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Teaching without a class


Yesterday, Amazon announced its steps into the online education market with Amazon Inspire. The growing expansion of online education, from the early days of VLEs to MOOCs in all disciplines and languages, has me thinking a lot about teaching and how it is increasingly escaping the physical classroom.

As a PhD student, ordinarily I would be expected to undertake some teaching, in particular if I aim to enter academia after I earn my PhD. As a part-time, long-distance student with a full-time job, however, the reality is that regular teaching isn’t possible, even if my institution’s admin team were working proactively to try to make it happen for students in my situation (spoiler alert: they’re not).

Being a sometime MOOC fan, and now working with Dino Felluga and his team on BRANCH (Britain, Representation, and Nineteenth-Century History), I’ve been thinking about how digital media might make it possible to teach outside the traditional classroom.

Ordinarily, we think of online academic provision from a learner’s perspective: how well are their needs met, how robust is the learning and examining process, how does such an education compare with traditional university experiences? However, what if we diverge for a moment from models of academic provision that remain centred on traditional institutions?

MOOCs mostly follow traditional course structures with weekly homework, readings complemented by video lectures, often delivered with PowerPoint, and forums to replace office hours, where teaching assistants answer queries. Coursera restricts itself to organisational “partners”—for-profits, universities, not-for-profits, etc.—and edX does the same. That means that, for teachers, MOOCs do not remove barriers but reinforce the priority of academic institutions over the individual educators that make them up.  Academics, particularly PhD students and ECRs often talk about blogging, online-only journals, etc., as a way to get our scholarship out there, but what about the opportunities for getting our pedagogy out there too? The articles on BRANCH, for instance, are certainly educative, but they are scholarship, not pedagogy. 

Lots of lecture courses from traditional universities make their way onto YouTube or Udemy as platforms, but it seems that the possibility for cross-fertilisation of ideas—between students, students and lecturer, etc—is limited. Such platforms are “stuck on transmit”. TED Talks, although maligned, feels less staid, but the form is much the same from an online perspective (the live experience may be different). Discussion forums underneath videos are not much different to comments under news article, and we all know what’s said about those.

Teaching online is an increasingly prevalent mode of educating that merits PhD students’ and ECRs’ attention. What is expected of us now as teachers, especially in cases where traditional teaching opportunities might be closed to us because of the changing HE landscape? I don’t have an answer to this, but I do have some more questions:

What are some of the ways that you have seen effective teaching being done outside traditional environments, in particular online? What sort of distinction is there now between online scholarship and online pedagogy? Is the act of making scholarship freely available and accessible—to those who can engage with it—an act of pedagogy? Are attempts at online pedagogy—particularly those that are fairly low-engagement for the teacher, as MOOCs often are—inevitably less effective than classroom-based teaching? Will moves towards more online or open-access teaching detached from ‘real’ (classroom) teaching only exacerbate an attitude in academia of treating PhDs and ECRs as contingent labourers by replacing more of our traditional work? Would promoting one’s ability to teach through, for example, one-off Prezis/YouTube videos or Udemy courses actually be counterproductive for a job candidate?



Marketing MOOCs for the CV arms race

Male-female gap among higher education and MOOC student rates in developing countries (c) New Republic

I’ve been taking MOOCs for years, watching sites like Coursera and EdX develop from a small handful offerings into something decidedly and globally on-trend in the higher education sector. At first, in 2012, the motivation for many of the courses that sprang up seemed to be love of learning, and providers seemed to offer liberal arts education at the far reaches of the word ‘liberal’, a utopia of free access to knowledge that could democratise education across the globe. However, MOOCs have so-far proved a bit of an echo chamber.

