Grades are the fossils of evaluation

Assessments support evaluation, criticism and ranking (Wolff). That’s what it does and, in many cases, that also constitutes a lot of why we do it. But who are we doing it for?

I’ve reflected on the dual nature of evaluation, showing a student her or his level of progress and mastery while also telling us how well the learning environment is working. In my argument to reduce numerical grades to something meaningful, I’ve asked what the actual requirement is for our students, how we measure mastery and how we can build systems to provide this.

But who are the student’s grades actually for?

In terms of ranking, grades allow people who are not the student to place the students in some order. By doing this, we can award awards to students who are in the awarding an award band (repeated word use deliberate). We can restrict our job interviews to students who are summa cum laude or valedictorian or Dean’s Merit Award Winner. Certain groups of students, not all, like to define their progress through comparison so there is a degree of self-ranking but, for the most part, ranking is something that happens to students.

Criticism, in terms of providing constructive, timely feedback to assist the student, is weakly linked to any grading system. Giving someone a Fail grade isn’t a critique as it contains no clear identification of the problems. The clear identification of problems may not constitute a fail. Often these correlate but it’s weak. A student’s grades are not going to provide useful critique to the student by themselves. These grades are to allow us to work out if the student has met our assessment mechanisms to a point where they can count this course as a pre-requisite or can be awarded a degree. (Award!)

Evaluation is, as noted, useful to us and the student but a grade by itself does not contain enough record of process to be useful in evaluating how mastery goals were met and how the learning environment succeeded or failed. Competency, when applied systematically, does have a well-defined meaning. A passing grade does not although there is an implied competency and there is a loose correlation with achievement.

Grades allow us to look at all of a student’s work as if this one impression is a reflection of the student’s involvement, engagement, study, mistakes, triumphs, hopes and dreams. They are additions to a record from which we attempt to reconstruct a living, whole being.

Grades are the fossils of evaluation.

Grades provide a mechanism for us, in a proxy role as academic archaeologist, to classify students into different groups, in an attempt to project colour into grey stone, to try and understand the ecosystem that such a creature would live in, and to identify how successful this species was.

As someone who has been a student several times in my life, I’m aware that I have a fossil record that is not traditional for an academic. I was lucky to be able to place a new imprint in the record, to obscure my history as a much less successful species, and could then build upon it until I became an ACADEMIC TYRANNOSAURUS.

Skull of a Tyrannosaurus Rex at Palais de la Decouverte


But I’m lucky. I’m privileged. I had a level of schooling and parental influence that provided me with an excellent vocabulary and high social mobility. I live in a safe city. I have a supportive partner. And, more importantly, at a crucial moment in my life, someone who knew me told me about an opportunity that I was able to pursue despite the grades that I had set in stone. A chance came my way that I never would have thought of because I had internalised my grades as my worth.

Let’s look at the fossil record of Nick.

My original GPA fossil, encompassing everything that went wrong and right in my first degree, was 2.9. On a scale of 7, which is how we measure it, that’s well below a pass average. I’m sharing that because I want you to put that fact together with what happened next. Four years later, I started a Masters program that I finished with a GPA of 6.4. A few years after the masters, I decided to go and study wine making. That degree was 6.43. Then I received a PhD, with commendation, that is equivalent to GPA 7. (We don’t actually use GPA in research degrees. Hmmm.) If my grade record alone lobbed onto your desk you would see the desiccated and dead snapshot of how I (failed to) engage with the University system. A lot of that is on me but, amazingly, it appears that much better things were possible. That original grade record stopped me from getting interviews. Stopped me from getting jobs. When I was finally able to demonstrate the skills that I had, which weren’t bad, I was able to get work. Then I had the opportunity to rewrite my historical record.

Yes, this is personal for me. But it’s not about me because I wasn’t trapped by this. I was lucky as well as privileged. I can’t emphasise that enough. The fact that you are reading this is due to luck. That’s not a good enough mechanism.

Too many students don’t have this opportunity. That impression in the wet mud of their school life will harden into a stone straitjacket from which they may never escape. The way we measure and record grades has far too much potential to work against students and the correlation with actual ability is there but it’s not strong and it’s not always reliable.

