Thursday, November 14, 2013

Response to Request for Feedback from Udacity asking "One Thing" to improve the course, with reasoning/thought (drawn from experience) to give it substance.

There's extra writing here so I may provide the qualities that make the response what it is, so it isn't interpreted vaguely or if implemented to some degree isn't without insight as to why which can make or break the effectiveness of implementation. Anything "real" is complex. Especially things pertaining to edumucationalist endeavors, so even a simple consideration leading to "simple" implementations typically requires a complexity of thoughts and sifting of criteria and observations. Background to the background: I've been sick, depressive, a guy suffering disruptive health and life circumstances, homeless, worked 15-22 hour days, and worse the past four years or so. I hope this is helpful:

While not the response, good advice, I think, is to pay attention somewhat (not too much) to the niggles and giggles in the comments; the intro to programming course, supposedly requiring no prerequisites, does leave a lot of folks baffled if they don't know what an iteration is, with badly phrased questions and problems, and so on. My personal take on this is that, though I think I could make it through ok, I switched to the comp sci course, which comments indicated as filling-in the gaps in the intro to programming one.

This is a problem, because of another very important fact regarding these courses. People taking them probably are because of the flexibility, money-light (if any at all) requirements, and less-than-ideal circumstances. In various ways they are probably disadvantaged and don't control their own time. That flexibility itself may be perceived both an advantage and a great hindrance, as the common academic and chattering-class-member commentator goes about self-paced/directed learning schemes that the large degree of autonomy permits laxity for lack of consequences and the threats imposed by traditional structure, but since a lack of discipline and drive will harm someone in life regardless I think we can ignore them, and instead focus on that people relying on a flexible course are already time-constrained, and lacking direct interaction with knowledgeable instructors for assistance, their only option for hindrances encountered, such as app engine not running, is research; since they probably have time constraints and have already made marginal adjustments to life just to make doing these possible within small windows of time, however, they probably can't spend ten hours at a time researching problems in running Google Apps, why the recommended python downgrade didn't work, PATH variable settings and etc., and remember it all without significantly more investment of time, despite their doing so being ideal. 

Maybe my concerns in this regard only apply to a minority of users, but having had a unique set of experiences, these things matter to me and if adjusted for are things that benefit everyone, I think: designing things with the most troubled in mind turns-out, I believe, work with a great amount of benefit to all--greater than just designing with a narrow majoritarian range. My complaint is not research, either: I am an obsessive-compulsive learner, meaning if nothing else is in the way--perhaps including food needs which I may just ignore--I'll spend a 100 hours straight-through researching a topic, related material, and everything relevant to become expert in it, and have been since effects of chemotherapy on my brain during cancer, doesn't permit this, and compared to many other people I have more free time, have been forcing myself to sleep just 4 hours/night again so I can start doing these courses consistently and thus gain even more time, and becoming semi anti-social to make people leave me alone to get even more time still makes it difficult to keep regularly at these things. 

One way to alleviate that problem, then, while reducing R&D&I ([re-]Implementation) would be provision of recommendation readings, instructions ultra-clear to solve problems, as well as further background material to understand what is in front of users. It's one thing for them to flail in the dark looking for solution, another to offer that by doing certain reading they can find those answers if they are only willing to apply that knowledge and work-out the solution, which also demonstrates how telling how and actually following how (doing) are completely different. I don't actually think that someone should expect every issue possible to be solved for them, but if a course isn't at least hinting what direction to take, then why take the course? (At least, that's my thought on paid classes, but even in a "free" one like this, that applies because if something required to continue cannot be accomplished for whatever reason, a library updates on a system or the person doesn't know how to define PATH variables or all about unix file structure and permission for program execution...we can again ask, what's the point?)

Something not acknowledged much in modern education yet understood traditionally in classical approached and surfacing in research findings in the works of the brain and memory is that things are not understood of themselves, but by relation to priors understood: think of Bayesian approaches to estimating, but realize it applies also to acquisition. I can sit and read, despite having "forgotten" most things, a paper from biology and understand either immediately or pretty quickly what another would not get in two years of study, because I studied biology and related material. Likewise, someone without a background with mathematics or even simple experience using symbols and mathematical conventions to display a problem...may not get the very simple lay-outs of problems and material shown in some of these course: thus providing extra enrichment material--not like that found in textbooks to assuage politicians and interest groups who brutally ruin educational materials while on federal and state committees, but rather related to or underlying the material at hand, would I believe be a major contributor to successes of users. 

Along with quality problems blocking progress these courses can also seem ... underwhelming; the combination of quality problems together with what is, perhaps, an attempt to keep things super-simple and thus accessible, they may not be as effective as they could. The only way I know to solve these issues in a manner that is, I think, attested to well in experience is not, as is often the method taken, asking for feedback--which when studied always tends to produce responses varying from how people actually use (or get stuck and can't use) something, but finding a way to watch how large samples of people interact with the coursework (which complaints/hints/replies/feedback that is unrequested but possible due to comments, can supplement), then use the data to improve explanations, lectures, etc. Requesting feedback often produces distortions because it is asking from people being educating in the material or regarding educational approaches who don't know about those things and don't even know they don't know enough about those things to give truly pertinent feedback. I say do observations (perhaps set-up free labspace for people to come to in areas you can ensure they do--maybe partner with high schools to get access to their labs--and then watch) therefore, knowing these things, and knowing from extensive contact with "design" (that that term) wonks and software engineers on forums, and seeing how their criticism work-out in the real world, having to use corporate software all day; they consistently advice ignoring the contemporary "designers" as well as those who rely only on feedback, and instead advocate first looking at how things are used, only THEN "designing" anything...around use, not the intended function and "logical" deductions and inferences of what "therefore must" be best-approach. I think that observation of what's successful truly, in the sense of producing what makes someone more productive vs. producing something pretty but pretty frustrating, is re-applicable here. 

And ultimately, I think these things are important because for Udacity to succeed (self-sustain) it probably needs people signing-up. If I had signed-up months ago to do credit and encountered Google Apps problems while lacking time to sit for more than an hour or so (important to research problems) I would have likely not been able to keep up, left miffed, and advised against use by others for credit. Rather, I'd hope this platform (and similar) take these kinds of things in mind and build something truly viable, also perhaps find a way to offer more credit than they do: standard credit hours offered for courses are hours per week, Udacity might offer a third of that. The natural intention and application of technology to more traditional fields is disruption by creation of entirely new markets and approaches with many of the significant benefits from former markets while exponentially reducing price, and I see no reason why these systems cannot, though it could take a while, intend the same. Perhaps existing interests might never allow it until dead, though, so expanding programs to bring recognition to self-directed learners and the support and oversight of empowers and other institutions would be the way to subvert those traditional controls.

Finally, apologies for what may seem as unfocused or too "fuzzy", but I do "fuzzy" when various things seem together to constitute solutions to a need or to specific concerns which are material, and which involve difficulties and complexities. Addressing those things, fuzzy works to creative ends. : )

Best Regards,

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