There are far more education-educated minds than mine contemplating this question, and doing so scientifically. While we’re waiting for their results, I’m just jotting down a few thoughts here based on my experiences as a student, as a professor, and as a Coursera instructor.

The only thing that is more exciting than teaching on Coursera, is taking classes on Coursera. It’s been over a decade since I took my last class. I did vaguely plan to sit in on classes at U. Michigan, with world-class faculty teaching so many subjects of interest. But I never found the time. With Coursera, at least there is the possibility that I could take such classes at any time. I think this is going to be for sure one of the main target audiences for Coursera: folks like me who have gone through lots of schooling, but there are a lot of new developments in their profession that are worth learning, or they found new subject areas of interest that they didn’t think to study back when they were at school.

For example, as an undergrad I wrote a dorky, inexcusable letter to the administration at Caltech to protest the proposed reduction in required physics coursework in favor of introducing a biology requirement. I cringe when I think I may have written something to the effect of ‘Everything can be derived from physics, so why bother with other subjects’. Though I did eventually dive into many subjects beyond physics with gusto, I never did take a biology class, not since 9th grade. What Coursera course am I signed up for now? Genetics. How wonderful to be able to go back and catch up.

I have been thinking about how my Coursera course stacks up against its offline version. I didn’t skimp on much material in the Coursera version, even though it is several weeks shorter. With no one to have a discussion with but the camera, the pace is quicker. If anything, I developed more interactive online demos and data sets to be able to better convey concepts to my invisible audience. These from my perspective worked especially well with the in-video quizzes. The lecture would pause, a quiz question would pop up, and students could play with a demo to derive the answer (technical browser glitches aside). Assignments presented challenges to me. It was difficult to transform them into a multiple choice or programmatically graded format. I couldn’t ask students to stick to the rule: “Don’t just put a number down, interpret it”. Online, a number had to be sufficient. Or the interpretation had to be one of a set of pre-prepared choices. But I did it. It may have worked. I’m not sure.

Then there was the course project. In the offline version this is a multi-step affair afforded by the longer semester format. The students propose the project, I give them feedback. They turn in a mid-project report, I give them feedback. They turn in the final report, I give them feedback and for some I give advice on how to turn it into a publication. On Coursera, the students just did the project, and then graded each others’ work. The grading rubric I constructed for the peer-evaluation was very detailed and left little room for elaborate feedback. At the same time I encouraged students to post their work to the forum. The feedback there was very, very useful. Sure, my feedback is more informed by the literature, and years of my own experience and experience seeing students do such projects. But the students’ feedback had many useful tips and rather creative suggestions. It wasn’t that much worse than what I could have provided. This peer-evaluation thing just might work!

There were other interesting advantages. Since all I needed for class was my laptop, I could take it with me to visit with various researchers in industry and record sessions about the use of course material in practice. Sure, you can have invited speakers in your regular classroom, and that beats a streamed video, but… this was quite practical. The Coursera course also very kindly received technical support and instructional guidance from the creators of the software packages I was using — something that likely would have happened for my small offline course, but where I think the size of the class didn’t hurt either.

The biggest difference between the Coursera and offline versions is in how tailored the course is to the participants. In the offline version I’ll introduce material or discuss in-class applications that the students ask about. And they ask a lot. We go through the same material much more slowly, and that’s because it’s not just me talking. It’s a conversation, about the readings, concepts, knowns and unknowns. There was a lot of interesting conversation in the Coursera forum, but the lectures were pre-recorded, inflexible, and besides, I felt that if I had gone off on a tangent that one student was asking about, it wouldn’t be fair to the other several thousand. In a class of 20-30 I wouldn’t think twice about going on a tangent. One could probably interpolate between the two with Google Hangouts that could accommodate a few select detours.

As I was teaching the Coursera course I regularly received email from students about specific projects they were working on, asking for my advice. I don’t think I answered a single one. I was overwhelmed by work. But I also felt that any one of those emails would take 15-20+ minutes of my time, while I looked up the relevant literature, reviewed it, and composed my thoughts.  And I hate to say it, but my thinking was: this is free course, the students are not entitled to this much of my time individually. In contrast, at UofM students are always welcome to come talk to me during office hours and I would usually answer by email as well. It’s my job, a part of my job I usually enjoy.

