Category Archives: Distance-learning

The Best and the Worst of Online Learning


by Richard White



A few months ago I signed up to take my fourth Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). We’ve discussed MOOCs here before, but it’s been awhile since I’d taken one, so perhaps it’s time for an update.

My track record with regard to these MOOCs is better than that of most people. The first one I took, a Python-based course on Building a Search Engine offered by Udacity, was far and away the best one I took. The whole MOOC craze hadn’t really started yet, and so it was clear that the instructors wanted to get this right, and that fact showed in the time and care they took in developing both the curriculum and the materials used to support the course. I followed the course, completed assignments as required, and earned a “certificate of completion” at the end of it all. Based on my experiences with that single course, I became a true believer in the concept of MOOCs.

I signed up for a couple of other classes over the course of the next couple of years, but didn’t complete either one. Udacity’s follow-up CS212 course, Programming Principles, taught by Peter Norvig, was poorly organized and poorly delivered, a disappointment all the more striking on the heels of the first course. Based on comments left on the course Discussion Board, students abandoned the course in droves. (Here’s an online review from a student as well.) I left my own comments on the Udacity Discussion Board:

…One of the important tenets of education is the idea of giving as student a problem that is just beyond their current level of understanding, along with the tools he or she needs to make that next step. In CS212, in the first unit, just about every quiz solution reveals a strategy or technique that had never been broached in the discussion to that point.

Yes, I understand that “the real world” requires one to do independent research as required. This is not “the real world”–this is an educational course that is intended to guide me in discovering the tools that I can use to solve problems. CS212, in that regard, has been a bit of a disappointment.

The third course I took was again offered by Udacity, this time a Java-based Intro to Programming course that I quite liked. It had the benefit of being taught by the author of the textbook I use for the AP Computer Science course I teach, and it was entertaining for me to hear his audio- and video-recorded development of topics that I would be teaching myself. I didn’t complete this course because I got busy prepping for school, and that seems to be a common malady when it comes to MOOCs. Without the structure offered by a regularly-timed class, there is an enormous attrition rate.

Just a few days ago, I completed the second of the four MOOCs I’ve taken, this one an Introduction to Linux offered by edX. I finished the course–a PDF certifying that fact is being readied as we speak!–but I can’t say it was a pleasant experience.

Here’s the thing. Learning is hard, and teaching is even harder. You’ve got to help students develop a coherent picture of the content and process that you’re presenting, typically with explanatory comments to help them understand why something is the way it is.

Here’s the type of video I got in this most recent course.

This is not teaching.

I survived the course only because a) I already knew most of the material in it, and b) the “final exam” consisted of 30 Multiple Choice questions, open notes and open coursework, with two tries allowed for each question and a pass-fail cutoff at 70%.

MOOCs aren’t going to go away. With a lot of planning and forethought, it’s possible to do them well. It’s also extraordinarily easy to mess this up, and it’s going to take some time for things to settle out. There are lots of challenges to be solved. How to reliably deliver good content? How to accurately gauge students’ progress? How to certify completion/mastery?

We’e seen some interesting forays into this new area of learning, and we’ve seen the ensuing land-grab by various corporations and higher-ed institutions, and the backlash that resulted from trying too much, too soon. We’ll see within a few years what we’ve decided to make of all this.

In the meantime, feel free to try out a MOOC and see how it feels. If at all possible, see if you can determine in advance how well a given course works. may be one place to start.

Good luck… and I’ll see you online.

Online Presentation Strategies


by Richard White


I blame it on the fact that I’m teaching a new course.

As I’m teaching AP Computer Science, and developing curriculum, assignments, and lessons for that class, and trying to figure out what works—and what doesn’t—there are lots of mid-course adjustments that I make. Not every assignment needs to be perfect, perhaps, but if I don’t get done addressing all the concerns in that one lesson, it’s hard to have very high expectations for the work that students will do that evening.

And in an AP course, time needs to be used wisely. I can’t afford to be expanding units when there’s a certain amount of material that must be covered by the end of the year.

Fortunately I’ve been able to leverage YouTube and GoToMeeting videoconferencing software to take up some of the slack while I get my act together. A 3-minute follow-up to a lesson, emailed to students, can help to proactively clear up a lot of confusion. Likewise, being available for online office hours, during which students can share their screens with me and we can debug their programs… that’s invaluable.

