The truth about MOOCs

Photo-collaboration by Kristin Nador and Lux05

Photo-collaboration by Kristin Nador and Lux05

[Addendum 6/11/2016: Much has changed since I wrote this 3 years ago, but the basics still apply: Every mooc is different; some will work better for certain students than others; peer assessment can be weird so don’t take it personally; forums are your friends but it depends on the course how good they are; and tech shit happens so don’t worry, whatever it is, it can be fixed. However, the details have changed a great deal. One of these days I’ll post an updated version of this post]

With no short story prize anthologies due until Fall, I filled up my summer with MOOCs.

I’ve finished six courses so far through Coursera (I’ll be branching out to EdX in October, so it’s not a brand thing), am currently enrolled in one, and I am, as anyone who’s been following can tell, a huge fan of these free online college classroom platforms. It’s a terrific opportunity to study a wide range of subjects at any level of involvement, from watching a few lecture videos to spending hours figuring out the details. And did I mention they’re free?

That doesn’t mean they’re perfect, however. There are a few things you should know.

First: Peer Assessment isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Yes, you will spend hours writing a detailed 800-word essay on a complex topic, incorporating references in appropriate MLA format, carefully constructed to introduce, explain, and summarize a few key points then synthesize them and prove your opening thesis statement, and you will spend a considerable amount of time reading the assigned (anonymous) essays you must evaluate in return, and you will carefully consider the assessment rubric and provide the required number score (erring on the positive side if there’s leeway) and you will write a paragraph of detailed comments beginning with a positive, transitioning into areas that need strengthening, and closing with encouragement. Yes, this will take up to an hour for each of the three essays you (anonymously) assess.

And yes, you will (maybe) get three peer assessments in return, one of which be one sentence on how brilliant you are, one of which will be one sentence about how stupid you are, and one of which will tell you nothing but give you a lousy score anyway. You will score somewhere in the middle (unless you’re creative with the assignment, in which case no one will get what you’re doing). Fortunately, the bar for “passing” these courses is pretty low, probably because the instructors are aware that peer assessment can be capricious. You will probably get one, possibly two, superb and helpful assessments for every three or four assignments. You will feel immense gratitude.

They are making efforts to improve this system, but in the meantime, they’re passing it off as “personalized feedback even in classes with thousands of students… which education research suggests is highly effective.” Realistically, look at it this way: you’re learning to assess course information presented in what might be an unusual way, to analyze good and bad points, to provide constructive criticism, and to handle disappointment.

If you want real feedback for an assignment, find a study group (every course has them, both online and in person if enough students from the same area sign up), or post your paper in the forums (see “About those forums…”), but it’s still peer assessment, though it tends to be more detailed. Not every course uses peer assessment; science and math, obviously, use other methods, but even some humanities courses use multiple choice tests. Course descriptions usually specify the evaluation criteria. Don’t be afraid of peer assessment – I find the assignments useful, since writing helps me think – but don’t get overly invested in “grades.”

Second: About those forums… Some courses have great message boards, like the Calculus class I took; it was a great place for a quick “I don’t get why Step 4 works,” and a lot of people used it for far more advanced purposes, like programming, discussion of mathematical theory, etc etc (sorry, I had my hands full just getting the coursework done). Considering there are tens of thousands of students enrolled in these courses, very few post on the boards; maybe 50 people make up the bulk of forum posts, with another 50 making up virtually all of the rest. Staff involvement in discussions varies but is usually limited at best (there are exceptions). Most of the course message boards are civil; there’s an occasional squabble, but nothing serious. Then you’ve got those classes where it’s off to the twilight zone. The most common issues:

Where there are message boards, there will be trolls. As with in-person classes, it can be tricky distinguishing between who’s making a controversial but valid point (which is useful), who’s testing the limits of the argument (also useful), who’s trying to be in one of those categories but isn’t quite making it there (useful but requiring more work to access the usefulness), who’s making a valid point in a highly aggressive or offensive way (not usually worth the effort but potentially useful) and who’s just looking for attention (not useful not anything at all). Because of the class size and makeup (students with none to extensive experience in the topic, from all over the world, with varying levels of written English proficiency and computer expertise), it can be hard to tell the difference. There are methods for reporting outright abuse, but when the guy wrote a response to “Who are you as a writer” explaining how his background as a practicing sadomasochist was central to his writing, say, in the same way a business owner might see writing client letters as central to his writing, was he making a good point or enjoying class a little too much?

