Michael Littman and Charles Isbell
Isbell and Littman have worked closely together and
engage in a dialog through which they answer the
questions. To preserve the value of their dialog, as
well as the value of Fisher’s richly referenced responses, we are separating their contributions. We begin
with Isbell’s and Litman’s dialog and then present
Michael Littman: First of all, let me say that it’s an
honor to participate in this discussion. I’ve taught
three classes on Udacity’s platform and, last time I
checked, the classes have over 100,000 person enrollments. Most of these enrollments are for the Introduction to Algorithms course I taught (originally
offered as Crunching Social Networks) by myself. The
other two classes, Machine Learning and Reinforcement Learning and Decision Making, I taught jointly with Charles Isbell.
Charles Isbell: These latter two classes are part of
Georgia Tech’s Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS), and among the most popular.
It’s also worth mentioning that while they may have
fewer students enrolled than Michael’s other course,
the students who have taken our courses actually
complete the material (you know, unlike Michael’s
Michael Littman: Well, you don’t know that. I’ve
heard from a few students who have taken my algorithms course.
Charles Isbell: Few divided by 100,000 is equal to
zero for sufficiently large values of zero. Also, they
take CS7641 and CS8803 for a grade toward a degree.
We know exactly how they did and how their per-
formance compares to students taking the same
courses on campus at Tech. We know they do well
and they learn a lot. And there are a lot of them! We
have just under 4000 students at the time I type this.
Plus, they get to experience the scintillating dynam-
ic of the two of us talking to each other.
What are some activities that work well in the context
of MOOCs and high cost online courses (HCOCs) and
that may not work well in the context of a brick-and-mortar class?
Charles Isbell: I’m afraid I have to reject the premise behind using high cost as the alternative to
massively open. OMSCS is priced so that students can
obtain a master’s degree in computer science for a
fraction of the price of an on-campus program … a
low fraction at that: $6600 for an entire degree at a
top 10 program.
Michael Littman: Maybe they are saying that it’s a
high cost relative to free.
Charles Isbell: Perhaps, but even a dollar is infinitely more expensive than is free. So, under that interpretation, the high has no meaning at all. I’m asserting that you can’t interpret high cost without a
comparison frame and I think the on-campus course
makes a good comparison frame, especially given
that the rigor is the same.
Michael Littman: Fair enough. But, I don’t think
you answered the question.
Charles Isbell: Fine. One structure we use in our
classes is to have one of us act as the “teacher” in
each lecture and one of us act as the “student.” It
allows the real students to watch a kind of proxy, and
keeps both of us on our toes. It’s good to be the student because you don’t actually have to prepare (you
know, just like on campus). It’s good to be the teacher
because you can ask the student to answer the questions for you. It’s really win-win.
Okay, your turn: what do you think are some activities that work well?
Michael Littman: One of the things that surprised
me about the MOOC experience is that, even though
the class size is potentially a lot larger than an in-person lecture class, it can feel much more intimate. We
can adopt a conversational tone. We can ask the student a question and wait patiently while she works
out an answer. We can provide feedback on that
answer. It’s a lot more like we’re talking directly to
Hey, wait a second, how did you get to be the
“teacher” for this interview?
Charles Isbell: I’m a senior associate dean. Plus, as
the “teacher,” I don’t have to answer your question if
I don’t think it is pedagogically significant. Please be
less disruptive. Thanks. Let us move on.
How do you engage students in MOOCs and HCOCs
with the course and the materials?