Anita Jones on MOOCs

This past week I attended the Grace Hopper conference for women in computing in Baltimore, Maryland. One of the keynote speakers was Anita Jones. I didn’t expect her presentation to apply to my research, but I wanted to hear what she had to say about computer science in general. She caught me off guard, however, and spoke extensively on how MOOCs are going to change the face of education.

She began by telling us about her experience working for the Department of Defense as a researcher. She developed one of the first prototypes for unmanned aircraft. She explained how her team took the unmanned plane to the Air Force and asked if they would like to test the aircraft, but the Air Force turned them away. She noted that the Air Force’s disinterest in the unmanned aircraft was due to the threat it posed to the current hierarchy in the Air Force, which placed pilots at the top. An unmanned aircraft would remove pilots from the equation entirely, requiring the Air Force to adapt its entire social hierarchy.

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When the Air Force turned her team away, they went instead to the Army, which gladly adopted the five prototype planes they offered. The Army found the planes extremely useful for reconnaissance work, and commissioned many more of the craft. At this point, the Air Force had to decide whether to adopt the unmanned aircraft, or to let the Army have craft which function in the Air Force’s territory, the skies. In the end, the Air Force deemed the threat to the Air Force’s standing in the military very small in comparison to the threat to pilots, and adopted the craft widely.

Today, the Air Force trains more remote pilots than pilots who actually sit in an aircraft (see article).

Jones’s speech compared the rise of Massively Open Online Courses to that of the unmanned aircraft, hypothesizing that MOOCs will change the entire delivery of education. She marked three sub-questions raised by MOOCs as major topics that need to be addressed by researchers (specially, PhD students and dissertations): (1) automated grading (of advanced questions, not just multiple choice), (2) individualized assistance (beyond that of the professor and TA, in the form of peer-moderated student forums), and (3) motivating a student to finish the course. She also stressed the difference between the words “course” and “curriculum.” An online course, she argued, is easy to develop. An effective curriculum, on the other hand, is quite difficult. She emphasized the need to move toward Massively Open Online Curriculum.

Most of all, it was fascinating to see that Jones chose the intersection of computer science and education as the topic for her talk in front of 3,500 of computer science’s women in research and in industry. She made me feel as though I am exactly where I want and need to be in terms of my research.

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