The flipping classroom!

Dr. Ian Bogost, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology (but I know him best as the creator of Cow Clicker) has an article in the Atlantic about the flipped classroom trend.  The flipped classroom, where students watch the lectures as homework and complete what would have been homework during class, has gained popularity by Massively Open Online Courseware like Coursera, Udacity and Khan Academy.  He states that:

Perhaps surprisingly, a flipped classroom doesn’t fundamentally alter the nature of the experience… Both MOOCs and flipped classrooms still rely on the lecture as their principal building block. In a typical classroom students listen to lectures. In a flipped classroom, students still listen to lectures — they just do so as homework, edited down into pleasurably digestible chunks. The lecture is alive and well, it’s just been turned into a sitcom.

A week later he posted that while the flipped classroom idea isn’t all that new and it’s really the seminar format with high faculty-student interaction that provides the best learning atmosphere.

However Ian fails to address this point: the “sitcom” lectures on Coursera and Udacity are recorded by some of the top professors in their field, who are also great lecturers.  I’ve used Udacity to supplement lectures for some professors who, despite impressive CVs, weren’t quit as gifted lecturers.

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I dropped-sideways from Coursera

My future potential will be forever blemished by my lack of completion in Coursera’s Fantasy and Science Fiction class.  So, it’s a good thing it’s not on any permanent records 😉 The class was well-organized and by-far one of the best English-literature classes I’ve taken.  The professor’s video lectures alone are worth signing up just to see.  In fact, his lecture on interpretation is a great explanation of why readers have different views of a book and why some are wrong.

Honestly, the timing of this class was not very convenient.  It came smack in the middle of my Database final, leaving the military (for good this time), and moving back home.  But, I still found time to go to the Philadelphia’s Linux User Group (PLUG) and hear some anecdotes by Eric Raymond.

The PLUG Penguin by Stephanie Fox.

There was about 20 Penguin-heads in attendance and after an hour of lively discussion from Virtual Machine hosting to the Carrington event, ESR took the podium.  He told of several anecdotes, some which I intend to post about in the near future, but the one that fits well with my Coursera experience was his tale of Culture Hacking.

On his blog, ESR advocates the creation of a “ground truth” document by software engineers, who find themselves working on hardware, or a system, with less than adequate documentation.  Simply put, it is the process of document assumptions about how the system works prior to writing any code.  Some enlightened commenters expressed thanks to ESR for naming a practice for which they’ve routinely performed. Culture. Hacked. This practice now has a name to which others can refer and spread.  While it may not be the catchiest name, the fact that the idea is now named gives it weight.  In fact, this is one of the few things that stuck with me from Gravity’s Rainbow (that and I want a banana greenhouse on my rooftop):

“Names by themselves may be empty, but the act of naming…”

So, in the spirit of a new J.J. Abrams show, I officially bestow this name: Drop Sideways: The act of no longer attending a MOOC.  I would call it pulling a “datko” but something tells me that thousands of others are doing the same thing.  Besides, at my last job, I’ve heard some shout “datko!” when there was just enough coffee in the pot, for a half cup :p

The Foundation of Steampunk Literature

Only fans of science fiction could create the sub-sub-genre.  In the taxonomy of literature, the niche of niches is steampunk.  Speculative fiction set in the Victorian era, steampunk creates a world where the adoption of electricity was delayed and steam-powered devices, on a personal scale, are abundant.  In this realm, one of my favorite books is The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.  It’s cyberpunk of the steam age, hence the moniker “steampunk.”

But the inspiration of steampunk surely can be seen in gothic science fiction like Frankenstein, which happened to be one of the books in Coursera’s Fantasy and Science Fiction course.  This was the fourth book and although I had read it before, re-reading it twenty years later is a completely different experience.  Books seem to age better with time than movies.  Of course, reading Frankenstein brought great nostalgia for Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein.

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Alice’s illogical logic

Book two of Fantasy and Science Fiction was the pair of Alice novels: Alice and Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.  My essay and peer comments are here and again, I generally agree with the comments.  In the essay, I try to make an observation about the logic that Dodgson uses in the books.

The Jabberwocky: I memorized this poem in school at some point and It’s surprising how much I remember… Perhaps my essay caused too much uffish thought.

Namely, I used a construction of logical implication, p \implies q, (I really like WordPress’ inline \LaTeX).  So, in the essay I compare the implication, false implies true (which is a true) statement, with the stories in Alice.  One of the students, who said he was a mathematician disagreed with that comment, and after review, I still think I was right 🙂

Taking the example from this great reference (pages 8-9), the statement, “If pigs can fly, then you can understand the Chebyshev bound,” is true.  Here we have p \implies q where p = “if pigs can fly” and q = “then you can understand the Chebyshev bound.” Which is the case, (F \implies T) = T.

The converse, (as I mention in the essay), is not true, that is: “if you can understand the Chebyshev bound, then pigs can fly.” (q \implies p \neq p \implies q).

I’ll give the reviewer credit in that my argument is not strongly made and is confusing.  With a word limit of 320, it’s a challenge to capture a succinct idea, more so than one may think.  I’m still enjoying the class and as you can tell from the comments, peer reviewers put significant time into the remarks, which I greatly appreciate (even if I disagree).

