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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Creator of Berkeley's First On-Line Course Tells All

Dear Dean Edley:

I've been following with interest what you're saying in the press about UC online education.

I teach Statistics N21, the first online course at Berkeley to be approved by COCI.  It was approved in 2007.  I've been teaching it for four years, this year to 400 students. The current syllabus is here.

Statistics N21 a gateway course: probably one of the first 10 you would want in your pilot. It satisfies major requirements for several departments, and is a "hurdle" course for intended Business majors.

The online course comprises an interactive textbook (SticiGui) that has Java applets to illustrate key concepts, examples and exercises that change when the page is reloaded so that students can get unlimited practice with the material, machine-graded assignments scored using a mastery model, videorecorded online lectures, online and in-person office hours, a discussion board, etc. Every student gets a different version of the online assignments.  The final is administered in person.  Most students take the final on campus, but about 85 will take off-campus proctored finals this summer, in several countries.

SticiGui has been used at other colleges and universities to teach statistics classes and to teach methodology classes in economics (at CUNY) and political science (at Bard).
But it also has interactive chapters and machine-graded assignments suitable for general education classes: Reasoning and Fallacies, Categorical Logic, Propositional Logic, and Set Theory. It has been used to teach linguistics and logic classes at UCSC and SJSU.

The infrastructure, applets, and so on that I have built could be adapted most easily to teach introductory courses in mathematics, economics, demography, sociology, and similar fields.  But I think it would take a considerable amount of work--years of careful attention from devoted faculty--to develop pedagogically sound, interactive content worthy of UC.  Even to build a more advanced statistics class using the same plumbing would take a solid year of full-time work.

It has taken about 8,000 hours of my time over 13 years to develop (what I consider to be) pedagogically effective interactive content and assignments. The materials wouldn't have worked well as an online-only course for at least the first 5 years of development.  I used it to teach hybrid classes while I was developing it, starting in 1997.  Work continues: I'm building a searchable database of lecture "clips" on individual topics, edited from my webcast lectures.  The clips will also be linked to the text where the topics are introduced, and to the glossary.

Tailoring material and pedagogy to online media and creating and honing effective, interactive, online content  is quite challenging.  It requires subject-matter knowledge, teaching experience,  careful writing, programming skills (I've had to learn Java, JavaScript, XML, CSS, and Perl-cgi), seemingly endless debugging on different operating systems, and lots of user testing with students--many cycles of iterative improvement.   Accessibility, especially for blind students, is an issue that must inform design and the choice of technologies and standards.  Technical maintenance is demanding as web standards and browsers evolve.  Developing and supporting a first-rate online course is not easily subcontracted or delegated to GSIs or technical staff: It requires a great deal of faculty attention.  And it is not fast.

In a large-enrollment course like Statistics N21, ensuring that students have up-to-date browsers before the class starts and providing technical support during the first week or two of class are virtually a full-time job. (Those are jobs that GSIs and technical staff can help with.)

The "bandwidth" of online instruction is lower than face-to-face instruction: it takes longer to convey the same information, both from instructor to student and from student to instructor.  One side effect is that online office hours are less efficient than in-person office hours, so more office hours need to be offered.  Online courses therefore need correspondingly more staff, even before factoring in technical support.  To hold online office hours at times that are convenient for students in, say, Taiwan, requires working odd hours.  For reference, here is the office hour schedule for N21 this summer:

I'd be happy to talk to you about what was involved in developing Statistics N21, the resources required to teach it, and what would be needed to do something similar in other disciplines.

Philip B. Stark
Professor of Statistics
University of California at Berkeley


anon staff said...

Well, now I'm feeling better about all of us staff who are about to be laid off due to Operational Excellence and general budget cutbacks: I can see that after a bit of career retooling there will be plenty of work for us in the future UCB!

Gerry Barnett said...

I have spent 20 years working with faculty on digital projects of all kinds. Prof. Stark is spot on: long development times led by experts both subject matter and technical, technical challenges in implementation logistics, challenges in the communication--and mis-communication--between students and instructors. Not only that, but the cost rises tremendously to maintain on-line work over time as technology changes, content changes, and more importantly, the engagement with the discipline changes. The investment of thousands of hours on the technology side of a course has a cost savings only if you can keep the marginal costs of maintenance in check for a number of years. That is often not possible, so any initial explanation for such an investment cannot assume that a web-based implementation can stay steady state for even five years. Even textbooks are refreshed on a three year cycle. Those costs for on-line can be as great as the original cost to develop as one has to rewrite scripts, change image resolutions, add security features, comply with new laws regarding access, and the like.

There are very attractive aspects to digital. Many are obvious. Lower costs is not one of them.

As I've worked through this stuff over the past decade, especially, is the growing impression that there is a strong element in the on-line rhetoric towards the idea that the primary role of digital is to take as much instructional cost out of "teaching" as possible and still maintain accreditation and provide a formal credential.

In coarse terms, add melamine to the milk rather than feed the cows a better diet. It's fundamentally immoral. More than a kind of cheating on arcane rules. It's a kind of cheating that does harm. It's a WTF! kind of cheating, not an OMG! kind, if you get the difference.

The core of it is: if a university runs like a business, the kind of business it should run like is apparently one that offers a desired product at the lowest possible cost. The innovation involved is to cut the features and efforts that are unnecessary to maintain the minimum standard for the product. If the product is a formal credential, then everything not essential to it can go. So much for faculty or classrooms or campuses or social engagement. Superfluous, waste, inefficient. It's about getting a paper credential, stupid.

This is the rub. If one believes that the "output" of university learning is a credential rather than a capable individual, then all is lost. That this credential is purchased for individual benefit rather than provided along with a broader commitment by the community to educate itself. That the only thing is to cut effort while duping the feds to provide the funding via family debt and subsidies at the tuition price the school's reputation can support.

The university adds melamine to everything. Digital this and that. Lecturers wherever (no slam--I was one once--but the point is, what happened to the faculty?). Do it in 3 years not 4. Do it without showing up. Do it with less math or less writing. As long as the feds pay "market rates." Bill it as a feature.

The formal credential becomes a commodity product. The minimum requirement to obtain it is the new target for efficiency. The university differentiates itself by marketing its brand, not by its scholarly reputation arising from its instructional and research performance.

The public gets this. This is no Republicon conspiracy. Demoncrats are doing it too. The public sees the same dynamics at cable companies and phone companies--some of the most hated companies in the country. Why, if one were trying to win the public over via a "we will run more like a business" would UC choose to run like the *most despised* ones in the country? The ones that cheat and ignore and treat customers like bits of revenue source?

Catherine Liu said...

Thanks for publishing this -- It was an eye opener to me, but everything Prof. Stark recounts confirms my experience of teaching in analog classrooms.

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