Open Problems of Online Learning

An analysis of online courses, their problems and possible solutions.

Image credit: Google Images

Disclaimer : The motivation for writing this article comes from me wanting to document lessons from the "Technologies for Online Learning Communities" class I am taking this semester and it will be updated many times during course of the class. (Hopefully)

Also, this is a rant!

The Sorry Story

I have been trying out MOOCS to learn new technologies, for a long time now. They are great. You can learn anything, everything. I have, so far, been an active user of Coursera, Udacity and EDX. I enrolled in:

  • 12 courses on Coursera
  • 20 courses + 1 Nanodegree Program on Udacity.
  • 6 courses on EDX.

That's 39 courses in total. That's a lot!

I have completed just 3. Now that's NOT a lot!

So What Went Wrong ?

Let's take a look at what functionalities provided by these platforms.

  1. Content : Videos (alongside summarized text resources) as the primary form of content.
  2. Communication Channel :Discussion forums for the community to interact.
  3. Progress Update :Regular quizzes to monitor progress.
  4. DIY :DIY programming resources. Software installations. Programming Environment set up. Stuff!
  5. Supplementary Stuff: Links to external resources (readings and stuff).
  6. Pace :Some are self paced. Some are not.

Any Problems With those?

  1. Self paced courses bring out the best in laziness in me. Plus no certification, so how does it matter anyway ?
  2. Videos are long and boring (sometimes). Classes were supposed to be boring, not MOOCS, especially with that funny name! M.O.O.C.S.!
  3. If I get stuck somewhere, I would go on the internet to look for a solution, and mostly, it turns out to be a one way ride.
  4. The discussion forums suck! Big time! Who looks at them anyway ? B.O.R.I.N.G.
  5. "Your solution is wrong! Here look at the correct one"
    "But I didn't understand why is my solution wrong? Tell me!"
    "Your solution is wrong! Here look at the correct one..."
    That's "personalized" troubleshooting for you, right there.

  6. Text resources are just summarized and not good on their own. And I can't look at another video for God's sake. I am tired and I've got too many cat videos to look at!

So I have got 6 features and 6 problems. Not bad at all! Before we move ahead, I want to remind you all that we are moving in the age of advanced AI where it is beginning to be considered as major a threat as ISIS. And our discussion forums are still broken. Just some perspective.

Problem(s) Analysis

Pace : Self paced are ideally better because they serve the principle of MOOCS better (learn at your pace, at your own leisure, at your own will, at your own place, at your own...) you get the point. So they should work. Unfortunately, for me, they don't! There has to be a stick for mere mortals like me to get us working. I prefer courses with deadlines. I guess because psychologically, as much a deadline is stressing, it's also rewarding. Completing a deadline makes you feel "alive" (pun intended).

Certification: Completing a program and having nothing to show for it other than the words "But I learned a LOT! Believe me!" (especially to a recruiter, no less!) doesn't sound that appealing. And besides, I have a lot to do (psshh psshh videos ?) other than watching course videos. And no, I am not going to pay $50 for a certificate for a course. (I am looking at you, Coursera)

Videos:The Videos, they are long. And they are boring.They sometimes make you get up and bang your head against the wall, and when you come back, they are stil playing. MIT open courseware videos are almost an hour long. And FYI, the thought of having to go through a 50 or so minute video makes me feel tired! No really! So I take a lot of rest to prepare myself for it. And then mid-video breaks. Accompanied by after-video breaks.

Text Material: The slides on Coursera are summarized to an extent that they almost feel incomplete without the videos.

Coursera slides be like...

Text material be like

Discussion Forums:I don't have (m)any fond memories of discussion forums. One look and even the thought of glancing inside makes me cringe. Why ? Well, for starters, there's too much content (and garbage).

(Hi, I am ....., an anonymous soul on internet. But my issue is too pressing. Can you help me? By the way, I liked your videos. On a related topic, did anyone watch that latest episode of GOT. OMG that was totally awesome......)

And I guess there's cognitive bias as well owing to the bad experiences I have had with the forums. So now I don't even consider that as an option. I would rather go on the internet to find my solution and as stated before, it's usually a one way ride.