Another rather big difference is in the attrition rate. I may have lost up to 1/3 of the registered students in the first week of my offline class, but it was stable thereafter. On Coursera, only 40% watched the first video, I lost many more from there on out. If I had “attended” Coursera instead of Caltech, would I have stuck with it, made it through, or would I have signed up for courses full of good intentions only to abandon them?

In many ways my college-self would have been a suitable student for Coursera. I never spoke up in class (to my students: do as I say, not as I did!). I got a pair of glasses just so that I could have better than 20/20 vision and sit in the very back of the lecture hall. I didn’t understand much of the lectures either (which were usually derivations written on the blackboard). I couldn’t write notes and listen carefully enough at the same time. I learned outside of class, by re-reading the notes and reading the textbook. I especially learned by doing the assignments. I took advantage of office hours and research opportunities. But in short, if the lectures had been recorded rather than live, it wouldn’t have made much difference to me.

But I don’t think I could have graduated without a campus. I’m a procrastinator. I took 6 classes every quarter (except the last one, when I dropped 3D photography in favor of working on my ditch-day stack). Because I knew that I wouldn’t start assignments early, I made sure I had 1 assignment to work on per night (often late into the night). It kept me busy and it kept me happy, and if I got totally stuck, I’d walk down the hall to compare notes with others working on the same assignment. Any flexibility, however, and I would unhappily procrastinate. The summer after freshman year I decided to work on the hundreds (?) of math problems needed to pass out of Math 2B (which would allow me to take Applied Math 95 sophomore year, and ultimately Kip Thorne’s general relativity senior year, which in the end I didn’t do, but anyway…). That was a miserable summer. When I wasn’t working on Math 2B I was miserable because I felt guilty, when I was working on Math 2B I was miserable and lonely. By comparison Ama95 was entertaining and I enjoyed the camaraderie of going through it with fellow students. Perhaps I would have found the same camaraderie if I had taken Math 2B through Coursera and participated on the forum, or joined a Facebook group. I don’t know. In any case, I loved my time at Caltech. Some people left it embittered. Not me though, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

But back to Coursera. It’s really promising. It needs some work (my SNA course most of all!), but it’s mind-boggling to be able to learn about anything! Anything! What a wonderful time to be human. Now I better get back to my Duolingo Spanish lessons :).


in-class activities for teaching with “Networks, Crowds, and Markets”

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Jul 112011

In the course of teaching SI 301 “Models of Social Information Processing” I developed a series of in-class activities and demos. The material in the most excellent textbook, “Networks, Crowds, and Markets” by David Easley and Jon Kleinberg, lent itself naturally to many such activities. Some things were interactive simulations, e.g. diffusion, cascades, and search on networks and agent based simulations of evolutionary game-theoretic models. We used a custom online information market to predict when a certain instructor would make the take-home final available. Sometimes using just cards, coins, paper and pencil, turned out to be good fun. I’d be happy if others could find ways to use and improve these demos, and am also curious about ones they have developed.

Click on the image for a description of the demos.

academic advising

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Jul 272009

Twice a year, and a few times in between, I’m expected to advise students on the courses that they should take. At first my excuse for not feeling very qualified was that I hadn’t been a faculty member for that long. By year 2, I was requesting course enrollment data from the registrar, and mapping network diagrams of “people who took X also took Y”. That way I could at least make plausible recommendations. For the first year I was at SI, there was also a site, “rankSI”, where students could rate and comment on courses and professors. Though it was at times painful to look at the harsh criticism, it did provide useful insights. Then it became flooded with spam and went away (btw, I think having CourseRank, a Stanford project that Hector Garcia-Molina is involved in, here at UofM would be great).
It all boils down to a feeling that it’s the students, and not we the faculty who have the inside scoop on courses. Ages ago, while getting my PhD at Stanford, I took pretty awesome courses in CS, stats, EESOR and physics, thanks to recommendations from other students. And I would be able to recommend those courses, because I spent many hours toiling through them.
But now I take no courses. I may know that a colleague is a good researcher or a good speaker, but do I know things about their courses past what is listed on the syllabus (if that)? Sometimes, a bit, if an instructor boasts about an activity, or an advisee mentions their experience with a course. An even bigger challenge comes when students from other departments ask me about courses similar to mine, but in their department. Or students from my school asking about courses elsewhere… I then try and remember what other advisees had told me, or sneak a peek at my not-overly-useful network diagrams. But mostly I tell them “ahem… have you thought about talking to other students?”.