The student you are about to send out with a GPA of 2.9 may be competent and they are, most definitely, more than that number.

The recording of grades is a high-loss storage record of the student’s learning and pathway to mastery. It allows us to conceal achievement and failure alike in the accumulation of mathematical aggregates that proxy for competence but correlate weakly.

We need assessment systems that work for the student first and everyone else second.

Confessions of a CLI guy

There was a time before graphics dominated the way that you worked with computers and, back then, after punchcards and before Mac/Windows, the most common way of working with a computer was to use the Command Line Interface (CLI). Many of you will have seen this, here’s Terminal from the Mac OS X, showing a piece of Python code inside an editor.

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 5.39.56 PM

Rather than use a rich Integrated Development Environment, where text is highlighted and all sorts of clever things are done for me, I would run some sort of program editor from the command line, write my code, close that editor and then see what worked.

At my University, we almost always taught Computer Science using command line tools, rather than rich development environments such as Eclipse or the Visual Studio tools. Why? The reasoning was that the CLI developed skills required to write code, compile it, debug it and run it, without training students into IDE-provided shortcuts. The CLI was the approach that would work anywhere. That knowledge was, as we saw it, fundamental.

But, remember that Processing example? We clearly saw where the error was. This is what a similar error looks like for the Java programming language in a CLI environment.

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 5.48.03 PM

Same message (and now usefully on the right line because 21st Century) but it is totally divorced from the program itself. That message has to give me a line number (5) in the original program because it has no other way to point to the problem.

And here’s the problem. The cognitive load increases once we separate code and errors. Despite those Processing errors looking like the soft option, everything we know about load tells us that students will find fixing their problems easier if they don’t have to mentally or physically switch between code and error output.

Everything I said about CLIs is still true but that’s only a real consideration if my students go out into the workplace and need some CLI skills. And, today, just about every workplace has graphics based IDEs for production software. (Networking is often an exception but we’ll skip over that. Networking is special.)

The best approach for students learning to code is that we don’t make things any harder than we need to. The CLI approach is something I would like students to be able to do but my first task is to get them interested in programming. Then I have to make their first experiences authentic and effective, and hopefully pleasant and rewarding.

I have thought about this for years and I started out as staunchly CLI. But as time goes by, I really have to wonder whether a tiny advantage for a small number of graduates is worth additional load for every new programmer.

And I don’t think it is worth it. It’s not fair. It’s the opposite of equitable. And it goes against the research that we have on cognitive load and student workflows in these kinds of systems. We already know of enough load problems in graphics based environments if we make the screens large enough, without any flicking from one application to another!

You don’t have to accept my evaluation model to see this because it’s a matter of common sense that forcing someone to unnecessarily switch tasks to learn a new skill is going to make it harder. Asking someone to remember something complicated in order to use it later is not as easy as someone being able to see it when and where they need to use it.

The world has changed. CLIs still exist but graphical user interfaces (GUIs) now rule. Any of my students who needs to be a crack programmer in a text window of 80×24 will manage it, even if I teach with all IDEs for the entire degree, because all of the IDEs are made up of small windows. Students can either debug and read error messages or they can’t – a good IDE helps you but it doesn’t write or fix the code for you, in any deep way. It just helps you to write code faster, without having to wait and switch context to find silly mistakes that you could have fixed in a split second in an IDE.

When it comes to teaching programming, I’m not a CLI guy anymore.

“Guest” post by Buckminster Fuller


Biosphère Montréal

I’m about to start a new thread of discussion, once I’ve completed the assessment posts, and this seemed to be good priming for thinking ahead.

“The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

Buckminster Fuller, reference.


Being honest about driverless cars

I have been following the discussion about the ethics of the driverless car with some interest. This is close to a contemporary restatement of the infamous trolley problem but here we are instructing a trolley in a difficult decision: if I can save more lives by taking lives, should I do it? In the case of a driverless car, should the car take action that could kill the driver if, in doing so, it is far more likely to save more lives than would be lost?

While I find the discussion interesting, I worry that such discussion makes people unduly worried about driverless cars, potentially to a point that will delay adoption. Let’s look into why I think that. (I’m not going to go into whether cars, themselves, are a good or bad thing.)