And although I’ve usually worked on the computer in the past, with a voiceover that describes what I’m doing, it’s often useful to “do a Khan” (as in Sal Khan, of Khan Academy), and just write some stuff out. I don’t have any evidence to back me up here, but my gut says that there’s an enormous cognitive benefit to developing things progressively, and by hand.

Here’s an example of a combination of drawing and computer analysis, done not for the AP Comp Sci class but in preparation for an Hour of Code unit that I’ll be using with some students. See what you think:

Do you see any advantage to demonstrating things in long form, as opposed to doing voiceovers with slides or computer displays?

More on the Hour of Code in a future post…

MOOCs and You

MOOCs and You
Richard White

Doug Johnson, as always, has words of wisdom over at Blue Skunk Blog, where he regularly weighs in with wisdom and insight on the very same topics that I find so interesting: the intersection of technology, teaching, and learning.

His January 29 entry is entitled “MOOCs—need K-12 pay attention?”, and if it has taken me two months to weigh in on the topic for myself, well… it’s an important question that’s worthy of some reflection.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been discussed here before. Massive Open Online Courses are the Internet-enabled version of what we used to call a distance-learning course, although the new and improved version often includes enhancements like asynchronous discussion boards and wikis, video presentations from world-class instructors, perhaps some interactive online experience, and (if they’re doing it right), some form of periodic assessment, as well as a final assessment. If you get through the course you at least get a PDF certificate and a congratulatory email, and if you’ve paid some money, you may get some course credit that can presumably be applied toward a degree or certification program somewhere. Or, maybe you’ve dropped out of the course somewhere along the way, in which case you’ll be in very, very good company. Some ridiculous percentage of people who enroll in this courses don’t end up completing them.

(I myself have a 33% completion rate based on the three courses I’ve enrolled in, only one of which I managed to find time to complete… and even that was touch and go for a bit.)

The development of MOOCs such as Udacity, Coursera, and MIT’s Open Courseware (now looking a little dated) are an important development in the evolution of education, any way you look at it. Getting back to the Blue Skunk blog, the question Johnson raises is, “As K-12 teachers, what does it mean to us?”

I won’t repeat his thinking on the topic—head on over to his post to check it out—but my own thoughts on the matter parallel his in some ways. Certainly there are some students in the 9-12 grade range who might be in a position to benefit from online learning. For many students in this age range, though, and certainly for students at a younger level, a good deal of learning is bound together with the relationship that one develops with a teacher.

Most of us have favorite teachers that we remember from our youth, or even from college, and we found ourselves influenced by them in important ways, as a parent, youth group leader, or religious leader might influence us. As adults now, and as teachers, aren’t the parents of our students, of course, but we are very much, emotionally and legally, in loco parentis for our students during the school day, so the fact that we develop important relationships with our students isn’t a surprise.

As long as we have this kind of responsibility for our students, and as long as these kinds of relationships are important for encouraging our students, I don’t think any of us are in any real danger of losing our jobs to a Javascript running on a Khan Academy server somewhere. The interactions that we have with our students as we help them to learn and to grow are a vital part of their development, and our communities and institutions rely on us to encourage students along that path. The students rely on us as well.

There are rare exceptions, of course—self-learners who teach themselves from a book, or who academically bootstrap themselves—and more power to them. The MOOCs may become an important tool for them.

Learning can scale very nicely on the Internet. Given a MOOC, and Wikipedia, a little curiousity and the right starting conditions, the self-starting learner can accomplish wonders. But teaching does NOT scale. Teaching—where I sit down with a student, learn a little about who he or she is, give them a little academic shove in the right direction, and help them figure out the answers to their questions along the way—that’s a one-to-one process. Even in a classroom of 10 kids, or 15 kids, or 23 kids, or—God help you—40+ kids—teaching is about developing a relationship with your kids so that you can help them move in the right direction.

That’s one thing that the Internet can’t do, and will never be able to do.

For the educator who loves working with kids, that’s the good news. The bad news is that you’re still going to have to sit down with your students’ homework and take a look at how they’re progressing, a process which (for me and most of the teachers I know) quickly becomes tedious. Even scantron assessments, ideally, require interpretation and discussion.

And even computer programs written by my students require sitting down, late at night, with tired eyes, and making a few comments on their individual work.

It’s what we do. We’re teachers.

Cheating with Homework Solutions

by Richard White

A funny thing happened on the way to me trying to help my students.

