Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What to expect when teaching your first MOOC

Now that the media seems to have exhausted the “MOOC honeymoon” stories, they’re looking for “MOOC disaster” stories. Two recent high-profile stories involve the truncation of a Georgia Tech MOOC due to a technology mismatch and a professor abandoning his MOOC in mid-course over disagreements on how to teach it.  How can instructors new to MOOCs prevent these problems from happening to you?  What should you expect if you’re getting into this area?  Here’s some thoughts based on our experience offering our  as a MOOC several times on edX and Coursera.


An incremental-refinement plan is better than being perfect


Especially if you’re recording your lectures in a studio-like setting, remember that you can always revise them later.  This Fall we will revise our lectures for the third time.  Leonardo da Vinci said “Art is never finished, only abandoned,” and you will always find ways to improve your material, but balance this with the need to juggle all the other commitments most faculty must manage.  Instead, focus on sustainability: once you’ve invested the enormous amount of work required to do a quality MOOC, what resources will you need to re-offer the MOOC between refreshes of the material?  We’ve managed to offer our MOOC two to three additional times between refreshes using community TAs (see “CONSIDER GIVING UP SOME CONTROL” below).


On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog


The New Yorker magazine famously printed this caption in the early nineties to draw attention to the anonymity availble on the Internet. Unfortunately, a very small fraction of MOOC students take advantage of this anonymity to engage in antisocial or antaognistic behavior on the forums, towards either their fellow students or the course staff.  We found that the few perpetrators were cowards hiding behind an anomyous throwaway email address.  Up to a certain point you can instruct your community TAs to shut down destructive threads, but if the behavior persists, see if you can have the students expelled from the course. Don’t let their behavior get you down and don’t let it sour the experience for the vast majority of students who are diligent and appreciative of your work!


Consider giving up some control


Most Berkeley campus courses use student discussion forums, and as conscientious instructors, we’re used to checking the forums and posting answers to questions there frequently.  But on-campus course forums tend to follow a regular rhythm as students work during the day, go to sleep (eventually), prepare for exams, or enjoy a short break following an exam or during a holiday. The cross-cultural, cross-time-zone reach of MOOCs obliterates this rhythm, and you may find it a lot more time-consuming to keep up with the forums.  The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that most MOOCs don’t have formal office hours or other means for students to get direct help, so the forums are even more critical to the student experience.


In our case, the first time we offered the course we recruited some of the strongest undergraduates from the previous campus offering of the course to serve as forum monitors.


Cultivate your Community TAs


On subsequent offerings, we recruited volunteer “World TAs” from among the highest-scoring MOOC students, and retained an undergraduate working about 20 hours a week to organize the volunteers’ efforts as well as serving as “Head TA.”  This system has worked well: the world TAs get some recognition, the course gets forum coverage by multilingual students spanning all the time zones (in our most recent offering, there was coverage nearly 24×7), and we get to have a life.  We still check in every week or two with our TAs to see how things are going, and often do 5-minute impromptu videos (Prof. Jennifer Widom at Stanford called them ’screenside chats’) on topics in the news relevant to that week’s course content.  We use a Google Group as a mailinglist to organize the world TAs and WeJoinIn.com to coordinate the schedule of when each of them will monitor the forums.


Guest instructor Prof. Sam Joseph has taken this practice to a new level, posting short video interviews with community TAs who took the course and are now successfully getting professional work as a result of their skills!


Dry-run the technology


WIth hundreds of thousands of students, course technology has to work perfectly.  We extended the EdX platform with sophisticated autograders for our programming assignments.  Critical to our success was “dry running” new autograders and new assignments in our classroom (about 165 students last time around) to fix both logic bugs in the autograders and problems with the grading rubrics for new homeworks.  Dry runs will save you a world of pain.


This is only a start, but as MOOC instructors, we’re rolling up our sleeves this summer and do the work to make our course even better. All in all, it’s way more work than “just” owning an on-campus course, but it’s also tremendously rewarding.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

How I got my MIT 6.004 nerd kit past airport security

As an undergrad at MIT in the late 80s, in my Digital Design and Computer Architecture courses we actually built stuff using discrete TTL parts on high-end protoboards with integrated power supplies.  At MIT these lab kits, ubiquitous on campus because of the large size of those intro courses, went by the moniker nerd kits.

My vintage ~1987 nerd kit had been sitting in storage in northern New Jersey pretty much since graduation, so during my 4th of July weekend visit, I decided to repatriate it to my home in San Francisco, where I have a small collection vintage computer equipment.

You can see why I was apprehensive about getting through airport security, worrying about what a TSA security screener might think this is:

My vintage (c.1987) MIT 6.004 nerd kit

I left plenty of extra time to check in at Logan Airport.  As expected, after it went through the conveyor X-ray, it was pulled aside to the separate station where they swab things to make sure they’re not bombs.  I assured him that I was a computer science instructor transporting a piece of vintage teaching equipment, there was nothing dangerous or sharp in the case, and he was free to open, examine, and do whatever else he wished for as long as he needed to, and that I’d be happy to answer any of his questions.

When the TSA security tech opened the cover, a gentleman next to me who had been observing the proceedings said: “I see you have a nerd kit.”

I was stunned, since this immediately meant he not only had an MIT connection, but had probably had one for a long time, since kits like these haven’t been used at MIT since at least the 90s.  He looked vaguely familiar but I couldn’t place him.   I asked how he knew what it was.

“I taught using those back in the 80’s,” he said.  ”I assume you took 6.004.”

Me: “Yes, and I won the design contest, which is why I got to keep this.  But you weren’t teaching that class when I took it, in 1987.”

Him: “Ah, yes.  I was teaching 6.001 around that time [a rigorous entry-level software course].”

Finally it clicked who he was, and I lit up.  ”You’re Rodney Brooks!  I didn’t recognize you with short hair, but when I took 6.001, you taught my recitation section and you were really great!  Of course, you taught thousands of students so I wouldn’t expect you to remember me.”

Brooks: “Hmmm…and your name is…?”  I told him.  ”Oh yes!  Sure I remember you!  You’re faculty at Berkeley now, right?”  Then he turned to the security guy swabbing my nerd kit: “It’s OK.  I taught this guy when he was just a boy.”

The security guy closed up the nerd kit and sent me on my way.

Stranger than fiction.