On Change, Horses, and Water

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

For some reason I find this Fast Company article on Sebastian Thrun fascinating.

Here’s where I got really excited, regarding Thrun’s Stats 101 course and the relationship between the quality of the course and whether or not it would be successful:

Only it wasn’t: For all of his efforts, Statistics 101 students were not any more engaged than any of Udacity’s other students. “Nothing we had done had changed the drop-off curve,” Thrun acknowledges.

Here’s some context for the above quote that has nothing to do with online education, Udacity, or Smartboards. The good teachers I know mostly consider themselves failures. A particular semester will end and the dejected class of faculty will go back to the drawing board, rehearsing their future plays, and adding to the perennial checklist of things to alter for next time. At the beginning of the semester, the syllabus was newly minted with additional directions, already. Other content was added to stave off that unforeseen and persistent, naggly question. “It’s right there on the syllabus,” a teacher will say. “I’ll clarify further.” Done, as summer work. The links were refreshed. The Calendar was shined to perfection. And so the semester ends with half the students gone and pretty much the same ratio of grades puncturing the brains of the bewildered.

I had a conversation just the other day with a seasoned Psychology prof ready to go at the online course with a mouse pointer sharpened by “student success foreshadowing.” She paused. She said, “Yeah, we do this every semester.” But still, that video showing students how to find the directions for the assignment could always be made a little clearer.

Teachers worry a lot about students, learning, assessment, and curriculum. But they also know that revisions come with unforeseen consequences. This is something that novice faculty learn over time. We will always seek better learning and better clarity. That’s the nature of the ecosystem. Every course will tell a story and some courses can themselves be a story. Maybe the final exam is the climax. First we’ll do this, then this, then that, and by the time we get to Oedipus the student will have this, that, and the other thing to work with for improved analysis and interpretation of our despairing protagonist.

I pretty much have the curriculum nailed for my Comp II course. But it still doesn’t work right. There’s still a part of the story that’s missing. I’ll hunt it down next break and rewrite the syllabus.

But in all seriousness, the theme that appears to be missing in the story of Professor Thrun, at least as far as FC tells it, is that “students” are human beings. Human beings experience the world in the private space of their minds. Most of the time, I don’t know what my students know, and I’m just as much a solipsism to them as they are to me. Most of the time motivation, technique, expertise, and the relationship between effort and evidence are a mystery. There’s that old trick of the greenhorn writer  who scribes a query thusly: “This is the best damned story every” and so on. Here’s a hypothetical: we’ve had lots of geniuses over time who have walked the planet, shod and unshod. We could hire this superteam to construct the “killer app” of online or on-ground courses. The result will be the same, and this is where statistics get us into trouble. The students who grasp and demonstrate will grasp and demonstrate. Those who do not grasp and demonstrate, or, more importantly, do not demonstrate and either grasp or don’t grasp will grasp and demonstrate OR not. (Hm, that was tough to formulate.)

In my view, statistics are problematic in determining the success or failure of a college course, whether it smells of chalk dust or is warmed by binary code. Chafkin quotes Thrun here in regards to the “painful moment”:

As Thrun was being praised by Friedman, and pretty much everyone else, for having attracted a stunning number of students–1.6 million to date–he was obsessing over a data point that was rarely mentioned in the breathless accounts about the power of new forms of free online education: the shockingly low number of students who actually finish the classes, which is fewer than 10%. Not all of those people received a passing grade, either, meaning that for every 100 pupils who enrolled in a free course, something like five actually learned the topic. If this was an education revolution, it was a disturbingly uneven one.

“We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product,” Thrun tells me. “It was a painful moment.”

The arithmetic in my head tells me that 10% of 1.6 million is 160,000. Additional math leads to this after the equals sign: 8,000. This means 8,000 people passed whatever courses are a part of the smorgasbord. Is this a problem, given that out all the courses unmentioned in the above quote a million and change people did not eat their vegetables? We don’t know the reasons. We can’t know the reasons. Degrees of interest, access, modes, prerequisites, time, ability, attention, disagreement with technique? I would submit that this has little to do with “lousy” products and more to do with being human. The system I work with to do online ed is, in my estimation, not that great of a product. It’s not a fantastic communication tool, which is what a decent system ought to do best. At heart, any learning system is about getting ideas across and getting ideas back in a context that makes sense. Classrooms simulate that most ancient and persistent of situations: a group gathering to share ideas and maybe learn something in the process. The key here is “maybe.” Then again, why is “coworking” space all the rage these days? Because its pretty basic human stuff.

Here’s a further at heart: a) people cannot be forced to learn (or watch Youtube videos) and b) institutions cannot guarantee learning (no matter the quality of TED talks). See a). That’s why accountability in education will always lead to comedy sketches. And there’s more to doing it than just wanting to. I’m not a great fan of thinking about education in the context of for-profit because of the human quotient. Imagine if I sold tables to customers with a sign that said: this one got a C. My point of view on this is that education is best viewed as a public service that will succeed or fail on the tenacity and mindfulness of students, not chocolate-covered systems that when bitten into reveal their broccoli center (You know, the chocolate covered broccoli syndrome typically associated with education games).

Just to refer back to that first quote I started with. I say, join the club.

I think it’s fascinating that Thun is really bugged by his perceived failure. I would have to conclude that, given this, he’s a good teacher. Teachers who don’t obsess about improvement and who think they can actually teach well should find another line of work.


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