Saturday, January 25, 2014

Ramani’s Education and the Pedagogy of MOOC Courses

I took a couple MOOC courses during the Fall Semester, 2013. Both were courses

  1. Computational Neurodynamics, Prof Wulfram Gerstner
  2. Fundamentals of Neuroscience, Part I, Prof David Cox
I thought I did not need an introduction to neurosciences, because I have been interested in neurosciences over the last forty years and have read on and off the subject. This interest has remained platonic as I hesitated to get involved seriously, I will write that story in another blog posting! Now that I am retired, I can spare more time for such involvement and I thought I would feel less like an amateur if I did an edx course in the subject.  To answer your question – yes, I did find that my decision to take the two courses was a wise one. I enjoyed them immensely. You do surely feel a bit more like a serious scholar when you know that it is the inside of the neuron that is negative at rest. To learn about sodium – potassium ion pumps and how they create concentration gradients across the membrane is illuminating.

The other course, on Neurodynamics, was different. “Very European” in its style of teaching, very mathematical and demanding.  A bit more like a graduate course. Not having seen even a mirror image of a page on partial differential   equations in forty years, I had to scramble a bit and slog to catch up. However, I did learn a lot from this course. I got 52% overall in computational Neurodynamics. The results of the final exam on Fundamentals of Neuroscience, Part I, came today (27 Jan 2014): 85.87%

52% isn’t much, but look at it this way – not many guys one third my age would have got even 1/3rd more than my marks! So, 52% is not a bad performance, considering that anyone my age could be losing 1 cc of neural matter per year.  

I thank EPFL and Harvard, along with Professors Gerstner and Cox for their excellent work.

Let me come to serious comment now. What do I want to share with you about my MOOC experience? One expectation I had started with was to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of MOOC courses. Given my badly interrupted interest in neurosciences, I had no trouble with motivation at all. I was having a great time. My retired state made its own contribution – I had all the time that was needed. A few sundry degrees I had earned a long time ago, including a Ph. D, had their own utility – I don’t run away when someone says “phase plane analysis”. Did I get what I wanted? Yes, what I got was precisely what I had wanted – knowledge learnt with the confidence that a Guru had overseen my learning and had formally tested me!

What else did I learn? Well, the courses followed the “hydraulic model” of knowledge transfer – there were buckets of it in the videos and other course material. It did flow smoothly into my head. But many of us believe that the essence of modern education is to inspire – to show what is great about subject, how stupid we had been in knowing so little about it 50 years ago and the speed at which we are learning now. Education has to demonstrate the addictive qualities of new knowledge. Some of us say that a good teacher has to be a proselytizer. We all know a few of them. For instance, they take god-fearing mechanical engineers and make them into cosmologists or something like that! I would not accuse either one of my two fall courses of having converted me or anyone else I know. The course on Neuroscience came with its bonus points though. It took us through videos into the world of museums, aquariums and the like. Very interesting and enjoyable, but a little too civilized and restrained; not much of proselytizing.  I will throw in two examples of their week-end videos and a lab-session video. Separated by the safety of a hundred or more years, we could see the skull of man who had a crowbar (or tamping rod, or whatever) fly into an eye and fly out through his skull taking out a good part of his frontal cortex with it. Read more at
The man lived on for fourteen years more, earning a living. This story clearly said something about the nature of the brain, did it not?
I also learnt how to choose a Fugu restaurant and what I should be prepared for, if I go to such a restaurant!

The lab-session video showed how you could feed signals to a cockroach leg (they had anesthetized the insect before cutting out the leg). The instructor said that they will save the insect and that it will regrow its leg! The noise (or music) from an iPhone was carried through an earphone cable cut in the middle to feed it to the severed leg. The young lady who had lent her iPhone for the experiment played Shakira's waka waka song on it and the insect leg performed suitably!  More than the neural science involved, I hope that the students participating in the demo were stimulated to think about and debate the world view science creates in our minds.  When I was asked to write a summary off what I had learnt in six words, I found myself writing something like "our brains are bio-chemical computers". Not false, perhaps, but is that the whole truth? 

Coming back to MOOC courses in general, one thing was clear to me. This type of courses are fantastic for graduate students in developing countries like India – good with English, highly motivated and hungry for the knowledge.
However, we need to look for other models of MOOC pedagogy for a much bigger population of Indian learners. Students in high schools who need excellent supplementary education. They are a younger lot who need to enjoy their supplementary education and get the kind of inspiration only very good teachers can provide. Those who create videos for this group of students should be experts in pedagogy in addition to being subject experts. They should know how to attract student attention and hold it. Mohan Agashe, well-known Indian actor and Film Director, has said something like this:

“As a doctor, I learnt that anesthesia is essential in surgery. Now, while making educational videos, it is abundantly clear to me that you cannot provide education without something like an anesthetic – entertainment”.     
I would surely hate to see kids being educated without the anesthetic of entertainment! It is almost not worth it!

There is also another way to look at pedagogy for technology enabled education for school students. Many teachers deal purely with cognition and problem solving. They forget the heart! A class hour is long remembered if there is a human element in it. For instance, take the story about the young fellow who lived with his family in a logger’s hut outside the city limits of the nearby small town. There was a library in that town which served the residents. Every Saturday, the boy would accompany his parents to the town and visit the library, while they picked up the weeks groceries.  The librarian bent the rules enough to lend the boy a book or two at a time.  The boy grew up to become a scientist and earned a Nobel Prize at a young age. (Guess who? Test your web-search skills to locate the name)!
How can we proselytize successfully if we don’t attend to matters of the heart?

Srinivasan Ramani 


Don said...

Dr. Ramani, is he Carl E. Wieman?

Srinivasan Ramani said...

Well! Visit