When I wrote Dancing with the Stars of Pure Math the idea of attending Dick Lipton’s seminar with 10,000 students was  novel and risky.  That was 2009.  Well before the start of the innovative whirlwind in online education that was started when Sebastian Thrun, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng opened their Stanford courses to hundreds of thousands of students.

Dick and I spoke with Sebastian before Udacity was launched and we were both impressed with his vision of the learning experience as compelling media.  As best I can recall, here is what he said.

If the traditional lecture is a stage play, then I want to be the movies.  Although early film makers tried to adapt live stage plays to the new media by pointing a camera at the stage, it was not a good experience.  It was only when film makers realized that they had to recreate the dramatic form that film became a new and compelling experience.

In his recent post at Godel’s Lost Letter (GLL), Dick has given us a vision of a new form of instruction:

The usual video-based course is a film of an instructor talking and writing at a board or on a tablet computer. These courses are popular among students, at least partially because they are free. The videos are informative, although it is yet unclear whether they are as good or better than physical courses. You know—course with students in seats and an instructor talking and interacting with them. We will see…Our plan is to make a mini-series length course with characters who have issues, who follow an interesting story line—vampires?—and yet are able to convey the information we want the students to learn. Our view is to create a new type of film: not a documentary, not a docudrama, not a dry lecture. A mixture of fiction and information.

This is unabashedly an experiment.  I have been trying to find a way to incorporate GLL into our online experiments at Georgia Tech, and this is a a prototype of how that might work.

What do you think? Will students go to the movies with stars of pure math?

What other formats do you think might work?  I have been (unsuccessfully so far) lobbying Dick and Ken to try what I call The Larry King Show format.  In this format the host (Dick or Ken) and maybe a sidekick talk about math by interviewing math celebrities (including the people who created the ideas).  They can even “interview” celebrities who are dead by using actors and inventing plausible dialogues.

Larry King was famous for his “Hello, Duluth Minnesota!” call-in dialogues, and that part of the show seems to me to be ideally suited to a seminar.  There might even be some surprise call-ins when the topic is (for mathematicians) controversial.

You have to get used to the idea of classrooms as performances.

I was up most of the night poring over Taylor Walsh’s new book “Unlocking the Gates: How and why leading universities are opening up access to their courses.”  It’s a deep and compelling companion to Abelard to Apple, and it’s one that I plan to assign as required reading to Georgia Tech’s newly chartered Educational Technology Council.

What convinced me that Elite institutions may have reached a tipping point beyond which the economics of access and scale will be forever changed was former Princeton president Bill Bowen’s remarkable foreword:

I think that present and prospective economic realities dictate that there be a serious rethinking of the way some forms of instruction are provided, especially in those parts of the public sector that have been hurt the most by funding cuts…I am well aware that in some quarters speaking of ―productivity gains‖ is close to blasphemy. But we have to get over that mindset: we just can‘t afford to continue doing business as usual. We have to find ways to do more with less. Resources saved in this way could be redeployed to teach more students or, conceivably, to teach advanced students more effectively…I have been on record for some time as being skeptical about the likely effects on productivity in higher education of various new technologies. But the evidence that Walsh presents about the work at Carnegie Mellon has caused me to rethink my position.

Abelard to Apple readers know  there is  substantial evidence that the biggest impact of open and online content will be to allow resources to be applied to more value-laden parts of the curriculum.  Taylor’s book is ground breaking and makes in no uncertain terms that argument using well-researched case studies.  “Unliocking the Gates” illustrates why this movement will continue to gain momentum at those universities whose resources, reputations, and global reach enable them to set their own agendas.

Rich DeMillo spoke at the American University Library Digital Futures Forum last week  The subject was the transformational power of media and how digital literacy is changing higher education.  Rich’s talk focused on the speed with which incumbents can be swept aside in the face of social, economic and political changes: traditional universities have been slow to recognize that change.  Rich used Massive Open Online Courses as a metaphor for mentoring and peer-to-peer learning when online technologies are used intelligently.  His conclusion?  There is actually nothing very radical about a MOOC, and existing technologies are already being deployed widely.

