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The Problems With Online Math Classes 285

Posted by samzenpus
from the get-your-learnings dept.
dcollins writes "As a college instructor specializing in statistics, I felt compelled to survey one of the massive-enrollment online education courses that are all the rage these days. This summer, it seemed a perfect opportunity when Udacity unveiled Introduction to Statistics by founder Sebastian Thrun (of Google autonomous car fame). Having taken the entire course through to the final exam, my overall assessment is: It's amazingly, shockingly awful. Some nights I got seriously depressed at the notion that this might be standard fare for college lectures encountered by many students during their academic careers. I've tried to pick out the Top 10 problems with the course structure and address them in detail."
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The Problems With Online Math Classes

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 10, 2012 @08:33AM (#41286945)

    I've taken both online and classroom survey-level math courses at my local technical college and have to say I would much prefer the online courses. Most of the instructors for the classroom courses basically just go through the problems in the book anyway, and don't contribute nearly as much as they think they do to the actual learning (I can read the book just fine myself, thanks). And the online courses not only save me on gas, but they're also a helluva lot more convenient. You can basically take the unit tests anytime before the deadline, meaning you can finish the course early if you put in the effort. Now those were survey-level courses. And your mileage may vary with more advanced courses. But my experience was generally positive.

    Of course, all the instructors and professors bad-mouth the online classes. Why? Because the online courses are a threat to their jobs, of course. Once an online course is in place, it doesn't require much in the way of instructor intervention. So I seriously doubt they're paid as much to supervise an online course as they would be to teach a traditional classroom course. What's more, there is also a matter of ego involved. Most of the instructors I've had love the idea that you are forced to come listen to them twice a week, and blanch at the idea that any course could be effective without their brilliant classroom contribution. It's funny how they don't notice that half of the students in the class are asleep or zoned-out through their "brilliant" lectures, and the other half are bored out of their minds (the students like me who can learn just fine without having you read to us from the book).

    So I would personally be very wary of any evaluation of online courses from a professor or instructor. Keep in mind this is a guy with horse in the race, and a lot of reasons to hate online courses that have nothing to do with their effectiveness.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I teach at a university. I make the same for an online class as I make for one that is classroom based.

      • by Culture20 (968837) on Monday September 10, 2012 @08:46AM (#41287025)

        I teach at a university. I make the same for an online class as I make for one that is classroom based.

        But once the lecture is recorded, the administration can hire anyone (even grad students) to teach (TA) the course. You're extraneous until they need an updated recording. Of course researchers would love that...

        • by NEDHead (1651195) on Monday September 10, 2012 @09:04AM (#41287151)

          Not even remotely true. My wife is a professor at a community college, and if anything her on-line courses take as much or more of her time than the same course taught traditionally. Additionally, each time she re-teaches on-line course she spends considerable time revising and improving the content to reflect her learning curve.

          The OA's plaint is doubtless valid, but does not really contradict the potential of the approach. The real goal is not some free part time implementation of a bad stats course, it is the hope for wider distribution of the really great ones.

          • by Stumbles (602007) on Monday September 10, 2012 @09:46AM (#41287597)
            That's the sad thing of people who have never taught; once you create a lesson plan your good to go for eternity. Been there as an in-classroom instructor for the Air Force. Things are not as static as most people think.
            • by sasami (158671) on Monday September 10, 2012 @03:03PM (#41292241)

              Absolutely right. I have to correct this misconception regularly.

              My lessons are never the same year to year because the students are never the same year to year. Sometimes the level of the class is higher or lower, but that's not where the greatest variation comes in. Instead, what you'll find is that this year's class will breeze through some topics that last year's class agonized over, and then utterly implode on topics that last year's class found easy. What's hard and what's easy varies constantly, almost randomly. It's mysterious, inevitable, exciting, and exhausting. Based on the peculiarities of each year's students, I spend as much time adjusting every lesson as I did preparing them originally. Sometimes, it even takes more time, if I have to restructure things in a way that affects many subsequent areas.

          • by mgscheue (21096) on Monday September 10, 2012 @09:58AM (#41287763) Homepage

            As an online instructor of math and physics, I agree completely. If you're going to do it right, it takes a big investment of time. Also, since our class sizes are no more than 15 students, they get a lot of individual attention, probably more than average in a traditional classroom. The training our institution requires prospective instructors to go through makes very clear that it's not an easy way to make a buck. I've been told only about 6% of applicants make it through the process. Now without doubt there are some bad online instructors and there are schools whose priority it is to crank as many students through as possible, regardless of whether they belong there, but don't get the impression all online education is like that.

          • I would say it would depend on the topic.

            Undergrad Math Classes don't change too much over the years. The biggest change I have seen, is that Math classes will avoid using Greek Letters a little more (they still use them, but the materials taught has more English explaining what is going on, and less focus on every single Greek letter.

        • by N1AK (864906) on Monday September 10, 2012 @09:38AM (#41287507) Homepage
          Some teachers who have tried using Khan Academy in the classroom (I read about it offline so no link, sorry) said they thought the best advantage wasn't that the presented material was better but that it freed them up from presenting the information so they could give more personal assistance.

          Imagine that in maths class rather than the teacher standing at the board for 30 mins explaining an example they could let a small group watch the video while helping another small group who just finished watching it. Alternatively the time freed up could be used to customise homework to stretch those at the top and bring up the quality of those at the bottom.

          Finally add additional functionality on and allow access to the vids at any-time and anyone struggling with 'integration' could look back over that video description, perhaps access an online/skype-esque tutor service and/or post what they are stuck on for the teacher who could arrange very brief one-to-one sessions to address specific issues.

          I think way too much focus on these courses is on how they 'replace' teachers. Sure there is some scope for that but I think we can get far more benefit by augmenting classroom teaching.
        • by perpenso (1613749) on Monday September 10, 2012 @11:20AM (#41288865)

          I teach at a university. I make the same for an online class as I make for one that is classroom based.