Many times, the reason for a driverless car having to make such a (difficult) decision is that “a person leaps out from the kerb” or “driving conditions are bad” and “it would be impossible to stop in time.”

As noted in CACM:

The driverless cars of the future are likely to be able to outperform most humans during routine driving tasks, since they will have greater perceptive abilities, better reaction times, and will not suffer from distractions (from eating or texting, drowsiness, or physical emergencies such as a driver having a heart attack or a stroke).

In every situation where a driverless car could encounter a situation that would require such an ethical dilemma be resolved, we are already well within the period at which a human driver would, on average, be useless. When I presented the trolley problem, with driverless cars, to my students, their immediate question was why a dangerous situation had arisen in the first place? If the car was driving in a way that it couldn’t stop in time, there’s more likely to be a fault in environmental awareness or stopping-distance estimation.

If a driverless car is safe in varied weather conditions, then it has no need to be travelling at the speed limit merely because the speed limit is set. We all know the mantra of driving: drive to the conditions. In a driverless car scenario, the sensory awareness of the car is far greater than our own (and we should demand that it was) and thus we will eliminate any number of accidents before we arrived at an ethical problem.

Millions of people are killed in car accidents every year because of drink driving and speeding. In Victoria, Australia, close to 40% of accidents are tied to long distance driving and fatigue. We would eliminate most, if not all, of these deaths immediately with driverless technology adopted en masse.

What about people leaping out in front of the car? In my home city, Adelaide, South Australia, the average speed across the city is just under 30 kilometres per hour, despite the speed limit being 50 (traffic lights and congestion has a lot to do with this). The average human driver takes about 1.5 seconds to react (source), then braking deceleration is about 7 metres per second per second, less effectively in the wet. From that source, the actual stopping part of the braking, if we’re going 30km/h, is going to be less than 9 metres if it’s dry, 13 metres if wet. Other sources note that, with human reactions, the minimum overall braking is about 12 metres, 6 of which are braking. The good news is that 30km/h is already the speed at which only 10% of pedestrians are killed and, given how quickly an actively sensing car could react and safely coordinate braking without skidding, the driverless car is incredibly unlikely to be travelling fast enough to kill someone in an urban environment and still be able to provide the same average speed as we had.

The driverless car, without any ethics beyond “brake to avoid collisions”, will be causing a far lower level of injury and death. They don’t drink. They don’t sleep. They don’t speed. They will react faster than humans.

(That low urban speed thing isn’t isolated. Transport for London estimate the average London major road speed to be around 31 km/h, around 15km/h for Central London. Central Berlin is about 24 km/h, Warsaw is 26. Paris is 31 km/h and has a fraction of London’s population, about twice the size of my own city.)

Human life is valuable. Rather than focus on the impact on lives that we can see, as the Trolley Problem does, taking a longer view and looking at the overall benefits of the driverless car quickly indicates that, even if driverless cars are dumb and just slam on the brakes, the net benefit is going to exceed any decisions made because of the Trolley Problem model. Every year that goes by without being able to use this additional layer of safety in road vehicles is costing us millions of lives and millions of injuries. As noted in CACM, we already have some driverless car technologies and these are starting to make a difference but we do have a way to go.

And I want this interesting discussion of ethics to continue but I don’t want it to be a reason not to go ahead, because it’s not an honest comparison and saying that it’s important just because there’s no human in the car is hypocrisy.

I wish to apply the beauty lens to this. When we look at a new approach, we often find things that are not right with it and, given that we have something that works already, we may not adopt a new approach because we are unsure of it or there are problems. The aesthetics of such a comparison, the characteristics we wish to maximise, are the fair consideration of evidence, that the comparison be to the same standard, and a commitment to change our course if the evidence dictates that it be so. We want a better outcome and we wish to make sure that any such changes made support this outcome. We have to be honest about our technology: some things that are working now and that we are familiar with are not actually that good or they are solving a problem that we might no longer need to solve.