Unfortunately, I missed my Dracula submission, but I’m nearly finished with Frankenstein and I have some ideas tossing around, so I should be back on track soon!

Fantasy and Science Fiction MOOC

Week 1 of a revolutionary Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, is complete.  The Coursera (and Udacity) experience is blowing the lid off of the traditional liberal-arts education, this class included, and I encourage everybody to take a class on either site.

Last year, Sebastian Thun taught an online Artificial Intelligence class to over 500,000 students and subsequently went on to launch Udacity.  It’s not surprising then, that the initial courses from Udacity and Coursera are computer science related.  I believe the english class that I’m taking now, is the first literature course available en masse on either site.

Yet these computer science courses have already proven to be successful, but FantasySF (as it’s known on Twitter) is a different type of course, one that involves subjective discussion.  Unlike in AI, there is no optimal path for which A* to find.  The novel aspect of this course is its structure, which is the same week-to-week for ten weeks:

  1. On Thursdays, a new unit starts with an introductory video from the professor.
  2. The student has five days to read a novel and then write a 270-320 word essay.
  3. Once the essay is submitted on Tuesday, the student is sent five random essays to grade (1-3) and provide anonymous feedback by Thursdays.
  4. On Thursday, feedback is received from the peer evaluations and the cycle starts over.

Now consider the demographic of students: ranging from 12 – 81 and consisting of students from all over the world!  At any time, students can interact with each other on the Forums, which had something like 4000 posts in the first day.  The interaction was so great, that real-life meetups, blogs and book clubs on other websites like Goodreads have spawned.

The professor provides a few insightful videos for each book and has already added an impromptu recording based on Forum discussions.  I’m posting my essay here along with the student feedback.  I found the feedback constructive and spot-on and I have no idea who wrote it.  Even a self-admitted non-native english speaker learned a few new words 🙂

And while I completely disagree with Andrew Hacker’s op-ed, it’s refreshing to take a class with thousands of classmates who want to learn.  For the record, algebra is definitely a class everyone should take…

I’m very interested in where this rabbit hole leads (guess what Book 2 is…) and I’ll continue to post about this experience.  There are certainly things that aren’t working with this format (as evidenced by thousands of disappointed posts on the forums), but hey, we’re still in beta!

Coursera and Udacity are college killers


I’ve decided to enroll in Coursera’s Fantasy and Science Fiction course, which starts tomorrow.  Coursera and Udacity have been in the press more and more and full supporter of online education.  I think it will be this decade’s disruptive technology.  Now, I attended college and I’m now enrolled in a graduate university (online, actually I should be studying…) so I’m fully incorporated into the legacy system, but the King is dead, long live the King!

I’m a big fan of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and the anecdote about the removal of grades has always resonated with me.  These online programs are the realization of Phaedrus’ vision; they encourage those who want to learn, not those who think they must.

This movement is particularly exciting in the light of increasing student debt.  If I’m a 18-year old, I’d be asking myself why should I go into a mountain of debt to attend college when the chances aren’t very good that I’ll get a job?  Well, good question, but at the moment you should probably still go to college 🙂 Mainly because online education is in an experimental phase at the moment and it may be too risky to bet a career on it.  Plus, there are limited offerings…

Apart from pragmatism, it’s important to realize that college is a service. Students pay with the expectation of learning.  Online courses have flipped this model much like buying music online has.  The album is a program’s course of study.  The consumer no longer wants to take required classes when there are bite-size individual courses available, for free.

Universities won’t be going away any time soon, especially for professional tracks like doctors, lawyers and PhDs.  Given the University system in the U.S. right now, college is not for everybody and it shouldn’t be pushed on every high school student.  In fact, I think I’d be a fan of colleges that encouraged a year or two off after high school for travel abroad or a year volunteering. (Again discounting those who plan to stay in school for 8+ years).  If we truly value education, and not the diploma, these new systems are to be welcomed, not shunned.

But, it all comes down to societal trust (see, I’ve been reading Liars and Outliers).  Those expensive pieces of paper are certificates which affirms that said upstanding university has certified that the indebted has completed a vigorous course of study.  Employers that trust that organization trust the graduate.  While there are certificates available in this new model, that trust is not yet developed.  Although I think it helps that institutions like Stanford, Princeton, and University of Michigan are the ones leading the charge.  In order to replace the existing system, we’ll need a new benchmark of trust.  Maybe a more rigorous interview process or building portfolios of work?

What’s the difference in student X who completed the coursera Princeton Computer Architecture class and those who did so at Princeton, besides $38,650 a year?  Well, right now, I think a lot still.  But from the pedagogical stance, I think the answer is not much.

I disagree with Mark Edmunson’s NY Times op-ed in that communities can form online.  It’s obviously not the same and nothing is like listening to a record on vinyl.  But the product is simply too expensive to be worth it at the moment.  And for those of us who made life-long friends in college, well 20-year-olds are good at making life-long friends, no matter where they are.

So, I’m signing up and I’ll see how it goes.  I’m midway through my database class, so if the course-work is too much, I know which one I’ll drop (not the database class).  But I think it will be interesting and even more so since English classes are built around interaction.  If you prefer to see a breakdown by “term,” you can go here.