What I learned from MOOCulus

This is an example of the way in which mathematics is a democratizing force: problems that at one time would have only been accessible to the geniuses on earth are now accessible to everyone. At one time in history, you would have had to have been the smartest person on earth to have calculated the area of some curved object. But now, armed with the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, we can all take part in these area calculations.

Jim Fowler, MOOCulus, Calculus 1, Winter/Spring 2013

[ADDENDUM: This course has been converted to “self-paced”; two of the best elements – the discussion forums, and the MOOCulus exercises – are no longer available. I’m not enthusiastic about the new format]

I’ve commented before on my lifelong adversarial relationship with mathematics. But I can’t seem to leave it alone. And even The New Yorker knows writers should learn math. So yeah, I took another math course. Calculus, via Coursera. Fifteen weeks of (free) online math class. Sheesh. What am I, crazy? Yeah.

But this course was special.

How can you not have fun in a class where the teacher considers calculus to be a democratizing force? Where the windowsill features a bowl of coffee beans with a fork stuck in it, and there’s a shelf held up by a dozen Pellegrino bottles? Where lectures are sprinkled with references to LOTR and Douglas Adams (“Suddenly, A Whale…”) and video games (I’d never heard of Portal before, or the closing song “Still Alive,” and now I’m obsessed with it; it was the perfect theme song for the class)? Where videos feature little paper cutouts of a guy moving in front of a light to show his shadow lengthening at a rate related to his speed, drawings of gobbling and belching of functions (complete with music and sound effects), ninja sheep leaping over ladders, the integral monster conquered by donning a wizard hat?

“One does not simply walk into calculus”

Jim Fowler, MOOCulus, Calculus 1, Winter/Spring 2013

It’s hard not to become engaged in the process thanks to lead instructor Jim Fowler, who might be able to make a go of a supplementary career talking math with Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert the way Neil deGrasse Tyson talks astrophysics; who oozes enthusiasm for the subject and hangs out on the forums (as do the other team members) to answer questions and offer encouragement. Sure, I spent every Monday and Tuesday, when the new materials went up (sometimes Wednesday and even Thursday) tearing my hair out, cursing, and crying. But I couldn’t quit; I’d miss all the fun, and anyway, I couldn’t let these guys down.

I couldn’t let down Steve Gubkin, designer of the MOOCulus online exercises, who, when a student posted a comment on the forums about having the memory span of a goldfish, pointed him to a goldfish video with a Pete Seeger soundtrack. We really were never alone.

I couldn’t let down Bart Snapp who only got a little screen time early on but showed up regularly on the forums to address questions about the textbook he put together from existing open-source materials (and if you’ve priced calculus textbooks lately, you’ll know how much that’ll save you).

I couldn’t let down Tom Evans, who wrote the music that started each video lesson and who introduced me to the astonishingly beautiful mathematical music of Michael Blake during Pi Day festivities on the Forums.

And I sure couldn’t walk away from Jim, who somehow found time to drop by a Mathfic topic (new project: fiction related to math, similar to Updike’s “Problems“) I’d started on the Forums (of course I did, what else would you expect?) and recommend some particularly appropriate Jorge Luis Borges pieces. Who, even though he has a frightening array of academic degrees, never made us feel like Calculus – the Freshman Composition of the math department – was trivial. To the contrary: he radiated a thoroughly genuine excitement about topics he’s probably taught dozens, maybe hundreds of times before.

Lecture Topics:

“Morally, why is the product rule true?” 4.02
“Why Shouldn’t I Fall in Love with L’Hopital?” 7.03
“How Long Until the Grey Goo Destroys the Earth? 7.04

Jim Fowler, MOOCulus, Calculus 1, Winter/Spring 2013

I’ll admit, though: the first few weeks weren’t easy. I was a little worried for a while there.

See, this is what I was used to: I’d study a chapter (or, in this case, watch a video), take a test that measured how well I paid attention to the chapter/video, and the grade would scold or praise me. This is what I was expecting. This is what I’d trained for all my life. This is what education is all about: doing well on tests. Isn’t it?

But that’s not what this course was about. It wasn’t about being rewarded for diligence or punished for sloth. It was more of a system to get us to move from theory to application. To use what was in the video to reason out a way to solve the problem. The exercises were part of an overall learning experience, with a Hint button for when we got stuck so the MOOCulus system (written by Steve, based on the open-source code used by Khan Academy) could tell when we were struggling, when we’re ready for more difficulty, and when we’d mastered an application (though it’s not quite that sophisticated, at least not yet, but that’s the goal).

The weekly quizzes – which again, seemed unfamiliar at first – allowed virtually unlimited attempts, that pushed the concepts and applications to their limits, twisted things around so we’d recognize them from all angles. The idea of the exercises and tests wasn’t to judge me, to make sure I was paying attention in class, to see how smart or hard-working I was: the idea was to actually teach me something. Or, more accurately perhaps, to get me to learn.