Human drivers do not stand up to many of the arguments presented as problems to be faced by driverless cars. The reason that the trolley problems exists in so many different forms, and the fact that it continues to be debated, shows that this is not a problem that we have moved on from. You would also have to be highly optimistic in your assessment of the average driver to think that a decision such as “am I more valuable than that evil man standing on the road” is going through anyone’s head; instead, people jam on the brakes. We are holding driverless cars to a higher standard than we accept for driving when it’s humans. We posit ‘difficult problems’ that we apparently ignore every time we drive in the rain because, if we did not, none of us would drive!

Humans are capable of complex ethical reasoning. This does not mean that they employ it successfully in the 1.5 seconds of reaction time before slamming on the brakes.

We are not being fair in this assessment. This does not diminish the value of machine ethics debate but it is misleading to focus on it here as if it really matters to the long term impact of driverless cars. Truck crashes are increasing in number in the US, with over 100,000 people injured each year, and over 4,000 killed. Trucks follow established routes. They don’t go off-road. This makes them easier to bring into an automated model, even with current technology. They travel long distances and the fatigue and inattention effects upon human drivers kill people. Automating truck fleets will save over a million lives in the US alone in the first decade, reducing fleet costs due to insurance payouts, lost time, and all of those things.

We have a long way to go before we have the kind of vehicles that can replace what we have but let’s focus on what is important. Getting a reliable sensory rig that works better than a human and can brake faster is the immediate point at which any form of adoption will start saving lives. Then costs come down. Then adoption goes up. Then millions of people live happier lives because they weren’t killed or maimed by cars. That’s being fair. That’s being honest. That will lead to good.

Your driverless car doesn’t need to be prepared to kill you in order to save lives.

A google driverless car on a stretch of route 66, in the desert. The car is stationary and facing the camera in a posed shot.

And you may even still be able to get your kicks.

Education is not defined by a building

I drew up a picture to show how many people appear to think about art. Now this is not to say that this is my thinking on art but you only have to go to galleries for a while to quickly pick up the sotto voce (oh, and loud) discussions about what constitutes art. Once we move beyond representative art (art that looks like real things), it can become harder for people to identify what they consider to be art.


This is crude and bordering on satirical. Read the text before you have a go at me over privilege and cultural capital.

I drew up this diagram in response to reading early passages from Dewey’s “Art as Experience”:

“An instructive history of modern art could be written in terms of the formation of the distinctively modern institutions of museum and exhibition gallery. (p8)
The growth of capitalism has been a powerful influence in the development of the museum as the proper home for works of art, and in the promotion of the idea that they are apart from the common life. (p8)
Why is there repulsion when the high achievements of fine art are brought into connection with common life, the life that we share with all living creatures?” (p20)

Dewey’s thinking is that we have moved from a time when art was deeply integrated into everyday life to a point where we have corralled “worthy” art into buildings called art galleries and museums, generally in response to nationalistic or capitalistic drivers, in order to construct an artefact that indicates how cultured and awesome we are. But, by doing this, we force a definition that something is art if it’s the kind of thing you’d see in an art gallery. We take art out of life, making valuable relics of old oil jars and assigning insane values to collections of oil on canvas that please the eye, and by doing so we demand that ‘high art’ cannot be part of most people’s lives.

But the gallery container is not enough to define art. We know that many people resist modernism (and post-modernism) almost reflexively, whether it’s abstract, neo-primitivist, pop,  or simply that the viewer doesn’t feel convinced that they are seeing art. Thus, in the diagram above, real art is found in galleries but there are many things found in galleries that are not art. To steal an often overheard quote: “my kids could do that”. (I’m very interested in the work of both Rothko and Malevich so I hear this a lot.) 

But let’s resist the urge to condemn people because, after we’ve wrapped art up in a bow and placed it on a pedestal, their natural interpretation of what they perceive, combined with what they already know, can lead them to a conclusion that someone must be playing a joke on them. Aesthetic sensibilities are inherently subjective and evolve over time, in response to exposure, development of depth of knowledge, and opportunity. The more we accumulate of these guiding experiences, the more likely we are to develop the cultural capital that would allow us to stand in any art gallery in the world and perceive the art, mediated by our own rich experiences.

