In light of my new position as a HarvardX Research Fellow, I have been thinking about the role of data in improving online learning experiences (aka MOOCs) at edX. Can data tell us everything about the ideal learning experience of tomorrow? Can product developers at edX come up with the best version singe-handedly? Or, maybe, the online students could also tell us what is the ideal MOOC?
First, let's think about what could be the "ideal MOOC". There is a broad consensus that an ideal online learning experience would yield the best "educational outcomes" for the students. For now, let's think about the educational outcome as something that's well-approximated with the amount of learning. Specifically, this means that we want students to extract and internalize as much educational content from the interactive learning experience as possible. Finally, the educational content is information that is relevant to the substance of the class. For example, for a probability course, this would include information on how to use Bayes rule or the change of variables. For a Python programming class this would include information on how to operate Python modules and language syntax. For a class on interactive visualization, this could include (of course!) information on how to use d3js.
This is an important point. Educational content is information relevant to the substance of the class. We want the students to internalize as much of it as possible, make it their knowledge. How can we do that?
Let's assume that the educational materials (lectures, homework, tests, examples) have already been prepared and we believe that they are good. How do we expose the materials to the students in the best possible way so that students learn the most, stay engaged, and more students complete the class?
Clearly, the setting of a MOOC is different from the setting of a standard classroom. One of the significant differences is the number of students - it's massive. Depending on the course, the number of enrolled students can exceed 150 thousand - CS50x by David Malan on HarvardX is a great example. Do we want to expose every single student, no matter what country he/she is from, no matter what talents and aspirations he/she has, no matter how many peers he/she will study with, all to the same sequence of the material? Maybe, yes. And maybe, no.
The setting of MOOCs can be a wonderful platform for adaptive media - an algorithmic way of sequentially presenting content and interacting with the user in order to maximize the informational content that the user "internalizes".
Adaptive media. It's the characterizing trait of a computer as a medium - the ability to simulate responses, interact, predict, "act like a living being". We can use it to model, predict, and synthesize the best way to serve content to users, algorithmically.
Adaptive media is used actively across the Web in conjunction with social media. Often, the inputs of adaptive media are the outputs of social media (and then it repeats). When you share an article on Facebook, the system learns about your preferences and makes sure that the next time you see content it'll be more relevant to your interests. A lot of the time, by the custom-tailored content we mean advertisements. Same goes for LinkedIn - ever noticed the "Ads you may be interested in" section to the right on your LinkedIn profile?
Can we use adaptive media in MOOCs? The benefits are obvious - with hundreds of thousands of enrollees, it is impossible to adequately staff the course with enough qualified facilitators. Adaptive media could be used together with the teachers' input and social media such as forums, social grading, and study groups. The purpose, instead of displaying personalized ads, would be to make sure each student learns as much as possible from the interactive learning experience, in his or her unique way. There could also be a multitude of positive extras - reduced dropout rate, higher engagement, higher enrollment for adaptive MOOCs.
Isn't this interesting?