Online lectures debut at CMU

While the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and Harvard University have received huge publicity for their Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), Carnegie Mellon has been quietly developing its own set of technological learning tools which were on display Thursday in conjunction with the launch of President Suresh’s Simon Initiative.

Carnegie Mellon’s strength in both technology and in understanding learning begs the question — why isn’t Carnegie Mellon known for its educational technology?

Perhaps the answer lies in Carnegie Mellon’s rich history as a center for data analytics and machine learning — the university has facilitated some cautious investigations into online learning but has not wanted to jump into the fray before understanding the data.

Now armed with research, Carnegie Mellon has begun to integrate new technology into its for-credit classes. Professor Jelena Kovacevic, along with three other electrical and computer engineering (ECE) professors, have been teaching courses this fall as part of the ECE department’s new Technology-Enhanced Hybrid MS program where students spend one semester off campus and two on campus. Her class, “Wavelets and Multiresolution Techniques,” has been offered to both residential and distance students by leveraging a learning platform from Acatar, a Carnegie Mellon startup.

Kovacevic recorded the lectures for her course this summer so that she could spend class time engaging the students in interactive activities, responding to students questions, and ensuring they understand the material. The notion of the “flipped classroom” — where lectures are watched outside of class-time — was popularized recently in conjunction with the Khan Academy lectures but remains rare in for-credit university courses. Thus far, Kovacevic’s course has received overwhelmingly positive feedback, which is no surprise. Recent studies by the Department of Education have shown that blended courses, comprised of both face-to-face interaction as well as online content — including courses where 39-70 percent of material is online — produce better outcomes than either fully online experiences or traditional learning techniques.

The online courses appear to benefit the faculty as well. Kovacevic holds an appointment in biomedical engineering, a courtesy appointment in electrical and computer engineering, and is the director of the Center for Bio-Image Informatics. As a leading expert on wavelets, she travels frequently to speak at conferences, runs an active lab on the Pittsburgh campus, and physically lives in New York City.

While Kovacevic’s travel schedule may be heavier than some professors, that level of travel is becoming increasingly popular. It is not unusual for a professor to miss several lectures per semester due to travel — a phenomenon that could be mitigated by pre-recorded video lectures.

Since the spring, Kovacevic has chaired a committee to investigate “Technology Enhanced Quality Education” on behalf of the Carnegie Institute of Technology. She sees the potential for online education to engage students and make more content available to the public, but she does not want to take away some of the benefits of physical learning.

“The power of the campus is not what we learn, but the community we build,” said Kovacevic. But she believes that different levels of technology may be appropriate to optimize learning outcomes for different circumstances — depending on factors like the student population or faculty preferences.

Acatar, the company that powers Kovacevic’s course, began last year as a Carnegie Mellon startup. It provides an easily customizable approach for professors to create technology-enhanced courses, drawing not only on research and expertise from Carnegie Mellon, but also on technology from Carnegie Mellon’s eco-system of startups.

Acatar differs from the more popular providers of online content in both purpose and level of publicity. Andrew Ng’s (CS ’97) Machine Learning course has become the quintessential MOOC with more than 100,000 students enrolled last term. This course is 100 percent online so it can scale to huge class sizes and is a radical break from previous educational models.

Acatar, conversely, allows professors to choose what percentage of content to put online. This allows for the blended model recommended by the Department of Education but lacks the cachet of some magic educational bullet.

So does technology truly improve learning outcomes?

“Unfortunately, no one really knows,” wrote former Princeton University President William Bowen in his influential article on educational technology published in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this year.

However, this is just the question that President Suresh’s Simon Initiative aims to answer. As a core component, the initiative will amass high quality data sets on educational technology and share them with researchers, policy makers, and educators in a global setting.

The new initiative will continue Carnegie Mellon’s data-driven approach to educational technology. And perhaps by leveraging this data, the less well-known attempts at technology enhanced education like Kovacevic’s class or Acatar’s tools will be the educational technology with the most lasting impact.