Watch the video here.

The session concluded with a panel discussion.

  • Laura DeNardis, Associate Professor, School of Communication
  • Jill Klein, Information Technology Executive in Residence, Kogod School of Business
  • Christopher Simpson, Professor of Journalism, School of Communication
  • Moderator: Alex Hodges, Assistant Director for Library Instruction, University Library


In a few days I will publish a short comment on the difference between Big Fixes in higher education and Small Fixes. Big fixes are things like policy changes at the federal and state level. When Big Fixes go wrong, there is no way to predict how systems will fail.  No Child Left Behind was a Big Fix, and the damages are still unfolding.

Technology innovations are Small Fixes. I’m not talking about new technology that force-fits a 16th century educational system into a hyper-techno contraption.  I’m talking about innovative things that are not obvious and may not even have an obvious application to education. Most iPad apps are Small Fixes for some bigger problem. Small Fixes are important precisely because you can assemble a lot of them and stand back while some invisible hand fishes out the ones that actually add value. Blogging is a Small Fix for higher education.

I was preparing for a class on nanotechnology a few years ago, and I needed an example to illustrate how much heat would be generated by a wide scale deployment of cell-sized nano-computers.  I wanted the class to calculate the energy dissipation of a film of these little computers on all paved roads in the US. But how many miles of paved roads are there?

I looked through atlases, online maps and more websites for departments of transportation than I care to remember.  In the end I took a stab at it:  2 million miles more or less. It was a case of misplaced priorities.  No one but me really cared what the right number was (or even if there was a right number).  I was anticipating that some wiseguy graduate student would want to know where the number came from.  That never happened.  It was a waste of time.

I was reminded at some point in this literal journey through the back roads of America that my old friend and colleague Alan Perlis had the knack of pulling computational examples like this out of thin air. “How many bricks are there in New York City?” he would ask during an oral exam, and then he would sit back and watch the gears turn. Well-oiled gears would tune in quickly to an interesting line of reasoning.  That was the point.  Not-so-well-oiled gears would cause of a lot of embarrassed thrashing.

I vaguely remember wondering, “What would be the value of being able to create and re-create many examples with a sort of search engine for computational knowledge?” I thought nothing more about it until I stumbled upon WolframAlpha, a “computational knowledge engine” from the company that distributes Mathematica. WolframAlpha is a website, and the first thing you should do when you land there is to type in a question.  So I asked how many miles of paved roads there are in the U.S. You can see the result above. In addition to the answer itself, you get a plausible chain of reasoning that leads you to that answer.

Here is what Stephen Wolfram says about WolframAlpha:

Realistically, though, we haven’t been “discovered” yet in even a small fraction of the areas we cover. We don’t know the whole process by which that happens (and it would make a fascinating study), but somehow, gradually, different areas of Wolfram|Alpha functionality do seem to be “discovered”, and progressively build up larger and larger followings.

This is really the essence of a Small Fix.  Wolfram points out that an engine like this has been the dream of philosophers for centuries.  An “assistant” who assembles knowledge in context. Leibniz’s idea was to accelerate the pace of inquiry. As one of the comments on Wolfram’s blog says:

Every once in a while I can’t help but think that Liebniz must be having a party in his grave!

What impact might WolframAlpha have on education?  Maybe none, but there’s almost no cost to finding out. I can’t help but think that Leibniz would have found a way to say, “Cool!”

The first thing you notice is the chaos.  There is no one in charge. No place to go to find out what to do. There was a time when Apple stores did not have blue-t-shirt greeters at the front door.  You just had to stand there, trying to make sense of the clusters of customers, gawkers, helpers, facilitators, and salesmen.  Everyone  seemed to be either milling around or hustling off someplace with a sense of purpose, while you just stood there wondering what to do next. My first experience with a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) was like that.