Troubleshooting:This is another area that is troublesome. No personal support. No helpline. Just some obscure FAQ and that god-forsaken discussion forum. And then there's that outside realm of internet and that lovely looking one way ride out.

I might have come across as a whiny spoiled brat with that rant. And I would not defend myself in this regard. I think the rise and ubiquity of technology has made me entitled to expect everything. Are we going in the age of AI with broken discussion forums ? No! I refuse to take that! I will complain, and complain to the end of the earth and till the end of time.

But there's hope!

Despite that rant, I will acknowledge there have been some really good things also out there. So not all is lost.

Videos : Udacity

I really like Udacity in this regard. First, their videos are short, like 2 minute tops short (exceptions are there!). Secondly, as much as the video content quality is good, it's sprinked with bits of humor, as if someone is making an effort to keep their audience engaged. How does it help?

  • Short videos sprinkled with humor help me remain engaged better.
  • Each short video completed, gives a psychological boost. So completing a course seems less hard than it is.

Supplementary Material : This Stanford Course

If you are even remotely interested in deep learning, I bet you must have heard the name of this fella, Andrej Karpathy. And his rather little known course offering at Stanford. The videos are long (because they are class recordings) but the good thing is that accompanying text material is equally good. Like skip-everything-else-and you-would-still-understand-every-bit good.

So, in terms of free offerings, there is still a lot left to be desired with regards to the communication channel. However, there are premium (read: PAID) offerings as well. I completed the first term of Udacity's Self driving car Nanodegree program (If you are a potential recruiter, look here, look here!). Here are the best bits about it:

  1. A dedicated slack channel.
  2. A personal mentor.
  3. Udacity partners hiring program.
  4. Personalized review of projects.

Not only did it work, it was awesome. And the slack channel was one of the best things about it. It did set me back by quite a few hundred dollars. But it was definitely worth it. Not only did I learn, I have a project portfolio to show for it and I am a part of an active community.

What about the rest of the issues ?

One obvious reason free courses do not provide such features is , because there are just too many people. And some trolls as well. And not many tutors. How do you resolve this ?

Personal TroubleShooting/mentoring:I think employing bots to direct to relevant discussion threads/discussions in response to a query could be one solution.

Another strategy could be crowdsourcing. People who have taken/completed the course, could help as tutors, in exchange for credits for other paid courses on that platform. Just like it happens in actual universities with Teaching Assistants.

Personalizing Content:Recommending related courses is so yesterday. The videos and the text material should also be personalized according to how the student responds to quizzes and tests. If a student answers a quiz question wrong, he should not be asked go through the torture of watching that video again. He should be served different questions(starting from a much more basic level) to build his understanding of that concept, alongside being directed to related resources and readings for that concept. A classic recommendation engine play.

Communication Channel:One problem with discussion forums is that the sheer number of unorganized posts and people is sometimes scary and overwhelming. If only separate discussion forums could be created for people joining the course in a set period(say 2 months), along with having more functionalities (advanced search, sort etc), it would go a long way in creating a community to which its members can relate to as those people would be essentially be taking the course together and would have a sense of familiarity with each other.

Incentive:After completing the first term of Udacity Self Driving Car Nanodegree program, I think that a project is much more appealing as an outcome from a MOOC than a certification. If courses could be created in a way that focuses on building something while learning, I think it would result in higher engagement and completion percentage.

And lastly, the following issue isn't something faced by me, but I came to know of this issue on the internet in general a while back only and I am surprised the MOOC platforms, who advertise of catering to people of all demographic aren't doing any better in this regard.

Course Accessibility for Individuals with Disabilities: Other than having subtitles for the videos, there are no accessibility controls on any of the MOOC platforms. No color inversion controls, no font size options. Nothing!

So, there are still a lot of questions left to be answered. A lot of points to ponder on. Fortunately, the course is still long way to go (we just started). The answers will come. Hopefully!

P.S: No internet searches were wasted for writing this article. This article expresses author's personal experiences and opinions and this is one of those very few times when the author wishes that he is not one in a million.

Software Developer

My research interests include music information retrieval, recommendation systems and web.