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Keith Devlin’s Thoughts About MOOCs

Keith Devlin is a mathematician and math educator. I first encountered his work when I read his book, The Math Gene (2000). Keith Devlin is the Executive Director of the Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute (H-STAR) at Stanford University and The Math Guy on NPR's Weekend Edition. He writes Devlin's Angle, a monthly column sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America.

Devlin teaches at Stanford University, the home of the first Massively Open Online Course (MOOC). He has twice taught such a course, Introduction to Mathematical Thinking—most recently in fall 2012. He blogs about this activity at

The Darwinization of Higher Education
Recently I read Keith Devlin’s December 4, 2012 article, “The Darwinization of Higher Education.” It provides insightful analysis into how MOOCs will change higher education. Quoting from the article:

Stanford president John Hennessy has described the current changes in higher education initiated by technological innovations as an approaching tsunami. His remark was prompted largely by the emergence and rapid growth of MOOCs (massively open online courses), first from Stanford itself, joined soon afterwards by MIT and Harvard. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Devlin notes:

Right now, the media focus on MOOCs has been on their potential to provide (aspects of) Ivy League education for free on a global scale. But an educational system does more than provide education. It also identifies talent—talent which it in part helps to develop.

Devlin forecasts that the tsunami will be much larger than most people are envisioning. He believes that some courses will soon exceed one to two million in enrollment. He discusses the current low completion rate (perhaps 10%), but does not seem concerned by it. Rather, he focuses on those who are able to complete such high quality, demanding courses. This approach is somewhat Darwinian in nature. The focus is on the “survival of the fittest” in a new approach to teaching and learning.

Search Engines
I think of a Web search engine such as Google as searching through the entire set of Web documents and selecting those that meet a specified search criteria. A different way of thinking about this is that the search engine “weeds out” all documents that do not meet the criteria.

Thinking in terms of weeding out provides insight into the possibility that some documents will be weeded out that may well be important to the Web searcher. That is, even though the search identifies documents meeting the search criteria, the search criteria might not be as accurate as they could be, or an important document may get ranked so low that the searcher does not happen to find it in a large set of hits.

Devlin’s article summarizes this idea:

Before Stanford graduate students Sergei Brin and Larry Page [the developers of Google] came up with their search algorithm, finding information (on the Web or elsewhere) was a time-consuming, and often hit-or-miss affair. At heart, what makes Google work is the efficient way it discards almost every possible answer to your query. Occasionally, in so doing, it may throw away the one item you really should see.

Devlin presents the point of view that a MOOC can be thought of as a type of search engine designed to identify students with certain desirable characteristics. Even if such a course weeds out 90% of the people who sign up for the course, it identifies a number of students with the persistence, learning skills, and self-motivation to successfully complete and pass the course.
Devlin is talking about MOOCs being developed and used in post secondary education. Many adults start such courses with little or no intent in completing the course. They want to explore the topic and the nature of such a course. They drop out once these two aims are achieved. Of course, there are many other reasons why many enrollees fail to successfully complete a course.

Final Remarks
A certain percentage of students —both young and old—are gifted in being able to learn on their own with the types of resources available through books, the Web, and MOOCs. With proper opportunity and nurture, many more students can develop such skills. Nurturing such students should be one of the major goals of our educational system.

A MOOC is by no means a perfect filter. However, it does identify a group of students who are of potential interest to employers. Unfortunately, as with a Web search engine, it may fail to identify some potential employees would will fit the needs of an employer exceedingly well.

Devlin’s main point is that people who can do well in such a course have certain characteristics that make them of considerable interest to employers. They have persistence and the ability to start a difficult task and carry it though to completion. They have demonstrated a high level of ability to learn in an online environment—in essence, learning without the individual help and support of a traditional classroom teacher and environment. Some companies engaged in the MOOC business are beginning to market this idea to potential employers. They view this an a potential lucrative income stream.

What You Can Do
Examine and explore your own skills in learning “on your own.” What led to your current skills in this area, and what do you do to foster them?

Now, think about what you can be doing to help your students develop their inherent abilities in learning on their own to a level that will serve them well in their futures.

Devlin, K. (2000). The math gene: How mathematical thinking evolved and why numbers are like gossip. NY: Basic Books. A review of the book is available at

Devlin, K. (12/4/2012) “The Darwinization of higher education.” Retrieved 5/23/2013 from


Suggested Readings from IAE and Other Publications

You can use Google to search all of the IAE publications. Click here to begin. Then click in the IAE Search box that is provided, insert your search terms, and click on the Search button.

Click here to search the entire collection of IAE Blog entries.

Here are some examples of publications that might interest you:

High school graduation rates are only one measure of educational success. See

Stanford University is offering a free Artificial Intelligence course. See

Supersized online courses (MOOCs). See

The math brain: Keith Devlin’s chapter in the book “Mind, Brain, & Education.” See


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