Sep 082012

As we all know, Abraham Lincoln was largely self-taught in the midst of meager means and living on the frontier in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois, far from centers of learning and culture east of the Appalachians. For him, the book represented the path, and he sought them with great effort. As president he sought books on military matters during the Civil War in order to educate himself. As a result of his own drive and intellect, Lincoln emerged as a very capable, if not supremely capable military strategist. It is illustrative to learn how far one person can advance themselves by reading. The bibliography of Lincoln’s reading is noteworthy since it reveals his penchant for poetry, Shakespeare, politics and history. Lincoln read and learned what he wanted and what he thought he needed.

Stanford University’s recent forays into massive online courses (MOOCs) produced some impressive numbers. An AI course enrolled 160,000 from across the world and 23,000 completed with 248 getting a 100% grade. Last year Stanford released courses on machine learning (104,000 registered, 13,000 completed) and on an introduction to databases (92,000 registered, 7,000 completed). These represent course completion rates of 14%, 13% and 8%. To me what is interesting about these classes is that despite the very low completion rate, the very large numbers of students reached.

Another factoid pops out. Not a single Stanford student got 100% and of the top 410 students in the class, not a single one was a Stanford student. I wonder if any MIT students fared better in the massively online AI Olympic event. We have to remember that there are 7 billion people on the planet and if just 5% of those 7 billion are of the age and educational level to take advantage of the AI class, that would leave a target population of 350 million students who might be interested in the class. With open access to such large numbers of potential students, it is not surprising to me that 410 of the best were from places across the globe. So long as the learner has an Internet connection, the MOOC beckons.

If massive online classes like this were available in the 19th century, what would Abraham Lincoln have done?

Holding this question in the mind and sifting it about is instructive. The white-hot MOOCs attract thousands of students but have low completion rates. In the regulated sector of education, low completion rates (graduation rates) are decried and institutions flogged for failure to produce graduates in sufficient numbers (below 50% is not considered a good degree completion rate). Meanwhile MOOCs are applauded for failing thousands (90% in a single class). If one wanted to put together a sequence of classes with MOOCs – let’s say a sequence of 20 classes each with a completion rate of 10% – the expected graduation rate would be far less than 10%. Even the top 1% would most likely have challenges in completing the full sequence due to factors unrelated to their genius, such as exigencies in their personal life, hunger, and political strife in their home country. The conditions needed to produce smart people can overwhelm even the largest of MOOCs. In my mind it might be likely that a 20 course sequence MOOC program would have less than a 0.1% graduation rate.

But those (or the maybe just the one) that would complete the sequence would certainly be highly capable and very special. In this mythical tournament of intellectual champions, I think that Abraham Lincoln could have been one of those MOOC graduates. But in the world of educating real people, Abraham Lincoln is not our target audience. Take my nephew as an example. After well beyond four years of effort, some time spent at a few low-security colleges of differing kinds, endless prodding by parents, family and friends, he has finally started to find an intellectual home and prospects for gainful employment. For him and for most people, education requires effort that only works when pushed by those immediately surrounding the learner and often in more intimate ways.

I am less convinced that the MOOCs, as they are conceived at the moment, represent the next revolution in education. Two aspects of learning still dominate the human animal. The first aspect is deep personalization. Humans learn best in more closely connected groups where a deep personalization can occur. In this kind of personalization, a special relationship exists between participants in a knowledge exchange that gives them cues for adapting their exchanges based on all sorts of subtle and no-so-subtle cues. This deep and social personalization improves learning.

The second aspect is motivation. Humans learn best when highly motivated. Motivation comes from two sources: inside and outside. Abraham Lincoln had much of the former. My nephew relies on much of the latter. In between lie a whole lot of human beings with the lower half of the bell curve distribution of motivation our special concern. How do MOOCs transform those who require a village to help them? Certainly the cornfield rows of desks and chairs in the conventional classroom may be stifling the intrinsically motivated. But the isolated, narrow confines of a monitor, keyboard, mouse and webcam can also be failing to motivate the not yet inspired.

Unfettering a human system, such as wealth creation and education, by increasing access, making it free, and removing forced change or control of some kind results in an acute Pareto distribution of outcomes. Rewards go disproportionately to the top 10% and fail to flow sufficiently to the bottom 20%. Those most prepared or possessing the greatest capacity for the enhanced tool in question tend to receive the most benefits. Those with the least preparation and least capacity tend to accumulate fewer benefits. Human cultures and individual family experiences, which influence educational success so profoundly, vary widely. Not all family and cultural situations are conducive for education. Not everyone is well prepared.

Psychological studies into learning show a similar pattern for learning aids. People with higher cognitive and learning abilities benefit more from specific investments in enhancing learning than people with less cognitive and learning abilities. More often than not, those with higher abilities come from better family and cultural environments. While Abraham Lincoln rose above whatever obstacles he encountered through his own motivation, how do we get the other 99% and especially the bottom 40% to improve? One can argue that the current higher educational system has addressed reasonably well those who possess the motivation and the capacity for advanced learning. What remains now is finding more ways to make successful those with lesser abilities and motivation.

What the MOOCs will bring are new types of user-interfaces, more intelligent forms of personalization (but not quite the deep personalization that face-to-face contact provides) and more pedagogical diversity. These are most welcome and can be significant contributions. However, more will be needed for a revolution in education. The revolution will need to deal with the emotional aspects of being a learner.

One thing I do know is that once virtual digital human interactions of the most intimate kind are more scintillating and exhilarating than their older molecular equivalents, traditional colleges will be doomed. At that point, the hypothesized revolution will be underway and death of higher education may be at hand! Until then, the Abraham Lincolns of the world will benefit greatly from MOOCs and people like my nephew will continue to struggle and will need a more carefully engineered system.

I am not so sanguine that merely making more educational content and interaction open via the Internet at any price will do much to advance those who need our help the most and for whom the educational systems in question today is spend more of its time helping. Whatever the next [r]evolution is, it will have to address the challenges of creating a deeper and more social personalization that can improve the motivation of those whose flame has not yet been ignited. Right now, human beings still know how to inspire others in ways computers don’t.


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