For my AP Physics students, who on any given night are going to be working on some pretty challenging homework problems, I’ve made answers or complete solutions available online for a few years now. It all started when I realized that students when getting stuck (like they do), and finding themselves unable to proceed past a certain point without the assistance of a just-in-time nudge in the right direction. We were spending time the next day in class, too, going over problems that, often as not, were just based on a simple misunderstanding that could have been easily diagnosed by the student him or herself, if only they’d had the solution to see.

The first year I made solutions available, the percentage of students completing homework assignments jumped up, of course. Better, though, was the fact that test scores increased as well, indicating perhaps that the “just-in-time” assistance was having its desired effect, and people were able to make better progress in picking up the material.

This year, with a new text and no solutions that I have any right to publish online, I’ve spent a fair amount of time writing up my own solutions to the homework problems for posting online. It’s time that I’d like to think has the benefits already discussed. Here is my solution for problem #39, an electric field diagram for a positively-charged rod.


It’s a pretty good diagram, with one problem—the rod, as described by the problem in the book, should have a negative charge.

It’s the kind of careless mistake that can happen to anyone once in a while. But what are the odds that 13 of 28 of my students made the exact same mistake that I did? What are the odds that 13 of 28 misread the problem, just as I did?

“Infinitely small” is the correct answer.

What are the odds that most if not all of the 13 simply copied my answer without even looking at the problem in the book?

“Much higher.” Right again.

And here we have the conundrum: how do we make solutions available to students “just in time,” but not “too soon?” How do we create conditions such that a student has to struggle just the right amount for the answer to a problem is revealed?

I’m not sure there is a way, or at least not a good one. I’ve taken online training courses in which the presentation of text was timed so that the reader couldn’t move on to the next topic until some pre-set amount of time had passed, which became an extremely frustrating experience for me (I read pretty quickly, or at least more quickly than whomever set up the time delays).

This question of trying to create conditions for maximal learning are more important than ever with the increased interest in Massive Open Online Courses. These courses, with enrollments in the tens of thousands, rely on students being able to manage their own progress through the content.

As more and more of our learning moves into an online format, I think one of our challenges is to teach students how to resist the temptation to look too quickly at the solution for a problem. There is value in wrestling with a problem for a bit before moving on to seeing the solution, and I’ve experienced firsthand the frustrations of physics students who reveal: “I can understand how YOU solve the problems, Mr. White. I just can’t do them myself.”

And that’s just it: following someone else’s work is not the same as doing the work on one’s own, and at some point, the skill in question—solving physics problems, writing a computer program, writing an essay—has to be developed. Copying down someone else’s answer is obviously not the same as arriving at the answer on one’s own, and my students all know that, and acted appropriately guilty when I called them on their “cheat.” They all clearly knew that they had taken a useless shortcut in blindly copying down the answer.

They’re under the same pressure that we all are, though—they occasionally simply don’t have time to do everything that is required of them. And I can sympathize. I’ve lost track of the times that I’ve been double- or triple-booked for meetings through no fault of my own. But there simply are no shortcuts for this kind of thing. The synapses between our neurons require training and practice for true learning to take place.

“Training and practice.” There are no shortcuts.

“Back of the Book” Answers

“Back of the Book” Answers

by Richard White


Welcome back to the new school year!

One of the very first things I did when I started incorporating technology into my teaching was to put homework answers online for my physics students. I was relatively new to teaching physics, and what I learned pretty quickly was that my students, in attempting to solve a problem that could involve understanding how to apply multiple problem-solving steps in sequence, often found themselves getting stuck by one concept that they found especially challenging. Whether that one difficult concept occured at the beginning, the middle, or the end of the problem, they didn’t have the chance to work on anything else in the problem that occurred after that–they were stuck and couldn’t move on.

For simple problems, having access to the correct answer for an odd-numbered problem in the back of the book sometimes gave them enough of a clue that they could work their way backwards from that answer, and realize where they had made a mistake. But for more complex problems, they were dead in the water without a bit more in the way of hints on which direction they should proceed.

College textbook authors are aware of this problem, and most college-level chemistry and physics texts now offer some form of Student Solutions Manual that students can purchase (at considerable expense) for just such help. These student manuals usually cover some subset of all the problems in a textbook. Complete solutions manuals to these texts are also sometimes available, usually only to professors, and these are accompanied by dire warnings about the possible unintended consequences of sharing the contents with the young’uns.

