Saturday, November 10, 2012

Postscriptum: The Grading Debacle

The Fantasy-SciFi debacles continues; I thought I was done writing at this blog, but I feel obliged to write up a note here about the postscript to the course. Some weeks after the course was finished, Coursera finally got around to issuing the certificates for participation and recording our grade on a sort of transcript page where the grades for all a given individual's Coursera course grades are kept. People were understandably outraged to find out that the professor's grading scheme had been discarded and replaced with a new scheme, not explained clearly anywhere, that gave a percentage grade instead of a letter, and which also seems to result in some unspecified number of people not receiving a certificate despite the fact that they passed the class according to the professor's original grading scheme.

There is a lot to say here but since it is so incredibly depressing, I am just going to write out five thoughts and then be done with it. I won't go into the details of the grading scheme itself; instead, I will try to stick to more general comments.

1. People are very emotional about grading. Even though the course is long over, the discussion boards have suddenly become active again. Earlier in the course, Coursera really could do no wrong; any criticism of the course was generally frowned upon by the majority of students participating in the forums. Now, though, things have changed. Grades are different. Even students who are not likely to be critical of other aspects of the course design are ready to stand up and speak out if they feel they have been wrongly graded. A sad reflection on education in general, where people are more focused on how they are being graded as opposed to the learning process itself.

2. Grading is a contract that must be respected
. I am staggered by the idea that anybody at Coursera thought they could just throw out the professor's grading scheme and replace it with a different scheme. What does that tell us about Coursera? Nothing good, in my opinion. Even if they decided that this professor's grading scheme was not sustainable over the long term, they should have asked him to change the scheme for the next offering of the class, rather than retroactively changing the scheme for the class that has already taken place.

3. But … grading really has no place in a MOOC
. Seriously, what is the point of all this? Bitterness and acrimony about the grading scheme was a drag on the class week after week, and now it is adding a new dimension of dissatisfaction to the experience… for no good reason whatsoever. Peer feedback is great, because it is sometimes useful - and if it is not useful, you can just ignore it. Grading, however, is different - grading distracts from the emphasis on giving good feedback and it is also very hard to ignore. Yet the grading is also utterly pointless, given that this course is not for credit. The grade literally does not matter.

4. Alternatives to grading. At a minimum, students should have been allowed to opt out of the grading process at the beginning of the class, receiving feedback but no grades and likewise giving feedback but no grades. That would have been a fine option for me and for many others I am sure! There could be a certification of completion based purely on participation as a combination of writing essays, giving feedback, and participating at the discussion board. I would argue that such a participation-based system would actually have been just as effective as any formal grading scheme, given the chaotic nature of peer-based grading to begin with.

5. Poor communication
. Throughout the class, Coursera has had an incredibly poor communication strategy overall, and this grading debacle has shown their communication at its worst. I have received two emails from Coursera about the grading debacle, although comments at the discussion board  indicate that there are other Coursera emails that I never received (an email about the availability of the end-of-course survey? never got it; an email from the professor about the grading debacle? never got it). The sheer chaos of the discussion boards makes it a very poor vehicle for class-wide communication. The staff postings to the discussion board have been limited to "no comments," so it is not possible to ask questions about what the staff has posted there. Meanwhile, there is still no announcement of any kind on the announcements page of the class; the last announcement is six weeks old and for the entire ten-week course there were a grand total of four announcements. Many of the problems in this class could have been overcome with better communication, but the communication strategy appears to be non-existent, just ad hoc and ad libitum.

I learned a lot from this course - but mostly what I learned are things NEVER to do when creating a massive open online course. And my already bad attitude about grades and grading has definitely not improved, that's for sure. :-)


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Coursera TOS: All your essay are belong to us

Something about the Coursera terms-of-service came up in a discussion at Google+ today which I thought would be worth noting here for future reference. Here is the quote from the Coursera TOS which someone shared with me:
With respect to User Content you submit or otherwise make available in connection with your use of the Site, and subject to the Privacy Policy, you grant Coursera and the Participating Institutions a fully transferable, worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free and non-exclusive license to use, distribute, sublicense, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such User Content.
 Compare this message from the instructor which we received early on in the course:
Please remember that the essay belongs to the essayist. None of us has the moral or, under U.S. copyright law, the legal right to post someone else's essay. One does have the right to post a brief quotation if one is using that "for the purpose of criticism or review" (again, quoting U.S. copyright law), but one can probably do just as well with paraphrase. ("In an essay I read, the writer asserted that....") Even if one is praising a fellow participant, lengthy quotes are not legal.
Well, judging by the Terms-of-Service, it appears that the essay does not really belong to the essayist after all - it also belongs to Coursera. So, as fellow students, we don't have the right to post someone else's essay without permission, but that same limitation seems not to apply Coursera. Instead, Coursera seems to have secured the right to re-use the essays whenever and however and for whatever reason they want. Coursera, yes ... but fellow students, no...?