          But once the lecture is recorded, the administration can hire anyone (even grad students) to teach (TA) the course. You're extraneous until they need an updated recording. Of course researchers would love that...

          The recorded lecture is only part of the class. My micro and macro economic classes had recorded lectures that we could view at our convenience prior to class. Class time was then spent entirely on discussion. Discussion including being called on by the professor to explain some concept, discuss a concept in the context of current events, etc. My fellow students and I liked this format much better than more traditional classes even though it probably increased our workload.

          Using class time for a canned lecture is a waste. However increasing discussion time yields a better educational experience and the professor is quite critical to this discussion process. Well, a good professor.

    • by garcia (6573) on Monday September 10, 2012 @08:38AM (#41286977) Homepage

      I've taken both online and classroom survey-level math courses at my local technical college and have to say I would much prefer the online courses.

      These aren't just online courses the article is talking about here, it's massive online courses, a completely different animal IMO.

      • +10 Insight. No mod points - sorry.
      • by cpu6502 (1960974) on Monday September 10, 2012 @12:16PM (#41289665)

        The problem I have with this professor's review of the online course is this: He would find the *exact same problems* in most real-world colleges. The stuff he described like the instructor giving poor real-world examples, straying from the syllabus (or only covering 3/4 of it due to running out of semester), et cetera are the EXACT same problems I encountered at the two universities I attended.

        For example I had a professor who routinely "lost his way" when solving some long complicated problem. Another who mumbled into the blackboard and nobody had a clue what he was talking about. Another who routinely showed-up ten minutes late, passed out photocopies of his notes, and then told us to review them. (And on and on and on.) So really what this reviewer observed is not a problem with online professors but a problem with poor-quality professors in the brick-and-mortar system as well.

      • I do find it interesting that we are talking about statistics courses, and nevertheless this fellows seems to be taking the conclusions he drew from one course and extending them to the entire genre.

        Not to say that I disagree with any one point, just thought it's worth pointing out.

    • by stoolpigeon (454276) * <bittercode@gmail> on Monday September 10, 2012 @08:41AM (#41286995) Homepage Journal

      I agree with the cautions on trusting an instructor, yet at the same time a student is not a good judge either. If I am learning something for the first time, how am I to know that what I've been taught is good until I have a chance to put it to use?

      He backs up his arguments with actual examples and provides a foundation for rational discourse about the class he took. I don't think one could ask for much more.

      That said, all this proves in general, is that if all his arguments are valid then it is possible to have a terrible course on-line just like in the traditional classroom. And his worries at the end about the value of having finished the class really misses the point of free on-line education.

      • by X0563511 (793323)

        I agree with the cautions on trusting an instructor, yet at the same time a student is not a good judge either. If I am learning something for the first time, how am I to know that what I've been taught is good until I have a chance to put it to use?

        The same way teachers check you? Provide a problem, and check that the solution matches. Repetitions with different problems increase certainty.

        Most textbooks perform this function on their own.

        • exactly! (Score:5, Insightful)

          by batistuta (1794636) on Monday September 10, 2012 @09:51AM (#41287685)

          Mod parent up, he's key on. I remember an issue with a professor in one of my C++ classes, which happened to include a large programming project. The project took about four weeks of intensive programming, and I was really proud of the quality of my code, comments, structure, etc. Only problem was that in one section we had to determine the actual type of an object using dynamic_cast after having received a base type object. We had like 10 derived objects and I've used copy paste to make life easier, but forgot to modify one entry with the appropriate type. That is, ONE word was wrong. My mistake failed in one of their tests (which I didn't have in advance), which cascaded four output missmatches. This ONE word cost me 40 points out of 100, ending up with a D for this project. One word, lots of effort. I've talked to the professor and his answer was a lame "if I fix your grade, I need to fix everyone's".

          When I was a TA during grad school, I always looked at the work flow. If a student made a mistake in part (a) of a problem, I didn't simply give him zero points for parts (b) (c) and (d) that used it as a base. Instead, I've assumed that part (a) was right and looked at the process. It took me more time to grade, sure. But it is fair and if a teacher can't contribute with some human touch, let's just replace them with computers.

      • by PJ6 (1151747)

        I agree with the cautions on trusting an instructor, yet at the same time a student is not a good judge either. If I am learning something for the first time, how am I to know that what I've been taught is good until I have a chance to put it to use?

        The measure of quality of instruction has absolutely nothing to do with how well the course's content can be applied practically.

      • by TaoPhoenix (980487) <TaoPhoenix@yahoo.com> on Monday September 10, 2012 @10:12AM (#41287933) Journal

        Okay Mods, here I go, this is coming from concerned frustration and is not intended as flamebait! I'm using a couple of rhetorical flourishes, so let's hope I don't misfire them.

        I believe the professor's comments are tragically flawed, starting with one reason. They might have worked for *any other subject*, combined with a more constructive goal of "how do we refine next year's class for the best experience" etc. But what is the subject here? Wait for it ... Statistics. The art of studying a Sample from a Population, right?

        So in this evaluation, the Sample Size is One Class. Sorry Prof, you mentioned *three* other sources of online classes, namely OpenCourseWare, Coursera, and edX (I'm leaving off Khan Academy, it's structured differently). A glance at Wikipedia lists even more. So my first concern is why that sample class is being equated to free statistics courses in general and even worse, online learning as a whole. Some examples:
        https://www.coursera.org/course/stats1 [coursera.org] - Coursera's version of Stats 1.

        Then for the criticisms:
        1. Lack of Planning
        2. Sloppy Writing
        3. Quiz Regime
        4. Population and Sample
        5. Normal Curve Calculations
        7. Bipolar Difficulty
        8. Final Exam Certification
        9. Hucksterism
        10. Lack of Updates?