“Mathematics isn’t just about isolated facts, it’s really about analogies between ideas… it’s like in literature where metaphor plays such an important role.”

Jim Fowler, MOOCulus, Calculus 1, Winter/Spring 2013

I discovered the underpinnings of this kind of thing about halfway through the course in an article by another Coursera teacher, who talks about what I now think of as “the bonobo method” in a HuffPo article. I wish I’d seen before the class started. I think I would’ve been a lot calmer had I realized I wasn’t supposed to look at the questions and know them all, the way I’d been doing it for a very long time.

And part of the idea wasn’t just to teach me calculus; it was to teach the team members how to teach calculus. Jim Fowler laid it out pretty clearly in a presentation (in an OSU session aptly titled, “Steal My Idea,” an attitude that needs more legs) that makes it clear how cool math education can be, and how MOOCs can be extremely beneficial to students and teachers.

But does it work? Did I actually learn any calculus?

Damn right I did. When it came time for the final – which, by the way, was announced as more of an evaluation than a learning experience – I zipped through nearly all of it without a hitch, only needing some time for the material covered in the final week or two. Ok, I’ll admit, I wagged the last question; it was multiple choice, with three attempts, so I think it would’ve been pretty stupid not to wag it. And I still have trouble with minus signs and remembering the derivatives and antiderivatives of trig functions. But I can’t believe how much I actually, really, truly learned. A long time ago, when my brain was a lot younger, I took an in-person calculus course. I got an outrageously high score (103, I think, thanks to bonus questions). But the main thing I learned there was how to write really small to fit every possible equation I might need on the single 3×5 index card we were allowed to bring into the test with us. This way worked much, much better.

MOOCs have seen some bad press recently (not helped by the ironically tragic, or tragically ironic, total meltdown of Coursera’s own “Fundamentals of Online Learning” course in February). Some of it is just the usual fear of anything new, the fear of impersonal technology taking over and losing the human connection. Yet in this online math course with thousands of students (35,000 to start) I felt more engaged with the course, more connected to the staff and the students, than I have in pretty much any in-person course, including some in pretty touch-feely humanities subjects. I had a blast. In Calculus. And this week, at the end of the course, many of us have left notes on the forum about how sad we are that it’s come to a close.

This was a triumph
I’m making a note here:
HUGE SUCCESS.
It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction.

– “Still Alive” from Portal (yet another cool thing I learned in Calculus)

[re-ADDENDUM: This course has been converted to “self-paced”; this makes me sad. The lectures and exercises are (presumably) the same, but it’s a solo experience. I’m sure that works for some people, but it would eliminate much of what I found to be the fun of the course, as well as the support of other student and staff.]

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12 responses to “What I learned from MOOCulus

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  5. Like you Karen, I loved Calculus One! I was on the first run with you – we had a few chats on the forums! I couldn’t believe how connected I felt, even with that huge number of students, and how much FUN I was having! I used to race to get the next episode…. I’ve just started Calculus Two…. JIm’s just as great, but the other elements are sadly missed…It’s not the same experience at all…. But I have followed a Just Recompense from time to time!

    • Hi Jo – nice to see you again! I loved that class, it was my first MOOC, and it started me on a real journey, a quest to conquer math (I’m still struggling, but I’m still working daily on some kind of math or another, and starting to see results in the science courses I’ve just started). I took it a second time before it went self-paced, with Jenny George as lead instructor (Jim’s videos were still the main content) and loved it again, got even more out of it. I took Calc II before it went self-paced, but even then, Jim was backing off, I could see it – he wasn’t anywhere near as involved, though he was doing three courses at once, no wonder.

      I started doing the self-paced version of Calc I with a small group, and was shocked at how different the experience was. If the self-paced version were my first math course after decades of thrashing I would’ve said the hell with this, and never gone on to do any of the things I’m enjoying so much now. Jim’s videos are still great, but without the support, the quizzes don’t always make sense and there’s no one to ask! In my case, I’m the one my friends ask, and since I’ve taken it twice before, I have some idea of what’s going on, but from their perspective, it sucks. I have to agree.

      I said a long time ago, in that year, that it was the “golden age” of MOOCs, and I can already see the golden age has passed, as more and more courses go self-paced – and some of the scheduled cohort classes are more automated, with no staff input at all.

      Timing is everything. We were very, very lucky to have been there, when we were.

      • I’m heading down to the Coursera Partners Conference next week, and they tell me that there are going to be forums turned on in the self-paced calculus courses again, which should make for a somewhat more social experience. Community is more important than content.

        We’re also trying to do some “systems integration” on the mooculus.osu.edu website, with a launch date of June 2015. We’ve been kicking around ideas like live chat and the like, and I know we’d love to get feedback about what you think would be most important to offer.

