Exploring MOOCs: my early observations

So I've been on a mission to MOOC up my life lately. Probably all part of that pre-poned mid-life crisis but I'd like to think there's a higher purpose to my primary research, which I'll no doubt discover as my project progresses. Here are some very early observations:

  • Branding matters (to some people, some of the time): All the MOOCs I've signed up for have been from so-called top tier institutions e.g. Harvard, Stanford and MIT. If I'm brutally honest about it, this is no accident. Despite everything I learned on the MBA, I'm a sucker for a strong brand. And no, I don't care about badges and this won't be going on my CV (edX does offer ID-verified pathways for some courses but it's not my cup of tea). For me, the brand is a signalling mechanism. It's my cognitive shortcut in terms of choosing courses I assume will be interesting, well-designed and well-taught. This kind of snap judgment might be completely unfair and unhelpful but there you have it.
  • My attention span for online lectures is breathtakingly limited: Data mining efforts at edX indicate that average engagement for online educational videos tends to max out at about 6 minutes. I think I zone out at 1.5. However, edX won't always catch this because I sometimes leave the video running while attending to other tasks. Or maybe they will. After all, data analytics as a science is becoming more and more sophisticated by the day.
  • I think it's the eye contact that I miss: Why is it that I can sit happily through a 2.5 hour lecture at university or on the MBA (with a 10/15 minute break) but 3 minutes of video footage makes me feel like I'm ageing in my seat? My gut feeling is that it's the eye contact, the personal rapport you can build with a real, live tutor. And, of course, the back-and-forth Q&A or real-time classroom banter. Now, this may not be true for everyone but I think it's true for me. With online courses, I'd much rather read, write and reflect than watch a man in a box. Would I feel differently about a "live" presentation e.g. a Google Hangout? Can't say - I haven't tried. One for the To Do list.

Well, those are some initial thoughts. More when I've made a dent in this research. 

MOOC me up!

After a long phase of feeling well and truly MOOCed out, I've decided to once again dip my toes in the proverbial waters of the online learning pool. And of course that means signing up to many more courses than I have the time to complete. Actually, if I'm honest, time is available in abundance at the moment. The issue is commitment. And staying engaged. As a self-confessed geek, I've never had a problem with this before (with exceptions made for subjects like geography and constitutional law). I even managed to fall in love with financial accounting for goodness sake and for a lawyer (a  poet, not a quant), that's really saying something. But there's something about the MOOC setup that gets me all excited to start with (at the point of sign-up) but over time somehow seems to invite impatience, skimming, laziness, switching off and giving up (all in that order). And the descent is rapid.

Now it's quite possible that I just haven't found the online learning format that works for me. The next few weeks are about discovering what that is. Also on my To Do list is getting to grips with some of the latest research on MOOCs. I know I'll have some major confirmation bias issues to grapple with but I really want to understand - with an open mind - what "effectiveness" really means in MOOC land (and recently I've been getting a feeling that completion rates and discussion forum participation rates don't necessarily have anything to do with it).

The secondary research piece can wait. I'll start with primary research. And that means getting my act together and actually doing a course or two rather than just letting them sit prettily on my EdX dashboard, unopened.

Making maths beautiful

These are the words that (almost) made me fall in love with maths:

Math is a beautiful art, full of awe and mystery. It gives you a sense of control when you figure out its secrets. (Shimon Schocken)

Schocken's demo of www.slatemath.com at the Skills 2014 summit was absolutely enchanting. Slate Math is an adaptive learning system that teaches children through beautifully-crafted interactive games. In Schocken's words, it's about bringing back those "Wow!" and "Aha!" moments in maths - "Wow!" (I understand this! That's how it works!) and "Aha!" (this is how it's applied!). Part of the system's beauty lies in its simplicity. This charming episode, for instance, teaches Kindergarten kids the concept of "mapping" - a concept fundamental to mathematics - through the process of pairing bees and flowers.

As I listened to Shocken present at the summit, I discovered that there was a romance to maths, a magic to the process of abstraction that I hadn't contemplated before. And yes, maybe maths is uniquely placed to give a learner that beautiful feeling of something finally "clicking". If only my primary school maths lessons had been like this. Concept-focused, wonder-filled and "wowish".

Because STEAM is the new STEM...

There's been a lot of excitement around STEM lately (Science, Tech, Engineering and Maths) and not without good reason. The arguments are compelling. STEM careers are rich, diverse and rewarding and form the lifeblood of some of the fastest-growing industries in the world. These skill-sets are fundamental to innovation and something needs to be done about the skills gap. There are some brilliant campaigns and initiatives built around this important agenda, some of my favourites involving a drive to expose more girls to STEM skills and careers.  We've got kids engaging with STEM professionals, kids learning to code, kids actually "making" things again - I'm sure you'd agree that it's inspiring stuff. But before you sign yourself up as a STEM evangelist, there's something that you should know. Turns out that STEAM is the new STEM. That's Science, Tech, Engineering, the Arts, and Maths.

