Saturday, March 31, 2012

Open Ended Courses

This blog post describes an idea that occurred to me recently. It was largely prompted by quotes from the creator of KhanAcademy about learning naturally vs. what normally happens in the classroom. Given changes that are happening in the educational marketplace, I feel that schools are going to have to change things to address this. One thought that has occurred to me is the introduction of open ended courses that don't have the normal time restrictions that have been part of the teaching for decades.

Bicycles and Unicycles
The story that Sal Khan likes to use is one of teaching a kid to ride a bike. You don't have a certain day where you test him/her on the bike, and if the student falls you give a D and move on to unicycles. However, that is what we do in classes. I have ~15 weeks to cover a certain amount of material. At certain dates that I pick in advance, I give tests. Based on how much the student has learned by those dates and their ability to communicate that learning on the test, they get an appropriate grade. After that, I move on. Those students who did poorly can redouble their efforts, but they are then left trying to learn what they didn't get down previously along with the new material we are moving into. In Khan's analogy, they are practicing both bicycle and unicycle at the same time.

Is there any way to fix this? I think that the problem comes from two aspects of the current course. The most obvious is that there is a definite time limit, and generally it is a fairly short one. All courses march in this lock step of one semester/quarter to the next with grades given out at the end.

The other part of the problem is that the standard lecture format has a distinct lack of personalization. At a school like Trinity, I get to have classes that are generally in the 10-20 student range. If students choose to, they can spend a lot of time with me outside of class. That is good. That does allow personalization. However, my lectures and tests are universal for all students in a given course. They happen on the same day and cover the same material, regardless of how fast an individual student is moving.

I can make arguments that this isn't a problem. In the "real world" there are deadlines and things have to be done by certain times. However, I still find Khan's analogy to be persuasive and the honest truth is, learning is different from real world application. Should I care so much when a student learns things or should I focus on the fact that the student can learn them?

This has led me to the idea of open ended courses. Students sign up with a professor to learn a certain amount of material. Assessment is done individually. The only end date might be something like the graduation date. Transcripts would probably need to indicate what has been completed as well as what has been signed up for, but not completed. There is no lock step though. Students finish a course whenever they decide they are done and demonstrate as much mastery as they have attained at that time.

Anyone who teaches and is reading this might well say that is an interesting idea, but how do you actually pull it off? In some ways, it just seems impractical. I think the answer to this is demonstrated by what Sal Khan has put together in the KhanAcademy.

Inverted Lectures
Video lectures have been moving into University classes for a while now. There are terms like "inverted lecture" to describe ways of using them. Teachers know that asking students to read books outside of class and show up with the knowledge generally fails. Part of that is because books are so non-dynamic. Video lectures are more dynamic, and they can be paired with automated assessment so that students have an idea of how much they have really learned before trying to move on.

I am working to build a set of these types of lectures for my textbook, "Introduction to the Art of Programming Using Scala". My hope is that by fall 2012 I will have over 100 short lecture videos up at the book website and that I will be able to organize my own courses largely using the inverted lecture format.

I don't think it is a huge step from the inverted lecture format to open ended courses. There can still be meeting times and an intended pace. the meeting times aren't filled with logic, they are filled with application or discussion of material. In my own courses, I intend to present problems and ask students to apply what they have learned to write programs to solve those problems. I will critique their solutions and optimally I would like for students to work in pairs and see code written by other students.

The main hurdle is not delivering content, but assessment. One has to create a method of assessment that students can do when they are ready, on what they are ready to approach. I really believe that the ideal form of assessment in most areas is the oral exam. So I might dedicate several hours each week to giving oral exams. Students could sign up for times in advance and each course would have a certain number of exams that students have to get through to complete the course. In CS it would certainly also be possible to have some automated assessment where students have to write code to solve problems. That type of system could be set up fairly easily and used both for student practice and for formal assessment.

Still Need to Teach
Less anyone thinks that the inverted lecture is a way for faculty to get out of teaching, I can assure you that I will spend several times as much time preparing video lectures as I would delivering lectures in a semester. What makes this different from just pointing students to KhanAcademy or Codecademy is the time spent in class. Faculty become more like learning coaches, especially for courses taken by many students.

For example, anyone who adopts my textbook, inside or outside of Trinity, could use my video lectures. That does remove the burden of content creation from them. Then again, most faculty don't write their own textbooks so that isn't a huge change. The real change is in how they spend their time with students. They can spend it doing things that are more individualized. They can look over what the students are doing and provide feedback individually because they are not spending their time lecturing to students en masse. I also think that they will spend a lot more time on individualized assessment, doing things like oral exams.

No Traction
The one place where I threw the idea of the open ended course out among my peers, it got no traction. Even though it was a group looking to change curricula, it didn't go anywhere. I think it might be a bit too big a departure from the status quo for many to accept. However, given the possibility of an "Education Bubble", I think all ideas should be on the table. In case you aren't familiar with the idea of the education bubble, I'll write another post about that with evidence for and against, as well as my thoughts on what colleges need to do to make sure they aren't destroyed by it bursting.

Of course, one could do just about everything I've described here on a rigid semester schedule. Indeed, I plan to start moving that way next year. However, I think the approach really takes off if it is applied to a large number of classes on a campus, and we do remove the artificial time bounds.

Show me the Money
This has some interesting implications for both colleges and students when it comes to money. Currently students pay for courses. At Trinity a full-time student pays a fixed amount for anywhere between 12 and 18 hours. Taking fewer or more leads to paying per hour of credit. In this open ended course model you don't pay per course. Instead, you pay to be on campus and have access to the resources. Students can go through the curriculum at their own pace, but then it is a matter of cost. Top students might fly through and graduate in two years. Other students take longer. Taking longer is a luxury they would pay for. They will want to focus on subjects they learn more quickly in. If there is a subject a student finds very challenging though, they can go for the minimum grade to get it off their plate or they can push through using more time until they have mastered it for full marks.

What do you think? Should college courses be open ended? What implications do you see that having that I haven't mentioned here?