        ~jim

      • Jim, how wonderful to see you – I think of you so often in my math MOOC travels, and I hope you have some idea how grateful I am to you, and how much impact you (and those I encountered as a consequence) have had. I’ll never be a mathematician – but I’ve found ways to enjoy math, and that’s because you showed me it was ok to have fun with it.

        I don’t know anything about pedagogy, but in numerous posts here I’ve tried to detail (maybe too detailed) what did and didn’t work for me about each MOOC I’ve taken. I’m just one person, and every class I loved, someone else hated, and vice versa. The math tag will list them all (I have a math tag on my blog. Imagine that. See what you did?).

        To someone outside of all this, you’d be raked over the coals for a statement like “Community is more important than content.” Visions of Facebook. But… you’re right. I can borrow, or pick up for $1, dozens, hundreds of calculus books. I took calculus in college, for pete’s sake. I didn’t learn anything about math until I started doing MOOCs, and that’s because I got to ask stupid questions, and even more importantly, I got to (once in a while) answer questions. Now, I only rarely posted any answers on forums, because I’m slow and I’m never confident, but just figuring out how to explain something helped me figure it out. But that’s me – writing is how I think. That’s what the “community,” in the sense you’re using it, is about – all the goofiness (and I can get pretty goofy) is in the service of feeling comfortable to post a stupid question, or to say, “I’m not sure I’m right, but I think…”, and not fear hordes of Masters (or nuns, or tiger moms, or Permanently-Sneering-Tech-Support-Reps, pick your symbol) laughing at you or scolding you for not understanding significant digits.

  6. How fantastic to get replies on here, both from you Karen and from Jim! I take inspiration from your MOOC journeys Karen, and hope to follow some of your recommendations for those courses still running; but the self-paced construct has such drawbacks. I’ve dropped in again on the Calc 1 MOOC as well as doing Calc 2 and it’s much less satisfying to follow without the Mooculus live and the forums. If this had been my first MOOC experience, I think, I too, wouldn’t have continued. There’s no one to help when you’re up against a brick wall! ( and that can be often!) Even when I didn’t comment on the forums, I read alot of them and often got a great deal out of that, both comfort and insight.Questions I had were already up there, posted by someone else, and often answered, with good humour and wit. The fact that someone else was stuck on the same thing that I was,made me realise I wasn’t miles off the beaten track…. which I often feel when it comes to Maths. But the most important thing that is missing from the self-paced courses is the fun, the delight, the sheer joy of exploring something new and challenging in such good company. I am so grateful to Jim and the Team for this, as well as all the other students on the journey. Even to have the forum archives up, as closed threads, would be a good thing. The new, streamlined autostart website is a bit too streamlined. It’s a little harder to navigate, to draw back and get the bigger picture, of where you are up to, and what’s coming up next….though I have found where this is. Autostart makes it feel a teeny bit like force feeding!! I know I can press pause, but the tendency is to let it run on, when before, I would sit and ponder about the material before trying to move on. if I hadn’t done Calc 1 , I would never have even found the textbook for Calc 2.Good to hear that forums may make it back in some form. I quite agree Karen, trying to answer a question posed by a stuck student is where you really test yourself! When you can see someone else’s misconception and where they’re getting hung up, it illuminates your own understanding, and gives you a perspective, because you may well have stumbled over that bit yourself. With live forums, you never feel alone on this wonderful journey into the suburban fringes of Mathsland, when most people think you’re bonkers for even wanting to go there! With less pressing family/work responsibilities now, I intend to pick up the MOOC challenge again, and am hungry for …wait for it….yes more Maths! am I mad?… but sadly Karen, I also feel the Golden Age has passed already. How lucky we were to be in on the first run! .. and yes, I still make howling errors with minus signs too!

    • You both might be interested in looking at this Google Group we set up (it’s an open group, anyone can join) for the self-paced Calc1 – we all got busy with scheduled courses (another hazard of self-paced, it’s the first to be thrown overboard when time gets tight) but the first three weeks are in there, the confusion is reflected. It’s kind of hilarious that I ended up as the one who knew what I was doing. I put my notes on Dropbox and we went from there – again, just doing the problems, writing them out so other people could follow what I was doing, was helpful to me, forced me to make sure I knew what I was doing. And I had some resources I’d found in my travels. Like I say, I’ve been trying to learn calculus for 2 years now. 😉 A lot of people think that means I haven’t learned anything, that all this is meaningless, but I’ve learned plenty – it’s just that I started at a horrible deficit.

      If I could learn math from a book, I wouldn’t need moocs.

      Jo, I hope we run into each other in a course again, I’m having a blast. I’m overwhelmed with too much stuff, but I fear they won’t be available “later” (or, maybe I won’t be, I’m not getting any younger after all) so I just try to cram everything in while it’s here.

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