This whole concept of gatekeeping information, or parsing it out to students on a “need to know” basis, runs completely counter to the idea of life-long learning, fostering self-guided discovery, and the current revolution in online learning.

Will Richardson, an educational reformer, famously supported his daughter learning how to play a Journey song on the piano by following a tutorial on the Internet, even when her piano teacher objected, saying that she wasn’t advanced enough to learn the song. I applaud Will’s sensibilities on most things, but even he occasionally gets it wrong, as when he posted this tweet on September 6.

It *is* good to see all of Tucker’s homework answer posted online. This information regarding the question of whether or not he’s making the progress he needs to make is just-in-time feedback that Tucker can use to step over the stumbling blocks that would otherwise require that he try to ask the question during class, or go to school early to talk to the teacher, or stay late after school. Why make him wait? Why hold his progress in completing homework hostage?

The obvious concern is that many students–perhaps even good students–may fall into the habit of taking the easy way out. If the solutions are posted, then students may be tempted to simply copy them, which is a double whammy against him or her: not only are they getting credit for work that they haven’t done (and getting reinforcement for cheating in the process), they’ve managed to temporarily avoid acquiring the very skills that those homework problems were meant to foster.

These are the perils of always-on access to information, and I’m afraid the obvious benefits come with some risks, and managing those risks becomes part of what we need to teach our children.

Perhaps part of teaching children to be lifelong learners is teaching them not only WHAT to learn–readin’, writin’, ‘rithmetic, social skills, expository writing, critical thinking, etc.–but HOW to learn. That necessarily requires presenting them with content, and with strategies on how to access that content and use it best to their advantage.

It will be up to Will (and his son Tucker) to find a way to best manage learning in the new world, and that process will almost certainly involve a few potholes along the road. In the meantime, however, Mr. Richardson is far brighter and forward thinking than this one errant tweet might lead one to believe. I encourage you to read his blog.

Bringing things back around to my own classroom, my AP Physics classes are using a new text this year, and those homework problems aren’t easy. A significant part of my prep time for class is now devoted to writing up solutions to the homework problems that I’ve assigned, and making those available to my students online where they have access to them. The reality of the situation is that I’m going to have to go over those problems with them at some point, perhaps writing out the solutions in class (wasting additional face time with them, after they’ve wasted time struggling with the problems at home), or writing the solutions out in advance so that they can get the help they need when they need it, and not later.

It’s a good thing that I enjoy solving physics problems, because I’ve got a couple of hundred of them that I’m doing this year…!

How to Flip Your Classroom



by Richard White

Flipping a classroom consists of off-loading (usually to the Internet) some of the non-interactive aspects of one’s classroom, in favor of using time in-class for activities that take advantage of the teacher’s immediate presence.

Perhaps the most obvious example might be this:

At school At home
Standard classroom Student listens to teacher introduce new math topic Student goes home and tries to do homework, often unsuccessfully and without the opportunity to get questions answered in a timely manner.
At home At school
Flipped classroom Student watches brief video explanation of new topic online, or reads new material to be discussed in class the next day. Student works on “homework” problems, with teacher answering questions or providing clarifying follow-up as necessary.

Pretty straightforward, right? It’s a good idea, and there’s lots to recommend it. In fact, you may already be implementing some aspects of the flipped model, even if nobody has ever referred to it by that name before. Some teachers give students time in class to read a chapter in novel, and then discuss it in the remaining class time. Others choose to assign the reading as homework, leaving more time in class for re-reading passages, interpreting what the author has written, or general discussion.

If you’ve done something like this, congratulations—you’re officially part of the most recent trend in education, and you should feel free to strut around saying things like, “‘Inverted learning?’ Honey, I’ve been flipping my class for years…

If you haven’t tried this yet, or you’re just looking for a few ideas on how to get started trying this out, let’s take a look at the stops involved in doing such a thing. And then read below for some specific bits of advice regarding the process of converting to a flipped classroom.

Things to think about:

Start with a single day, or a single week, or a single unit.

You don’t need to reorganize your entire semester to begin trying out a flipped model. A day or two will give you a chance to see what the benefits and challenges are, and give you some good ideas on how to go about designing a flipped model on a larger scale.

Be patient with the students.