The same questions will be asked, over and over again, in every class. This can provide an element of humor. My personal favorite: “Do I really have to read this whole chapter/book/story/article?” Questions and complaints about grades abound; I’m not sure if there’s some mechanism by which these courses are taken seriously by employers or the universities from which they emanate, but a lot of people seem to think it’s life or death. There will be frequent requests to extend assignment deadlines (“my internet went out” may seem like the new “the dog ate my homework” but, considering there are students in areas of the world with uncertain internet connectivity, it’s far more legit than it sounds), and insanely detailed questions about assignments (“Do we have to use a particular font?”). Most of this stuff can be ignored.

Don’t let the above discourage you from trying a MOOC; if you don’t like the message boards, you can more or less ignore them; I’ve done that in two classes, with no problems, since announcements are conveyed via email from the instructor and contain all the practical information you’ll really need. But they’re often very worth checking out, and they greatly raise the engagement level. And if you’ve got a dumb question about the material (I had many in math) chances are someone else is wondering, too, but is too timid to ask.

Third: Some classes are “better” than others (hey, just like real college!), and the only way to really find out is to enroll (or ask someone who’s taken it for detailed information). The “about this course” screen is good, particularly in outlining topics and instruction methods (but the estimated time required per week is always very low; double it), but not definitive: one professor seemed very boring in his intro video, and yes, he was quite monotone throughout the class, but it was still a great class because the information was well-organized and clearly presented, with plenty of supplemental material. I’ve had two classes that seemed to be great from the energy of the instructors in the introductory video: one, for a subject in which I had great interest, turned out to be the “worst” course I’ve taken so far, and one, in a subject that scared but intrigued me, turned out to be perfectly fine but way over my head, to the point where I dropped it in week 2 (I’m planning on getting more experience in the topic, then trying again; that’s what’s great about Coursera).

Take home message: don’t judge all of the courses by one bad (or good) experience, and don’t judge any course by someone else’s reaction. Some students loved my “worst” course, and there were plenty of complaints about my favorites. I was disappointed by the content in two courses; I completed them, and I did learn some things, but nowhere near as much as I’d hoped; they weren’t really worth the time investment. I haven’t figured out a pattern yet, though my initial impression is that more “prestigious” universities produce better classes. However – I’ve taken two courses from the same university using the same technical team; one had a few technical issues but was excellent nonetheless, while the other was an organizational mess (and yet I did learn something, like the true meaning of “Less is More”).

Fourth: Technical issues will happen. After all, your computer crashes every once in a while, doesn’t it? New courses rolling out for the first time are particularly vulnerable, and some instructors and staffs are more comfortable with the technology than others. Some students are more comfortable with technology than others, too. You can’t submit an assignment? A video won’t play? Keep calm and check the forums; there’s a technical issues thread for each class. Chances are someone else has had the same problem, and it’s probably a simple one: you’ve overlooked a tiny box you need to check to submit (I overlook the “honor code” box about half the time) or you just need to switch video players from flash to html5 or vice versa, or close and replay (I have to do that about half the time, too). If it’s more complicated than that, post the problem and you’ll get help, but remember: the internet may be open 24/7, but schools and tech support departments aren’t.

I’ve completed (or am in the last throes of) six courses – math, science, history, writing, literature, art; each one has had value, and some have been inspiring. I’m in a philosophy course that just started, and I have courses in poetry, math, philosophy, and science coming up; a couple of others are extremely tempting, but as it is I’ll probably have to drop at least one when the story anthologies drop in the Fall (possibly all on the same weekend in November, at which point I’ll have a nervous breakdown). I’m having a blast. Because MOOCs, whatever else they may be, are addictive.

I’m not getting into any debate about whether MOOCs are the answer (what was the question again?) or the future of education (the way things are going, I just hope education has a future at all) or any theoretical underpinnings. I’m not an educator, nor am I depending on these courses for any practical purpose. I suppose that makes me a dilettante; so be it. I’ve long railed against confusing education with job training; anything that expands my view of the universe is a good thing. For my purposes, MOOCs are terrific. But there are a few things you should know going in.

One response to “The truth about MOOCs

  1. Pingback: My Continuing Mathematical Misadventures | A Just Recompense

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