue Skunk Blog, where he regularly weighs in with wisdom and insight on the very same topics that I find so interesting: the intersection of technology, teaching, and learning.

His January 29 entry is entitled “MOOCs—need K-12 pay attention?”, and if it has taken me two months to weigh in on the topic for myself, well… it’s an important question that’s worthy of some reflection.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been discussed here before. Massive Open Online Courses are the Internet-enabled version of what we used to call a distance-learning course, although the new and improved version often includes enhancements like asynchronous discussion boards and wikis, video presentations from world-class instructors, perhaps some interactive online experience, and (if they’re doing it right), some form of periodic assessment, as well as a final assessment. If you get through the course you at least get a PDF certificate and a congratulatory email, and if you’ve paid some money, you may get some course credit that can presumably be applied toward a degree or certification program somewhere. Or, maybe you’ve dropped out of the course somewhere along the way, in which case you’ll be in very, very good company. Some ridiculous percentage of people who enroll in this courses don’t end up completing them.

(I myself have a 33% completion rate based on the three courses I’ve enrolled in, only one of which I managed to find time to complete… and even that was touch and go for a bit.)

The development of MOOCs such as Udacity, Coursera, and MIT’s Open Courseware (now looking a little dated) are an important development in the evolution of education, any way you look at it. Getting back to the Blue Skunk blog, the question Johnson raises is, “As K-12 teachers, what does it mean to us?”

I won’t repeat his thinking on the topic—head on over to his post to check it out—but my own thoughts on the matter parallel his in some ways. Certainly there are some students in the 9-12 grade range who might be in a position to benefit from online learning. For many students in this age range, though, and certainly for students at a younger level, a good deal of learning is bound together with the relationship that one develops with a teacher.

Most of us have favorite teachers that we remember from our youth, or even from college, and we found ourselves influenced by them in important ways, as a parent, youth group leader, or religious leader might influence us. As adults now, and as teachers, aren’t the parents of our students, of course, but we are very much, emotionally and legally, in loco parentis for our students during the school day, so the fact that we develop important relationships with our students isn’t a surprise.

As long as we have this kind of responsibility for our students, and as long as these kinds of relationships are important for encouraging our students, I don’t think any of us are in any real danger of losing our jobs to a Javascript running on a Khan Academy server somewhere. The interactions that we have with our students as we help them to learn and to grow are a vital part of their development, and our communities and institutions rely on us to encourage students along that path. The students rely on us as well.

There are rare exceptions, of course—self-learners who teach themselves from a book, or who academically bootstrap themselves—and more power to them. The MOOCs may become an important tool for them.

Learning can scale very nicely on the Internet. Given a MOOC, and Wikipedia, a little curiousity and the right starting conditions, the self-starting learner can accomplish wonders. But teaching does NOT scale. Teaching—where I sit down with a student, learn a little about who he or she is, give them a little academic shove in the right direction, and help them figure out the answers to their questions along the way—that’s a one-to-one process. Even in a classroom of 10 kids, or 15 kids, or 23 kids, or—God help you—40+ kids—teaching is about developing a relationship with your kids so that you can help them move in the right direction.

That’s one thing that the Internet can’t do, and will never be able to do.

For the educator who loves working with kids, that’s the good news. The bad news is that you’re still going to have to sit down with your students’ homework and take a look at how they’re progressing, a process which (for me and most of the teachers I know) quickly becomes tedious. Even scantron assessments, ideally, require interpretation and discussion.

And even computer programs written by my students require sitting down, late at night, with tired eyes, and making a few comments on their individual work.

It’s what we do. We’re teachers.

Cheating with Homework Solutions

by Richard White

A funny thing happened on the way to me trying to help my students.

For my AP Physics students, who on any given night are going to be working on some pretty challenging homework problems, I’ve made answers or complete solutions available online for a few years now. It all started when I realized that students when getting stuck (like they do), and finding themselves unable to proceed past a certain point without the assistance of a just-in-time nudge in the right direction. We were spending time the next day in class, too, going over problems that, often as not, were just based on a simple misunderstanding that could have been easily diagnosed by the student him or herself, if only they’d had the solution to see.