It may take them a little time to adjust to this at first. Under the traditional model, it’s easy for a teacher to ascertain whether a student has turned in a homework assignment, and easy for students to recognize something tangible like the piece of paper with their writing on it. A flipped instruction model is going to ask them do something rather than make something—watch a video, read this section, interview their parents about something—and this is a little different from what they ordinarily do for homework.

What can you flip in your class?

We all teach different subjects, in different ways, so it’s a uniquely personal challenge, figuring out what you can try flipping in your own class.

Here are some ideas to get you started, following the same format listed above.

The French Revolution

At school At home
Standard classroom Teacher lectures on the the origins of the French Revolution Student goes home and does a worksheet or write answers to problems from a textbook.
At home At school
Flipped classroom Student at home watches a Khan Academy introduction to the French Revolution, and is asked to take notes on that presentation. Student comes in to class with notes prepared for a discussion. Students are asked to take additional notes as the discussion proceeds, and teacher collects notes at the end of class for evaluation.

Adding Fractions

At school At home
Standard classroom Teacher presents the idea of adding fractions with different denominators, and does an example. Student goes home and does homework problems from his or her textbook.
At home At school
Flipped classroom Student at home watches a YouTube video on adding fractions, and is asked to do attempt two different practice problems at home. Student comes in to class with practice problems completed (or not), and instructor gives an additional 15 problems of varying degrees of difficulty to reinforce the skill.

You get the idea.

Think about assessment.

When students walk into class the next morning, how are you going to know whether or not the students have done their flipped-style homework from the night before? A warm-up activity? A quiz? A discussion in which each student is monitored for participation? My own students tend to try to get away with doing less rather than more, so you’ll need to identify a means for checking that they’re doing their new homework.

Allow for varying access to technology.

If students don’t have some sort of comparable access to technology, you’ll need to develop strategies for managing those differences. If a video lesson is being watched online, a teacher might send home a DVD that the student can watch at home. At-school access to the video, in the library perhaps, can be arranged for during other times of the school day. These factors can complicate your efforts to flip the classroom, but it’s important that all students be accommodated in one way or another.

Create your own resources.

Ultimately, there will come a point at which you’ll find that what you need your students to see doesn’t yet exist, or maybe you’ll be inspired to develop something unique and personalized for them. Creating and uploading videos to YouTube is a relatively easy thing to do with the webcam that’s probably already included in your laptop computer. If you want a higher production value, or you want to capture your computer screen while showing a PowerPoint presentation, you’ll almost certainly have to buy some software that will allow you to experiment with that process. TechSmith’s Camtasia for both PC and Mac, and Telestream’s Screenflow for the Mac, are currently popular and powerful screen capture utilities. If you run Linux, you can do a $ sudo apt-get install xvidcap to install XVidCap, a live screen capture utility that’s very good, but lacks some of the high-end editing capabilities built into Camtasia and Screenflow.

Make your materials available on a website.

Google’s YouTube is a powerful means of delivering videos, but it can be a distracting place to send a student for flipped homework assignments. At some point you’ll almost certainly want to create a webpage or website that will give students a one-stop shop for finding materials used in your course. Your school may offer the means of putting up a course webpage, but if not, you can certainly create your own. The quickest, easiest, and certainly cheapest way to do this is to use Google’s Sites feature, available with any Google account. Once you’ve got your page set up, you can use it to easily deliver flipped assignments to your students.

When you look at all of that up there, it seems like it’s a lot of work, but you certainly don’t have to jump into this all at once. Begin at the beginning, and move forward as your time and teaching assignment allow.

For more resources on Flipped Classrooms, see:

Notes On the Flipped Classroom


by Richard White


Okay, the singularity has arrived. My friend Sharon, an outstanding English teacher who has remained, to this point, a very traditional and non-technology-based instructor, just texted me from an ed conference she’s at, and she wants to try out this whole “flipped classroom” thing.

She wants to know how to go about doing that.

Let’s take care of some terminology first.

What’s a ‘hybrid classroom?’

A “hybrid classroom” or “blended classroom” (the terms are synonymous) is one in which, in addition to meeting in a physical classroom on a regular basis, some significant amount of the work for a course is conducted, or at least available, online.

This is typically something more than just a single online assignment. A course in which students regularly work online—perhaps via a discussion board, a wiki, or blogging—or a where content is delivered online, or assignments submitted online… these are all aspects of a hybrid course. (It should be noted that historically, non-online activities might be part of a blended course as well, but today, nearly all references to hybrid courses refer to Internet-mediated work.)

