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Monday, March 31, 2014

Failing a free online college course can teach you something

David Brooks

Remember that scene in “A Beautiful Mind” where Russel Crowe, playing mathematician John Nash, uses his friends’ difficulty choosing among beautiful women to illustrate the Nobel Prize-winning idea known as the Nash Equilibrium?

No? Too bad: It’s a good scene in a great movie. But it’s hardly mathematics, which is why earlier this year I decided to get more than film-clip understanding of the concept. ...

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Remember that scene in “A Beautiful Mind” where Russel Crowe, playing mathematician John Nash, uses his friends’ difficulty choosing among beautiful women to illustrate the Nobel Prize-winning idea known as the Nash Equilibrium?

No? Too bad: It’s a good scene in a great movie. But it’s hardly mathematics, which is why earlier this year I decided to get more than film-clip understanding of the concept.

I turned to the hottest topic in education, a free “massive open online course” or MOOC, a terrible acronym for a development that offers the possibility of bringing the finest of college teaching to the global masses.

So now, after taking notes while watching hours of video lectures from MIT professors and grad students, and taking a number of interactive tests – the technology is really quite impressive – I can tell you that the Nash Equilibrium is ... well, um, actually, I don’t remember. That failure may say something about me and the plasticity of aging brains, but I think it also reflects a real limit to what some depict as the future of higher education.

I took 6.041x, the MOOC version of “Introduction to Probability,” a class that MIT has offered for four decades to freshmen engineering students.

It is offered through EdX, a MOOC started by MIT and Harvard, which Dartmouth and other colleges have joined. EdX is one of several such consortiums (“consortia”?) experimenting with this free-Internet-classes-for-all format.

Like most MOOCs, 6.041x is offered on a set schedule. I had to sign up in advance, and each week for two months a new series of lectures would appear, sprinkled with short problem sets that had to be completed within that week. It also had some cumulative tests and exams.

The class covered many topics that I had studied in my undergraduate days when dinosaurs roamed the earth, so I thought a few evenings a week would enable me to keep up, especially since I didn’t care about the grade.

I wasn’t trying to get a “certificate,” the paperwork that says you have passed (most MOOCs don’t offer real academic credit). I just wanted to learn.

Alas, what I mostly learned is that I need the incentive of grades, plus the human interaction of other students and teachers, to work at this intellectual level.

I’m pretty sure I understood the Nash Equilibrium when it was discussed in the video lectures, and was OK with the easy problems that immediately followed the lecture.

But the knowledge evaporated in following days, and my interactive tests ended up full of big red X’s when I pushed the “Submit Final Answer” button.

It seems I just don’t have the – focus? post-work energy? perseverance? brains? – to keep up with youthful MITers, at least not by myself in front of a computer.

That last point is key, and is one of the main arguments against MOOCs.

Critics say that it’s one thing to follow a TED talk or a newspaper science column by yourself, but that understanding something at the level of college class is almost impossible online and alone.

I agree with that argument more than I did before I took 6.041x.

Staring at my monitor, I found myself fondly recalling discussion sessions were with fellow students in the cafeteria or a basketball court or a bar (none of the “can’t drink until you’re 21” foolishness back then). They were always helpful, especially the ones in the bar.

EdX and other MOOCs try to recreate such activity with online forums for discussions among students – live chats are impossible when you get thousands or even tens of thousands of online students per class – but I wasn’t impressed. I need interaction with nearby humans to really make my neurons fire, and I think that’s true for most people, even in the Facebook generation.

So are MOOCs a dud? Not for me: I know a lot more than I did in January, even if I was a classroom flop. But exactly what MOOCs can become is still very much an open question.

Perhaps the most interesting question is the effect they’ll have on traditional colleges.

Many schools are adding online components to classes and a few, notably Southern New Hampshire University, have plunged headfirst into the pool. But these aren’t MOOCs – they charge big bucks and class sizes are limited, allowing much more interaction and varied teaching tools.

If MOOCs start skimming off students from paid universities, it could be painful. New England colleges are already making cuts in the face of financial pressure as the number of graduating high school seniors hits a plateau – Franklin Pierce University, for example, is going to drop its mathematics degree, and the University of Maine system wants to fire scores of professors.

But maybe a change from tradition would be better in the long run. Maybe MOOCs will become a better way of providing some education for a lot more people, compared to bricks-and-mortar campuses with live adjunct professors.

That’s not good news for the professors, of course, but the effect on students and society is less certain.

It’s an fascinating question, and one I’ll watch with interest. Just so long as there isn’t an exam at the end.

GraniteGeek appears Mondays in The Telegraph. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@granitegeek).