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MOOCs: One Size Doesn’t Fit All

March 27, 2014 6 comments

Can a MOOC teach course content to anyone, anywhere? It’s an imagination-grabbing idea. Maybe everyone could learn about topics from the greatest teachers in the world! Create the class once, and millions could learn from it!

It seems like an exciting idea. Until you realize that the entire history of human-computer interaction is about showing us that one size doesn’t fit all.

I went to two terrific talks on MOOCs a few weeks ago. At the GVU Brown Bag, Karen Head and Rebecca Burnett talked about their brave attempt to teach an English composition class free online, for anyone interested. They encountered intriguing challenges. The course said you needed to be fluent in English as a prerequisite, but some people who signed up were far from fluent. The course did reach people all over the world, but some of those people disapproved of Karen’s style of dress. Her attire was conservative by American standards, but the world is a big place and some people felt otherwise and said so, loudly. The instructors used YouTube as part of assignments, but YouTube is banned some of the countries their students live in. Trying to accommodate everyone everywhere turned out to be a stressful endeavor.

The second talk was by Ed Cutrell of Microsoft Research India at the ACM Learning at Scale conference. Ed has been studying engineering education in India. He explained that the top-level universities in India serve about 40,000 engineering students per year. The rest of the universities serve another 4,000,000 engineering students per year. The quality of teaching at lower tier universities in India is wildly variable. In some cases, the instructors don’t know the material themselves. Many aren’t career teachers, but are teaching on a temporary basis until they can find an engineering job. Given those constraints, Ed and colleagues are using a blended learning model where short videos by experts are followed by class discussion. With this approach, the instructor and students learn the material together. Trying to respond to the particularities of a learning context, Ed was able to design a successful solution.

If I am designing a class, even if I limit my audience to “Georgia Tech students,” that isn’t a specific enough. I would design a different class for undergraduates versus graduate students, for computer science (CS) majors versus majors in computational media (CM). I don’t always have the luxury of making those classes different—economics dictates that the CS and CM majors take almost all their classes together. Financial considerations push us to generalize.

Do you own any clothing that is one-size-fits-all? It works great for my nightshirts, but it wouldn’t work if I tried it for pants. And there are some people who don’t fit into one-size-fits-all, even for nightshirts. The analogy to online classes works pretty well. There are a few simple things where one size will work tolerably well. But in most cases we should stop trying to make one size fit all.

Categories: education, HCI, MOOCs, teaching

Artifacts Have Politics. Now What?

September 23, 2011 1 comment

I’ve read Langdon Winner‘s essay “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” a dozen or more times. I first read it in grad school in the 1990s, and now I assign it in… well, almost ever class I teach.  Winner shows that some artifacts have deliberate politics. The highway overpasses around New York City were deliberately designed to keep poor people (especially non-whites) away from the beaches.  We know this because their designer, Robert Moses, said so.  Other artifacts (like nuclear versus solar power)  are not necessarily intentionally political, but lend themselves to certain kinds of power arrangements.

I once attended a lecture Winner gave, and during the question period asked him: “OK, I’m an engineer and I accept everything you say. What would you like my peers and I to do differently?” He didn’t really have an answer. I guess it’s kind of a hard question.  And I’m still pondering it myself.  I suppose “be mindful” is one straightforward answer, but the details matter–and the details in practice aren’t obvious.

When I teach the paper, I often use face recognition technology as a discussion topic. If you could invent perfect face recognition, would you?  If for example you could set up a camera at every convenience store and gas station in the nation that would reliably identify bomber Eric Rudolph while he was on the loose, would you? Are the implications different if, as is inevitable, the technology has an error rate? This leads to a discussion of the checks and balances we have in US law and whether we really trust the government to honor them in practice. If we err on deciding that we will trust the government and work within the system to make sure the limits are respected, that leads to a scarier question: What about use of this technology by totalitarian regimes in other nations?  If you invented it, wouldn’t they eventually get access too?  Is the inventor responsible for all of a technology’s eventual uses?  Knowing this, would you want to be the inventor or not?  It’s reasonable to say you’ll invent it and try to stay involved in the broader sociopolitical context of its use in practice–maybe that’s really all you can do. But you also need to recognize that you will sometimes lose control of what happens next.  Which raises the question, is there any technology that, given that you will likely eventually lose control of its uses, that you would decline to invent?  It’s easy to come up with an absurd example where the answer is yes (Marvin the Martian’s “destroy earth” button comes to mind). It’s harder to come up with heuristics for when something less extreme might fit that description.