Traditional Activity Online Equivalent
Watching/listening to a classroom lecture from the teacher. Watching/listening to the teacher in a pre-recorded podcast or video.
Participating in a classroom discussion Reading an online Discussion Board and contributing one’s own ideas to a topic of conversation
Asking the teacher or other students for clarification, or help on an assignment Emailing, texting, online chatting, or videoconferencing with the teacher or classmates
Taking a quiz in class Taking an online quiz (via Google Forms, for example)
Writing an essay on paper Writing an essay on Google docs
Turning in papers in class. Turning in papers via email, Dropbox, or by sharing the document with the teacher
Collaborative projects in class Online collaborations via shared documents
Classroom presentations to students Online presentations—websites, wikis, videos—to the world

You can read about people’s experiences with, and the ideas behind, hybrid or blended learning here, and here, and here.

What’s a ‘flipped classroom,’ then?

A flipped classroom is simply a type of hybrid classroom in which activities traditionally conducted in class are shifted to an out-of-class time, allowing for valuable face-to-face class time to be used for other work.

Most commonly, this currently consists of teachers recording short videos of material that would have been presented in class, so that students can watch that presentation at home. The idea, then, is that students can do their “homework”—working on problems, asking questions of the teacher—in class, where the teacher is available to assist.

Why Would I Want to Consider Changing What I Do?

There are lots of reasons why you might want (or might not want) to change the way you look at how you teach. There’s no question that students find technology-mediated experiences more interesting, and teachers interested in exploring new possibilities tend to be enthusiastic about these ideas, which has a positive effect on their teaching.

Many teachers, and I count myself among them, also feel that we should not only be teaching content, but process; having students learning to use technology is critical to preparing them for their future.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, teachers who have shifted to a flipped classroom model feel that that model actually allows them to make better use of the time they have with their students. Why have students work on their homework at home where the teacher is unavailable to answer any questions they might have? Why have students sit in class listening to a presentation when they can just as easily do that at home, on the computer?

What are the Challenges Associated with Hybrid Classrooms and Flipped Learning?

  1. Time
    It takes time to make these changes. Teachers will have to spend time reorganizing their courses, recording video for flipped classrooms, developing and maintaining the website, communicating new processes and expectations with students and parents…

    This isn’t meant to dissuade you from taking on the process, but for teachers who already occasionally feel overworked, it’s important to acknowledge this at the start. A good strategy is to make small, incremental changes, rather than trying to re-do your entire course at one time. See the follow-up post on one strategy that you can use.

  2. Student Access to Technology
    It may well be the case that not all of your students have access to a computer connected to the Internet, which is obviously going to have an effect on how a teacher or a school chooses to approach these strategies. Some schools already require technology experiences for students via a 1-to-1 or Bring Your Own Device program, some provide financial or hardware support for students-in-need, some teachers will provide non-technology-based alternatives, and some teachers/schools will restrict new learning strategies unless every student can be provided with the same experience.
  3. Not Enough Research Yet on Learning Improvements
    If you’re an evidence-based guy or gal (as I am), and you’re looking for data that suggests all of this improves learning or test scores, I’m afraid that the jury is still out on that.

    From the U.S. Department of Education’s Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-analysis and review of online learning studies:

    …Analysts noted that these blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions. This finding suggests that the positive effects associated with blended learning should not be attributed to the media, per se. An unexpected finding was the small number of rigorous published studies contrasting online and face-to-face learning conditions for K–12 students. In light of this small corpus, caution is required in generalizing to the K–12 population because the results are derived for the most part from studies in other settings (e.g., medical training, higher education).

    This doesn’t mean that a flipped classroom isn’t worthy of exploration. On the contrary, interested and enthusiastic teachers are encouraged to consider new ways of looking at how they teach, and implementing new instructional strategies that they feel might be of benefit to their students.

Okay. So how do I get started?

If it turns out that you’re interested in taking some steps towards making your course more hybrid, and in particular you’d like to play around with the idea of flipping your class a bit, the next post will give you one possible path.

See you then!


Late night provisions for Computer Science homework session at Udacity


by Richard White


Today I finished the first online course that I’ve ever taken, thanks to my professor David Evans and Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun… and the experience has changed my life.