Cultural capital is a term used to describe the assets that we have that aren’t money, in its many forms, but can still contribute to social mobility and perception of class. I wrote a long piece on it and perception here, if you’re interested. Dewey, working in the 1930s, was reacting to the institutionalisation of art and was able to observe people who were attempting to build a cultural reputation, through the purchase of ‘art that is recognised as art’, as part of their attempts to construct a new class identity. Too often, when people who are grounded in art history and knowledge look at people who can’t recognise ‘art that is accepted as art by artists’ there is an aspect of sneering, which is both unpleasant and counter-productive. However, such unpleasantness is easily balanced by those people who stand firm in artistic ignorance and, rather than quietly ignoring things that they don’t like, demand that it cannot be art and loudly deride what they see in order to challenge everyone around them to accept the art of an earlier time as the only art that there is.

Neither of these approaches is productive. Neither support the aesthetics of real discussion, nor are they honest in intent beyond a judgmental and dismissive approach. Not beautiful. Not true. Doesn’t achieve anything useful. Not good.

If this argument is seeming familiar, we can easily apply it to education because we have, for the most part, defined many things in terms of the institutions in which we find them. Everyone else who stands up and talks at people over Power Point slides for forty minutes is probably giving a presentation. Magically, when I do it in a lecture theatre at a University, I’m giving a lecture and now it has amazing educational powers! I once gave one of my lectures as a presentation and it was, to my amusement, labelled as a presentation without any suggestion of still being a lecture. When I am a famous professor, my lectures will probably start to transform into keynotes and masterclasses.

I would be recognised as an educator, despite having no teaching qualifications, primarily because I give presentations inside the designated educational box that is a University. The converse of this is that “university education” cannot be given outside of a University, which leaves every newcomer to tertiary education, whether face-to-face or on-line, with a definitional crisis that cannot be resolved in their favour. We already know that home-schooling, while highly variable in quality and intention, is a necessity in some places where the existing educational options are lacking, is often not taken seriously by the establishment. Even if the person teaching is a qualified teacher and the curriculum taught is an approved one, the words “home schooling” construct tension with our assumption that schooling must take place in boxes labelled as schools.

What is art? We need a better definition than “things I find in art galleries that I recognise as art” because there is far too much assumption in there, too much infrastructure required and there is not enough honesty about what art is. Some of the works of art we admire today were considered to be crimes against conventional art in their day! Let me put this in context. I am an artist and I have, with 1% of the talent, sold as many works as Van Gogh did in his lifetime (one). Van Gogh’s work was simply rubbish to most people who looked at it then.

And yet now he is a genius.

What is education? We need a better definition than “things that happen in schools and universities that fit my pre-conceptions of what education should look like.” We need to know so that we can recognise, learn, develop and improve education wherever we find it. The world population will peak at around 10 billion people. We will not have schools for all of them. We don’t have schools for everyone now. We may never have the infrastructure we need for this and we’re going need a better definition if we want to bring real, valuable and useful education to everyone. We define in order to clarify, to guide, and to tell us what we need to do next.

The hand of an expert is visible in design

In yesterday’s post, I laid out an evaluation scheme that allocated the work of evaluation based on the way that we tend to teach and the availability, and expertise, of those who will be evaluating the work. My “top” (arbitrary word) tier of evaluators, the E1s, were the teaching staff who had the subject matter expertise and the pedagogical knowledge to create all of the other evaluation materials. Despite the production of all of these materials and designs already being time-consuming, in many cases we push all evaluation to this person as well. Teachers around the world know exactly what I’m talking about here.

Our problem is time. We move through it, tick after tick, in one direction and we can neither go backwards nor decrease the number of seconds it takes to perform what has to take a minute. If we ask educators to undertake good learning design, have engaging and interesting assignments, work on assessment levels well up in the taxonomies and we then ask them to spend day after day standing in front of a class and add marking on top?

Forget it. We know that we are going to sacrifice the number of tasks, the quality of the tasks or our own quality of life. (I’ve written a lot about time before, you can search my blog for time or read this, which is a good summary.) If our design was good, then sacrificing the number of tasks or their quality is going to compromise our design. If we stop getting sleep or seeing our families, our work is going to suffer and now our design is compromised by our inability to perform to our actual level of expertise!

When Henry Ford refused to work his assembly line workers beyond 40 hours because of the increased costs of mistakes in what were simple, mechanical, tasks, why do we keep insisting that complex, delicate, fragile and overwhelmingly cognitive activities benefit from us being tired, caffeine-propped, short-tempered zombies?