Now, speaking just for myself, I would be glad for my essays to be re-used. Far better for someone to get some use of them rather than having them just go into the virtual trash can. That's one reason why I posted my essays at an open portfolio site. Future iterations of this course, in my opinion, would benefit greatly from the re-use of past essays as models of student writing so that students unfamiliar with essay-writing could have a gallery of styles and options to browse through and learn from.

Meanwhile, though, what prompted me to write this blog post was to note that while the instructor of the course seems to think we retain the copyright to our essays, apparently we do not.

All your essay are belong to us.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Teacher Authority and Student Initiative in a MOOC


I keep learning new things at this course although they are not exactly what I expected to learn about. One thing I have gotten to observe over the past few weeks is how there are many students who prize very highly the rules of a class and teacher authority, even in a massive course like this where the teacher is more absent than present. I had expected that people signing up for a course like this, a non-traditional course where we work mostly on our own or together with other students in the class, would be students who embrace that kind of learning, students who feel a sense of independence and self-determination as learners. What I've learned, though, is that this is not the case for at least some students in the class, who are very much expecting the teacher to function as the voice of absolute authority in the class. Part of this I think has to do with the international audience and different cultures of schooling in different countries - so that's yet another factor in the globalization of MOOCs. If students are coming from cultures that highly prize teacher authority, a pedagogical element which is largely missing from MOOCs, especially this one (in which students do the grading!), then this becomes another important factor for course designers to ponder.

I learned about all this by accident: back in Week 5, I wrote a story instead of an essay for my weekly writing assignment. We are now in Week 8, and the argument about whether I should have been "allowed" to submit a story for my writing assignment back continues to rage at the discussion boards. Each week, we have a writing assignment (identical prompt every week) where we are told to write an essay whose aim is "to enrich the reading of a hypothetical intelligent, attentive fellow student in the course," In Poe week (Week 5), I concluded that I could provide that enrichment by way of a story instead of an essay. There is a short story by Poe, "The Oval Portrait," which is incredibly short - the story-within-the-story part is just 480 words long (you can read Poe's story here). So, I thought it would certainly be possible for me to do a modernized version of the story within the 320-word limit for our own writing in this class. You can read the story I wrote (and illustrated) here: The Oval Portrait 2012.

Given the number of people at the discussion boards very determined to enforce all kinds of rules (including the Americans who want to insist that the British use American spelling!), I was prepared to get low scores on this writing assignment, which would have been fine - no harm done. But when I got very positive feedback from three of the four peer reviewers for the story (see below), better than for any essay I had done, I decided to share it at the discussion board. Many people share their assignments that get a high score at the discussion board, often with peer review comments included, so I shared the peer review also. Three of the four reviewers were very explicit about how the writing achieved the goal of the assignment, even though it was not an essay; I included all four sets of comments at the discussion board:
student1 It surely was not what I expected - but it did enrich my reading! For it's originality, I'll give you a 2 (I do not feel comfortable in giving a 3 out of respect for those who stick to the proposed form). student1 It is a great re-reading of the story!

student2 Structure is definitely not of the essay type student2 This idea is neither original, nor enriches the understanding. There's been stories on the net about family letting their kid starve because of being too engrossed with social networking sites, on-line games, etc. I think you have missed the major idea of The Oval Portrait, which is that the process of creating of true art is closely connected with suffering (and even death in this case).

student3 It is not a traditional form for a university essay, but I think it was well written and it really showed a new way of thinking. New ways of thinkings are even discussed in this unit. I think it is a great work, very creative and still reaches the goal of our course and work. The images are good ways of illustrating and still communicating when we have such a small space for showing our theory. student3 Bringing the story to the current time is a good analyses of how some fantastic aspects of literature can be found in real life. Reality can be stranger than fiction, it really can. It made me think more than any other essay so far. I am really a fan.

student4 This is the best essay I've got for evaluation :) You, actually, demonstrated "admirable and noteworthy skill with which evidence is woven into the argument" student4 And I cannot find words that are good enough to describe my sincere admiration!
As you can see, even the student who did not like the idea of writing a story also disagreed with my interpretation of Poe to begin with, so that is actually a useful comment. I don't think that Poe's story is a story about suffering, but it's an interesting point and shows in fact that I conveyed a definite interpretation of Poe in my own story, seeing the Artist as more like a vampire, and not as a romantic genius of any kind - which is exactly the goal of the writing assignment: the story conveyed my own understanding of the Poe story, which others might agree or disagree with.

