About


Aila spoke with Kieran about CyberCourse.

Aila
Tell me about yourself.
Kieran
I'm from Australia, but have lived in the USA for many years. I've been a professor at Oakland University for most of my career. No, it's not in California. It's in southeast Michigan.
I'm a geek. Learned to program in 1978. Got my Ph.D. in 1987, in geekery.

Would you like some tea?
Aila
Thank you!

How did you get started using tech to improve learning?
Kieran
That's not the way it happened.

I didn't start with the tech, and apply it to teaching. It was the other way around.
Aila
What do you mean?
Kieran
I've been teaching tech courses for decades. Database design, programming, Web design, like that. Skills.

Mostly, I just went along, doing what the other professors did. But around 2005, I asked myself, "Self, how do I know my teaching is any good?"

Self didn't have an answer, and wasn't happy about that. So it got to work. For two years, Self studied learning science, developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, and other stuff. Not enough to be an expert, but to hit the high points.

Self came back to report: "D00d! There's some great research. You should use this stuff!"

Researchers know quite a bit about how people learn skills, and how we can help them learn better. Over the last 20 years or so, a consensus has emerged in the research community. Things like:

- Deep learning
- Outcome-driven learning
- Frequent formative feedback
- Metacognition

Using these ideas, Self and I worked out a better way to help people learn skills. It's a flipped course, with lots of exercises and feedback, and personal help. The exercises are active; students make things, like programs, or statistical reports. The feedback is a list of things to improve. One-on-one help is there for students.

We implemented the ideas in my Web tech courses at Oakland University. From 2007 to 2009, we built the Web site CoreDogs.
Aila
Let me stop you there. You said "a better way to help people learn skills." What does "better" mean?
Kieran
Great question! That's where Self and I started, too.

For a skills course, it's about what students can do at the end of the semester. The programs they can write, or the data analysis they can do.

There's a quality/quantity tradeoff. Self and I decided that, for my courses, quality is more important. Doing the most important things well, is better than doing many things poorly.
Aila
What did other professors think of CoreDogs?
Kieran
It varied.

Many professors don't think about teaching very much. They give the same lectures, year after year. They're not interested in improving.

However, professors who pay attention to their teaching tend to like CoreDogs. One reason is that CoreDogs started with learning principles, and then added tech to support it.

Incidentally, that's why the question "How did you get started using tech to improve learning?" doesn't really apply. I've always had a tech background, but I got interested in learning for its own sake. Then I put the two together, using tech to support learning, using findings from learning research.
 
Aila
What happened next?
Kieran
People started saying, "Wow! This is great! Can I make a CoreDogs about my subject?"

Self and I had built CoreDogs for my Oakland University courses. The student side of CoreDogs is good, but the authoring side is rough. It was written for geeky me, with special codes, shortcuts, and such. Not suitable for normal humans.

Self and I wanted to turn CoreDogs into a tool normal people could use. It was harder than we'd hoped. We created FlippedTextbook.Com in 2010/11, but made some mistakes. We decided to start over.

That's where CyberCourse came from. CyberCourse is CoreDogs 3.0.
Aila
How is CyberCourse different from CoreDogs?
Kieran
CyberCourse has the same goal as CoreDogs: Use findings from research to make skill learning more effective and efficient. But regular humans can use CyberCourse's authoring tools.

There are new features, too. Some are about learning, like better use of patterns, and big ideas. Some features are about tech, like support for mobile - tablets and smart phones. That wasn't part of CoreDogs. But it's important now.

A big change is that CyberCourse is open source. Anyone can download and use it, all for free. The source code for CoreDogs was never released; it's too idiosyncratic.
Aila
CyberCourse sounds complicated.
Kieran
Yes, it is. However, Self and I already figured a lot of it out for CoreDogs.

Apart from the learning science and tech, there's also a business model. Authors will be able to charge for their work, and get all of the revenue.
Aila
But shouldn't knowledge be free? Some people can't afford expensive books.
Kieran
Yes, you're right. But free comes with its own problems.

It's hard to make a living writing traditional textbooks, because you get so little of the revenue, maybe 10%. You need another job to pay the bills. That means you can't put as much time into the book as you would like.

Another problem. The publisher won't let you write your book the way you want. They mostly care about sales. You want to write a different kind of book? Too bad.
Aila
But we still get textbooks, right?
Kieran
Yes. We get expensive textbooks, that don't use the findings of learning science. Textbooks that don't help students learn skills as well as they should.
Aila
You must think there's a better way.
Kieran
Yes! Imagine you're a math teacher in Detroit. You could write a math Cycourse, especially for Detroit students. With Detroit examples. Students could go and look at the things that are in your Cycourse, see math in their world. You could use Detroit data. When the Pistons play a game, the scores could be in your Cycourse the next day. You could bring math alive.

Since it's all on-line, you get a lot of data on student performance, ready for analysis. You could improve the Cycourse over time, making it better and better each year.
Aila
Sounds like a full-time job.
Kieran
Right, it could be. So, how do you pay your mortgage?

If you went with a traditional publisher, you might get 10% of the revenue. Not enough to live on.
Suppose you write a Cycourse, and sell access to it, for, say, $20 per student. Now what if you got 100% of the revenue? Your Cycourse could be cheap, you could make a living doing something you're passionate about, and Detroit students would learn more math.
Aila
Wow! That's great! And CyberCourse can help with that?
Kieran
Yes. The CyberCourse Way is about two things.

First, making it easier and cheaper for people to learn skills. Be able to actually do things, not just guess the right answers on a multiple-choice test.

Second, helping people who are passionate about education make a living, doing what they love. There are millions of teachers and professors around the world. Imagine what would happen if just 5% of them made Cycourses. Education would be transformed.
Aila
So what are your plans?
Kieran
The software is working, but the project needs a community. Geeks, teachers, and authors.

It also needs organizers. That's not my strength.
Aila
Looking for ideas?
Kieran
You bet!

If someone reading this has ideas, please get in touch.