Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Teaching, Day One

First day of classes for me today. It's "spring", sort of, so I must be teaching Algorithms and Data Structures.

Last year there were about 80 students in the class, a remarkable reversal after several years of decline -- the year before that there were fewer than 40. Of course, this was not successful for everyone, so even though our intro programming class has continued to grow, I'm expecting fewer students this year. The fall theory class (our intro complexity class) had about 60 students, and usually my numbers are a few less than that. They had about 80 students last year too. So my expectation for the final course size is in the (mid) 50s.

When I got to class I wondered if the room assignment hadn't been posted -- only about 20 people showed up. But lots of people wandered in a few minutes late, and then more and more as the class went on. The joys of Harvard's shopping period (though I can't recall ever quite such a number of late arrivals). I'm pretty sure at least 60 showed up at some point during the class; my initial estimate may be pretty close.

What's very odd this year is that on day one there's 48 people signed up for the Distance Education version of the class through the Extension School. (Still time to sign up!) That's definitely more than normal. A big fraction of those students are likely to drop out -- many quickly figure out the class is more than they can handle -- but that's still a much larger starting number than usual.

Hopefully, by next week, I'll have more accurate numbers for both versions of the class.

Lecture went fine. Very well, in fact, in that a number of students raised their hands in response to my questions, and they had, as a whole, very good answers and insights. Optimistically, I'm looking forward to an above-average class this year.


Marc Couture said...

Could you explain why you fear (if it's the right word) that "many [Dist Ed students will] quickly figure out the class is more than they can handle"? And does "many" mean "a greater proportion than in the regular student group"?

David Kofoed Wind said...

Our Algorithms and Datastructures 1 class at The Technical University of Denmark have over 300 students this year (I am TA on the course). Now we do not have enough seats for all the students :/

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Marc : Yes, a far greater proportion than the regular student group.

Experience suggests there are two main reasons distance students find the class more than they can handle.

1) They don't have the background (primarily in mathematics). Harvard students taking the class have already passed through a pretty robust filter and generally have the background to take the course (or know when they don't). The Extension school lacks an adequate pre-filter, and some students sign up for the class when they really need another discrete math class or more background/prep first.

2) They don't have the time. I expect students to spend 10 (or more) hours a week outside of class on class, on average. Roughly speaking, my class is 1/4 of their "job". Many extension students already have jobs. And families. And other priorities. They may not have the time my class requires.

Neither reason is meant to disparage to the Extension students.

David -- 300 students, that's big. For Harvard, 50 is already a well-above-average sized class... I teach in a nice large classroom, though, so there's plenty of seats still available.

Marc said...

Michael: For transparency purposes, maybe I should have indicated my standpoint, so that it would have been more obvious that my questions were in no way naive (as I suspect they could seem).

I've been teaching for the last 25 years in a distance-education-only university, and I do know about the consequences of (1) openness (as in "open learning"), which includes not putting to much emphasis over formal or specialized study requirements; (2) the fact that older students, with full-time jobs and full-time family responsibilities can hardly be... full-time students.

But, like the saying goes, never ask a question if you don't know the answer. But what prompted me to probe your views on the subject is that a few years ago, our (small) university were integrated into a (large) campus-based university, supposedly to work hands-in-hands with our classroom-teaching colleagues. But to this date, it hasn't worked very well, to say the least, partly because many of these colleagues are quite skeptical about distance education per se (especially when they barely know a thing about it).

The problem is that we didn't really have occasions to discuss (with these same colleagues) the kind of issues your raise in your response, which by the way I find very sound.

Too often, distance education is opposed to regular instruction, each with its advocates who, more often than not, don't have much consideration for the other point of view. Your attitude is a refreshing one.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Marc --

You raise interesting points; in particular, I think we'd agree that with distance education, there are a variety of delivery models, and it's clear that the model of a standard semester-course is not necessarily the right product for all distance students. For better or worse, though, it's the way my class is offered, because it's essentially piggy-backing on the Harvard course I'm teaching.

Anonymous said...

I took Paul Bamberg's classical geometry class as an extension student and he told us that the extension students generally got better grades than the regular Harvard students.