Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Udacity a lousy product? Perhaps...perhaps not...it depends.


Just before the spring semester starts and I start getting really busy with the day-job, teaching my class, working on a couple of conference presentations and working on the FutureLearn course on Corpus Linguistcs, and P2PU course with Dave Cormier, I thought I should really jump into a couple of Udacity course offerings to give the platform a real try out. In years past I stayed away, as a learner, because none of the content was interesting. While I do come from a computer science background, the things that pique my interest tend to be in the style EDCMOOC or  CCK. Now, however, that Udacity has "Introduction to the Design of Everyday Things," it was an opportunity to test that out, as well as a more technical Statistics course. If I were taking a n exit survey, I would probably say that I took "Introduction to the Design of Everyday Things" because I liked the topic and I knew the author, and I signed up for "Statistics" to see how a math course would run.

So, right off the bat, one of the things that might reverberate in your memories from late 2013 is that Sebastian Thrun claimed that they have a lousy product.  My answer to that is that they might have a lousy product.  What is (was?) Udacity's goal?  According to their about page (accessed a few seconds ago):
Our mission is to bring accessible, affordable, engaging, and highly effective higher education to the world. We believe that higher education is a basic human right, and we seek to empower our students to advance their education and careers.
OK, mission statements can meant to leave operational matters out of the big picture statements.  Based on this text, I would say that it's a bit early to throw in the towel just yet simply because you couldn't move a giant mountain with your sheer willpower.  Having said this, there are some definite good things I noticed, and some points of improvement on the Udacity platform and their instructional design.

In the Introduction to the Design of Everyday Things I liked that the presenters (I can't really call them instructors, there was something "off" about the presentation aspect) encouraged students in the course to post reflections at certain points in the course. The main issue here is that the  discussion forums not really appropriate place for reflection.  Most topics would probably start with some variation of "My Reflection on X" and it will quickly become a hot mess. I know others have commented on how discussions aren't always the best tool for MOOCs, at least discussions the way we have them in traditional online learning. Reflections, in a MOOC, could be better off in a blog format, something that is portable by the learner, and allows for discovery and recommendation systems (like the one I describe here) to be useful to learners, to help them find peers and develop their own study circles.

One of the things I liked in this course was the student ingenuity, as seen in the forums for the first couple of modules. in bringing up issues with design and potential fixes. The annoying thing, as was pointed out by a few learners, was that there was no "right answer" posted.  Even if there isn't a right answer, there ought to be a mechanism whereby people who have completed and assignment and have logged x-many hours in the forums (substitute with whatever metric you feel is appropriate), that there is some hidden video that comes up from the presenters of the course that show some potential answers.  Simply telling learners "go to the forums and see what your peers come up, and discuss" is not sufficient.  It is a good start, but the course facilitator needs to get their hands dirty. This is one of the elements I liked in cMOOCs, as well as EDCMOOC (I am not sure what to classify this as - we need a better typology of MOOCs).

As I progressed through this course, I did snap photos of bad designs and had potential fixes in my head (this was part of a couple of assignments), but didn't really feel compelled to participate in the exchange. Maybe because I took a course for credit on designing User Interfaces back when I was an undergraduate (and I've done this), and (or) I took a similar course on Coursera in 2012 (or at least I thought it was 2012). In either case, I was lacking a good reason to participate in a "course" instead of taking the route I took, which was something like watching a TEDtalk or Khan Academy set of videos.


As far as the statistics course goes, I made it half-way through the course. The Statistics videos reminded me a lot of high school and doing problems on an overhead projector with erasable markers. It definitely brought back a sense of nostalgia (as nostalgic as one can ever really be about high school), but I didn't really see much innovation.  Don't get me wrong, I think the videos were informative, and I liked the way they incorporated the ability to answer multiple-choice questions, or supply simple numerical answers right in the video.

The course started losing my interest around half-way though, however.  I think by module 18 (Binomial Distribution) of 34 I had grown tired of the mode of learning.  The big thing for me was the lack of some sort of "real" help when I was running into calculation issues.  Some issues were simple silliness on my part (the equivalent of forgetting to carry over the 1 in a simple calculation) which rightfully earned me a "well d'uh!" but for some more complex problems I would have liked some better way of working through issues.  The only ways of communication seemed to be the forums, which is really flat, for one thing, but I also didn't see a way to plug in mathematical formulas.  This seems like a major oversight since udacity launched with a STEM focus.

I think that the design of the videos (Khan-like it seems) is pretty interesting as a way of flipping a face to face classroom, rather than attempting to do this fully online in a MOOC format. When students are taking a MOOC, I am not sure that this is sufficient. Even in the Design of Everyday Things, elements such as projects could work better in dyads or small groups, and use the videos (which weren't that long) as part of a flipped classroom.

At the macro level, the interesting that the courseware is separated from the certificate of completion.  I have gone through coursera and I don't see previous course offerings on their system.  I can see courses I have signed up for in the past, but not other past courses.  The courseware, for all intents and purposes is gone. With Udacity it isn't so  you could treat a Udacity course as a self-paced eLearning course. This isn't a MOOC (in my book anyway), but at least there is learning material there after the course is complete.  In this fashion, I think Udacity has innovated a bit by no keeping to the existing structures of making courses inaccessible after the semester ends.

As far as certificated go, from the FAQ:
Udacity verified certificates will be awarded based on successful completion of course projects. After successfully completing your final project, your identity will be verified through a live exit interview during which you will need to show government-issued identification and chat with one of our project evaluators to verify your independent work on your final project. Upon successful completion of this process, you will receive an official Udacity verified certificate.
I find it interesting that the is a viva voce verification of who you are and what you have learned. This sounds a bit like an oral comprehensive exam to me, albeit it is for only one course.  If I had the energy this spring I would seek out a Udacity course to see if I can get certificate in it so that I can go through the process and check it out - alas, so many things to do already on my plate, it will have to wait.  What I am curious about is how this process is working for udacity. How many students do they get trying to get a verified certificate? what does it cost (to Udacity and to the learner)? What are any interesting obvious BS, or what we might consider plagiarism, that they've come across.

Finally, for the instructional designers out there, here is a nice take away from the Introduction to the Design of Everyday things that I think is applicable to ID (or any design problem for that matter):

7 Design Questions for Design
  • What do I want to accomplish?
  • What are my alternatives?
  • What can I do now?
  • How do I do it?
  • What happened?
  • What does it mean?
  • Is this OK?
  • Have I accomplished my goal? 
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