I’ve had this discussion with classes over and over. It’s a great conversation–it gets students thinking.  And the discussion time and time again has followed the same path–until yesterday.  In my “Intro to Human-Centered Computing” class yesterday, master’s  student Vincent Martin commented, “I need face recognition technology. I would love to be able to recognize my friends and family again.”  Vincent is blind.  I’m surprised that obvious application doesn’t come up in conversation every time we discuss this issue.  I’ll make sure it comes up in the future.  If you were at all leaning towards refraining from developing face rccognition technology, I hope this would change your mind.  For every basic technology we develop, how many hidden surprise–uses for both good and ill that we can’t anticipate–are there?

OK, artifacts have politics. What does this mean for us as designers and engineers? Beyond high-level platitudes like “be mindful,” what should we do differently? I’m still wondering.

Laptops in Class

January 24, 2011 5 comments

At the first class of each semester, I raise the issue of laptops in class.  Here’s my rant:

When I go to a meeting, I almost never bring my laptop. I have a light one and I could easily bring it along. But I know that if I do, I will not pay attention. <class laughs> I am terrible that way. Someone will start saying something redundant, boring, or irrelevant, and I’ll take that moment to  look down at my laptop. I’ll check my email. I’ll check Facebook or Twitter. <class laughs> My attention will stray, and when I look up again I will find that the boring/irrelevant moment is long over, and I’ve missed something significant.  I’ve missed part of the point of why I bothered to be there in the first place.

I know some of you genuinely find it helpful to take notes on a computer. I also know that others really do use your computer to look up more information about what we’re talking about. And sometimes those contributions are invaluable to the whole class. I also know that some of you are on Facebook or checking email. You need to ask yourself a question: What do I want to get out of being here in class? Can I better  accomplish that with our without my laptop? For me, there’s no contest–I’ve got to have it closed or I might as well not come. You may be different. Think about why you are here and how best to accomplish your own goals for being here.

There’s just one thing I ask: if you do decide to use a computer in class, please do not use it for anything that might distract your fellow students. In particular, please do not play any real-time games during class. <class laughs> I’ve had multiple complaints on my course evaluation about students playing games during class. Whether you pay attention is your choice, but please don’t distract everyone else.

There’s a short version of this on my syllabus as well. I have been fairly successful in getting rid of folks playing first person shooters in class with this speech.  Whether it’s had any impact on how much attention people pay, I can’t say for sure.  I’m cautiously optimistic that it helps.

How do you handle laptops in class? Are there other issues of misuse or overuse of mobile and social computing that you’ve tried to address with your students? With your peers? With your family?  We are still in the early stages of understanding the choices we all make about best use of these new technologies.  Let’s share strategies!  Leave me a comment–I’d love to hear what people have tried and what seems to work.

Wiping Up After Online Universities

June 8, 2010 5 comments

Newly potty trained children need help wiping. As they get older and more coordinated, they can do this for themselves. But they’ll let Mom and Dad do it for them for a shocking length of time. Until one day you take a deep breath and say, “You’re perfectly capable of doing this yourself. Call me if you have problems, but please try yourself first.”

Lately I feel like I’ve been cleaning up after not only my children, but also other people’s children. Or rather, students. They’re students at online universities, and they seem to think I’m here to spend my time taking care of them.

Case one: a student at the for-profit school University of Phoenix emails me that she’d like to interview me about an article I wrote. I tell her I can’t chat on the phone, but can answer a couple questions by email. She emails me questions like “how do you evaluate an online reference?” I politely send her back the name of a book that discusses this in detail. She replies:

“This will help for future projects and I will pass it on but our presentation is due 8 June, we were only given a few days to prepare. I will attempt to find it, if not we will go with what we have from your article. Thanks again.”

No time to go to the library and actually read a book–I want you to answer my questions!

Case two, same day: PhD student at not-for-profit online university asks to meet with me to discuss her dissertation research. She comes to my office, and tells me that she has a little over a year to finish her dissertation.  She doesn’t have a topic yet, but wants to do something about human-computer interaction. Maybe for the elderly? She really doesn’t know. She knows little about my research, and her areas of interest don’t relate to what I do. I ask if maybe she could discuss this with her, um, advisor in her program? She says, “Oh, well that’s not how it works. I have to come up with a topic and write it up. Then they send it to faculty in the area, and they decide whether they’re willing to supervise the thesis.”

I try to be nice to random requests. I answer almost every email I receive, if only with a form letter. And sometimes I’ll meet someone at a conference and they’ll greet me warmly. I’ll politely say, “Hi!  Nice to meet you. Do I know you?” They reply, “Oh, sorry, I’m sure you don’t remember me… six years ago I was working on a project, and you were really helpful and sent me some references. I really appreciated it. It’s great to finally meet you in person!” All that for a form letter. Well, if I can spend 30 seconds and make some random student that happy, I’m happy to do it. But lately, these requests are getting out of hand.