        Let's separate those out into Badly Written Course complaints, that can apply for *any* course, including traditional ones. Those are:
        1. Lack of Planning
        2. Sloppy Writing
        4. Population and Sample
        5. Normal Curve Calculations
        6. CLT Not Explained

        So for my fellow Slashdot Readers, the ones for us to thrash around are the ones dealing with the Online Concept.
        3. Quiz Regime
        7. Bipolar Difficulty
        8. Final Exam Certification
        9. Hucksterism
        10. Lack of Updates

    • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn AT gmail DOT com> on Monday September 10, 2012 @08:45AM (#41287017) Journal

      Of course, all the instructors and professors bad-mouth the online classes. Why? Because the online courses are a threat to their jobs, of course.

      How is an online course any different that a textbook? To me it has some benefits over a text book like you don't have to read as much, you can just listen. I like to be able to flip back and forth or scan chapters in a textbook -- that's a bit harder in a video lecture. So why aren't instructors and professors calling for the ban of textbooks and criticizing them? Why don't they lynch each other when one writes a really good textbook?

      Once an online course is in place, it doesn't require much in the way of instructor intervention.

      Listen, man, I'm glad this worked for you. But it's a one way communication channel. The way you say "it doesn't require much in the way of instructor intervention" is pretty indicative that you think teaching is someone shouting at you with your mouth taped shut and your eyes pried open. You should maybe read the article before saying the critique is biased, he talks about what I'm mentioning:

      Throughout the course, lectures and exercises veer rapidly between utterly trivial and nigh-impossible. I think this is a reflection of the one-way communication channel, such that Thrun can't have any awareness of what counts as easy and what counts as hard to the students.

      Yet you say:

      Most of the instructors I've had love the idea that you are forced to come listen to them twice a week, and blanch at the idea that any course could be effective without their brilliant classroom contribution.

      I'm pretty sure that's in your best interest. If you're one of the gifted students that hasn't ever needed a professor's help then congratulations but you're not the normal student. If what you're saying is true, the government would only need to dispatch sets of textbooks to each home and stop paying tons of money on public education altogether. But what you're saying isn't true ... anyone with an education given to them by several other humans will know that.

      • by wisty (1335733) on Monday September 10, 2012 @09:27AM (#41287375)

        > Listen, man, I'm glad this worked for you. But it's a one way communication channel.

        So are most lectures. OK, there's a bit of interaction (most with the students who you are "illegally" collaborating with on take-home assessment), and the lecturer might explain stuff in office hours, but universities rely on most of their students not wasting too much lecturer time. Just look at student-teacher ratios.

        FTA (yeah, I scanned it) ost of the issues seem to be "Thrun is a shitty stats teacher". It's like all the teachers who say "Khan can't teach math, he's a bad math teacher". I'm sure they have issues - no teacher is perfect. And I'm sure a good stats lecturer / math teacher can do a slightly better job. But both Thrun and Khan are generally bright people who know their subject, and good speakers, so they are pretty good teachers.

        I don't think that offline courses (the way they are run these days - badly) have much of an advantage over online ones. And I don't think the current teachers doing well-known online courses are below average (though there's probably quite a few teachers who could do better).

        • by ByOhTek (1181381) on Monday September 10, 2012 @10:43AM (#41288299) Journal
          Actually, almost every lecture I've had with less than 150 people in it, and EVERY recitation I've had, the professors not only allowed, but encouraged students to ask questions. In one lecture (about 100 students), the professor wouldn't talk on a subject until the students started asking about it. He led the topic with the homework and assigned reading, but the lecture we 'directed' by the students so it could focus on what gave them the most difficulty. Knowledge of a subject, and being a good speaker, doesn't make one a good teacher. Knowledge of the subject is definitely important, but understanding how others think, and being aware of where they have difficulties, and spotting these difficulties, is much more important than speaking ability. If it weren't, we'd only need textbooks, and wouldn't bother with lectures, online or offline. And you can't correctly say offline courses are set up badly, as a general statement and more than you can say online classes are worthless. Every institution, even departments within the same institution, or lectures within the same department, is/are different.
        • by number11 (129686)

          But both Thrun and Khan are generally bright people who know their subject, and good speakers, so they are pretty good teachers.

          Does not follow, any more than it means that they would be good managers.

      • by PortHaven (242123) on Monday September 10, 2012 @09:29AM (#41287403) Homepage

        Really, have you seen most undergrad courses that are filled with dozens, even hundreds of students. There is pretty much nothing beyond a token level of 2-way communication.

        • by Quirkz (1206400)
          Depends where you go to school. I think my biggest class wasn't more than 30 and that was very rare. Most were less than 20. Average was much closer to 15 across my undergraduate experience. I got a lot of good one-on-one or small-group discussion with my professors.
        • by rcuhljr (1132713)
          Why complain about it if you voluntarily went to a school like that? I went to a college where all my undergraduate courses were about 20:1 student to teacher because that's what I wanted. The options are out there.
        • by ByOhTek (1181381)
          Like another poster, it depends on where you go. I went through one of the largest universities in the country, and most of my classes had less than 50 people, almost all had less than 100. The only classes with more than 100 were general, organic and first quarter physical chemistry, and environmental and natural resources. Oh, and general biochemistry (7 courses total). I probably took around 60 courses overall. Even in one of those 100+ student classes, the lecturer encouraged students to answer questi
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by liquiddark (719647)
      He's made a lot of cogent points about the course he took. Maybe you should respond to those instead of resorting to character assassination. Instructors who actually care about the classroom are the right people to judge course material. Students have too many other concerns to evaluate objectively.
    • Not a job Threat (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Roger W Moore (538166) on Monday September 10, 2012 @09:35AM (#41287471) Journal

      Of course, all the instructors and professors bad-mouth the online classes. Why? Because the online courses are a threat to their jobs, of course.

      Online courses are not a job threat to faculty at research universities. We only spend a fraction of our time teaching and the rest on research and service. If online courses reduced our teaching load this would mean more time for research (which is a motivation for teaching online!). Opposition to online teaching primarily comes from the position that the quality and/or diversity of teaching will suffer. This is not an unreasonable concern.

