Monday, 8 July 2013

Meet the students - An interview with Kevin Weatherwalks

Massive Open Online Courses are often touted as the ideal way to bring world class education to developing countries but access to free online education is also changing lives in the US.
The Good MOOC interviews true American "MOOCaholic" Kevin Weatherwalks.

  • Can you introduce yourself?

I'm 32 years old from New Jersey and I wasn't a great student in high school. I didn't have a lot of motivation to learn and I think that left me a little intimidated by the idea of college level classes.
Now I spend most of my time studying from sites like Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity, edX, Codecademy, and Duolingo.  I am enrolled at Sussex County Community College seeking an AS in mathematics.

  • What are you plans after you get your AS in maths?

An Associate of Science degree is equivalent to the first two years of a four year college program. I would most likely be seeking a Bachelor's degree after that. There aren't a ton of opportunities that I know of outside of teaching/tutoring that only require an Associate in Math degree so I'm not sure exactly what I'll be focusing on then. I would love to venture into astrophysics or cosmology and at least attempt to help unravel the mysteries of our universe. Whatever road is available to get me there is most likely what I'll be pursuing.

  • How have you heard about MOOCs in the first place?

In spring of 2012, a post in the off topic section of a poker discussion forum mentioned the launch of Coursera.  Having spent many hours working through the Khan Academy exercises and videos, I was immediately interested.

  • What was your first MOOC?

Game Theory with Matthew O. Jackson and Yoav Shoham from Stanford University via Coursera.

  • Why did you choose to take it?

There were a few initial offerings at the launch of Coursera, but I felt that Game Theory was most relevant to my interests.  My main source of income at the time was from playing poker which is rooted in decision theory, game theory, probability and psychology. I wanted to better understand how to make optimal decisions when all opponents are rational agents (i.e. they are also optimizing) and how to shift that decision when they are not.

  • Which MOOC have you taken since and why?

I have completed 21 coursera classes where I've received a certificate. Some of them weren't much of a challenge, two of which I probably don't deserve and more than a few that were really tough yet extremely rewarding. I have also started a handful of courses only to realize that I didn't have the prerequisite knowledge to succeed or I just didn't have enough time allocated to finish the course. If the topic was really interesting to me such as astronomy then I stuck with it. Otherwise I just dropped it and focused on my other classes.  As someone who is still trying to find out what field I want to spend the rest of my life in, I enjoyed exploring a wide range of areas.

In the fall of 2012, I took Introduction to Logic, Introduction to Mathematical Thinking, Model Thinking and Introduction to Genetics and Evolution. These were all very good classes that were challenging to complete. In fact I've taken Keith Devlin's Mathematical Thinking class twice and have slowly started to get a handle on mathematical proofs. The next time I take it I'm going to get 100%. Mark my words, Dr. Devlin!

This left me pretty burnt out on the synchronous MOOCs where there are deadlines to meet.  Lately I've been taking it easy, enjoying the summer and working through some learn at your own pace Udacity classes.  I'm trying to fill in some gaps in my math skills before I start my freshman year at a brick and mortar school.

  • What's your favorite MOOC?

Duke University's Introduction to Astronomy via Coursera. It explored centuries of astrophysical models, methods and history jam packed into 10 weeks. It opened my eyes to a lot of cool phenomena in the universe, from why the sky is blue on Earth to determining the composition of an extrasolar planet's atmosphere through spectroscopy.
I took lots of notes, worked through all of the math in the problem sets, and left the class yearning to know more. A lot of the material was just a little bit over my head at the time so I would love to come back to it and give it another go.

  • How would you compare MOOCs to traditional education?

I haven't actually attended a live college lecture yet and my high school days are some 14 years in the past so any comparison that I make may miss the mark of reality.  From what I've been hearing though, the well crafted lectures and assessments in some MOOCs have an edge on the traditional university model.  I myself prefer instant feedback on quizzes so I can go back and watch part of the lecture again, go to the forums to discuss the question, or even get an immediate explanation for why my answer was wrong.  I think that it's important to get that feedback and fix the misconceptions early before advancing onward in the course.
For undergraduate and introductory classes, I think MOOCs provide a fantastic platform.  For graduate school work, I have a sense that for at least the next few years, MOOCs won't be able to match the close guidance from a skilled professor that the universities can offer.

  • If you think about the best MOOCs you’ve taken, how would you improve them?

The best ones that I've taken all share one key ingredient. Teacher staff involvement in the discussion forums. Whether it be actively answering open questions or endorsing a student's answer to that question, the presence of someone who is knowledgeable with the material needs to be known. I am much more likely to be able to work through difficult material when I know that I can just go to the discussion forum, post a question and feel confident that I'll have a good answer within a matter of hours. How do you improve that? Do more of it! These classes can always use more staff and TAs that are knowledgeable with the material to help the students work through the course.

  • Are you telling people around you about MOOCS and how are they reacting to it?

I am and I get mixed reactions. Most of the people I tell that don't have greater than a Bachelor's degree think it sounds great and are genuinely excited to learn about the existence of great free educational resources. I have encountered some skepticism from the graduate crowd and have received some harsh criticism. My response to that is to point out how new these models are and that there is a lot of room to improve on the MOOC experience. And of course they're currently free, so it only costs you time!  

  • How do you imagine MOOCs evolving in the future?

I think we'll see a greater effort to synchronize groups of learners by using Google Hangouts and relatively local meetups. Some MOOCs such as Dan Ariely's A Beginner's Guide to Irrational Behavior have already started encouraging this with links on the course home page to connect with fellow students.

I would love to see MOOCs integrate with for rent physics and chemistry labs all over the country so you can watch the lectures at your own pace and go to the lab to complete an assignment. I think the big thing that is missing in a lot of physics MOOCs is the hands on experience that helps to understand the concepts.  

The most important change I see happening soon is in regards to structure. I think we'll see more MOOC "programs" where there is a well laid out sequence of courses that lead to one gaining something equivalent to a "MOOC degree".  I look at what Jonathan Haber is doing at Degree of Freedom and see how he's piecing together a philosophy degree.  I'd like to see an outline for more fields of study and I think more people will be piecing some together over the upcoming year or so.

  • What are you plans going forward with poker? Do you see MOOCs being able to improve your ability to make a living out of that?

I put the poker career on the back burner at the close of 2012. I don't think that I'll be pursuing it professionally again for the foreseeable future. I do feel, however, that there are plenty of MOOCs that can aid one in their poker skills. The game is so centered on probability and combinatorics. A lot of its participants don't study those aspects. Acquiring the ability to analyze the game on that level can certainly give one an advantage. Any of the math courses I've listed are a good start in conjunction with Khan Academy and Udacity. edX had a great Probability/Statistics course that I was too late to the party on. One course that I would have taken had I still been focusing on poker was Probabilistic Graphical Models at Coursera. Basically any MOOC on game theory, statistics, probability, mathematics and mathematical modeling could inspire one to improve their methods for analysis in a poker game and hence their bottom line.

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