SI 508 (networks) is now part of OER

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Jul 222009

Thanks to the OER folks and quite a bit of work (more than I expected in any case) on my end, the masters-level version of my networks course, SI 508 is now part of Michigan’s Open Educational Resources.
In theory all the content has been cleared for copyright and now has a creative commons license, meaning that anyone can use and adapt it for their own purpose. It has slides, labs, datasets, demos, student projects, everything.
I talked about it briefly earlier this week at the SocialNets in Education Project workshop @ Duke. I also found out that there was interest in my DRAT course materials (SI601), but it will be another while yet before I undertake another OER conversion :p.

Network textbooks are here!

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Jul 032009

Over the past 4 years, as I’ve taught a course on social and information networks, I’ve had to rely on a mix of research and review articles for the reading. It’s true that some books had appeared that covered the developments of the late 1990s to the present, especially from the physicist camp, but they either didn’t quite start from the beginning (that is, they were aimed toward the advanced graduate student), and typically they were very much focused on “scale-free” networks.
Just last year, I started using Matt Jackson’s text, “Social and Economic Networks” in the PhD-level networks course I teach. As the title suggests, it is heavily econ flavored, which puts a nice emphasis on game theoretic models of network formation, and games on networks. But it also includes excellent treatments of other topics, such as diffusion and search. And the problems at the end of the chapters have had both me and the students scratching our heads and more importantly tinkering in Mathematica.
Two news books are about to appear.
The one I’ve been reading of late is by Kleinberg and Easley on “Networks and Strategic Behavior”, and it is 1/2 about networks, 1/2 about game theory, info markets, and other neat topics. Aimed at undergraduates, it explains the subject matter so clearly, so eloquently, so seductively, that it brings tears to one’s eyes (tears of joy, but also of envy that someone is able to write like this). It should be available by this fall.
Mark Newman’s long awaited textbook is also supposed to hit the shelves sometime soon. I don’t know when exactly (some people don’t like being asked how their book is coming along), but he will be using it or a preprint version when he teaches CSCS 535 again this fall. It will likely be aimed at physics graduate students or advanced physics undergraduates (or students with a similarly strong mathematical background). I expect it will become the definitive volume on the topic.

Student projects in networks class

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Jan 022009

I ask each of my networks classes whether it is OK to post their final projects online. This year about 3/4 of them held back because they wanted to publish their work in a peer-reviewed (as opposed to Lada-reviewed 🙂 ) venue. While this is great news, it means that now, only a few weeks after the end of the course, the project page is a little bare. But perhaps I’ll blog about these remaining projects as they are published.
Still, right now you can check out language acquisition networks, book recommendation networks based on writing style, an online community for houses around campus, coauthorship networks of incentive centered design faculty, global city networks via international firms, and uncensored discussion of China.
Also, you can check out projects from previous years:
fall 2007 projects
winter 2007 projects
winter 2006 projects

Updated interactive demo tools

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Jan 012009

As preparation for adding my networks course, SI 508, to UofM’s OpenCourseware, I’ve recompiled a list of interactive demos I use in this course. The demos let you grow some networks in different ways, then diffuse an infectious agent on them, or allow opinions to form, or test their resilience to random breakdown or targeted attack.
The demos are built on top of NetLogo and Guess and are Java based. My student, Eytan Bakshy has co-authored a number of these. I hope that they’ll be used and modified by whoever would like to use or modify them. I’ll try and blog about individual demos, but until that day comes, I’m just listing all of them.

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