Although it only covered EdX, a recent MIT-Harvard study found that 40% of MOOC participants are teachers, an astonishing statistic. 70% of all participants already have BAs. An earlier study, which focused on UPenn Coursera students, found that students tended to be young, well-educated, and employed. MOOC participants are well-educated people who value learning and education. Those without access to tertiary education, particularly in developing countries, are under-represented. Meanwhile, philomaths with relatively high levels of privilege flock to subjects that can bolster their CVs and enhance their careers, choosing computer science over the humanities at a ratio of nearly 4:1, and MOOC sites are developing ways to monetise their offerings: verified certificates, ‘nanodegrees’, and ‘specialisations’.

This suggests that, without further efforts to deliver on the oft-quoted democratising aims, MOOCs will become a new tool in the increasingly frenetic CV arms race, often starting at undergrad level, which already sees students throwing thousands at professional qualifications (the UK legal profession is a prime example and has been for years…), and those with masters degrees taking entry-level jobs.

At the moment, MOOCs’ pay-off for participants is still unproven. Whether they will prove valuable on CVs will depend on how employers across industries respond to verified certificates, ‘nano degrees’, and ‘specialisations’. However, the increasingly professionalised offerings (a course on Public-Private Partnerships starts imminently on Coursera) suggest a wholesale divergence from what many had initially hoped would be the result of the MOOC explosion. Capitalising on the insecure labour market with career promises is the clear intention of some sites. Udacity’s front page recommends “pick which programming language to learn first based on salary, geography, application types and recent trends”. There is no particular love of learning here. Even the suggestion that the decision is based around the “lifestyle you want” is suspect. Salary comes first. It’s all about the ££.

To me, one of the most worrying elements of the MOOCs-in-an-arms-race is the gender disparity, in developing countries, between male and female participants in MOOCs (30%) versus in traditional education (10%). We already know women often have to appear more qualified than male competitors in order to land a job. Taking a MOOC in one’s spare time to boost one’s CV, particularly a paid one one leading to a verifiable certificate or the completion of a particular ‘track’, might become another hurdle to women participating on equal terms with men in the labour market. Advantages and disadvantages will continue to accumulate on either side of a MOOC-divide, and those with more free time and free cash will push even further ahead.

So it is with a rather heavy heart that I must confess to having succumbed to the lure of Coursera’s ‘signature track’. I could say that it was all because of the allure of the Leadership specialisation that might be coming soon, which course announcements have taken care to mention. I could point out that I’ve taken a few leadership-related MOOCs before, and I’m particularly passionate about women’s leadership roles. I could claim to be investing in MOOCs as a whole (or Coursera, at least). All of these things played a part in the decision. However, what tipped me over the edge was something incredibly petty: the ‘signature track’ badge in the Coursera forums.

I don’t even particularly like the forums. They’re badly designed, leading to many repetitive discussions/comments because submitting something is more valued than contributing to a good conversation. But it was the marketing of the ‘signature track’ within them, seeing the little badge repeatedly, that reminded me of the reasons one might pay for the signature track, proving effective on me in a way that the countdown for signing up had never been.

The first time I posted in the forum after I’d paid up, the badge came up next to my name, and I felt immediately suspect. I looked again at the badge, one of the few on display on that particular page. And it occurred to me, rather too late, that in fact those little badges are more questionable than the direct positioning of MOOCs as weapons in a CV arms race, because they make inequality tangible in the day-to-day space of the course. Why should fellow students know that I am on the ‘signature track’? That information is imposed on my fellow students because I have chosen to pay up. Within a course, signature track students might have access to additional resources, and will have a different certificate at the end of it, but the forums, where posting is often mandatory, are a digital space that now explicitly privilege some participants over others. Coursera’s marketing proves more effective by virtue of creating a hierarchy of students. If an arms race between MOOC participants starts within the pedagogic space, then the education on offer is ‘liberal’ in only the shallowest sense of the word.

I’m really rather ashamed of myself for signing up to it.

CS50x — weeks 2 & 3

I am now really rather behind, and may or may not manage to catch up, but I’m still enjoying doing CS50x on EdX. The website remains a bit clunky, and the videos huge to download, but I think these are simply the perils of MOOCs, and because I download the notes, problem set spec and most of the videos to watch at other times, it is not a daily problem to navigate.

