Regina Saphier: Coursera “re-Members” in Larger Numbers?

Regina Saphier: Coursera “re-Members” in Larger Numbers?


How to measure leaning without tests, quizzes, essays, deadlines and exams in the MOOC environment?

I now spent months returning to the Coursera platform to view videos just for fun and the thrill of joy was in my heart still as I watched Prof. Idan Segev (the David & Inez Myers Professor in Computational Neuroscience and former director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Neural Computation (ICNC) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) explaining dendrites and axons, the Brainbow, and all that is going on in our heads. (By the way Idan Segev has the casual, friendly teaching style that I prefer. He is all about teaching. There is another professor offering a similar course at Duke, but he is a hopeless narcissist… So, of course I am more interested in Idan’s ideas.) I am learning, but the Coursera system won’t acknowledge that. In reality, the Coursera system only acknowledges my Gamification Statement of Accomplishment as learning. It does not acknowledge that watching a few videos about the Scandinavian film industry via Coursera enriched one of my blog post about a completely different topic.

Mouse neurons labeled with fluorescent tags. Such “color coded” brain cells promise new solutions to formerly intractable problems with resolving closely packed neurons and tracing their axons and dendrites reliably over long distances. …

As I was listening to Idan, a parallel idea narrated itself in the back of my mind… I am viewing videos, I enjoy this free style, interdisciplinary learning, but there are so many interesting lectures and I am here as a blogger subscribed to dozens of Coursera courses… I started this course late, because why not? After all, I have enough degrees, I have taken enough exams, everyone knows that I am able, diligent and have a can do attitude. I want to forget the stress of learning (the stress comes from the knowledge that one has to take exams that weren’t and still aren’t very humanistic, rather mostly standardized as if humans were machines, with the same machine brains). I want learning that makes me happy, free style, even when the material is hard. Idan Segev explained a portion of the brain, I stopped the video and repeated what he just told me, to see if I understand and remember. The material is not hard at all, of course I remember. And as soon as I was done, I moved on with the video.

There, right there, when I do this, learning happens. You measure it, or not, it happens. Even, often, it is recall… I am remembering some of my studies from 15-20 years ago… But the Coursera platform, no matter how sophisticated it is, won’t (yet) recognize that as learning. It will indicate that I watched that video, and that I did not take the quiz. It will never know that I would have and could have taken the quiz had I not started the fun course “late” because I refuse to make sense of the deadline mania, and had the course platform not told me that I would be penalized for being “late”. Penalized for being self motivated to take the course and watch the videos? I am late for what? Late for my self managed learning that I do not have to do? That I do because I enjoy it? Deadlines for many of us are a clear indication that exams are not about the students. No. Exams are about the professors. Professors want to sort you into little boxes, and want to do that by this and this day of your life. You have no say in it. Why? Penalties are there to force students to line up nicely, in an industrial fashion to become handsome statistics (a bunch of big data made of human cognition and behavior). Deadlines and old fashioned exams are just the same as walls in an Ivy League university. Why then are so many people surprised by the so called “low completion rate” of the MOOCs? Never mind, that some professors manage to graduate a lifetime worth of students in just one go with a Coursera course… How is that low completion? We are talking about thousands of happy students after a few months during a pioneering time!

However, it is not enough to give us the liberty to access the best possible courses globally for free. You also have to let go of the deadline mania and the monopoly of the exam as we know it. We have to find a way to quantify the learning that happens when a student completed all the videos. If it can only be done by quizzes and tests at this time, here is an option: when a student completes all the videos, but has not completed any of the quizzes and essays, acknowledge the motivation, the interest, the time invested by offering the student a penalty free option for taking all the quizzes and essays within an estimated time limit given by the student. See what happens.

Alternatively, create groups, and give students a choice. Group 1. will be managed in the old fashioned way, deadlines, quizzes, lectures uploaded weekly. In Group 2. the rules will be totally different. There will be no deadlines, there will be unlimited number of retakes for the quizzes and essays, all lectures will be online on the first day, there will be more time, but there will also be a time management tool that will only permit the student to start the course once she or he created a timetable. There won’t be penalty for late work, but there will be reward for early work, that is: early compared to the student’s self made commitment. This means that the student will be in competition with him or herself. Intrinsic motivation is rewarded, but the lack of it is not penalized. Nor are students penalized for life happening to them. Nor is the curious person penalized for not fitting into the professor’s deadline driven world view on some other continent!