I was writing the chapter on open learning in Abelard to Apple when I noticed that a group of Canadian learning technologists and innovators, led by George Siemens, Stephen Downes and David Cormier were organizing a course that was open to the world.  Here is how I described it in Abelard to Apple:

Open-ended college courses are uncommon, but not for any pedagogical reason. There is no theory that dictates how college degree programs should be chopped into courses or how many semesters there should be, except that everything should work out to be just long enough to fit the required number of credits. Many institutions offer “Maymester” terms that fit between spring and summer and last two or three weeks. Advanced material is sometimes taught in small recitation groups and is spread over several semesters because there are as of yet no textbooks in the field and therefore no natural course boundaries. The length of a college course is a number that is chosen arbitrarily, and it varies from place to place.

Attendance is also a loosely defined idea for most college courses. In Europe, where completion of course requirements is determined by final examinations, attendance has no meaning at all, and students feel free to drop in when it suits them. Even in American classrooms, instructors rarely take attendance, and the only evidence that regular attendance affects learning is purely anecdotal.

There is no scientific reason that universities have not organized their curricula around Erdös-style open-ended courses. In 2008, George Siemens, a professor at Athabasca University—the Canadian version of Britain’s Open University—and a research scientist for the Canadian National Research Council named Stephen Downes decided to offer a course on a theory of learning that they call Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, or CCK. CCK is a long tail concept, a pedagogical theory asserting that learning takes place as students discover how to navigate the interconnected networks across which knowledge is distributed. Their course was about CCK and simultaneously used CCK as the primary teaching method. It was offered again in 2009, and eventually attracted several thousand students.

I not only wandered into a MOOC, but I also was handed a blue t-shirt, one of those black id tags on a lanyard, and a mobile phone so that I can connect new arrivals to people who can actually help them. This happened last year when George sent me an email asking whether I was interested in participating in a new MOOC that he was organizing.  This one was about change in higher education. He wanted to call it, appropriately enough, “Change, Education, Learning, and Technology.”  I said, “Sure!”.

Here’s where the Change MOOC lives.  Actually, it lives lots of places.  You can find it here as well. And if you are a member of the Georgia Tech community you can also find it here. There are Twitter feeds that you can find with the hash tag #change11. There is even a virtual study group at  Change11 is just entering its 5th week, and there is already more content than I can track.  I find myself paging though FlipBook late at night just to see what’s up.

Who’s taking the course?  It’s really impossible to say because many of the thousands who have registered already never say who they are or participate in the online discussions.  But many hundreds do. They are mainly teachers, and they come from elementary and secondary schools around the world.  There are also a fair number of educational consultants, bloggers, and professors who do research in education and educational technology.  Conversational clusters self-organize. There are fights that crop up among groups that hold differing positions on important issues, and there are a few water balloons that are lobbed between groups.  There are trouble makers, and serious students, casual observers and opinion-makers.

Who’s missing? People who should be getting comfortable with the disruptive forces in higher education. There are almost no university administrators or technology managers.   EDUCAUSE is nowhere to be seen.  There are dozens of websites that devoted to studying and commenting on policy issues, but if they are aware of Change11, they are silent about it.

Is Change11 or MOOC-fication the wave of the future? Probably not.  It’s an experiment.  It is no more likely to be predictive of what the future of higher education will be like than Stanford’s open course on Artificial Intelligence. Like all experiments, success is not the important factor. One thing is certain: higher ed desperately needs innovation and the only way to innovate is to try out a lot of ideas.

I was attracted to the MOOC concept because it illustrated a narrative that I was constructing for my book, but I was drawn into the idea of the course by the Greeters who assured me that the whole point of being there was to navigate  concepts and discussions that were meaningful to me.

So now I find myself greeting new arrivals with: “Hi, I’m Rich. Can I help you find what you need?”

If you are lost already — if you feel like you have jumped into the middle of a conversation — then let me suggest that you click on the video above.