April 14, 2013

The changing face of education


---- — So I’m reading page A2 of the Feb. 8 edition of the Press-Republican, and this headline catches my eye: “College credit recommended for free online courses.”

Reading further, I learn that Duke University is offering a course, “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution” — a topic that has long interested me, but I’ve never had enough time to investigate fully.

I was also curious to see how much progress has been made in the past (roughly) 40 years in the area of Computer Managed Instruction (CMI), which not only delivers courses but manages the total learning environment by assigning resources (e.g. books, videos, teachers) and evaluating the student’s progress through exams, labs and other learning experiences.

In fact, in the mid-1970s I had designed and implemented a CMI system named ACCOLADE around a course in Computer Literacy.

Next, I went to my favorite search engine, Google, and entered, “Genetics and Evolution Duke University” and before I could lift my coffee to my lips, I was presented with a page of links that beckoned and promised to guide me in my quest.

I also learned that these massive, open, online courses were referred to as a MOOC and that the New York Times, about six months ago, named the “Big Three” MOOCs as Coursera, Udacity and edX (

The MOOC List website, which claims to be “a complete list of massive open online courses (free online courses) offered by the best universities and entities,” seems to have a more comprehensive list (

I strongly suspect both lists are not current since the content of the Internet changes so rapidly that nothing is ever really up to date.

I chose to register with the Coursera Corp. and while only moderately badgered to join the “signature” edition of the course — which accredits the experience for only a small sum, I suppose — I soon reached the Home page,  which read:

“Welcome to Introduction to Genetics and Evolution!!!

“As you begin the course, please do the following:

“From the menu, select “Philosophy” and read about what we are offering and what we expect from our students.

“Review “Due Dates” to see when problem sets and exams will be open and due, and “Grading Policy” to find information about grades.

“Look over the “Video/Topic Schedule” to get a sense of the overall plan for course topics and the key ideas in each lecture.”

It continued with much more, including information on lectures, problem sets and exams, discussion forums (like chat rooms) and so on and so forth. (Due Dates present an interesting problem as students register from time zones all over the world.)

I eagerly began the course and my initial impressions were twofold:

1.CMI had changed a lot.

2.CMI had not changed very much at all.

Impression No. 1 was based on the slick presentation and the sheer quantity of resources available to the student under the newer system.

Impression No. 2 was the realization that while the quantity and speed of delivery of the resources had radically accelerated, the type and kind of resources were pretty much the same.

My ACCOLADE system of the 1970s contained a “Yellow Pages” of resources, which comprised: Printed Material (books, magazines, journals, etc), Other university courses, Other lessons on the computer, People, Movies, Videotapes and Audiotapes.

These resources were linked through a Semantic Network that displayed the topics to be learned, as well as the relationships between them.

Like Coursera and similar MOOCs, ACCOLADE also provided an email and a bulletin-board system so learners and teachers could communicate, as well as the opportunity for students to take self-paced tests and evaluations.

While Coursera can provide its resources online to truly massive class sizes (claims of more than 100,000 are common), ACCOLADE had a more tightly integrated navigational system via the semantic net.

Overall, I would choose the modern MOOC over older CMI systems, but the really important question is would I choose a MOOC over a standard college course with live students and a live professor?

In the next column, I will explore the future of MOOCs and the interesting politics of changing education.

Dr. Stewart A. Denenberg is an emeritus professor of computer science at Plattsburgh State, retiring recently after 30 years there. Before that, he worked as a technical writer, programmer and consultant to the U.S. Navy and private Industry. Send comments and suggestions to his blog at, where there is additional text and links. He can also be reached at