A Tale of Two Chem MOOCs

Course: Chemistry
School: University of Kentucky via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Dr. Allison Soult, Dr. Kim Woodrum
Allison Soult and Kim Woodrum bring their experience to the course covering atomic structure, periodic trends, compounds, reactions, stoichiometry, and thermochemistry. Instruction consists of concepts, calculations, and video demonstrations of the principles being discussed. Practice problems and end of unit assessments will help students gauge their understanding of the material.
Course: Introduction to Chemistry: Reactions and Ratios
School: Duke University via Coursera (free)
Instructor: Prof. Dorian A. Canelas
Topics include introductions to atoms, molecules, ions, the periodic table, stoichiometry, and chemical reactions. The pattern of the use of ratios in chemical problem solving will be emphasized….Each week the course will contain a series of short video lectures with interactive questions embedded in the lectures. Students will have opportunities to practice each week via exercises at two levels of depth: one set of foundational problems directly related to lecture videos and another set of problems requiring more synthesis of ideas and application of pre-existing algebra skills.

[Addendum: These courses have been converted to the new Coursera platform; content may have changed, and the experience is likely to be different]

Why did I take two chemistry courses more or less consecutively? I really, really wanted to learn some chemistry.

Actually, it was a fluke of scheduling. And, by the way, I was scared to death of both of them, thanks to being traumatized by chemistry in high school. My recollection was that chemistry is a lot of algebra, and no matter how much math I’ve been doing, it’s still a struggle. I’d heard Duke’s course was hard, but really good, and very conceptual, so I hoped the Kentucky course, which ran first, would give me enough of an introduction to at least make a dent in the “real” course.

Thing didn’t quite turn out that way.

The Kentucky course relied heavily on calculations and extensive practice. Each week included a set of ungraded homework, with answers immediately available. The weekly tests were more or less standard “take it over and over until you get them all right” but doing the work was a sure way to get the material down. The first unit was particularly brutal for algebraphobes, covering everything from quantum energy states to orbitals and electron configurations. I finally got over my fear of scientific notation by just buckling down and figuring a way to understand it (if the coefficient gets larger, the exponent has to get smaller) instead of trying to remember left and right and when to count zeroes and when to count places. Yes, I really am that stupid about math. Chemistry? I shouldn’t have been allowed out of sixth grade.

I found the initial materials were well-presented and explained clearly; the middle section seemed a lot less clear, but that could’ve been merely my reaction. The lectures were fairly dry; a couple of demonstrations were included, for “interest” I suppose, but I didn’t find them particularly illuminating. I do wish more of a conceptual overview had been included, but in terms of learning specific calculations, it worked well, and I probably needed that more than anything else.

There were, of course, drawbacks to the skill-drill approach. First, the practice problems, while great for learning the material, had a significant number of errors throughout the course, particularly towards the middle and end. A couple of more advanced students helped verify the correct answers, but, Second, there was no staff, and, even worse, no CTAs to help out (as it happens, one of those helpful advanced students turned up as a CTA in the Duke course, but he had no official status here). I find the number of errors kind of inexcusable, since this is not the first run of the course; lack of response showed a distinct lack of interest on the part of the university – and on the part of Coursera, for that matter. But I suppose they figure, it’s better than nothing, and since I did learn quite a few calculative procedures and techniques, I suppose it is. It’s just that I’m very protective of MOOCs, and when a course opens itself up to criticism by this kind of carelessness (literally, care-lessness), it’s hard to advocate for their value against legitimate criticism.

The material was released all at once, with a suggested schedule. Because I wanted to finish before the Duke course started, I sped it up a little; I didn’t really complete the last unit, and I didn’t take the final exam. Because of the way the course was graded, it’s possible I “passed” anyway, which seems rather silly to me.

The Duke course was a lot more, well, I don’t know what it was. A lot of my classmates kept writing posts about what a wonderful course it was, but I found it garbled, disorganized, and unpleasant. If I hadn’t already taken the Kentucky course, I would’ve had no idea what was going on; in fact, during the week we covered material new to me, I was lost, combing YouTube looking for explanations, since the ones given in the lectures made little sense to me. On the plus side, I conquered my fear of significant digits, thanks to a couple of very patient and helpful CTAs.

The course followed the exact same framework as Duke’s Genetics & Evolution, which I adored; that goes to show you, it isn’t the template, it’s how you embody it. No one else seemed to have any problems, however, so maybe it’s me. I did see significant effort go into providing more of a context for the material covered, but I didn’t get a lot out of that; it seemed random and not particularly interesting. Then again, I’m not trying to be a chemist. But I wasn’t trying to be a geneticist, either, and that course had me glued to my seat.

A weekly test and final exam made up most of the basic evaluation materials, with an option to take “advanced problem sets” and write a peer-assessed paper. The advanced problem sets followed a pattern I recognize from looking over the shoulder of a lot of creative math teachers: questions about the problem. Do you understand the words? What values and equations do you need? Sketch your approach to the problem in words. Can you change the values to create a problem that uses different values? Is the new problem easier or harder? This sort of thing no doubt works wonderfully in a classroom, but here, I’m pretty sure any answer was accepted, and obviously there could be no feedback in a machine-graded system; because these were graded, we couldn’t discuss them. So while I can appreciate the concept behind that kind of question structure, I wonder if there’s a better way to implement this kind of feature – such as in homework which can be discussed.

The peer-assessed paper seemed to me a total waste of time, since I didn’t know enough chemistry to write about a chemical problem, but it didn’t seem to matter, since a grade was not part of the peer assessment; mere submission gave full credit. The most educational part of the process would’ve been reading the best papers (which were posted on the discussion boards as they were assessed). I confess, I didn’t bother, and that’s on me.

All in all, I far preferred the Kentucky course, though I found the lack of concern over errors, and the lack of CTA support, to be something of a problem. Of course, with Coursera moving inexorably to self-paced courses, this is the way of the future. At least I feel like I came away with some skills. I’m not sure what I came away from the Duke course with. I might even take the Kentucky course again; no way I’m taking the second of the Duke courses.

I’ve frequently said that no MOOC works for everyone, and that every course I’ve loved, someone else has hated, and vice versa. Some combination of the best parts of these – the increased detail, clarity, practice of Kentucky with the context and CTAs of Duke – would, of course, be ideal. But unlikely. In the meantime, it’s a matter of personal preference.


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