One week later…

…and 736 words of expectation for the class:


Note the top contender: let’s see if we live up to their expectations!

It’s been a fun first week. We released “Week 0” of the material a month ahead of the official start date, so that those students not yet familiar with the basics of quantum information (what is a qubit?) would have enough time to digest the fundamental notions we’ll be using throughout. (Out of the ~5500 registered students, ~1250 are currently marked my EdX as “active” and 560 have watched at least one video. Keep it coming!)

An unexpected benefit of opening up the platform ahead of time is that it is giving us the time to experiment with (read: debug) some of the tools we plan to use throughout. A first is EdX’s own possibilities for interaction with the students, an example of which is pictured above (“Use the space below to enter a few words that best characterize your expectations for this class”).But we’re also using a couple add-ons:

The first is a system replacing EdX’s discussion forums,called Askalot. Cute name – how can you resist. The main benefit of Askalot is that it provides more structure to the discussions, which can be characterized as question/bug report/social discussion/etc, can be up/down-voted, marked as correct/invalidated by the instructors, etc. The students are having fun already, introducing themselves, complaining about bugs in the quizzes, and, of course, about Askalot itself! (Thanks go to Ivan Srba, one of the creators of Askalot, for being extremely responsive and fixing a host of minor bugs overnight – not to mention throwing in the extra feature requested by the students.)

A second is called DALITE. The idea of DALITE is to encourage students to provide an explanation justifying their answer to a question. Indeed, one of the drawbacks of the online platform is the need for automatic grading of assignments, which greatly limits how the student can be engaged in the problem-solving exercise, mostly limited to multiple-choice or simple numeric answers. DALITE (which grew out of, and is still, a serious research project in online learning) introduces a fun twist: the student is asked to type in a “rationale” for her choice. Of course there is no way we could grade such rationales. But here is the idea: once the student has entered her explanation, she is shown the rationale provided by another student (or the instructor) for a different answer, and asked whether she would like to reconsider her decision. The student can choose to change her mind, or stick with her initial choice; she is asked to explain why. It’s really fun to watch the answers provided (“What would happen if quantum mechanics allowed cloning of arbitrary states?”), the change of minds that take place, and the rationale that incentivized said change of mind. (Thanks to Sameer Bhatagnar for helping us set up the tool and explaining its many possibilities, and to Joseph Williams for suggesting its use in the first place.)

We’ll see how these pan out in the longer run. I’m definitely eager to experiment with ways to make the MOOC experience a better learning experience for the students. I’ll let you know how it goes. Suggestions welcome!

PS: 47% students 25 and under, 78% from outside US, is good, but 16% female is not…come on!


About Thomas

I am a professor in the department of Computing and Mathematical Sciences (CMS) at the California Institute of Technology, where I am also a member of the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter (IQIM). My research is in quantum complexity theory and cryptography.
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