Sailing Beyond Previous Horizons

It’s 9:43 am. (-5 GMT), and already I’m fighting mindnumb. There are hives of buzz around @coursera, and I’ve been following the noise, as well as maybe six other “trends” since 8:30 am. (-5 GMT), including a Youtube video featuring the CEOs at StumblUpon, and the flight fares to a certain North American city.  This morning, one of the things I followed was a link to Jiquan Ngiam’s blog post on Coursera’s site, where he said

I’m continually blown away by our students’ passion to learn, drive to make it through difficult problem sets, and willingness to help their peers in the forums and study groups. We all are building an amazing community of lifelong learners that bridges age, nationality, and language.

“Passion,” “Lifelong learners,” “helping…peers” “bridges”: these are all phrases with mostly positive connotations.

For some reason, though, I feel a shade of foreboding while reading them. First of all, that the global is now local is only one of the ideas (fairly neutral) that sweeps through my neural network while considering Ngiam’s statement. Another idea that comes to mind is Kevin Kelly’s thesis (in his book What Technology Wants) that what technology “wants” is for us to share. It’s this thought that raises the doom-spectre in my mind, wafting like a potential gas leak fated to be discovered when the building explodes. Here are a few questions that arise for me: As people of the screen, can we share too much? Might we share our way into a monoculture that is an Orwellian, Huxley-esque or Kafka-esque dimly lit nightmare? The chatter/buzz feels threatening because the extensive “diversity of ideas” begins to sound and feel like a mind-numbing suzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzazazaaaaaaaa. I become intoxicated with information, and I fear being  taken advantage of in my intoxicated state. But maybe this spectre I sense is merely my own idiosyncratic projection. More will be revealed.

In my Coursera/Princeton Intro to Sociology course, I’ve been reminded of the idea that personal troubles can mirror societal issues.  However, says Duneier, regarding the development of a sociological imagination, “It is really not enough to just imagine. It’s important that we sort through the evidence so that we don’t connect the individual experience to social structure in a baseless and fanciful manner.”  The trouble I sense at the personal level is inchoate, and I know that I’m experiencing it within — and because of — the framework of my idiosyncratic history; nevertheless, the trouble is there, here. I feel it pulsing within my psychic radar, and it’s been pulsing for at least a year. Call me Cassandra, but this “pulsing,” for lack of better word, is why I fought to have 1984 and Brave New World put on our school’s Summer Reading list. It’s why I’m going to re-read Kafka’s The Trial. Yes, the incipient revolution inspired by MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses, an acronym I learned only yesterday), is exciting, but I don’t want to miss the potential deadly parasite shuttling inside of it.

At heart, I have to fight against a tendency to see conspiracies (networks of malfeasance).

On the brighter side:

One of my fellow @coursera-mates responds to Ngiam’s blog post with this:

The only course i’m intensively following so far is the machine learning one, and even if it is a subject i’m already very familiar with, it is without any comparaison [sic] the most powerful/beneficial learning experience i ever had in my life.
  •  comment on the Coursera blog by @padjiman (Philippe Adjiman, who identifies himself as an Israeli-French Ph.D/Engineer in his Twitter bio)

That’s an amazing statement: “the most powerful learning experience” he’s had in his life! I don’t know much more about @padjiman at this point except for what he’s written in his Twitter bio: as a Ph.D  at least, he’s probably had many, many learning experiences so far. So there is something unique happening in with these MOOCs, and I’m wanting to understand the texture, color, tone and frequency of what it is. What characterizes this @coursera learning experience that makes it sail beyond previous horizons?

Why, @padjiman, is this the most powerful learning experience you’ve had thus far?


3 thoughts on “Sailing Beyond Previous Horizons

  1. Hi @xtaforster,

    I’ll answer you by listing what i think are all the weakness of a traditional class you can take at the university and how something like the Coursera or Udacity experience blow those away. I’ll aso argue why i think that those 2 sites are starting a revolution in education. As my main point of comparison thus far is a pure computer science/maths class, please assume that the following points hold at least for such a context, though i believe they should apply for most fields of science.

    From the least important to the most significant:

    (1) In a traditional class, if you come late to a course and miss e.g the first 5-10 minutes (it happens…), you might end up being lost, or just behind, during the whole duration of the (up to few hours) course, seriously not optimizing/wasting your time. No need to argue why an online course solves that.

    (2) In a pure math or very technical class, your first step to understand the course deeply is usually to try getting the best notes you can during the course, and most of the time, you wish that you could do “pause” during few minutes, to write down how you understood a certain concept. Instead, you often try to write down what you got while the prof. still continues speaking and move already to another concept and then you might have hard time to catch up with what you missed.

