Irrational MOOCing

When you make a decision, how influenced are you by the manner in which the choice is presented? Does the “sunshine policy” requiring disclosure of conflicts of interest result in better assessment of the facts? Are there ways to motivate workers beyond money? Was Tom Sawyer the first behavioral economist? Professor Dan Ariely will tell you all about choice architecture in “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior,” a six-week course from Duke University via Coursera.

I’ve been hearing about this since it debuted last year – it’s wildly popular, with enthusiastic advocates everywhere. So I signed up for this rerun, on impulse, even though I was already overloaded. I don’t know how much longer MOOCs will be around, so I’m trying to take everything I can while they’re here – and still free.

Dan Ariely has a compelling personal story. He was severely burned in an accident at age 17, and was hospitalized for three years; the daily changing of his bandages lead to an interest in finding the best way to deliver painful but medically essential treatment, which expanded into a career in behavioral economics: a method of understanding why we make the choices we make. The cynical side of me was dismayed that he’s part of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke, rather than the psychology department, but I suppose that’s where the grant money is: getting consumers to do what business wants. At least some of the studies are geared towards more socially beneficial (IMHO) directions.

I’ve taken enough courses now to be able, I think, to tell the difference between a class where work and thought has gone into the process, and one where a professor, coerced unwillingly into a MOOC, films a series of lectures, tosses the keys to a bunch of grad students, and never looks back. This was clearly one of the former. A great deal of thought, and work, went into this.

One sign of that was the coordination of various media elements (in addition to clever cartoons depicting Dan and his crew): an “Office Hours” segment filmed weekly (plus reruns of last year’s Office Hours) to discuss various course topics; an emailed survey series (optional), a weekly set of animated “Irrationality Illustrated” videos/Q&As (available online to anyone, though without the survey feature enacted via the course) with embedded questions to clearly illustrate various key research studies; readings from academic journals; and, yes, lectures. But the lectures were also designed to engage, with pre-questioning both on the possible results of research (“do you think more people will tell the truth or lie in this case?” before the results are revealed), and of open-ended opinion questions (“What do you find motivates you to work harder, money or other things?”). I have no idea who, if anyone, bothers to read the responses, but just formulating thoughts to answer the questions brought me deeper into the material. This is not a listen-to-the-lecture-while-you-drive course; it’s highly participatory. It’s easier and quicker, of course, to just film a standard course lecture in a studio or classroom, but it’s so much more effective to do it this way.

Even the introduction to the course was geared towards engagement. Right off the bat, we were presented with a “commitment contract.” I’m not sure if this was for motivational or research purposes (do students who sign the contract do better than those who don’t? Do students follow the path they choose at the beginning, or do they change their minds?) but it’s kind of a great idea; other courses might want to think about incorporating such a thing, rather than (or in addition to) the usual bland pre-course survey.

Two completion paths were available. I still can’t take these “certificates” seriously, so I tend to decide things like that based on what I want from the course. In this case, the “distinction” certificate required testing on the readings, and the writing of two papers, both of which seemed like useful ways to learn the material better, so I went for it.

The peer-assessed papers were particularly helpful in two ways. First, no matter how much attention you pay to lectures and readings, I find I understand the concepts a lot better when I try to put them into practice. In the first paper, we proposed a solution to a problem using elements of behavioral economics, and in the second, constructed a research study. Of course, there’s a limit to how sophisticated a 750-word paper can get, but this is an introductory course after all. Nevertheless, it served the purpose, which was to get me to realize the complexities involved in controlling variables and addressing specific behaviors.

One of the unsung benefits of peer assessment is seeing what other students have done with the same prompt; this is where you see the things you didn’t think of. In the moment, students typically focus on grades: what’s the rubric, how do I make sure I get a fair grade, how do I fairly grade someone else. I’m as grade-driven as anyone (you have no idea), but once you accept that peer assessment is luck-of-the-draw, and head into these things as ways to play with the knowledge you’re developing, they become more fun and a lot more instructive. In this case, the rubric was particularly forgiving. Even so, I self-graded my own second paper lower than my peers graded me.