      Personally I am all in favour of online teaching but I think it is still in its infancy and we need better tools before jumping into wholesale online courses. For example a good solution for exams as well as labs needs to be found. My concern is that in the rush to go online important things like quality seem to have been forgotten. There is also the issue of interactivity. For higher level courses it is not enough to just present students with material for them to learn often complicated concepts e.g. Quantum Mechanics, require discussions with students to ensure that they understand. Yes, technically these can be done online but you loose the non-verbal communication and it is frequently the case that I will explain a concept to a student for them to say "yes I understand it now" while their body language indicates far less certainty. I can then either re-explain or test them by asking a question to see whether they really do.

    • by Cinder6 (894572) on Monday September 10, 2012 @10:15AM (#41287961)

      I'm taking an online (English) course from a professor with whom I have previously taken in-classroom classes. He says he really enjoys teaching online--it's easier for him and he can take more students--but the school district has always had a hard time battling student attrition. In my area, at least, online courses see a higher drop rate than courses where you have to physically go to school.

      I think part of the issue is that there's more accountability on the student to "show up" for class. When you have a physical class to attend, you have more structure than an online class. With an online class, you run the risk of putting things off until the last minute (even more than a physical class--now you can put the lecture off, too!), getting stressed, and dropping out.

      So for those with the discipline to complete an online course, it's great. More convenient, potentially quicker, etc. But there are lots of undisciplined people out there--not to mention people simply learn much better in a classroom environment. I don't see physical classes going anywhere any time soon.

    • I had the same, AND the opposite experience with FSU's online courses.

      Coincidentally (or not), the class that had the horrible textbook (it doesn't help to check against the solutions when they're wrong) and the absentee professor/TA ("quiz" grades from the first week were still unavailable before the midterm) was the "Statistics for Engineers" class. Twice. The first time, I withdrew rather than risk failing. The second was my last semester before graduation, so I had to "tough it out," which basically me

    • by ByOhTek (1181381)
      Sorry you had a bad experience at your community college. Not surprised though... They tend to be like that. Online classes, in my experience, have been minimally interactive, in not terribly useful - they were the regurgitate-the-book lectures. As a replacement for a lecture hall, with 150+ students, or as a replacement for a pathetic instructor, like you had, yes, they are good. The vast majority of my instructors, however, were not that bad. They didn't just cover the materials in the book, they expande
    • by quetwo (1203948) on Monday September 10, 2012 @10:39AM (#41288259) Homepage

      I teach a blended class at a very large university (Blended = Students have the choice of online or offline). While both sets of students get the exact same assignments, same quizzes and the same readings, students who attend in person average one full grade higher than those who do not.

      It comes down to two things :

      - Being in front of your prof will build a relationship with him/her and generally you will get more out of the class. That being said, students are just as able to hide away in a live class and not participate.
      - Being online only, makes you study only the subject from the point of the material. Very rarely do I get questions from students, or really any exploration of tangential subjects. The barrier to ask impromptu questions is much greater online. Also, because of a delayed response, it may not be as timely. Again, I've had online students ask more questions than what was asked in class, but that was an abnormally. Rarely do the questions asked online get posted in a public manner so all students can benefit from the response.

      The massively online classes (like the one talked about in the article) exacerbate those issues... How do you ask a question to the instructor? If they only provide forums, sometimes other students will answer them for you -- but they are not necessary qualified. How can a student bring up tangential topics that may enhance the class?

      It's a different style of learning. You learn the material that is expected of them, and that is it. You know the principals of X, but you may not know how they relate (and its up to you, on your own research to find it).

    • You completely missed the point of the article, he's talking about the quality of instruction, you're referring to the ceonvnience, these two things have nothing to do with eachother.
  • One bad course (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hatta (162192) on Monday September 10, 2012 @08:41AM (#41286999) Journal

    Sounds like the author took one bad course, and is blaming online classes for his bad experience. Any of these complaints could apply easily to a poorly instructed statistics class at your local community college.

    • by Hentes (2461350)

      Exactly, there are bad professors IRL too.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      You might want to go back and read the article itself, rather than just the summary. (Yes, I realise that this is slashdot, but once in a while I still hope that the atricle does get read).

      And I realise that something involving "free" and "internet" is probably automatically a winner on slashdot (best throw in a beowolf cluster of natalie portmans with hot grits etc to make sure that it properly hits all the right buttons).

      The writer does go into detail about the various flaws of that particular course, and

    • Re:One bad course (Score:5, Insightful)

      by pesho (843750) on Monday September 10, 2012 @09:36AM (#41287483)
      Exactly! One could imagine that a professor teaching statistic would know better than to base conclusions on a limited data set (N=1).
    • I'm not sure even the worst community college stats class lets you re-submit your final until you get the grade you desire, per the end of his write-up.

      • by i.r.id10t (595143)

        Sure - its called retaking the course. Of course, after the 3rd attempt you are paying out of state fees and financial aid won't cover it, and after 4 attempts you have to petition the academic affairs office for another try, but yeah, you can keep going until you get the grade you want. Sadly, many 4 year (and beyond) colleges look at your first attempt when calculating your incoming GPA

  • Misleading title? (Score:5, Informative)

    by JaredOfEuropa (526365) on Monday September 10, 2012 @08:44AM (#41287007) Journal
    The author puts forth very few actual problems with online math classes in general; his article focuses on one particular course (Udacity Statistics 101) and gives us a top 10 list of problems with that course. None of these problems are intrinsic to online courses, except perhaps the lack of natural feedback that one does get when teaching a class face-to-face, allowing for continuous improvement of the course material.

    In other words, the author bases his assessment of online math courses on a sample size of 1. ("Based on my review of the Udacity Introduction to Statistics course, I see some compelling strategic advantages for live in-class teachers, that will not be soon washed away by massive online video learning.").
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      Try to get natural feedback or face-to-face communication with an instructor in a class of 400 students which is pretty common now. For intro classes in any sciences this is no different than what students already have.