    (3) is a corollary of (2). Many times you feel that a certain part of the course/class is easy on you, and you wish you could do “fast forward” to get to the next concept. Instead, you start being distracted, and often you’re not concentrated enough when the class reaches again a point that you need to follow.

    (4) In assignments and/or final exam, in a traditional class, if you happend to be in a bad day or being stressed and do a stupid mistake, you might ruin your exam, even if you spent days and nights and was super serious during all the course, and the grade you’ll get won’t accurately represents your understanding of the class

    With coursera/udacity you can submit your assignment, fail, sometimes get feedback, understand your error, and retry (made possible thanks to automatic/instant grading! impossible with a “live” professor). Trying, failing, improving. This is how you get better. Failing the final exam in a traditional class because of a stupid mistake can cost you a year!!

    Think also about a student that fails in an early assignment. In a traditional class, he’ll get penalized for the whole course because of that, as his grade will be bounded by this early failure. This is stupid. If you give him an unlimited amount of retries until he gets a perfect score for each assignments (as with coursera/udacity), you’ll not only end up with much less students giving up early, but also with much more highly motivated students who will try to get the perfect score, just because they have the opportunity to get to it (don’t get me wrong, not everyone is like that, but the ones that are will flourish in coursera/udacity while they could have potentially wither in a traditional class).

    (5) If you get stuck in any assignment, in a traditional class you won’t necessarily find someone(who is successful in the class) that is willing to help you. In Coursera/Udacity, if you get stuck in something, with virtually up to 100k students in your class, it is *highly* likely that someone else had the same problem and shared it already or is willing to discuss it with you in the forums. This is powerful.

    (6) Depending of which university you are, you can get the best, like the worse professors. It is obvious that your learning experience will be dramatically different depending on the quality of the professor and the content he’s teaching. Coursera/Udacity offer courses from arguably ones of the best possible professors of each discipline and/or from the most influent folks in the computer science industry. E.g. even if i can’t prove it, I believe that most of the introductions to machine learning or AI classes around the world in traditional universities are of lesser quality (or at best of equivalent quality) than the one taught by Professor Andrew Ng. at coursera (or Peter Norvig/Sebastien Thrun before he founded Udacity), of course if you compare similar covered material/concepts.

    (7) I grew up and studied in France, where university is mostly free. As you know, it doesn’t work that way in the rest of the world, especially in top universities. The fact that with e.g. coursera i have access for free to the quality of professors and content of e.g. Stanford, is simply amazing. Before Coursera, only a handful of lucky (and talendend and/or rich) students had access to such a privilege every year.

    (8) To strengthen point (7), think about it at large, when your country/city of origin is far from being a capital or a place where you’re unlikely to get good or even decent professors in very specialized disciplines. In those cases, with those websites, you jump from mediocrity to excellence. I don’t see how universities in the world teaching sciences could ignore that long term: what’s the point to attend the class of an average teacher with average content, maybe even pay a lot for that, when the best professors and content are available for free and online. I’m not saying that universities will disappear of course 🙂 but they will need to adapt with that, and find a way to combine that into their program in some way.

    (9) When you make available online the best possible material on a e.g. machine learning or AI from Stanford, it means that the available “baseline” knowledge is already the excellence. It gives the most solid foundations to anyone willing to acquire them. The result will be much better educated/sharper people in a given field, making everyone starting from the best basis possible and thus rising the level up significantly.

    (10) You actually don’t need to wait for university until you take those courses. I’m sure any geeky teenager (maybe even younger) could attend e.g. the so awesome introduction to computer science by David Ewans which introduces the core basic concepts of computer science based on a compelling project of building a functional web search engine (yes yes, with crawling, indexing, search, …, it is really the most compelling way to get introduced to computer science you can think of). Same applies for any professional who already started a carrier in a non related field, and would like to e.g. acquire important technical knowledge about how to program etc… Long term, I think it will create new kind of entrepreneurs and impact positively the carrier of millions.

    Points (1) to (5) illustrates why i think the like of Coursera Udacity give that superior learning experience that surpass by far all the ones i got or observed among my fellows at university.
    Points (6) to (10) illustrates why i think Coursera/Udacity are starting a revolution in education.

    • I am a teacher and I allow students the opportunity to re-do every assignment and every test. I think all teachers should do the same because I agree that we learn from our mistakes and shouldn’t be penalized for them.

  2. Pingback: Why MOOCs Might Provide the “Most Powerful Learning Experience” Ever | Antilogical Pedagogical

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