We’re not being honest. And thus we are not meeting our requirement for truth. A design that gets mangled for operational reasons without good redesign won’t achieve our outcomes. That’s not going to achieve our results – so that’s not good. But what of beauty?

A panel from the Morris Snakeshead textile showing flowers with interwoven branches and leaves, from the Arts and Crafts movement.

William Morris: Snakeshead Textile

What are the aesthetics of good work? In Petts’ essay on the Arts and Crafts movement, he speaks of William Morris, Dewey and Marx (it’s a delightful essay) and ties the notion of good work to work that is authentic, where such work has aesthetic consequences (unsurprisingly given that we were aiming for beauty), and that good (beautiful) work can be the result of human design if not directly the human hand. Petts makes an interesting statement, which I’m not sure Morris would let pass un-challenged. (But, of course, I like it.)

It is not only the work of the human hand that is visible in art but of human design. In beautiful machine-made objects we still can see the work of the “abstract artist”: such an individual controls his labor and tools as much as the handicraftsman beloved of Ruskin.

Jeffrey Petts, Good Work and Aesthetic Education: William Morris, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and Beyond, The Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Spring, 2008), page 36

Petts notes that it is interesting that Dewey’s own reflection on art does not acknowledge Morris especially when the Arts and Crafts’ focus on authenticity, necessary work and a dedication to vision seems to be a very suitable framework. As well, the Arts and Crafts movement focused on the rejection of the industrial and a return to traditional crafting techniques, including social reform, which should have resonated deeply with Dewey and his peers in the Pragmatists. However, Morris’ contribution as a Pragmatist aesthetic philosopher does not seem to be recognised and, to me, this speaks volumes of the unnecessary separation between cloister and loom, when theory can live in the pragmatic world and forms of practice can be well integrated into the notional abstract. (Through an Arts and Crafts lens, I would argue that there is are large differences between industrialised education and the provision, support and development of education using the advantages of technology but that is, very much, another long series of posts, involving both David Bowie and Gary Numan.)

But here is beauty. The educational designer who carries out good design and manages to hold on to enough of her time resources to execute the design well is more aesthetically pleasing in terms of any notion of creative good works. By going through a development process to stage evaluations, based on our assessment and learning environment plans, we have created “made objects” that reflect our intention and, if authentic, then they must be beautiful.

We now have a strong motivating factor to consider both the often over-looked design role of the educator as well as the (easier to perceive) roles of evaluation and intervention.


I’ve revisited the diagram from yesterday’s post to show the different roles during the execution of the course. Now you can clearly see that the course lecturer maintains involvement and, from our discussion above, is still actively contributing to the overall beauty of the course and, we would hope, it’s success as a learning activity. What I haven’t shown is the role of the E1 as designer prior to the course itself – but that’s another post.

Even where we are using mechanical or scripted human markers, the hand of the designer is still firmly on the tiller and it is that control that allows us to take a less active role in direct evaluation, while still achieving our goals.

Do I need to personally look at each of the many works all of my first years produce? In our biggest years, we had over 400 students! It is beyond the scale of one person and, much as I’d love to have 40 expert academics for that course, a surplus of E1 teaching staff is unlikely anytime soon. However, if I design the course correctly and I continue to monitor and evaluate the course, then the monster of scale that I have can be defeated, if I can make a successful argument that the E2 to E4 marker tiers are going to provide the levels of feedback, encouragement and detailed evaluation that are required at these large-scale years.

Tomorrow, we look at the details of this as it applies to a first-year programming course in the Processing language, using a media computation approach.

Collaboration and community are beautiful

There are many lessons to be learned from what is going on in the MOOC sector. The first is that we have a lot to learn, even for those of us who are committed to doing it ‘properly’ whatever that means. I’m not trying to convince you of “MOOC yes” or “MOOC no”. We can have that argument some other time. I’m talking about we already know from using these tools.

We’ve learned (again) that producing a broadcast video set of boring people reading the book at you in a monotone is, amazingly, not effective, no matter how fancy the platform. We know that MOOCs are predominantly taken by people who have already ‘succeeded’ at learning, often despite our educational system, and are thus not as likely to have an impact in traditionally disadvantaged areas, especially without an existing learning community and culture. (No references, you can Google all of this easily.)