An interesting twist came with the final exam: most courses don’t even bother to address the issue of whether or not an exam is “open book” (since it’s impossible to verify; for that matter, it’s impossible to verify who is at the computer entering the answers), or they specifically permit use of notes and re-view of lectures (though usually not consulting with others). Here, however, we were told clearly we were not to use notes, google searches, or videos. The only time I’ve seen this done before was in a math class (one I dropped partly because they wanted to take my calculator away from me; turns out that was the least of my problems, but I’m ready to give it another go now). On top of this, the exam was timed, something else I’ve never seen implemented before, though all instructors have the option to time exams.

While the effect of this was to increase the time I spent reviewing past weeks (a plus, for sure), I’d love to know if that was the only purpose of the use of these features. One of the concepts we covered in the course was the negative effect of pressure on performance, though specifically in terms of monetary bonuses. Perhaps it was just an attempt at “academic rigor” which so many find lacking in MOOCs (and that’s true of some, but who hasn’t deliberately taken a few “gut” courses in college). The fact is, one of the o’s in MOOC stands for “Open” and if you’re going to offer courses to anyone with an internet connection, you’ve got to expect some people will have less academic experience than others (not to mention less dependable internet connections, a serious issue when you’ve only got a 2-hour window to complete an exam and you live in a country/region that capriciously loses power and communications on a regular basis). The blessing of MOOCs is that anyone, everyone can get as much education as they can without gatekeepers, yet without some standards, they’ll be useless. It’s a conundrum: do you lower the bar, or view it as aspirational? Since we’re talking about non-credit free classes, is access to the course, and the knowledge/skill gained, enough, or is successful completion a necessary step?

But, again, the cynical side of me surfaced: another concept we studied in class was “the Ikea effect” – we value something more if we put some effort into it. Was that the purpose of the exam conditions, to force us to put more work into the course so we would appreciate it more? Is the course so popular because it was designed to take advantage of these – there’s no other word for it – manipulations?

In any event, I found the material of the course to be extremely well-planned, well-delivered, and effective (not to mention almost recursive, since the course itself seemed to embody several concepts). But (oh, come on, you knew there was going to be a “but” in there, didn’t you?)…

The atmosphere in a very popular course like this one can feel coercive (“If you don’t like it, leave”) and border on cult-like (ModPo, for instance). I’ve been aware lately of my own tendency, when someone complains about a course I’m enjoying, to try to show them they’re wrong and how great things are; I’ve made an effort to stop doing this, and accept what’s being said as genuine, even if it isn’t my experience. Another sub-curricular thing I’ve learned from a MOOC.

Then there was the “don’t click here” button which not only was specifically mentioned in the introductory material, but was re-mentioned later in the course – to revive interest? At the very end it turned into a “click here” button, so I did, and found material about a related project the staff is undertaking – I suppose they figured this would be the best way to attract attention. That’s pretty blatant manipulation, as I see it. I also wondered about the frequent mention of brand-name products, from an alarm clock that forces your “cold” decision, made at midnight, to get up at 6am on your “hot” state at 6am to get you out of bed, to the socks Dan wears; I wonder if product placement is coming to MOOCs. The final, highly casual “farewell to the troops” video also felt like a bit of a pity-party; the fatigue (which I have no trouble believing), and some grousing about a student who called Duke to complain about something related to the course (which, I agree, strikes me as bizarre – I can’t imagine what complaint could possibly rise to that level – but is it necessary to share the understandable irritation so bluntly?). In fact, I wondered if Dan was again using a technique we studied in the course – people tend to feel more of a sense of fairness when they can see the labor that goes into something, than when everything looks easy.

But these are minor issues, and no doubt aggravated by the pressure I was feeling under the burden of between seven and nine concurrent classes. The course was every bit as good as I’d heard, and I obviously learned something. I’m glad I took it.


2 responses to “Irrational MOOCing

  1. Pingback: Classical MOOC | A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: Scary MOOC | A Just Recompense

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