I’m going to strike now, while the conversational iron is hot, and ask people to define success for a calculus MOOC.

mooc-online-learningI’ve already mostly explained why in this recent post, but just in case you missed it, I think mathematics is being threatened by calculus MOOCs, and although maybe in some possible futures this wouldn’t be a bad thing, in others it definitely would.

One way it could be a really truly bad thing is if the metric of success were as perverted as we’ve seen happen in high school teaching, where value-added models have no defined metric of success and are tearing up a generation of students and teachers, creating the kind of opaque, confusing, and threatening environment where code errors lead to people getting fired.

And yes, it’s kind of weird to define success in a systematic way given that calculus has been taught in a lot of places for a long time without such a rigid concept.

It’s quite possible that flexibility should be built in to the definition, so as to acknowledge that different contexts need different outcomes.

Let’s keep things as complicated as they need to be to get things right.

The problem with large-scale models is that they are easier to build if you have some fixed definition of success against which to optimize. And if we mathematicians don’t get busy thinking this through, my fear is that administrations will do it for us, and will come up with things based strictly on money and not so much on pedagogy.

So what should we try?

Here’s what I consider to be a critical idea to get started:

  • Calculus teachers should start experimenting with teaching calculus in different ways. Do randomized experiments with different calculus sections that meet at comparable times (I say comparable because I’ve noticed that people who show up for 8am sections are typically more motivated students, so don’t pit them against 4pm sections).
  • Try out a bunch of different possible definitions of success, including the experience and attitude of the students and the teacher.

This article originally appeared on the mathbabe blog.

  • So for example, it could be how students perform on the final, which should be consistent for both sections (although to do that fairly you need to make sure the MOOC you’re using covers the critical material to do the final).
  • Or it could be partly an oral exam or long-form written exam, whether students have learned to discuss the concepts (keeping in mind that we have to compare the “MOOC” students to the standardly taught students).
  • Design the questions you will ask your students and yourself before the semester begins so as to practice good model design – we don’t want to decide on our metric after the fact. A great way to do this is to keep a blog with your plan carefully described. That will time-stamp the plan and allow others to comment.
  • Of course there’s more than one way to incorporate MOOCs in the curriculum, so I’d suggest more than one experiment.
  • And of course the success of the experiment will also depend on the teaching style of the calculus prof.
  • Finally, share your results with the world so we can all start thinking in terms of what works and for whom.

One last comment. One might complain that, if we do this, we’re actually speeding on our own deaths by accelerating the MOOCs in the classroom.

But I think it’s important we take control before someone else does.

Cathy O’Neil is a Senior Data Scientist at Johnson Research Labs. This article originally appeared in Mathbabe.


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