      Smaller classes can definitely be better (they can also be spectacularly worse) but for the large lecture classes you have for intro physics, chemistry, biology, math through calc 1, calc 2, calc 3 and diff eq the online classes are really no worse.

      • by quetwo (1203948)

        Sit in the front and ask questions. It worked for me for my 4 years in higher-education. You can't blame the system if you don't participate.

    • Re:Misleading title? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by serviscope_minor (664417) on Monday September 10, 2012 @10:04AM (#41287821) Journal

      Did you actually RTFA (yes I know I'm new here etc)...

      Based on my review of the Udacity Introduction to Statistics course, I see some compelling strategic advantages for live in-class teachers, that will not be soon washed away by massive online video learning.

      If you actually read the articly, you will see that he's not using this particular course as a statistical sample. It highlights some fundemental problems with online courses that all online courses will necessarily suffer from.

      As a lecturer you need feedback to give better lectures. The first time giving the course is always the worst.

      If you get confused questions, you fix your lecture for next time.

      More importantly, if you observe a sea of blank and confused faces, you modify the lecture. This is often more important, because very often students don't ask questions.

      You can't replicate that in online courses.

      there are other things, which aren't necessarily applicable to online courses, but in practice are and are closely related ot the previous point. That is, there is a temptation to fire and forget, where as with real lecturing since you have to do it repeatedly tends to get a bit more attention.

      This is not always a problem (David Mackay's excellent online lectures in inference were given after heavily refiing a course for a number of years and writing an excellent book on it), but can be very easily.

    • by quietwalker (969769) <pdughi@gmail.com> on Monday September 10, 2012 @10:12AM (#41287925)

      I took Prof. Thrun's & Prof. Norvig's course, "Introduction to Artificial Intelligence" when it was first offered. I'm pretty big on self-study, and I rely on instructors to provide efficient direction (a syllabus, specific reading material), a mechanism for self-evaluation (exercises, means to validate results, etc), and finally, a source of answers when I have questions. In a perfect world, online courses seem to be a good fit for my personal needs, so I dove in with relish.

      However, I found some of the same general problems the blog post referenced;
            - the content (speech, writing) was often sloppy and confusing, it did feel unplanned.
            - concepts that were introduced were not explained in their entirety.
            - the vocabulary used to describe a new idea was fairly mutable, or inconsistent.
            - there were often instances requiring sizable leaps of intuition combined with formal mathematical knowledge to complete exercises which had previously only been provided in a "fill in the numbers" format in previous examples.

      In addition, I found no clear mechanisms for self-evaluation. We had to wait a week just to see the results of previous tests, etc. I also thought the quiz interface was childish and poorly done, but that's mostly just a look and feel issue.

      I also took Prof. Ng's "Machine Learning," class at the same time. In contrast, I found that Prof. Ng provided:
            - Writing was clear, dialog was polished, vocabulary was explicit.
            - Concepts were introduced, explained (in both a practical and intuition-focused form), demonstrated and expanded upon.
            - Exercises were given to students in the form of example data, algorithms to implement, and with additional suggestions on how to 'play' with them to produce different results and gain an intuitive grasp of the information. Unlimited resubmission of exercises with an automated grading system made evaluation of different mechanisms simple.
            - Quizes were more polished.

      I felt like I got a lot out of his class, well more than the AI class.

      I feel that the difference between the two was pretty obvious. Prof. Thrun was teaching as if he had a live audience in front of him, and did not modify his instruction style for the lack of interactivity. On the other hand, Prof. Ng taught in a way that minimized the deficiencies of video learning, while leveraging the benefits of online, automated instruction.

      In conclusion, I don't think the AngryMath blogger is correct in the assumption that live, in-person instruction is needed. In fact, I'd say the opposite was shown: the closer you get to the style of live instruction, the worse it seems to be to me, and more so when it's online. Of course, I have specific needs from education, and others may prefer different styles.

      • In conclusion, I don't think the AngryMath blogger is correct in the assumption that live, in-person instruction is needed. In fact, I'd say the opposite was shown: the closer you get to the style of live instruction, the worse it seems to be to me, and more so when it's online. Of course, I have specific needs from education, and others may prefer different styles.

        Reading TFA, I thought that the Angrymath blogger was making different points - that the free MMO course suffers from serious problems unless it is a) properly prepared b) well-presented with a text narrative c) has proper feedback and d) has mechanisms to prevent cheating and properly measure learning achievement. So I think you're correct in general terms about online courses and Prof Collins is correct about the failures of the course he took in its entirety.

        But you are correct about style. The question

    • Re:Misleading title? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Troy (3118) on Monday September 10, 2012 @10:18AM (#41288019)

      This is very true, but his conclusion at the very bottom is what struck me as the true problem

      Obviously, Sebastian Thrun is not just a teacher-by-online-video; he's also a Google Vice-President and Fellow, a Research Professor of Computer Science at Stanford, former director of the Stanford AI Laboratory, head of teams competing in DARPA challenges, and leads the development of Google's self-driving car program. How much time or focus would we expect him to have for a freshman-level introductory math course? ... Some of these shortcomings may be overcome by a more dedicated teacher.

      or to put it another way

      Teaching isn't as easy as it looks.

      I'm a high school math teacher (currently on lunch break :) ), and I'm always struck by the number of people who assume that what I do (minus classroom management and discipline) is just standing up and sayin' stuff. Good lessons and good assessments take time to create and deliver. You have to screw up for a few lessons (or years) before you figure out how to do it right, and "right" is whatever works best for your personality and your students' needs. Teacher education helps a little, but it's really just practice.

      It also explains why experienced teachers are sometimes hesitant to draw up something new: it isn't necessarily laziness; good lessons are a lot of work. Every year, I work 50-60 hours a week trying to improve what I already have. This year, I've decided to try flipping my classroom, and I'm working harder than I did as a newbie teacher recording/editing/uploading my lessons to the intertubes. I'm also unmarried with no kids (ie. soul-crushingly lonely), so I have that kind of time to put into it. When you have 2 kids that need to be taxied to 5 places after school, time is short.