If you haven’t heard about Udacity you might consider a) going to to wander about the website, or b) reading the excellent writeup in Wired magazine. But the upshot of it all is this: education is never going to be the same.

MIT’s OpenCourseWare offerings were a fine way to get the online education experience started—who can argue with access to top-notch professors at a world-class university? And Sal Khan’s Khan Academy offers increased granularity in bite-sized chunks at the secondary school level.

What makes Udacity so amazing, though, is the platform that they’ve developed to deliver and manage true online learning. Thrun identified nine components that he considered essential for education at the university level:

  • admissions
  • lectures
  • peer interaction
  • professor interaction
  • problem-solving
  • assignments
  • exams
  • deadlines
  • certification

While Udacity hasn’t completely solved every one of these problems yet, it is well on its way. I greatly enjoyed taking the inaugural CS101 Intro to Computer Science course, a seven-week curriculum that used the context of “building a search engine” as a vehicle for presenting core computer science concepts.

I’ll admit right now that I was well-acquainted with the subject matter—I teach an Intro to Computer Science course myself—but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t find most of the assignments entertaining, and some of them quite challenging.

If you haven’t had a chance to try out an online course yet, I strongly encourage you to do so. Both Udacity and Coursera have plenty of fine offerings in a wide variety of fields.

It’ll change the way you look at education.

“Just in Time” Learning

“Just In Time” Learning

by Richard White


“‘Hybrid classroom?’ Seriously? What effect could Internet use possibly have on student learning in my classes?”

I’m SO glad you asked. I have data on that. I’m in the process of running an experiment.

I teach physics, a subject that has some reputation as being a little tricky to understand sometimes. Typically, teaching physics works something like this:

  1. I present material in class: discussions, lectures, demonstrations, sample problems.
  2. Students go home, try to do assigned homework problems, and get stuck.
  3. Students come back the next day with questions, and I spend time in class helping them clear up their misunderstandings.

It’s a time-honored process, and one that works on some levels. “Struggling with the material” is something that all learning requires, as each of us figure out how to fit new ideas into our previous understanding of the world. Constructing that new knowledge requires effort, and it’s absolutely part of my job to assist students in that process.

After 15 years of teaching physics, thoughI came to realize that there was a problem with the current homework system. Ater 15 years of teaching physics, I figured out that often, students were getting waylaid by relatively trivial difficulties, usually a problem-solving technique, or a strategy, or a “trick” that we’d discussed in class and that they hadn’t quite learned how to apply. It wasn’t that they had absolutely no idea of how to solve the problem—they just needed a little push, a little hint on what to do next, and the answers to the odd-numbered problems in the back of the book weren’t enough.

I had clear data that the students were getting stuck, based on the number of students missing at least one assignment, and—for those students—the number of homework assignments they were missing.

I made what I thought was a generous offer: the homework solutions were available in my office so that students could come in during office hours to take a look at them… but that didn’t really help them at night. At night was when they were working on the problems. At night was when they needed the help.

So I made the solutions available online.

It was a simple step, really, and I fully expected that a lot of the problems with “incomplete and missing homework assignments” would go away. I made sure to communicate the fact that these solutions were available for students to use in helping their progress after they’d attempted a problem; these were not to be copied. But there was that risk.

I’d hoped that the homework scores would improve, and improve they did:

That’s not much of a success story there, of course: “give students who haven’t been turning in homework the answers, and they’ll turn in more homework.” Great headline.

Here’s where things get interesting, though. Students both years took the unit test, with the following results:

Test scores went UP. Way up. On unassisted assessments of their learning, students demonstrated that their understanding of the material had improved by a whopping 10%, because (I believe) they were able to get some assistance with their homework when they were doing it, and not hours or days after the fact.

Of course, it’s well-known that the WWW is a great place for a motivated student to explore and learn. See the Wall Street Journal’s Turning Kids From India’s Slums Into Autodidacts for some interesting examples of this. Money quote:

Education, though, feels like one of those things that has to be top-down: There has to be a teacher and a taught. But plenty of people educate themselves. Is it possible for everybody to be an autodidact, now that knowledge is so accessible online?

The premise of the article is so radical that most classroom teachers may not feel that it has any bearing on what we do day-to-day. But my ongoing experiment has convinced me giving people access to new tools to guide their studies—even something as mundane as homework solutions— can have a powerful effect on the learning experience.

There are other things we can do as well. More about that next week.