The first year I made solutions available, the percentage of students completing homework assignments jumped up, of course. Better, though, was the fact that test scores increased as well, indicating perhaps that the “just-in-time” assistance was having its desired effect, and people were able to make better progress in picking up the material.

This year, with a new text and no solutions that I have any right to publish online, I’ve spent a fair amount of time writing up my own solutions to the homework problems for posting online. It’s time that I’d like to think has the benefits already discussed. Here is my solution for problem #39, an electric field diagram for a positively-charged rod.


It’s a pretty good diagram, with one problem—the rod, as described by the problem in the book, should have a negative charge.

It’s the kind of careless mistake that can happen to anyone once in a while. But what are the odds that 13 of 28 of my students made the exact same mistake that I did? What are the odds that 13 of 28 misread the problem, just as I did?

“Infinitely small” is the correct answer.

What are the odds that most if not all of the 13 simply copied my answer without even looking at the problem in the book?

“Much higher.” Right again.

And here we have the conundrum: how do we make solutions available to students “just in time,” but not “too soon?” How do we create conditions such that a student has to struggle just the right amount for the answer to a problem is revealed?

I’m not sure there is a way, or at least not a good one. I’ve taken online training courses in which the presentation of text was timed so that the reader couldn’t move on to the next topic until some pre-set amount of time had passed, which became an extremely frustrating experience for me (I read pretty quickly, or at least more quickly than whomever set up the time delays).

This question of trying to create conditions for maximal learning are more important than ever with the increased interest in Massive Open Online Courses. These courses, with enrollments in the tens of thousands, rely on students being able to manage their own progress through the content.

As more and more of our learning moves into an online format, I think one of our challenges is to teach students how to resist the temptation to look too quickly at the solution for a problem. There is value in wrestling with a problem for a bit before moving on to seeing the solution, and I’ve experienced firsthand the frustrations of physics students who reveal: “I can understand how YOU solve the problems, Mr. White. I just can’t do them myself.”

And that’s just it: following someone else’s work is not the same as doing the work on one’s own, and at some point, the skill in question—solving physics problems, writing a computer program, writing an essay—has to be developed. Copying down someone else’s answer is obviously not the same as arriving at the answer on one’s own, and my students all know that, and acted appropriately guilty when I called them on their “cheat.” They all clearly knew that they had taken a useless shortcut in blindly copying down the answer.

They’re under the same pressure that we all are, though—they occasionally simply don’t have time to do everything that is required of them. And I can sympathize. I’ve lost track of the times that I’ve been double- or triple-booked for meetings through no fault of my own. But there simply are no shortcuts for this kind of thing. The synapses between our neurons require training and practice for true learning to take place.

“Training and practice.” There are no shortcuts.


Late night provisions for Computer Science homework session at Udacity


by Richard White


Today I finished the first online course that I’ve ever taken, thanks to my professor David Evans and Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun… and the experience has changed my life.

If you haven’t heard about Udacity you might consider a) going to to wander about the website, or b) reading the excellent writeup in Wired magazine. But the upshot of it all is this: education is never going to be the same.

MIT’s OpenCourseWare offerings were a fine way to get the online education experience started—who can argue with access to top-notch professors at a world-class university? And Sal Khan’s Khan Academy offers increased granularity in bite-sized chunks at the secondary school level.

What makes Udacity so amazing, though, is the platform that they’ve developed to deliver and manage true online learning. Thrun identified nine components that he considered essential for education at the university level:

  • admissions
  • lectures
  • peer interaction
  • professor interaction
  • problem-solving
  • assignments
  • exams
  • deadlines
  • certification

While Udacity hasn’t completely solved every one of these problems yet, it is well on its way. I greatly enjoyed taking the inaugural CS101 Intro to Computer Science course, a seven-week curriculum that used the context of “building a search engine” as a vehicle for presenting core computer science concepts.

I’ll admit right now that I was well-acquainted with the subject matter—I teach an Intro to Computer Science course myself—but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t find most of the assignments entertaining, and some of them quite challenging.

If you haven’t had a chance to try out an online course yet, I strongly encourage you to do so. Both Udacity and Coursera have plenty of fine offerings in a wide variety of fields.

It’ll change the way you look at education.