  • by cornicefire (610241) on Monday September 10, 2012 @08:48AM (#41287033)
    I've had math professors who could barely speak English because they were foreign countries. And the ones raised speaking English still had trouble communicating. It's a difficult subject and there are often big disagreements over the best way to present the material. Some think you should start from a high-level theory and work your way down. Others think you should start with basic examples and eventually get to the theory. Naturally, I've found that professors in one camp think those in the other camp are "bad". This guy just sounds like a tenured member of the college industrial complex who is deathly afraid that people will stop subsidizing his way of life. I wouldn't be surprised to find that 90% of the people taking college calculus don't need the material and never use it again. Math departments are kept afloat with distribution requirements. There's a lot of money at stake. If these big online courses catch on, the professoriate will be out on the street. Of course they're going to hate it.
    • by AdamHaun (43173) on Monday September 10, 2012 @09:04AM (#41287149) Journal

      I've had math professors who could barely speak English because they were foreign countries.

      I'm amazed they could fit into the classroom.

    • by Minwee (522556)

      I've had math professors who could barely speak English because they were foreign countries.

      That's... impressive.

    • "Math departments are kept afloat with distribution requirements" -- What?? Can anyone on this board honestly say that there are too many required math courses in a college curriculum? Anyone in a STEM field can't get enough math, ever. And all those students who are in fields which don't require it and are taking math only to satisfy distribution requirements aren't getting enough either. Everyone claiming a college degree should have at least enough math to understand the statistics and economics whic

    • I've had math professors who could barely speak English because they were foreign countries

      Hm...

      There's a lot of money at stake. If these big online courses catch on, the professoriate will be out on the street

      No, they will be doing research, because that is what pays the bills for most professors.

  • Come on... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by wbr1 (2538558) on Monday September 10, 2012 @08:52AM (#41287071)
    The guy is in 'statistics', a sample size of one is all he needs.
    Especially when his career is at stake!
    • Re:Come on... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by serviscope_minor (664417) on Monday September 10, 2012 @10:14AM (#41287957) Journal

      Seriously who mods this shit insightful every bloody time.

      There is no big conspiracy of teachers wanting to make everything hard to maintain in iron grip on on some hypothesised education-industrial complex as one uninsightful poster named it above.

      I'll let you on in a little secret about university lecturers. They generally fall on a spectum between two extremes.

      1. Ones who really like research. Teaching gets in the way and anything which means they have to do less teaching (like someone else preparing online courses) is a serious bonus.

      2. Teachers who like teaching (amzing that, really). Basically, they have a passion for the subject and letting others know about it. Anything which helps studenst get it is considered a bonus. Therefore good online courses are a real bonus because they bring more studenst to the world of their favourite subject.

      But you know what, neither camp is in favour of por quality online courses. In the case of 1, that means fewer well educated students to act as future research monkeys. In the case of 2, the teacher will get sad at what passes for education and may well have to deal with the consequenes of confused students, or worse, students who have been put off and never cease to even be students.

      Whenever education comes up, there seem to ca a carde of deeply cynical posters with a chip on their shoulder the size of Mt Rushmore who delight in wild education based conspircy theories and telling the world how they are so amazing that professors are unnecessary and they taught everything to themselves anyway and/or didn't even go to nuiversity but are amazingly super-awesome anyway and don't professors suck because they're in it for the money and want to keep the man down because professoring is such an amazingly lucrative career and they ave to hold onto it tight otherwise the money will become spread around or something.

      It's crap.

  • by rbrander (73222) on Monday September 10, 2012 @09:07AM (#41287179) Homepage

    It's a very clear article about the one course he took. At no point does he claim it a general critique of the medium. That's being propagated by the /. headline on the article.

    I'm not sure what the larger lesson, if any, is at all - except the old standard, "Content is King". Cool new technology and celebrity professor alike are worthless if not presented with a well-written, well-rehearsed, well-produced content. Combine the production values of, not so much million-dollar-a-minute national TV ads, but just the production values of local TV news - where a team of several work all day on each half-hour produced - and it would be a whole different experience.

    What bewilders me about most teaching is that it isn't ALL at least that good - what other content in our world is tested on live audiences so repetitively? There should by now be wide agreement on what kinds of topics and approaches and sequences work best for something like basic stats.

    • Mod this one up! If Walter Lewin of MIT were to do an online physics course, you'd bet it would be fun, complete and rigorously tested and anyone who passed it would be justifiably proud of the achievement.
  • Oh good grief (Score:5, Insightful)

    by NoNonAlphaCharsHere (2201864) on Monday September 10, 2012 @09:08AM (#41287191)
    Take a "World History 101" course at any large university, in a huge lecture hall with 350 of your closest friends, delivered by uninterested, overworked grad student TAs.

    This just in: most undergrad education is overpriced, and low quality.
    • This just in: most undergrad education is overpriced, and low quality.

      Try going to a better university?

      IME, the larger, more important undergraduates tend to go to the more senior, experienced people. The super specialist disciplines tend to go to the more junior staff as they are often closer to the latest research.

      I've never attended a lecture given by a TA, neither have I actually ever seen one being given.

      Perhaps this is a UK thing, as I don't have any experience of the US system.

  • by AdamHaun (43173) on Monday September 10, 2012 @09:10AM (#41287209) Journal

    The overwhelming majority of the article is specific criticisms about Udacity Statistics 101, not a general criticism of online math classes. The specific criticisms seem valid to me -- I didn't take Thrun's stats class, but I did take the AI class, which had the same issues. I urge anyone who's interested in online learning to read the full article since anyone could make any of these mistakes very easily.

    Here are the bits from the end of the article that talk about online learning in general:

    So in theory, any of the problems that I've noted above could be revisited and fixed on future pass-throughs of the course. But will that happen at Udacity, or any other massive online academic program? I strongly suspect not – likely, the entire attraction for someone like Thrun (and the business case for institutions like his) is to be able to record basic lectures once and then never have to revisit them again. Or in other words: All the millions of students using these ventures will be permanently experiencing the shaky, version-1.0 trial run of a new course, when the instructor is him- or herself just barely figuring out how to teach it for the first time, and without the benefit of two-way feedback or any refinements.

