“There are a lot of unemployed people in this country.”

22 07 2013

When last we checked in on Sebastian Thrun (a.k.a. this morning), he was misreading the nature of the problem with the Udacity/San Jose State math MOOC experiment. Now, he’s suggesting a solution to the many problems with peer grading written MOOC essays:

When someone writes an essay, you want to give meaningful feedback so they can improve. I’ve seen good progress on the assessment of essays; I’ve seen almost no progress on qualified feedback. And that’s where you have a very simple opinion—you just have people do it. Our classes right now require essay writing, and those essays are being graded by people and it’s just fine, in my opinion. Why not? There are a lot of unemployed people in this country. I don’t think it has to be all computerized.

So here’s Thrun’s MOOC future in a nutshell: 1) a taped superprofessor provides the content, 2) an impoverished Ph.D. does the grading, and 3) a computer that does the actual teaching. On 3), here’s Thrun again (from the same link as above):

We do some of it manually right now, so we analyze student profiles, we make predictions of what are the success rates, and then we intervene manually right now based on the predictions we get from students’ profiles. But we haven’t automated this yet. So eventually it’s going to be a big piece of artificial intelligence that sits there, watches you learn, and helps you pick the right learning venue or task, so you’re more effective and have more pleasure.

Not a professor in sight, not even a glorified teaching assistant offering online supervision. After all, Thrun needs as many unemployed Ph.D.s as possible in order to force down the rates that they’ll be paying their graders.

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6 responses

22 07 2013

I have several friends in IT. They talk a lot about it, but “pleasure” isn’t a word I hear much.

22 07 2013

That’s pretty much how Laura Gibbs said courses would have to go back when the first ones started. Wouldn’t that makes Thrun more than a bit slow on the uptake…unless he knew all along and was just saving it. Machine grading is probably still on the table too, just waiting for more data and graded essays to feed the algorithm.


22 07 2013

Ha ha, Vanessa – I definitely don’t want to be channeling Thrun even ahead of schedule. But I’m not surprised by this at all, and what really depresses me is that this kind of decoupling makes it ripe for outsourcing – not to unemployed PhDs necessarily at all (people with PhDs are probably among the least likely people to be able to give useful feedback on essays written for MOOCs – it is just not going to be like college writing at all most of the time if they continue massive, open enrollment), but really to anyone who is willing to do the job, perhaps having it outsourced to India (or Philippines or wherever even cheaper labor is to be had in abundance), just as some of the tutorial services are already doing. I have been trying to suss out just who Udacity plans to hire to do the “coaching” for the Georgia Tech master’s degree, since they are not going to be Georgia employees. Out of morbid curiosity, I’ve also been trying to figure out what they plan to pay them and what their student load will be – the Udacity people have been forthcoming with some numbers, but not enough for me to solve for those particular x’s.

22 07 2013
Norm Matloff

The fact that SJSU (at least temporarily) tabled Sebastian Thrun’s own course, Introduction to Statistics, is quite telling, especially if one actually looks at the context. This is possibly the shallowest of all the MOOCs courses I’ve “taken” (i.e. signed up for and browsed). The only “lectures” are the cartoons that Thrun draws. No required text, of course. The homework is also shallow. There is a decent term project, but in my opinion the fact that it is peer-graded makes it useless; that might work with some subjects, but statistics is full of subleties that only someone with thorough background can look for and provide feedback for.

Just how much can Thrun cover in a dozen or so 15-minute cartoons? Most students want something much more concrete than that, especially students at a school like SJSU.

I’m told that Thrun is a great guy who is going at the Udacity project with idealism, not cynicism. Great, but this is just a lousy course.

23 07 2013

Udacity trumpeted its “tutors are standing by in Mountain View to take your calls” selling point a couple of months ago (http://notofgeneralinterest.blogspot.com/2013/04/ny-times-mooc-press-release-or.html), but outsourcing seems a more probable outcome.

24 07 2013

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