We know that online communities can and do form. Ok, it’s not the same as twenty people in a room with you but our own work in this space confirms that you can have students experiencing a genuine feeling of belonging, facilitated through course design and forum interaction.

“Really?” you ask.

In a MOOC we ran with over 25,000 students, a student wrote a thank you note to us at the top of his code, for the final assignment. He had moved from non-coder to coder with us and had created some beautiful things. He left a note in his code because he thought that someone would read it. And we did. There is evidence of this everywhere in the forums and their code. No, we don’t have a face-to-face relationship. But we made them feel something and, from what we’ve seen so far, it doesn’t appear to be a bad something.

But we, as in the wider on-line community, have learned something else that is very important. Students in MOOCs often set their own expectations of achievement. They come in, find what they’re after, and leave, much like they are asking a question on Quora or StackExchange. Much like you check out reviews on-line before you start watching a show or you download one or two episodes to check it out. You know, 21st Century life.

Once you see that self-defined achievement and engagement, a lot of things about MOOCs, including drop rates and strange progression, suddenly make sense. As does the realisation that this is a total change from what we have accepted for centuries as desirable behaviour. This is something that we are going to have a lot of trouble fitting into our existing system. It also indicates how much work we’re going to have to do in order to bring in traditionally disadvantaged communities, first-in-family and any other under-represented group. Because they may still believe that we’re offering Perry’s nightmare in on-line form: serried ranks with computers screaming facts at you.

We offer our students a lot of choice but, as Universities, we mostly work on the idea of ‘follow this program to achieve this qualification’. Despite notionally being in the business of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, our non-award and ‘not for credit’ courses are dwarfed in enrolments by the ‘follow the track, get a prize’ streams. And that, of course, is where the diminishing bags of dollars come from. That’s why retention is such a hot-button issue at Universities because even 1% more retained students is worth millions to most Universities. A hunt and peck community? We don’t even know what retention looks like in that context.

Pretending that this isn’t happening is ignoring evidence. It’s self-deceptive, disingenuous, hypocritical (for we are supposed to be the evidence junkies) and, once again, we have a failure of educational aesthetics. Giving people what they don’t want isn’t good. Pretending that they just don’t know what’s good for them is really not being truthful. That’s three Socratic strikes: you’re out.

The Eiffel Tower, Paris, at night being struck at the apex by three bolts of lightning simultaneously.

We had better be ready to redirect that energy or explode.

We have a message from our learning community. They want some control. We have to be aware that, if we really want them to do something, they have to feel that it’s necessary. (So much research supports this.) By letting them run around in the MOOC space, artificial and heavily instrumented, we can finally see what they’re up to without having to follow them around with clipboards. We see them on the massive scale, individuals and aggregates. Remember, on average these are graduates; these are students who have already been through our machine and come out. These are the last people, if we’ve convinced them of the rightness of our structure, who should be rocking the boat and wanting to try something different. Unless, of course, we haven’t quite been meeting their true needs all these years.

I often say that the problem we have with MOOC enrolments is that we can see all of them. There is no ‘peeking around the door’ in a MOOC. You’re in or you’re out, in order to be signed up for access or updates.

If we were collaborating with all of our students to produce learning materials and structures, not just the subset who go into MOOC, I wonder what we would end up turning out? We still need to apply our knowledge of pedagogy and psychology, of course, to temper desire with what works but I suspect that we should be collaborating with our learner community in a far more open way. Everywhere else, technology is changing the relationship between supplier and consumer. Name any other industry and we can probably find a new model where consumers get more choice, more knowledge and more power.

No-one (sensible) is saying we should raze the Universities overnight. I keep being told that allowing more student control is going to lead to terrible things but, frankly, I don’t believe it and I don’t think we have enough evidence to stop us from at least exploring this path. I think it’s scary, yes. I think it’s going to challenge how we think about tertiary education, absolutely. I also think that we need to work out how we can bring together the best of face-to-face with the best of on-line, for the most people, in the most educationally beautiful way. Because anything else just isn’t that beautiful.