What frustrated me about the two encounters I had yesterday was that both students seemed to leave the experience with a sense that I had let them down–had not really helped them the way they were hoping for. So now I invested time in helping a random student from a third or fourth-tier university I have no affiliation with, and am left feeling guilty that I didn’t do more for them?  Good grief.

I don’t blame the students at all. They are clearly not getting the kind of support they need from their online degree programs. Do I blame their instructors? Partially. They need to better support their own students, and also educate them on what kind of ‘research methods’ are appropriate and expected. But the real problem lies with their universities.  PBS Frontline did a wonderful documentary “College, Inc.” on the abusive practices of  for-profit universities. They charge twice the amount as a not-for-profit school, and leave students drowning in debt. And often give them useless degrees that can’t get them the jobs they need to pay off that debt (like a nursing degree with no clinical experience, for example). For-profit schools typically spend 25% of their revenue on advertising, and 10% on paying faculty. Those under-paid faculty are not too eager to provide lots of one-on-one time with students, and I honestly can’t blame them.

I’m going to do my darndest to keep being nice–keep replying to mail I receive from random students in at least some minimal way. Being a professor puts constant pressure on you to be less nice, and I don’t want to give in. But at some point I may  need to start writing back to students from online schools (and their instructors), “You’re perfectly capable of doing this yourself. Call me if you have problems, but please try yourself first.”

Categories: social computing, teaching

The Professor’s Manual

Since we’re talking about how to be a professor, here it is: The Professor’s Manual Wiki.

I have no idea if this will work… but it does seem like the kind of topic where sharing our collective wisdom might be helpful. Please jump in!

Categories: teaching

More on the Secret Lives of Professors

May 31, 2010 2 comments

Matt Welsh at Harvard wrote a nice blog post “The Secret Lives of Professors” that has been reposted by lots of folks. I think he makes some great points. I thought I’d throw in my 2 cents.

Fund Raising
Like Matt, it surprised me how much time I end up spending raising money. Time and angst. Early on in my career, a senior faculty member told me that writing these things is good for you–writing a proposal really helps you figure out what you’re doing. I laughed at the time (This is good for me? Uh, yeah–whatever). But the more I’ve done it, the more I’ve realized how right she was. When you’ve written a really solid proposal, the rest is easy. In some ways, some of the hardest students to advise are the ones with NSF fellowships. (OK, you can do anything. Now what?)

That’s the good news. The bad news: grant rates have gotten unreasonably competitive. And in the end, panels are often forced to pick between apples and oranges. Ie, here are four equally sound proposals on quite different topics, but we can only fund one. This contributes to the angst part of the equation.

Heuristics
Another thing that continues to surprise me is how much you need to build up your own set of heuristics about what is important–what you prioritize, and why. And to try to stay true to the rules you’ve laid out–to make active decisions about how to manage your time, and not just drift in the direction of the thing marked URGENT in your inbox. As a graduate student, if a nice person asked me to do something that seemed worthwhile and it was possible for me to do it, I said yes. This seems like a reasonable approach, doesn’t it? As a faculty member, it’s woefully inadequate. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Yup, that conference is actually worthwhile, and I am really not busy those days. But if I squeeze another trip in between trip one and trip two, I’ll be coming and going continually. Many of my colleagues are always coming and going, and seem to like it that way. Me, I can’t get real work done that way. I can’t live that way.

In the undergraduate class “Computers, Society, and Professionalism” I teach, we spend a class on virtue ethics. I don’t think it’s the deepest of philosophies–but it might be the most useful. What kind of person (professor) do you want to be? I ask myself that all the time. There are more possible answers than you might think–there are lots of different kinds of things to strive for, to feel satisfied about. And it surprises me the extent to which the answer to that question is up to me, and the ways that my moment-by-moment decisions shape the bigger picture. I come home too often feeling frustrated that I didn’t get my paper written, when instead I should be thinking “I really helped that poor lost student today.” I try to remind myself of that, but it’s not always easy.

One Big Opportunity
I was an undergrad at Harvard, and I loved it there. Being a Harvard student is just one big opportunity–but it is what you make of it, and there’s not a whole lot of support. It’s easy to get lost. Different schools are good for learning different kinds of things, and for different kinds of people. Harvard has got a lot of prestige, and prestige opens doors. Some of the prestige is well deserved, some is nonsense. Some folks thrive there, and for others it’s absolutely the wrong place. And everything I just said I think sums up being a professor. I love it, and for someone with the right personality it’s just one big fantastic opportunity. Opportunity to do work you care about, and to influence the world for the better both through your teaching and the knowledge discovered and shared in your papers.

Categories: teaching
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