But is there a discussion of Poe and the meaning of his story to be found in the over 50,000 words worth of commentary that people have spilled forth on this topic at the discussion boards? No, unfortunately not. Instead there is an outraged chorus of people who think I broke the rules of the class and should be punished. There are lots of ad hominem attacks but I've omitted those here (just to note, they are intense - I stopped participating at the discussion boards as a result). What I've provided below is a sampling of the comments strictly about rules and teacher authority… and a related theme: to write the story was not just disrespectful of the professor, but of Poe, too! I thought that was really interesting: the connection between author and authority is a very real one.

So, here are some of the comments - just a few, out of the enormous mass of words people have spilled arguing about this. I should note, by the way, that there is nowhere a rule saying that we should not write stories - although reading the comments of some students, you might think there was such a rule! There is not a rule one way or the other, and evaluation as to the acceptability of an assignment is made by the peer reviewers (for which, see above). The fact that the assignment got favorable reviews seems only to have made people more indignant, rather than less:
You did not wrote an essay, which you were supposed to do. So you failed on this assignment.
You prooved your words with actions that you will not abide by the Coursera rules, by the Staff rules and by the rules that the professor stated for this course by writing a story instead of an essay.

The rules exist, and if one wants to follow the course, one has to abide by its rules.

Why is she insulting the educators of this lovely course by not following the rules they have laid out for the students?

I will conform to these criteria because I honor the professor.

Since he's a professor and since he's the expert on this subject, he has the right to set up the rules. And we should follow those rules.

The teacher knows all there is to know about the subject, and they know exactly what they want their students to learn.

You than also will see professor Rabkin as an example from whom you can learn; you can only learn by looking up at those who know better than you.

This is not about point of views. It's about rules you are obliged to abide (freewill) when following a course. There is no point of view when it comes to that.

The law is as it is, and if you don't want to end up in jail, you'd better not break it.

Since she didn't follow the rules of this course, she insulted all the other students who are trying very hard to write those difficult essays while she in fact got away with writing a very easy story since all she had to do was copy the story from Poe.

It is scary to give 1's to people who honestly try to say something interesting (but can't because this or that), when 6's are given to people who retell the story or invent a new one.

I don't want my essay graded by somebody who wrote a short story decorated with faux-social media screenshots.

It's really presumptuous to think you can redo Poe's work. Poe's work is fine at is is, there's no need for correcting Poe.

Your lack of respect towards the professor I find troubling. It's the same kind of disrespect you showed when you tried to rewrite Poe's story.
Quite the sociological experiment. When I think about how MOOCs could work, I assume that we are talking about a new mode of teaching and learning where the students take on a lot of responsibility for their own learning, setting their own goals, exploring and sharing together. For some students, though, the absence of the teacher as a determining factor in the day to day activities of the class, as someone who gives the grades, as someone who enforces the "rules," is clearly going to be a shock. In the absence of the teacher-as-rule-enforcer, some students seem ready and willing, even eager, to leap into that role themselves. The phenomenon of student-as-rule-enforcer is, I suspect, one factor contributing to the sometimes very negative and even cruel content of peer feedback in the class, along with the often hostile atmosphere at the discussion boards. It's not really something I had expected to encounter, since my own classes have a very different dynamic. So, while I did not expect or enjoy the tidal wave of vitriol when I shared my story, it was a good learning experience and made me realize even more fully what a huge challenge the MOOC course designers have in front of them.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Words of Cartoon Wisdom

After my experience at the Coursera discussion boards, this really made me laugh (it's making the rounds at Google+ today):


Saturday, September 8, 2012

Final thoughts about plagiarism

I hope this will be my last post about plagiarism in the Coursera class (now that I have written my final essay, I feel such a sense of relief - since the worst possible score any essay, even a plagiarized one, can get is 1-1, I can be sure of not writing another essay). The reason I am posting here is to follow up on what Satia, who had not just one but two plagiarized essays in Week 6, said in her post: Coursera Plagiarism Deniers.

