Saturday, January 28, 2017

Learning, MOOCs, and production values

Some observations from binge-watching a Nuclear Engineering 101 course online.

Yes, the first observation is that I am a science geek. Some people binge-watch Kim Cardassian, some people binge-watch Netflix, some people binge-watch sports; I binge-watch college lectures on subjects that excite me.

(This material has no applicability to my work. Learning this material is just a hobby, like hiking, but with expensive books instead of physical activity.)

To be fair, this course isn't a MOOC; these are lectures for a live audience, recorded for students who missed class or want to go over the material again.

The following is the first lecture of the course, and to complicate things, there are several different courses from UC-Stalingrad with the same exact name, which are different years of this course, taught by different people. So kudos for the laziness of not even using a playlist for each course. At least IHTFP does that.

(It starts with a bunch of class administrivia; skip to 7:20.)

Production values in 2013, University of California, Berkeley

To be fair: for this course. There are plenty of other UC-Leningrad courses online with pretty good production values. But they're usually on subjects I already know or have no interest in.

Powerpoint projections of scans of handwritten notes; maybe even acetate transparencies. In 2013, in a STEM department of a major research university. Because teaching is, er…, an annoyance?

The professor points out that there's an error in the slide, that the half-life of $^{232}\mathrm{Th}$ is actually $1.141 \times 10^{10}$ years, something that he could have corrected before the class (by editing the slide) but decided to say it in class instead, for reasons...?

The real problem with these slides isn't that handwriting is hard to read or that use of color can clarify things; it's the clear message to the students that preparing the class is a very low priority activity for the instructor.

A second irritating problem is that the video stream is a recording of the projection system, so when something is happening in the classroom there's no visual record.

For example, there was a class experiment measuring the half-life of excited $^{137}\mathrm{Ba}$, with students measuring radioactivity of a sample of $^{137}\mathrm{Cs}$ and doing the calculations needed to get the half-life (very close to the actual number).

For the duration of the experiment (several minutes), this is all the online audience sees:

Learning = 1% lecture, 9% individual study, 90% practice.

As a former and sometimes educator, I don't believe in the power of lectures without practice, so when the instructor says something like "check at home to make sure that X," I stop the video and check the X.

For example, production of a radioactive species at a production rate $R$ and with radioactive decay with constant $\lambda$ is described by the equation at the top of the highlighted area in the slide above and the instructor presents the solution on the bottom "to be checked at home." So, I did:

Simple calculus, but makes for a better learning experience. (On a side note, using that envelope for calculations is the best value I've received from the United frequent flyer program in years.)

This, doing the work, is the defining difference between being a passive recipient of entertainment and an active participant in an educational experience.

Two tidbits from the early lectures (using materials from the web):

🤓 Binding energy per nucleon explains why heavy atoms can be fissioned and light atoms can be fused but not the opposite (because the move is towards higher binding energy per nucleon):

🤓  The decay chains of Uranium $^{235}\mathrm{U}$ and Thorium $^{232}\mathrm{Th}$:

(Vertical arrows are $\alpha$ decay, diagonals are $\beta$ decay.)

Unfair comparison: The Brachistochrone video

It's an unfair comparison because the level of detail is much smaller and the audience is much larger; but the production values are very high.

Or maybe not so unfair: before his shameful (for MIT) retconning out of the MIT MOOC universe, Walter Lewin had entire courses on the basics of Physics with high production values:

(I had the foresight to download all Lewin's courses well before the shameful retconning. Others have posted them to YouTube.)

Speaking of production values in education (particularly in Participant-Centered Learning), the use of physical props and audience movement brings a physicality that most instruction lacks and creates both more immersive experience and longer term retention of the material. From Lewin's lecture above: