Archive forOctober, 2011

On taking a class with 160,000 classmates

When I heard about Stanford’s class in artificial intelligence to be taught online for free this fall, I knew I had to take it. At High Tech High, we have been thinking about how to use technology so that students can learn more effectively, particularly in terms of our work in our graduate school of education in working with teachers and school leaders from a distance.

I got an email on Monday telling me that class was starting, that 160,000 students had signed up, and that students are taking the class from 190 countries! I was pretty busy this week, and then when I logged on this morning, I found out that I am already behind! Yikes!

I have spent a few hours working on the course. It is fascinating. I studied physics at a liberal arts college. I find watching the lectures to be very reminiscent of attending lectures in college. Only it’s better, because I can pause to take notes, there are quizzes where the instructors “check for understanding” before moving on, and of course I can attend the lecture whenever I want, wherever I want, and can pause when I need a break.

In terms of consulting with peers, I have spent time on the forums getting help from classmates. In terms of real person to person interactions, I have signed up to attend a meetup study group session next week in San Diego which 113 people (and counting) are tracking. While it’s true that I can not stop the professors to ask questions, in fact I did not do that really all that much when I was in college anyway, and there is way more interaction on the forums (with students challenging the assignments, linking to resources to support their point of view, etc.) than I ever remember in undergraduate courses.

Also, while I am sure there is a lot of work being done behind the scenes to make the course function, the instructors have chosen to go quite low tech in their approach, which I really appreciate. They have recorded videos on youtube, (30 seconds to 5 minutes each), simply pointing a webcam at a piece of paper that they write on, and the quiz questions are embedded directly into youtube.

Finally, one of the things that I find quite interesting about the class is that having 160,000 classmates actually makes the class work better than if there were only 400. In either case, professor-student interaction would be quite limited, but with so many students, there are bound to be classmates in your geographic region, plus there are that many more students interested in posting to the forums, which means that I can learn a lot, even if I don’t post there myself.

Will I be able to keep up with the work for the next 10 weeks? Not sure, but I’m thinking a lot about what this means for distance learning for educators in the meantime.


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What doesn’t work about the “what works” clearinghouse

Because I work at a school called High Tech High, I am often asked about what I think about educational technology. People are often surprised to hear that I think that the reality often doesn’t live up to the hype. While I think that there are some very interesting things out there (, khan academy, Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, and Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence course come to mind), a lot of what passes for innovation is a textbook scanned into a computer coupled with some multiple choice tests. It’s 19th century education, but it’s online!

Meanwhile, I get an email almost every day about some piece of education technology that is “proven to work by research,” and thus am totally skeptical of claims about data that proves that education technology “works.” So one might think that I welcomed this recent NY Times piece called A classroom software boom, but mixed results despite the hype.

However, while I agree with the author’s point about mixed results and hype in educational technology, their condescending tone towards educators throughout made my blood boil.

The carefully selected quotes from “experts”  and comments include:

“[Educators] want the shiny new one,” said Peter Cohen, chief executive of Pearson School, a leading publisher of classroom texts and software. “They always want the latest, when other things have been proven the longest and demonstrated to get results.”

Though the clearinghouse is intended to help school leaders choose proven curriculum, a 2010 Government Accountability Office survey of district officials found that 58 percent of them had never heard of What Works, never mind consulted its reviews.

“Decisions are made on marketing, on politics, on personal preference,” said Robert A. Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University. “An intelligent, caring principal who’d never buy a car without looking at Consumer Reports, when they plunk down serious money to buy a curriculum, they don’t even look at the evidence.”

But Mr. Capelli, like others, relied at least in part on personal experience.

When I read this piece, I thought to myself, “Well, I know why I don’t consult the What Works Clearinghouse.” It’s because every week I see in Edweek that the clearinghouse has determined that yet again, everything they have studied “doesn’t work.” But I thought, “OK, fair enough, I’ll go look on the what works clearinghouse and see what works.”

So I went to the what works clearinghouse, and found that in high school math, science, English, and history, nothing works! Which is like going to Consumer Reports and finding out that all the cars are bad, and you’re like, “But I need a car.”



However, I just went on the clearinghouse to link to what I had seen last week when I checked. Either I am crazy, or the clearinghouse has totally changed how their search function works since this NY Times piece was released six days ago. Now there are examples of textbooks and educational software that appear to work, because “potentially positive results” are defaulted to show as “working” when last week they showed as “not working.” Indeed, Cognitive Tutor, which is the software so maligned in the NY Times article because it doesn’t “work”, now appears to “work” according to the What Works Clearinghouse.

I am really not sure what to make of this. I am posting this anyway, because I am still irked, although also baffled/skeptical/cynical. I had a lot more to say about this, including the wisdom of declaring “what works” based exclusively on multiple choice test scores, researching curricula and ed tech tools as though they are a pill for a patient to swallow, and the politicized decisions surrounding the what works clearinghouse, but this apparent change in search functionality has taken the wind out of my sails, as I am unclear what this all means and if perhaps I read this wrong before, although I don’t really see why the times would have written a whole article about how bad cognitive tutor is if it “works.”

Fortunately, I have stored up opinions about a number of other topics and will get writing on those instead.


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