As you can guess even just from the title of Satia's post, there is now a strong movement in the discussion boards against anyone who thinks plagiarism is a problem. Their motivation is the related problem of unfair accusations of plagiarism (a very serious problem which I have also written about in previous posts), but instead of saying we need to put a stop to plagiarism AND to wrongful accusations of plagiarism, here is the public vow they are asking people to take: My Promise as a reviewer: I will NEVER accuse an essay author of plagiarism. It's a popular post, people are chiming in about how great this is, and the one dissenter has been put in his place (I'm guessing that most people, like me, have learned that these discussion boards are a very dangerous place for dissent; it's better just not to participate).

The post contains a list of reasons provided for why plagiarism should simply be taken off the table (my responses, if I dared post at the discussion board, are in parentheses):
  • plagiarists cheat only themselves (I would agree with that, except for the "only" part; they also steal my time as a reviewer, cheating me of time and cheating other students of my feedback)
  • plagiarism is extremely difficult to detect (well, some plagiarism is difficult to detect, but some is laughably easy)
  • a false accusation is more damaging than cheating (I'm not sure you can make such a comparison; the point should be instead that they are both bad and nothing but bad)
  • the anonymous submissions makes it completely impossible to prevent plagiarism (the author of the post contends in all seriousness that it is possible for students in course to be the people who wrote the essay for the paper mill, etc., to begin with - on the same logic that would have me invest my life savings in lottery tickets).
Interestingly, the one reason I would propose is not included on that list: if Coursera does not care that there is plagiarism, why should we?

It's quite clear that Coursera does not care about plagiarism in any meaningful way. They added an "honor code" checkbox which you are required to check in order to submit your essay, but plagiarism clearly is going on despite the checkbox (see Satia's post for her Week 6 plagiarized essays, and I had one also, one of those laughably easy to detect ones, documented here). So, did they add a checkbox in the grading form so that we could indicate that a possible violation of the honor code? No. Did they make it possible for us to give a zero to an essay, rather than the minimum score of 1-1? No. Are there any procedures in place for someone who violates the honor code? Presumably not; if so, we have not been told about them - and what kind of honor and justice is there in a system where we don't even know what will happen to us if we violate the honor code we have agreed to? In fact, it's a bit frightening to agree to an honor code (as we have been forced to do) when you do not know what the consequences will be if you violate the code. But that's what Coursera did - they added a box, and made us check it. That's all.

Did they do anything about really educating the students as to what plagiarism is? No. They apparently left it up to each professor to do that in his own way and the rambling, vague statement provided by our professor was clearly not effective, as the plagiarism still continues. I was tolerant of the plagiarism at first, because I figure everybody can make a mistake. There's a lot of mis-information about plagiarism, especially patchwork plagiarism, even among college students. So, when someone plagiarizes, they need specific, targeted instruction in plagiarism and how to avoid it. Yet in our class, there is no such intervention - because there is no process in place to identify the people who need this intervention. If someone plagiarized in Week 6, as I saw for myself, it seems to me entirely likely that they also plagiarized in some prior week(s). Does Coursera have anyone on staff who is prepared to take on the task of investigating this important matter? Apparently not.

Which leads me to conclude that, for Coursera, this is not important.

Now, I think there are far far far more serious problems with the course than plagiarism, simply because plagiarism is not as abusive as other kinds of behavior. Remember the peer reviewer whose feedback was "One. Two. Three. Four." etc. on up to "Thirty." to meet the 30-word requirement? Well, that person (or persons, who knows?) was still offering that same kind of feedback in Week 6 as in previous weeks (a distressed person reported this at the discussion boards). Because Coursera gives us no way to indicate abusive feedback (and I would call that a particularly cruel, and needlessly cruel, form of feedback), this sort of thing can go on week after week.

As on every Thursday, in fact, last week people were posting at the discussion forums about the mean-spirited things people had said in their feedback, a problem that can and should be fixed - along with the more intractable problem of vague and useless feedback, inaccurate feedback, totally contradictory feedback. Last week, I had the pleasure of writing an essay (here's the essay) that received a score of 2 from one reviewer (who frankly admitted that they had not understood anything I said) and a score of 6 from another (who found my writing "deep and insightful"). Result: I got an average score. I guess Coursera is satisfied that it does all average out.