    Based on my review of the Udacity Introduction to Statistics course, I see some compelling strategic advantages for live in-class teachers, that will not be soon washed away by massive online video learning. Chief among them are the presence of actual two-way communication between teacher and students, such that the instructor can modify, expand, and respond to questions when appropriate (in regards to clarity of presentation, quiz questions, missing pieces, and rationalizing difficulty levels); and the ability to engage in a cycle of constant improvements and refinements every time the course is taught by a dedicated teacher. Also, I feel that written text is ultimately more useful than videos, being more elegant and precise, easier to search and index key terms and examples, suffering fewer technical problems, easier to update, and generally being truer to the form of mathematical written presentation in the first place. In addition to these, Thrun's lectures at Udacity have a stunning number of critical flaws (in regards to planning, sequencing, clarity, writing, and missing major topics) that leave me amazed if any actual intro-level student manages to make their way through the whole class.

    Perhaps the upshot here is a restatement of the old saw: “You get what you pay for.” (Udacity being currently free, with a mission-statement to remain that way). Or else another: “Don't take a class from a world-famous researcher, because they don't really have time or interest for teaching.” Obviously, Sebastian Thrun is not just a teacher-by-online-video; he's also a Google Vice-President and Fellow, a Research Professor of Computer Science at Stanford, former director of the Stanford AI Laboratory, head of teams competing in DARPA challenges, and leads the development of Google's self-driving car program. How much time or focus would we expect him to have for a freshman-level introductory math course? (Not much; in one lecture he mentions that he's recording at 3AM and compares it to his “day job” at Google.) Some of these shortcomings may be overcome by a more dedicated teacher. But others seem endemic to the massive-online project as a whole, and I suspect that the industry as a whole will turn out to be an over-inflating bubble that bursts at some point, much like other internet sensations of the recent past.

    My own summary would be "the current state of the art in online learning does not justify the hype, and probably won't for some time".

    • I find it ironically amusing that a lot of comments on /. are the result of short attention spans and tl;dr mentalities.
  • Online courses may work for a few people, but after having tought high school for more than a few years I can promise you they will not work for the majority. Teaching is essentially a controlled feedback loop (*Yes I understand it isn't ONLY a feedback loop) , and it is the back and forth (continuous) feedback that builds critical thinking skills, and enhances the learning for most people. Online videos can not see the face of a lost student, can't detect someone that is Googling an answer for each ques
    • Try finding the face of a lost student in an engineering class (100 or so people are a major university) or worse a student in an intro class (300-600) students at a major university.

      These online classes are being designed to solve the large scale problems we already have. Sure it would be great if everyone had small classes and personal attention from professors but that is not what we have now. To often we have poor textbooks and poor teachers and have to learn most of the information on our own anyways f

  • I could write a review of this one bad class I once took at a brick and mortar school. Does that effectively cast aspersion upon all classroom learning? No.
    • by rjstanford (69735)

      If you RTFA and not just the synopsis, you'll see that he's only trying to critique the one class, and the only "general" comments are of the flavor of, "Other online courses should make sure not to make this easy mistake X."

      • I read the article, but the synopsis is sensationalized and I was responding to the tone of the synopsis, which is the most visible and oft-read component of the article.
  • by originalhack (142366) on Monday September 10, 2012 @09:23AM (#41287343)
    Based on my research, 100% of online math classes are terrible.

    Sample size, of course, is 1 statistics class where I apparently didn't learn much.
  • "college educator myself"

    Okay, pronounced bias as his job and livelihood are on the line.

    " It is poorly structured; it evidences an almost complete lack of planning for the lectures; it routinely fails to properly define or use standard terms or notation; it necessitates occasional massive gaps where “magic” happens;"

    So he is pronouncing it as a typical course offering of a tenured professor. Seriously, that's about the most apt description of most courses I took with tenured professors.

    "best ex

    • Okay, pronounced bias as his job and livelihood are on the line.

      Of course, because expertise is biased - towards excellence.

    • Okay, pronounced bias as his job and livelihood are on the line.

      Bullshit. His job is not on the line. There is no subsitute for in-person teaching (e.g. tutorials) and there's also the job he was almost certainly hired to do, namely research, which he probably doesn't get to do nearly enough of because of all the teaching.

      If you think that video lectures are going to put universities out of business, then can you please give me the name of your dealer, because that's some amazing stuff you're smoking. ... s

    • by markhahn (122033)

      PortHaven seems to have a chip on his/her shoulder about tenure. that's too bad. there are lots of tenured profs who provide excellent pedagogy and empathetic support for students. I find that a hard-assed attitude correlates most strongly with the size of the class, since no prof teaching 500 students in a class can spare a lot of time for handholding. it's also impossible to deny that student entitlement correlates strongly with student dissatisfaction.

  • As a carpenter specializing in horse-drawn carriages, I felt compelled to survey one of the new-fangled "horseless carriages" that are all the rage these days. It was amazingly, shockingly awful. Some nights I got seriously depressed, as I could no longer hear the music of the crickets, frogs, and other nocturnal animals as I rode across the countryside. The smoke generated by this monstrosity obscured vision, and greatly irritated the eyes and nose. It was far too complex and infernal a machine to ever

  • I relied nearly entirely upon "Statistics for Dummies," took an exam, and got the highest possible score. Perhaps some things are better taught in a book through independent study, instead of a classroom, online or off.
    • Because the entire point of this particular course is to stroke the egos of students with short attention spans. Who won't read a book either.