Now, this isn't wholly surprising. Every time the STEM debate kicks off, someone inevitably brings up the importance of balancing left brain/right brain activity, simultaneously nurturing creativity and critical thinking. I may sound cynical but I'm actually a big believer in having a well-rounded education. When I was growing up, you were either an artist or a scientist (or, in MBA terminology, a poet or a quant). A few bright sparks would blur the lines, of course, but chances are you'd be put in a box at some point (or you'd put yourself in one). There are also the extreme cases - in many Indian schools, students are still cordoned off into "Science", "Commerce" and "Arts" streams at the age of 16 (and sadly, the way it most often works is that fab grades = science stream, mediocre grades = commerce, and the rest = arts).

STEAM, striking a balance between the left brain and right brain - these aren't new ideas. Our ancestors didn't all live in the same edu-silos as us. The great thinkers of the Renaissance are a case in point. Da Vinci was not just an artist but also a scientist, an architect, an engineer and a musician. Michelangelo was a sculptor, painter, poet, architect and engineer. They were not only rational and analytical but also contemplative, sensitive and expressive. They wrapped their minds across multiple disciplines. They saw connections between them.

To call these thinkers "polymaths" somehow separates them from the rest of the world. And is this fair? All young children have a wonderful sense of curiosity - they assess and dissect, design and create. They are simultaneously artists and scientists, musicians and architects, linguists and inventors. When we talk about putting the "A" back into STEM, I'd like to think we're moving towards a curriculum where we revive that flexibility, that richness of being: every child an innovator, every child a polymath.


An education system that celebrates failure

In the worlds of tech and entrepreneurship, you hear a lot about fostering a “culture of innovation” - getting comfortable with making mistakes, celebrating failure and using it as a launchpad to bigger and better things. It’s the lean startup methodology. You don’t wait for perfection. You get out there with a minimum viable product and you keep iterating. If necessary, you “pivot”. As Paul Schoemaker puts it in his fantastic article on Inc.com, failure is the foundation of innovation. Yet, most of us grow up with a dangerously unhealthy attitude towards it. Dangerous because it stifles creativity. Dangerous because it's a paralysing fear and so embedded that it follows you throughout your adult life.

It takes courage to share unfinished work with your colleagues, to throw out a hypothesis that’s yet to be tested, to chime in with a suggestion that might just fall flat. It takes courage to allow yourself to be this vulnerable, especially after years and years of hiding behind the defence of “perfectionism”. How do we make sure the next generation of students learn these lessons early on? How do we build an education system that allows room for mistakes, one that teaches you to iterate, to pivot? One that dispels the stigma and nurtures confidence and courage?

Hopefully things have changed since I was in school but I don't think we ever had a serious discussion about "mistakes". At least, not until the first week of the MBA and that unforgettable introduction to the Honda (B) case. As every MBA student knows, there's always a "(B) case" - a not-so-rosy version of events, a jumble of mishaps hiding behind the glossy exterior of the "(A) case" (a curious product of post-rationalisation). It's not as elegant but it reflects the reality of things. It allows room for mistakes and acknowledges their part in the story.

And on that note, here's a quote I just love and one I wish I’d come across years ago. Conan O’Brien reflecting on failure during his 2000 Harvard commencement speech:

I've dwelled on my failures today because, as graduates of Harvard, your biggest liability is your need to succeed. Your need to always find yourself on the sweet side of the bell curve. Because success is a lot like a bright, white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you're desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it in any way.
I left the cocoon of Harvard, I left the cocoon of Saturday Night Live, I left the cocoon of The Simpsons. And each time it was bruising and tumultuous. And yet, every failure was freeing, and today I'm as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good.
So, that's what I wish for all of you: the bad as well as the good. Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally. And remember that the story is never over.

Mr. Fry on teaching history

“The biggest challenge facing the great teachers and communicators of history is not to teach history itself, nor even the lessons of history, but why history matters. How to ignite the first spark of the will o'the wisp, the Jack o'lantern, the ignis fatuus [foolish fire] beloved of poets, which lights up one source of history and then another, zigzagging across the marsh, connecting and linking and writing bright words across the dark face of the present. There's no phrase I can come up that will encapsulate in a winning sound-bite why history matters. We know that history matters, we know that it is thrilling, absorbing, fascinating, delightful and infuriating, that it is life. Yet I can't help wondering if it's a bit like being a Wagnerite; you just have to get used to the fact that some people are never going to listen.”

- Stephen Fry, Making History