Note (in reaction to some reader comments insisting that deadlines are important): Yes, deadlines are important to some students, but people should be able to set their own deadlines. In the past schools applied a one deadline fits all delusion… The reality in the Coursera context is very different. You have tens of thousands of different people, lives, learning styles, cultures and technological levels, all over the world… You can not realistically expect that many people to fit one deadline, the deadline of one person, the professor. You no longer expect these people to fit in one space in a building. So, stop expecting them to fit into the same time frame too.* (I wrote even more regarding this deadline debate, I pasted the rest at the end of this blog, after the vintage image depicting a possible future.)

This experiment is just a draft. It can be a starting point (the two types of groups can be three or four types) and the Coursera platform will very quickly see the right method to maximize learning and completion. Of course there are many other issues that influence learning and completion, I am only explaining the dimension that made me think today. But this won’t solve the problem of measuring learning when “only” the videos are being watched.

Here is an example of a huge system being passive: if you want to see that a human is trying to use a service and not an online robot, you use CAPTCHA. This is passive micro identification on a large scale. However, you can make that ID system intelligent and useful by upgrading it to reCAPTCHA, and humans will not only be identified, but those very minds will review the spelling of scanned books online. This is an active micro ID and review service on a large scale. Brilliant concept (even if it could be better in practice according to a comment that I received)!

Now this is the difference I am looking for in the MOOC arena: thousands of people are watching Coursera videos in a passive way and are recorded as people who did not complete the course… But: what if those people who did learn by “just” watching somehow could show up in the statistics (you have that data)… plus, their profiles could indicate how many of the course videos those people completed (audited). For example, if you own a TED profile, you know that when you are logged in, the system does register it when you watched a TED video. You can also indicate on the TED surface if you particularly like a talk. This could be incorporated into the Coursera environment too. I would like to favorite videos on Coursera, and I want my profile to show how many videos I completed (audited) in a particular course. This would be an indication of my interest and of the time allocated to the courses that I listed. It would also compensate for a temporary lack of intrinsic motivation. Don’t just indicate the progress of the entire course in general, indicate my progress to me on the course dashboard, so that I could compare my progress in all courses compared to each other. This is in a way gamified user experience to strengthen and sustain learning motivation.

How could Coursera Members become Coursera “re-Members” in larger numbers? If millions of unknown humans are able to ensure the quality of scanned documents, surely there is a way to meaningfully measure the actual, major or minor learning (depending on the course structure and the intellectual abilities of the observer) by watching videos and to stop the monopoly of standardized, formal and rigid testing. If Coursera wishes to remain the leader in the MOOC field, this is one major question to explore and answer. Acknowledge micro-learning.

Who says that learning has to happen only in a formal way within Coursera? Who says that informal learning should not be quantified or featured in some smart way? And this is where gamification would be rather meaningful. Plus, my “MentorU” and “ConsultU” propositions are also relevant (I described them in an earlier blog), because many Coursera students need mentoring, as well as many professors need help to make their courses Coursera worthy.

Finally, here is an interesting image below created in 1901 or 1910, depicting a possible future (“In the year 2000”), a machine digesting books that were selected by a professor, a TA is doing a major part of “the work”, and the content is being transferred by wires into passive students’ heads… It is one kind of future that kind of happened… but this is not an ideal situation today… the rigid hierarchy, deadlines and exams are still hindering usAnd it is also obvious that students are highly able to teach peers.

Until machines start to read our minds too (and rest assured our neural networks will tell a machine in the future if we understand the material), we need to find a way to measure learning in new ways! In fact I could envision a testing method that works with your brain signals directly… A signal of confusion would trigger a new path in the learning process or would trigger a mechanism to connect to an online mentor immediately, and the testing would not only be continuous, but it would also be unnoticeable by the student. In a way testing could disappear, and the monitoring of the learning process would be fluent and stress free, supporting personalized feedback and deep knowledge. Who needs traditional test certificates once you have an online score that says your brain is ready to use your new knowledge? Let your brain spikes tell the world that you know the material. Brilliant brain-machine interface project… Based on what Idan Segev is teaching me via Coursera right now, this should be possible today.

Future school. France, paper card. (In the year 2000...)

Future school. France, paper card. (Printed in 1901 or 1910, depicting a school “In the year 2000”.)