      By the way, kudos to you on cracking the books and not blaming someone else. That's rare in these parts...
  • by Hevel-Varik (2700923) on Monday September 10, 2012 @09:35AM (#41287467)
    and completely wrong. The Stats course was a disaster. Mr. Thrun should stick to advanced level instruction. I owe a lot to Udacity. Some of the courses there are great; a few are stellar. David Evans is magician. Wesley Weimer was stellar. And Steve Huffman did a great job. The classes are only as good as the teachers.
  • The math courses are generally pretty good. If I had to rate them, I'd give them a solid B. I like the approachable style of the teaching, but sometimes the instructor just flat out gets things wrong. Most times they use the annotations on the Youtube service to point out the corrections. But for a subject as exacting as math, where you are literally trying to rewire the brain into assigning logical meaning to [initially] foreign concepts, it is a huge break in continuity. The problem is exacerbated gi

  • /. Feedback... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 10, 2012 @10:09AM (#41287899)

    After having read the initial round of comments regarding this posting, I have to say I'm disappointed that the /. crowd isn't somewhat more circumspect regarding the author's effort. He took the time to survey a course he's qualified to critique by both his background (Masters degree) & experience (teaching at NYU). He offered valid points regarding the instructional design, execution and attention to detail by Thrun (who was most likely hired by Udacity more for his name than anything else). The majority of posts in response seem focused on defending the promise/potential of online courses, in general, rather that dealing with any insight the author offered.

    Too bad.

    I've had the pleasure of trying to teach, and I've been worked with professionals involved in developing online educational materials as well as one who headed a company that delivered professional training courses over a private proprietary network. My own teaching attempts were probably mediocre (it was en education research project exploring the use of virtual reality systems in classrooms & we did an intro to the tech, 3D modeling and attempted to facilitate 'world building' (focused on allowing students to present a limited curriculum they were learning concurrently in a traditional classroom).

    What I learned is that professional educators are responsible for an incredibly diverse set of activities and knowledge that go well beyond the subject matter. Online course should IMHO be treated as professional presentations. You can't just wing it, was obviously the case for Thrun's Udacity course. (I say obviously taking for granted that Collins critiqued Thrun accurately).

    All the elements of good instructional design have to be present and course materials that support the curriculum need to be included, ESPECIALLY for online courses because students don't have the immediacy of classroom contact with the instructor or their virtual fellows.

    I've heard great things about Khan Academy, though I haven't spent any time 'attending' classes 'there'. The distinguishing characteristics I've heard applauded most center on the love for the communication of the materials. Some people have that gift others don't. But if a group like Udacity gets together to attempt a parallel to the efforts of someone who has the gift, it's important they make sure that the presentations they deliver are well thought out, well presented, accurate and constructed in such a manner as to meet the needs of people with various learning styles.

    The web, in this regard, holds greater potential than television, but it will rarely be delivered by people who don't take the time to polish their efforts.

    Apparently Udacity and Thrun failed in this attempt.

  • by swb (14022) on Monday September 10, 2012 @10:25AM (#41288117)

    ...25+ years ago at a major Midwestern state university was that calculus was just one of those classes they expected you to figure out on your own.

    3 days a week we had a lecture that largely followed the book. It was in a lecture hall which seated 200-300 people and was usually completely full. There were no questions and answer, straight lecture. These were taught be either "senior" PhD candidates or post-grads, never an actual professor.

    Two days a week we had a recitation with a low-level grad student T/A. In every case in every class I had this T/A was foreign born and spoke atrocious English. In one case, the T/A appeared to speak NO English, getting by on grunting and pointing.

    The student paper ran lots of articles about the T/A English proficiency issue. It boiled down to "It's a global world, why should they be expected to speak English?" to "These are undergrads in the Midwest, I didn't see Urdu, Hindi, and Mandarin as class requirements." Basically there was just nobody left to teach the classes and the professors couldn't be bothered.

    Anyway, my assumption is that they don't really want to teach math. They want to make a kind of gesture towards teaching math, but really either you sink or swim. Online education just seems an extension of this mindset.

  • by realsilly (186931) on Monday September 10, 2012 @10:36AM (#41288227)

    A friend of mine, an experienced programmer, got out of the business for 10+ years to assume the role of Stay-at-home-Mom. She has been taking classes once again to familiarize herself with the new styles of programming, the languages and beyond. She has primarily been frustrated with the on-line classes and listening to her, I can see why.

    During my academia years, every class I took had a professor in the room. I remember the extreme benefit of asking a question of the professor that involved a real-time discussion. And it was through those discussions, that would prompt more excellent questions from the student body thus expanding the ideas and principles being taught to us. Also when we had questions out of confusion, we could stop a professor and again discuss where our confusion was. This always provided feedback to the professor as to how to better improve his lesson. And I also remember, one of my favorite aspects, was when a teach either accidentally (or even intentionally) stated something incorrectly and a student would question the teacher, this also showed where people didn't just accepted information blindly, but questioned accuracy for the best learning experience.

    With on-line classes my friend has talked about, she has found that the classes lack structure and the text books don't really compliment the lectures and worst of all, teachers don't promptly answer students questions, instead she's stuck in forums where the information being discussed goes awry.

    Its sounds like instructors / professors are taking an easy way out, and slapping crap together. I'd like to believe this is truly not the case, but after listening to my friend, I fear for our education system more and more.

  • I'm a parent of high school twins and recently went to one of their teacher's classes. Amazingly, shockingly awful. The good thing about the videos is that they are like movies. If they suck, no one will go see it and someone will make a different one. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of an unsuccessful school teacher. The videos and classrooms give us two choices and we are better off. I find these rants about one of the two choices, either public school teacher or video replacement, to be stu
  • by Animats (122034) on Monday September 10, 2012 @11:48AM (#41289255) Homepage

    Having taken Andrew Ng's online machine learning course (the Stanford version, not the Udacity version), I will say that one of the biggest problems with that crowd is notation. Machine learning has painful notation. Is this superscript an exponent or an index? What's the precedence of this new operator? Where was that operator defined/ The course desperately needs a one-page summary of the notation used.

"It's when they say 2 + 2 = 5 that I begin to argue." -- Eric Pepke

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