Open to the prospects of improvements in education

I have a long-standing interest in continuing education. I continue my own education not only to learn more computer science but also to test the waters and break a path for my students. I bring reports back to my classroom. I tell my students that they will need to continue their education after leaving college. I work hard to familiarize them with the means by which they can do this.

During my career I have completed short (one or a a few days) courses offered at the Argonne National Laboratory, in the National Science Foundation’s Chautauqua Program, and at conferences (e.g., the Association for Computing Machinery’s SIGGRAPH and the Mathematical
Association of America’s MathFest). I enrolled in a course at Motorola University. The Motorola Corporation has long been a leader in supporting the continuing education of its employees. I visited both the campus in Schaumburg, Illinois and the campus in Tempe, Arizona. I have purchased self-study courses from my professional society. I have purchased recorded lectures from The Teaching Company (The Great Courses).

In the last few years, I have been studying German with Babbel, Duolingo, and Rosetta Stone. I have been studying computer science, mathematics, and entrepreneurship with Coursera and Udacity. MOOCs made a big splash six or seven years ago. I am learning more and learning more easily and with more enjoyment than I did with any of the older media.

I now ask students in my courses to enroll in MOOCs. Coursera and Udacity still allow students to audit courses for free. I am not yet requiring students to complete MOOCs. My students see and hear leaders in our field. They gain experience learning with a resource that will be important to them later. They discover what other students of computer science know and can do. They find benchmarks against which to measure their own progress. With these MOOCs, my students can peek inside the classrooms of some of world\’s best universities.

Udacity and Coursera invite students to keep trying until they produce nearly perfect work. The companies have designed courses with the expectation that all students who persevere will master the lessons. Their goal is not to determine which students have learned 90% of the lesson, which have mastered 80%, and who has got only 70% of the answers right—their goal is to get everyone to near 100%. Of course, some students will get there more quickly than others, but after all is said and done, who will care whether it took a student 3 months or 6 months to learn how to write programs for the iPhone, if that student can write programs expertly?

I also work to free students from fears of failure and to provide abundant opportunities for correction, revision, and improvement.

Udacity, Coursera, and Duolingo encourage students to answer one another’s questions. They have made it easy for students to collaborate through online fora. Subscribers to Duolingo, for example, post questions and answers about the permissible ordering of words in a sentence, distinctions between nearly synonymous words, and so on. Native speakers often join these discussions. I have found great value in this feature of the language learning program.

Presentations in MOOCs are short. Brief quizzes appear frequently in the lessons. Students learn computer science by building software. The instructors provide numerous examples from which students can learn and borrow.

I also design my courses around projects, encourage teamwork, divide my presentations into small pieces, and couple my presentations to the creative work that my students are doing in the laboratory.

I visited the offices of Udacity in 2017. If MOOCs threaten us, it is not because they are delivering instruction through a different medium. It is rather because they are designing courses in a very different way. Teams design their courses. A course is not the work of a single professor working behind a closed door, drawing upon notes composed at home during the summer break. The teams at Udacity include diverse expertise and talents. Some members present the material. Others design projects, quizzes, and rubrics. Teachers do not stand alone in front of a camera. Other teachers are in the room observing, commenting, and directing. Every part of the finished course is visible to the whole world. The company measures, records, and analyzes every response of every student. The company continuously revises every course.

I do not know how MOOCs might work for those who want to study fine arts or humanities. The phrase “online education” covers a lot of ground. I urge my colleagues to avoid letting a bad experience with one kind of online education prejudice them against new kinds.