*More regarding the deadline debate:  I am a person of personal deadlines. You (in this paragraph “you” means the commenter on LinkedIn) are a person of uniform deadlines. There is no need for you to agree with my theory and practice.  I had no problem completing the Gamification course via Coursera (with a uniform deadline).  Nor have I had any problems completing a degree at Teachers College of Columbia University (with the habit of completing every essay a week ahead of the official deadlines… it was marvelous to watch all the crazy people do their last minute work when I was done… paradoxically this habit of mine to hand in essays early is related to my dyslexia… my mental text uploading is slower, but my mental text downloading is faster than average and I trained myself to manage my time well).  Neither was it a problem for me to learn English in 4 months… luckily I did not care about school deadlines (my mind was soaking up the new language while speaking and listening) and was not listening when I was told by a person (like you, the commenter on LinkedIn) that I should not try a high level exam after only 4 months of intensive learning. I was right, of course, and I was the only one in my course to pass the academic level exam. I know my abilities. My abilities are not related to the official deadlines. No. My abilities were forced into uniform deadlines and I noticed early on, that this is not right for me.

I have my reasons for playing with the idea of letting go of uniform deadlines in an experiment via Coursera and letting people set their own deadlines in several groups. How would that cause anyone any trouble if this were a possibility in the system for people who randomly enter the system mid-course right now for example? A complaint against Coursera from the media: “few people complete the courses after registering”. Few is silly in itself, because we are talking about thousands of people completing them. I am a Courserian for my own pleasure. I write for my pleasure too, and I think about the future of MOOC education creatively. (I see that really bothers some people…) There are people with dedication and time when the course is already over. If we follow your (the sceptical LinkedIn commenter’s) thinking, all those people are forced to wait until the next offering, when perhaps those exact people have no time. Or there are also thousands of people watching videos for fun and are getting the motivation during the course to take the exam (it happened to me during the Gamification course… I actually did not need the statement of accomplishment but I have it now). Why not make it possible for them in a flexible way to join in and complete it? I mean, the best PR a course can get is the course itself. Trust me, there are people who could successfully complete a course within a week or two, with all the coursework, videos, essays, tests, and the exam (in a group of like minded quick learners). How about them? Relax and open your mind. You like it or not, my ideas are perfectly valid regarding an experimental MOOC system serving millions of people internationally. You just need the ability to imagine the entire spectrum of this global community and the ability to play with ideas.

Most people can not manage their own time, because nobody is teaching them to do so, and most teachers and schools expect people to follow external directions, while punishing internal motivation. It is why most learning is without any creative or flow experience. By definition when you are in flow while learning, you forget about time. (I completed high school in 3 instead of 4 years, and did much more with my third year compared to my 39 classmates. There was no need for me to sit there and keep up with the deadlines, I went to another country and managed to become fluent in German while working and learning on my own. I graduated with the same class after I returned to Hungary.) Learning best happens in a creatively chaotic environment, ask the researchers at MIT. You (the LinkedIn commenter) are talking about the “industrial model of education” in the past. It is what you know and it is what you think you need. I am talking about the present and the future of optimal and personalized learning. We are simply not talking about the same thing. I wish you the ability to embrace change (and Coursera and edX are change, so you are doing the right thing), intuition, and “creative intellectual chaos within a flexible structure” (with intelligent deadlines). To you, stress is caused by the idea of “the chaotic” and “the unorganized” in education. Stress to me in education is related to actual forced, uniform, rigid structure and deadlines based on hierarchy and a misguided sense of power on the institutional side. Indeed, the topic of learning and education is not only a professional interest that I am exploring, it is also highly personal. You are assuming anarchy, I am seeing inevitable evolution in education and learning.

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2 Responses to “Regina Saphier: Coursera “re-Members” in Larger Numbers?”
  1. Regina, I think you’re a prophet, again. Your ideas are refreshing and should be more commonly held. My fave lines are: “Penalized for being self motivated to take the course and watch all the videos? I am late for what? Late for my self managed learning that I do not have to do? That I do because I enjoy it?” and “Why then are so many people surprised by the so called “low completion rate” of the MOOCs? Never mind, that some professors manage to graduate a lifetime worth of students in just one go with a Coursera course… How is that low completion? We are talking about thousands of happy students after a few months during a pioneering time!”

    • Regina says:

      Thank you Sarah for so kindly encouraging me during my quest to make people understand that learning is not the fragmented and stressful madness what we remember from school, rather it is or it should be a passionate personal process of a lifetime. I am writing this new blog for my own pleasure (I only wrote 15 posts), I am in Hungary, and I do not spend money on advertising my blog: people still come and read it from over 100 countries… there were thousands of views… its surprising for a new and small blog. I think I spotted a good topic early. My readership is in steady growth. And perhaps some of my ideas are interesting. 🙂

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