My take on this is simple: get rid of all grading in the course and make the peer feedback optional. If people want to submit essays for review, great. If not, then don't. If people want to read other people's essays, great. If not, that's fine, too. Get rid of the attempt to grade and also get rid of the certificate of completion. If credit is going to be awarded for this class by any institution of higher learning, they are surely going to require people to present a portfolio of written work for evaluation, right? They are surely not going to take the so-called "grade" seriously. So I would suggest that the focus be ON THE PORTFOLIO, helping everyone create a portfolio (most people don't know how to use free web tools to do that), encouraging them to revise their best writing (we have no revision at all in this class! crazy!) and put their best writing in the portfolio - the portfolio itself constitutes a certificate of completion. That would be my modest proposal.

But then, I am a fan of portfolios.

Of plagiarism, I am not a fan.

Friday, September 7, 2012

My Final Essay: Edgar Rice Burroughs

I've submitted my final essay and, after my peer responses next week, I'll be done with the class. So, I'll have some final reflections when that is done... but for now, I am very glad to have ended up with my seven little essays about mirrors. Pretty nifty. Now if only I could figure out how to get myself to Wonderland, or to Mars - either one will do!

I've published the essay over at my writing portfolio: Edgar Rice Burroughs: An Uncanny Death.


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Plagiarism continues

As I mentioned, I'm only writing essays and doing peer review for the remaining four weeks of the class. I just got my robomail (verbatim identical every week), telling me my peer essays are ready to review. I open the first essay. I read this sentence:

The War of the Worlds was written in 1898 by H.G Wells in response to several historical events such as the unification and militarization of Germany.

That's odd, since we were not assigned to read The War of the Worlds. So, I Google the sentence, and here's the top hit:

So, I guess the Honor Code didn't solve everything, did it? Surprise, surprise. The rest of the essay is plagiarized verbatim from this website, ironically named "123helpme.com." Coursera still has nothing in place for such assignments to be flagged for inspection. This student clearly needs help - but who is going to provide that help? Apparently not Coursera or the course instructor.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Done (More or Less)

I would be really curious to know how Coursera is going to judge the success or failure of this class. What criteria will they use? From my perspective as a student, I realized this weekend that the course is basically a failure - I'll finish up with the reading (which is great), and I'll write the essays and continue to do the peer review, but I'm no longer participating in the discussion boards (except to reply to any non-anonymous comments someone addresses to me directly) and I'm probably not going to do much more blogging here. Below are the criteria by which I'm rating the class as a failure for my own purposes and why I have no interest in participating beyond the bare minimum at this point.

1. Anonymous posting makes a toxic discussion board. I've never participated in an online environment where anonymous posting is allowed, and I don't think I will ever do so again. I wonder if Coursera is even thinking about this problem? If people want to sling mud online, there are plenty of places to do so, but it has no place in an educational environment. Persistent pseudonyms, yes, no problem at all - but anonymous posting, based on my experience over the past six weeks, adds nothing to the experience and instead has the potential to ruin it. To me, the most important part of a course like this is to participate in a community of shared learning; that has not happened, despite my best efforts. I have been a very active discussion board participant, which just makes me a bigger target for the anonymi to hit… although I am not only the type of person subject to mockery - there's a discussion board thread which consists solely of making fun of other people in the class. Everyone is a potential subject for abuse; anonymous is an equal opportunity scoffer.

2. Coursera is completely unresponsive to student requests for help and information via the discussion boards. We are told at the Coursera Contact page that any course-related questions should be posted at the discussion boards because Coursera staff are monitoring them regularly. I have to conclude this is not true. I have not seen a post from a Coursera staff member in response to a student query since the first week of class. One week ago, I asked some important questions about the wiki which appeared out of nowhere one night; I renewed my question periodically, other students bumped the thread so that it appeared on the main page of discussion board posts all week - but no response. (The wiki could have been an incredibly useful addition to the class, but since Coursera has provided no information about its long-term fate, it's impossible for me to decide about whether it is worth participating there or not.)

3. The work for the class is not intended to have any lasting value. Week after week we write essays, but there is no archive of student work. Week after week we write reviews of essays, but it is all anonymous, with no sustained person-to-person contact. The emphasis is not on the quality of that contact, but on the numerical grades - every week I get a robomail from Coursera that gives me a numerical breakdown of the grading in the past week. I don't want a numerical breakdown of grading… I'd like to see the best essays of the week! I'd like to know that the time I invested in providing feedback was actually of value to others! I'd like to know that we are not just doing this "for the grade" - but in the Coursera model we are, in fact, just doing it for the grade, and the discussion boards are filled with complaints from people who feel, understandably, that they are being graded unfairly (for all that I dislike grading, it needs to be done fairly - but that is not the case here at all, as people get marked down because of accusations of plagiarism for which there is no appeal, just to take one example).