The course runs online until 31 December 2014, so there is plenty of time for people who are interested to start now (or whenever, really).

Beware below some computer science jargon!

The second problem set required us to write two encryption programs: a Caesar cypher and a Vigenère cypher. The Caesar cypher was the simpler, and acted as a base for the second, but I struggled a bit with figuring out the ASCII math in order to loop around the alphabet from Z to A, rather than into non-alphabetic characters. Plus seg faults when I forgot I had to enter a command-line argument!

I tried to fight with this part of the pset for a fair long while because I didn’t watch the walkthrough until quite late on (again!). I think this is a good approach, though, despite the frustration it brings, as it is worth struggling on your own for a while, trying to reason things out, particularly as the 12-month long window for completing the course helps to focus the mind on mastery rather than getting things done as fast as possible. 

Once I’d figured out the ASCII math, the Caesar cypher was relatively simple, but the Vigenère cypher was harder to fix because I was getting genuine seg faults. The problem was relatively obvious — somewhere I was trying to access memory that wasn’t actually part of my array — but I had to spend a lot of time figuring out exactly where this was happening, as there was no error message to guide me. I got there in the end by removing the not-strictly-necessary (and not-quite-functioning) nested for loop. I did have a horrible feeling of ‘perhaps this is beyond me’, though, on Saturday night, which was not much fun. I’m glad I managed to wake up in a better mood!

What I was very conscious of with both of these programs was style. I had a habit of insisting on using not-strictly-necessary ‘if/else‘ structures where ‘if’ could really stand alone without the need to further indent the rest of the code within an ‘else’ structure. My formulae for the ASCII math was also a bit clunky, I think (and took me close to CS50’s informal limit of 80 characters per line). There was a balancing act being making the code ‘legible’ so that someone could understand how the formula worked and simplifying it mathematically. I would like to look again at the two programs after having some comments back on my code, but I’m not sure when that will be (or even whether the whole MOOC class will get comments from the teaching staff, given their commitments to the Harvard real-life students).

As I’m trying hard to complete the course as much in time with the real-life version as possible, I’m not looking at the ‘hacker’ versions of the psets yet, which are more challenging. I would like to find the time, perhaps next week, to take a look at these from weeks 1 and 2, whilst also getting started on pset3.

My posts on previous weeks are here: Week 0 & 1; Weeks 1 & 2.

Cs50 weeks 1 and 2

Right now, I’m about one week behind the pace of the live, “real” version of Harvard’s CS50x. I’m trying to keep pace because that way there is more motivation from the illusion of taking a class with others. I doubt I’ll be able to catch up a full week, but may give it a try in February when things are a bit quieter at work.

Anyway. On to problem set 1. We had to print a pyramid of user-specified height, and write a greedy algorithm to dole out change. I think I spent a bit longer on this than I needed to because I didn’t watch the section or walkthroughs until quite late on. It was fun struggling through, though. Neither of the resulting programs were particularly interesting for the user, however, so I won’t post them here. 

Week 2 dives into cryptography. An intro CS class has to do sexy stuff, naturally! I haven’t started watching the videos yet, but will do on my train tomorrow. 

I’m still finding the website sort of hard to use. I couldn’t find any actual written style guide, for example, so I relied completely on the style-checker built into the CS50 appliance. I’ve additionally found the website a bit glitchy. Sometimes, for example, the problem set page wouldn’t fully load in safari. I switched to chrome instead, but it’s a bit of a pain as I try to use different browsers for different things so I can better find the tab I might be looking for.

One other thing I will say: David Malan is absolutely superb on Twitter. Right on top of it at all hours of the day or night. 

