Friday, August 30, 2013

This will take more than eyeballs

I hear and read much about the competition for eyeballs to view advertising.  Does anyone else feel icky about being reduced to body parts?

I'd like to suggest a couple of rewarding and ad-free ways to spend time on the internet.  However, these will take some cognitive work.

Firstly, don't let the name of the course, Writing in the Sciences, put you off.  This course will help you right more clearly and quickly about any subject.  You need to take this class.  Seriously.  The instructor, Kristin Sainani, is justly famous for her teaching and editing prowess.  Even if you don't have time to do the writing and peer editing exercises, enroll and listen to her lectures.

I felt it was time to brush up on calculus so I signed up for Calculus One.  It's structured very similarly to "self-paced calculus", which was offered at University of Colorado at Boulder (CU) when I was a graduate student there in the 1990s, and is just what I was looking for.  But, it may not work for someone who is learning calculus for the first time and completely on their own.

--------------- Let me digress a minute.-----------------

College department funding is often tied to the number of students majoring in their subject. Some departments also need to teach "service" classes to students in other majors. E.g. physics majors need to take math classes, chemistry students need to take math and physics classes, and biology students need to take math, physics and chemistry classes. Who pays for the service courses?

There is much interdepartmental fighting over resources, which are always too scarce for the number of students that need to be taught. That's how I ended up teaching three .different. classes one semester for $800/month and completely burned out on teaching.

Service classes are chronically underfunded and CU came up with a creative and cheap response for calculus. Self-paced students used the same textbook as the traditional calculus students and were expected to master the same material. However, they didn't attend traditional lectures because there weren't enough seats in the lecture hall.

Instead, they went to a math lab staffed with at least one teaching assistant (open days, evenings and weekends) and equipped with computers that offered up practice questions (and answers). Students could do as many or as few practice problems as they liked on their own (in the math lab or elsewhere), but they needed to come into the math lab to take unit quizzes. After a set number of units, they took a mid-term. If they passed that, they earned one unit of calculus credit.

One of my chemistry students told me that, since she was a returning student and had taken calculus decades ago, self-paced was perfect. She breezed through the class in the first 5 weeks of the semester, before her other classes got serious. Then, she could focus on 3 classes instead of 4 for the rest of the semester. Another student recovering from a head injury (car accident), took 1-2 units of calculus per semester until she finally finished the required 8 (or was it 10?) units.

Yet another student said that he worked intensively on self-paced calculus when the skiing was bad and then ignored it when the snow was good.  So he got ahead in the fall, fell behind in the winter, and caught up again in the spring.  All three styles/strategies were successful in that they learned and retained enough math to pass quantum mechanics (which I taught at the time).

Students are charged only for the number of units that they passed, taking the financial pressure off. In a traditional class, students are charged for all classes (after the final drop date), regardless of whether they pass or even complete the classes.

The TAs in the math lab proctored exams and tutored students face-to-face (F2F). I think that the F2F contact is vital for keeping students engaged when the going gets rough.  I haven't figured out a better way to discern which concepts students are having difficulty grasping besides working F2F one-on-one or in small groups.

In a MOOC, students can replay a lecture segment ad nauseum, but a F2F tutor can change tack and come from a different direction when they see one approach isn't working.  Or they can diagnose what foundational understanding is missing and send the student back to learn the prerequisite(s).  F2F time is expensive and necessarily needs to be rationed in a public university.  Self-paced math was a good way to do it.

--------------- End of digression and back to MOOCs.-----------------

I wish Calculus One was available when I was learning calculus.  The lecture segments are so good--clear, yet also (mathematically) rigorous.  They aim to demystify calculus for new initiates, yet lay the foundation for more formal math analysis later on.  It's a seriously great use of MOOCs.

My only hesitation is that one really needs a F2F teacher to explain the whys and wherefores when students get stuck.  If you have a friend or a tutor who can help you get unstuck, Calculus One is perfect. If you teach math, you may want to sign up and witness some seriously great teaching.

I previously wrote about calculus for the Atlantic Monthly's website:
Lessons in Freeway Calculus


  1. You talked me into the writing course. My kids have been begging me to write a book with all my recipes and exactly how I make their favorites. I can practice the writing on that.

  2. You do know that writing class is a Stanfurd course ;)
    P.S. no matter how much you talk about Calculus, my opinion on that is, once was bad enough. I should take more Statistical Analysis though and brush up on that Next time.

    1. Yes, I realize she teaches at Stanfurd. But, I will make an exception for her. How can you not respect someone who majored in Philosophy?

    2. Oops, I went to HS w/ a very famous someone who majored in philosophy before law school and then hedge fund billions. Now he uses his billionaire pulpit to rail against taxes.

      I take that back.

  3. There's certainly no substitute for face-to-face instruction; teaching is primarily about that human connection.

    That said, one of things we're trying to do with MOOCulus is to get some data to improve our MOOC in particular, and calculus instruction in general. I really want everyone to be able to master calculus, and I believe that everybody can. Here's a video about my vision for this:

    For example, on one problem, 95% of the students who will enter a correct answer will do so in the first 130 seconds; so after 130 seconds, our platform could connect that student with a live video tutor. By getting data on common wrong answers, we can code better responses which address the misconception that led to the wrong answer. MOOCulus is the first version of something that I hope will get a lot better.

    1. You are entirely correct. MOOCs are an unprecedented opportunity to collect large-scale statistics on how people learn (or don't learn).

      The challenge of education is how to scale high-quality instruction and I see your class as a big step forward.

      I'd love to work on a blended learning experiment with kids from different areas of LA. As I pointed out in, some kids have more resources (in and out of school) than others. Controlling for these exposures would help us sort out the most efficient way to teach math.


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