I could go on (and on and on) about other aspects of the class that I don't think are working very well, but I'll stop with the folkloric "law of three" and list just those three reasons, since these are the reasons why I have decided that I am no longer going to participate in the class in any meaningful way beyond the requirements (and the requirements are only to write the essays and do the peer feedback).

So, as I said, I would really like to know how Coursera will judge whether the class succeeded or not. So far they have collected zero input from us about our experience in the class - are they only going to gather input from those who are left standing at the end? To be honest, that is one of my few motivations for continuing to participate at a minimum level for the next four weeks; I would like for my input to count, if they do indeed gather input at the end. Of the three reasons for my basically quitting the class now and just persisting in doing the minimum, two would be incredibly easy to fix (they are administrative problems), while the third item is more complex, since it gets at the underlying course design which, for many reasons, I would rate as a failure. Will Coursera do anything about this? Do they care? I will certainly sign up for the class again the next time it is offered, just to take a look and see if there are any positive changes - or whether Coursera is going to simply plow on ahead, confident in its large enrollment numbers, without evaluating the actual student experience.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Thoughts on Anonymity

Below is something I posted over at the Coursera discussion board. I've always allowed anonymous comments on my blog posts and never had a problem with it, but then there usually are not that many comments on a blog post - I've never gotten confused about which anonymous is which, and I have never encountered the same kind of mean-spiritedness that motivates a lot of anonymous posters over at Coursera. So, I started the discussion below (which will no doubt get ugly) because I am sincerely curious if there are anonymous posters who would be satisfied with a pseudonym, or whether they are committed to anonymous - and I also really was struck by the notion of "invisibility" as explored so darkly by Wells as it applies to the anonymous world, esp. the anonymous culture at Coursera, at least in our course.

Meanwhile, by cutting and pasting into the blog post here, I learned that in the HTML code for the discussion forums, there is a student ID for every post... so the anonymous users do, in fact, have a hidden pseudonym, a numerical code that is visible to everyone in the raw HTML. Intriguing. I guess now if I really want to know how many anonymi are cluttering up a discussion, I can look at the HTML and count the number of student IDs for the anonymi!

Anyway, I'm no fan of a real-names policy like they have at Google+ (pseudonyms are fine with me), but I have developed a strong distaste for anonymous posting as a result of the Coursera experience. If anything of note happens at the discussion, I'll report back here.



One of the most striking moments for me in reading the Invisible Man was when Griffin realized that his sense of untrammeled freedom, his high hopes at being invisible - "plans of all the wild and wonderful things I had now impunity to do" as he said - were simply an illusion. Instead of being free to do whatever he wanted, moving invisibly among his fellow men, he found out that the experience was nightmarish in the extreme, rendering him unable to do anything really… except to commit murder: "This invisibility, in fact, is only good in two cases: It's useful in getting away, it's useful in approaching. It's particularly useful, therefore, in killing. I can walk round a man, whatever weapon he has, choose my point, strike as I like. Dodge as I like. Escape as I like."

So, just to propose what we could call a kind of digital allegory:

The Invisible Man is like the anonymous poster, someone who wants to be part of things but to remain invisible at the same time - invisible, unaccountable, slipping away at a moment's notice, causing confusion or worse.

The Invisible Man wrapped in his costume is like a pseudonymous poster - someone who has put on the external trappings of an identity in order to be able to participate in human society and conversation.

I know there are some people here who are devoted anonymous posters. I know there are some people here using pseudonyms. Just speaking for myself, I think pseudonyms are fine - a very logical solution to the problem posed by anonymity. But as for anonymity, the more time I spend here at the discussion boards, the more I think anonymous posting is just a bad idea.

I know others disagree - and this has been discussed in other threads. I'm just bringing it up now in light of what struck me as an intriguing parallel with the dilemma that the Invisible Man found himself in. Until reading the Invisible Man, I had not realized the possible downsides of invisibility. Until participating in the discussion boards here, I had not realized the possible downsides of anonymity online either.