CS50x — Weeks 0 and 1

So, I posted not so long back about trying to pick up some MOOCs again, particularly on the science side of things. The first to start (on New Year’s Day) was Harvard’s CS50 (branded CS50x on EdX). It’s taught primarily by the wonderful and funny David Malan (@davidjmalan), and it is self-paced with a “hard” deadline of 31 December 2014, giving you great flexibility in how quickly you take each ‘week’. I’m currently midway through Week 1, which is the ‘Intro to C’ week, and I’m a little behind, but not too far…

The course aims to be more practical than theoretical, getting you stuck into producing programmes very early on. Week 0 uses Scratch to introduce some of the logic and thoughts processes behind getting computers to do what seems easy or obvious, and because it is relatively intuitive and easy to work with, it offers a neat sense of accomplishment early on. My Week 0 Scratch project is up on the Scratch.MIT website, so do head over and play it if you’re interested (it’s cat and laser-pointer themed). You can also just play around with Scratch without doing CS50, if you fancy it!

I won’t lie: getting started is a little bit exhausting. [Confession time: as an undergrad, about six years ago, I sat in the first lecture of CS50 and ran away after twenty minutes. I think I have at least learnt a little bit of persistence in the intervening years!]

The course is run via an amalgamation of other sites, so that Week 0 is a bit of an onslaught: Reddit for discussion forums; follow @CS50 on Twitter; begin to navigate CS50.net and the EdX site, which is not always wonderfully constructed; sign up with and use MIT’s Scratch website for the first problem set; etc. Then, in Week 1, there is the kerfuffle of downloading the CS50 ‘appliance’, which is a specially designed programme that allows all students to do their programming in the same environment, but which involves downloading two separate things and registering on a further, third-party website.

However, once you’re into it all, it becomes much easier. The appliance is really worthwhile, and I can see that it makes things a lot easier for the staff, particularly in such a large class. I cannot imagine the workload involved in marking problem sets not only from Harvard undergrads, but all those taking the course via EdX in its various certificated/non-certificated forms.

The intro lectures to C build on the more intuitive world of Scratch in order to make the transition easier. I have watched the lectures but not the section (the more in-depth lesson taught by the teaching assistants), and I right now have a sense of where I need to go in completing the problem set, but I’m not there yet. Still, I’m having fun trying to figure it out.

As and when I have further thoughts and projects to share, I’ll post them here.

New MOOC — Intro Comp Sci

So, although it’s been a while, and I’m trying to polish off my PhD proposal, I may have signed up for an EdX course, Harvard’s CS50. 

I sat in one of the lectures as an undergrad many moons ago and didn’t really get it, so I ran off to do something else, but I’m sure that second time around I will figure it out! Fingers crossed, anyway. If I make it past week one, I’ll start posting about the course here. It will be nice to think science again, at least for a few hours a week. 

Genetics course and popular science

Well, after beating myself up a little about failing to keep up with this course yesterday, I realised that there was only about an hour’s worth of lectures up on Coursera, so I’ve gotten through them today.

This week was about inheritance, including ‘single-gene inheritance‘ (what a lot of people immediately think of when they think of something being genetic) and ‘x-linked inheritance‘.

I’ll try to post a little more about the content of the course, what I find most interesting, and what is being picked up on the forums, over the next few weeks. There is one thing I think it’s worth mentioning now, though.

The course is taking a deliberate, two-speed approach with General and Specialist lectures that allow students to engage (or not) with the nitty gritty of science and statistics as they wish. I suppose that this helps the course fulfil Professor Noor’s broader goal of educating as many US-ians as possible about what ‘evolution is a theory’ actually means. As someone who’s done a fair bit of science before, I’m watching all of the videos, and the Specialist ones aren’t particularly tricky. I’ve not had enough time to engage with the Forums yet (surprise!), but I hope that plenty of people are watching them. ‘Popular science’ is very honourable, but there’s a real risk in making science too basic. This has been notable with programmes such as the BBC’s Horizon, which have become noticeably less scientific in recent years.