This year I noticed that my alma mater, U. C. Berkeley, had joined the MOOC movement by joining edX to offer online courses in computer science. The news reminded me of my first physics course at “Bezerkeley” with over 100 students in the same lecture hall. On the first day of the course the professor announced we were at the wrong university as at another UC campus we could have attended a smaller introductory physics class and receive more feedback than he could provide us. (Currently U.C. Berkeley has 258 courses with a class size of more than 100 undergraduate students.)
I did not take the professor’s advice and a year later I was in smaller classes having survived the freshman “weeder” classes. I survived those massive offline classes by seeking out the help of the massively overworked teacher assistants. Unlike the professors, the teacher assistants had time to give me knowledgeable feedback on how to solve problems in the class assignments. I also studied with class mates who are still some of my best friends to this day but when I was really stuck it was time to get help from a teacher’s assistant.
I am excited that high school students can now choose to take courses from U.C. Berkeley, M.I.T., Harvard and yes I hate to admit it…. Stanford but they will have to be more resourceful than I was as a college freshman to benefit from MOOC courses. By enrolling in a MOOC course my students could potentially learn C++ and Computer Graphics, Introductory Statistics, Introductory Physics, or the theory behind the Control of Mobile Robots. To make this potential learning opportunity a reality students will have to find fellow online leaners that can provide the knowledgeable feedback that the U.C. Berkeley teaching assistants provided to me as a freshman student.
My experience in massive offline classes also resulted in a benefit that no MOOC program offers, a UC Berkeley B.A. degree certifying my knowledge of Astronomy and Physics to the rest of the world. Currently MOOC courses assess students’ knowledge through a mix of online tests and peer grading. As a New York Times article points out, students who learn from participating in a MOOC course will have trouble certifying their knowledge until MOOCE or the “massively open online course evaluation” problem is solved.
My students are currently part of a massively minimized educational experience. As in most international schools, AISB limits the class size to 21 students which is much smaller than the class sizes of 40 that I taught as an Oregon public high school teacher. I may not be able to teach my students Artificial Intelligence programming or Analytic Combinatorics but I do know their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to problem solving and they can get my help when they are stuck on a problem during lunch, break, after school or by email. I can also certify my students’ knowledge of IB Mathematics every November when I am asked to make a prediction of how well they will score on their IB external exam in May for their university applications. It is statistically scary that for the 41 students of last year’s graduating class the teachers at AISB predicted the students’ IB external exam scores with an accuracy of less than ± 1 point from a maximum possible IB point score of 45.
MOOC courses have the potential to open up a university education to anyone who has an internet connection but first the evaluation and course assistants issues must be worked out. Even with our virtual high school courses the teacher who supervises students in the program has problems evaluating their knowledge in subject areas he is unfamiliar with. The challenge for MOOC courses is to incorporate the benefits of small off line courses to make bigger better.
P.S. Here is a link to Dan Meyer’s comments on the MOOC site Udacity