For those of you who post sometimes/always as anonymous, would you find the use of a pseudonym a barrier to posting? Or would that meet your needs...?


Invisible Man: Memento Mori; Memento Videri

For the first time so far, I actually ENJOYED writing the perfunctory 320-worrd essay for class this week. In part, this was because Invisible Man was a wild book to read, full of surprises, hilarious and horrifying at the same time - and I had never read it before! Most of all, though, it was because I invented a new Latin proverb to go with the essay... Memento videri ... :-)

I've published the essay over at my writing portfolio: The Invisible Man: Memento Mori; Memento Videri.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Wiki... and more communication problems

The poor communication continues to really hamper the Coursera Fantasy-SciFi course. The most recent announcement on the course homepage dates to August 14, over two weeks ago - in the meantime, the "Honor Code" box magically appeared - but no announcement... Coursera is now apparently recruiting us to do the video transcripts via a link which magically appeared in the sidebar - but no announcement... and, most interesting to me, a course wiki has magically appeared also, but no announcement. Our course did not even have a start page, so I created a page for our course, created page links for our weekly reading, and posted about it in the discussion board, whereupon another student added a few links also. Meanwhile, I needed to know something VERY important: will this wiki be erased at the end of the class, or will it persist and be available as a resource for future students?

So, I asked this question at the discussion board as soon as the wiki appeared (the discussion board is how we are supposed to contact Coursera staff; if you go to the "contact" page, it explicitly tells class members to post questions at the discussion board) and labeled it carefully. There have been some comments from other students (I've replied to their comments), and there have been over 100 views of the forum thread, but  apparently none of those viewers are Coursera staff because I still don't have an answer to my question. As I explained in the forum post, my motivation to work on the wiki is high if it will persist, but I have no motivation to work on it if it is going into the virtual trash can.

I also have very little motivation to contribute to the larger effort of a class in which the staff are so conspicuously uninterested in what is going on. I never see staff comments at the discussion board, while the problems with plagiarism, blank essays, etc. persist, as do the problems with incomplete/abusive peer feedback, etc.

Note that the real problem here is not that Coursera staff fail to reply to discussion board posts (although that is a serious problem) - the bigger problem is that there was no announcement to begin with: the wiki is something potentially of interest to everyone in the class, and deserves an announcement. Even if Coursera staff eventually answer my question, it will be lost in the abyss of the discussion board and only a microscopic fraction of the class will ever see it. I don't know what it's like in the other Coursera classes, but the lack of broadcast communication in this class is a huge problem - and it would be such an easy one to fix.


Sunday, August 26, 2012

More on the Subject of College Writing

Below is a discussion board thread I just created at the course discussion board; since it is something substantial, I thought I would repost it here also.


Since there has been a lot of discussion at the forums about writing skills and what it means to write at a college level, I thought I would share here something that people might find of interest. I teach Gen. Ed. classes at the University of Oklahoma; they are upper-division classes, and the majority of students are seniors, although there are a few juniors as well. At the beginning of each semester, I ask the students to complete what I call a "proofreading assessment," which is basically an assessment of spelling, punctuation and sentence structure. I give the students a story 1000 words in length into which I have introduced the kinds of errors I most commonly see in student writing, and I ask the students to correct those errors. When they send me back the corrected story, I count up the errors that they left uncorrected, along with the new errors they have introduced in the process of trying to make corrections. The range in any given class is pretty enormous - you can see the chart of results and read more details here if you are interested: http://goo.gl/kZeca (it goes to a Google+ post)

The point I wanted to make here is that even upper-division college students need a lot of help with their writing - and by that, I mean actual instruction in writing provided by someone qualified to provide such instruction. Only a rather small proportion of the students in my classes would be qualified to give feedback on writing mechanics to someone else, especially to someone else who is struggling with written English. I have LOTS of peer feedback in my classes, but I do not ask the students to make comments on writing mechanics (they can if they want to do so, of course, and some of them do). For the most part, my students are not really qualified to provide that kind of feedback, but they are definitely qualified to give feedback on the content of the other students' writing, and they do a really good job with that (enthusiastic, friendly, etc. - and NON-anonymously). For feedback about writing mechanics, that burden falls on me, and it occupies the majority of my time each week as I read and respond to student writing (appx. 90 students total in a given semester).

I don't have a lot of ESL students in my classes; this semester, in fact, I don't think I have any at all. The writing assessment I give focuses on the errors that are most common to native speakers of English; if I were to conduct an assessment for non-native speakers, I would go about it rather differently.

I should also add that because I teach Gen. Ed. classes (that is, classes required for graduation, but not part of a specific departmental major or college degree), many of the students in my classes don't like to read (some will even remark that they hate reading), and many of them - perhaps even the majority of them - do not like to write. That is something that makes them rather different from the self-selecting population in this class. I would guess that anyone who voluntarily signed up for this class probably reads a lot and likes to read, along with the people in this class who positively like to write. I always have some students every semester who really like to write, but they are usually few in number.

Anyway, I wanted to share this in order to make it clear that even upper-division college writing classes wrestle with some basic writing problems. Although it would be great if we could assume that all upper-division college students have strong English writing skills, that is not the case at all. A big part of the problem is that most college courses, even if they involve writing, do not provide writing instruction. With its lack of any provision for actual writing instruction, this course is not different from most college courses. That doesn't make it right, in my opinion - but it's a very typical problem in college courses: professors understandably focus on the content of their courses and don't have the time/background/inclination to also provide basic writing instruction, even if their students might be very much in need of it.



Friday, August 24, 2012

The Oval Portrait 2012

As a reward for having dutifully written four analytical essays, I chose to do something creative for the fifth submission. I was very pleased that I was able to include the images! The WYSIWYG editor for the submissions form box does not have an "insert image" link, but it does let you enter HTML - and sure enough, it let me type in the img tags. So, the images are included, too!

I had so much fun doing this - so much more fun than I would have had writing an essay. I first became acquainted with "The Oval Portrait" because there is a chapter dedicated to Poe's story in The Portrait of the Lover, a wonderful book written by Maurizio Bettini (Italian classicist and author of so many fascinating books and articles), which I translated into English back when I was in graduate school (the Italian title is Il ritratto dell'amante). The book is a collection of folklore and legends related to "the portrait of the lover" and the way that lovers and their images both complete one another but can also compete with one another. Highly recommended!



"I don't know, Paul. The ultrasound, it's kind of ... blurry."

"No, Linda, really - it's the perfect Twitter avatar."

"But she's not even born yet."


"She's coming; I can feel it," Linda screamed as she reached for her husband's hand, but Paul had his hands full with the video camera.

"Look this way, honey! Perfect! I'm using the MiFi to stream the video live. Smile, honey!"

Linda screamed again. And the baby was born. Paul rushed home to edit the video and upload it to YouTube. By the time Linda and the baby came home, the video had over four million hits.


Everyone said Baby Girl was of the rarest beauty, not a happier baby in the world. But her dad... well, no one really knew what to think. Over ten thousand pictures at Flickr, all those videos at the Baby Girl YouTube channel...

"Paul, honey, don't you think that's enough?" Linda was starting to get worried.

~

The baby was crying, "Waah! Waah" Linda turned to Paul and said, "I told you the light from the webcam was making her upset. We don't need a webcam in the nursery."

But Paul didn't hear anything, not the baby crying, not his wife's words. He was busy tweeting from his iPhone.


"Paul, oh my god, come here, Paul! Something's wrong with the baby!"

"Just a second!" Paul shouted back from his home office. "Just a second... I just need to update her Facebook status. Wow, this Timeline thing is great." He went running into the nursery, carrying his iPad. "This Timeline is Life itself!"

Then he saw Linda, weeping over their dead child.

~

Note
: In Poe's "The Oval Portrait," the artist drains his wife's life by painting her portrait. This cyberdad drains the life from his baby as he creates her Facebook Timeline.



Works Cited.
Poe, Edgar Allan (1842). "The Oval Portrait."

Images:
Anon. "Cute Angel Baby" image. Pictures88.com.
Pullara, Sam. Fetus sonogram. Wikipedia.
Surfraser. Live Childbirth video at YouTube.

Continuing Problems with Peer Feedback

The discussion boards on Thursday have become something like a "who got the worst peer feedback?" contest. This has been going on for several weeks now, so I thought I would blog about it here. I've mentioned before the ugliness of some of the feedback, and this continues to be the case week after week. Recently, a "flag" was added to the discussion board in order to report inappropriate discussion board content (although it has never been spelled out just what is inappropriate). Yet there is still no way to flag in appropriate feedback, which seems to me a far more serious problem, simply because the writing/reviewing component of the class is required, while the discussion boards are totally optional.

Do Coursera staff really monitor the discussion boards? I am increasingly thinking that they do not; if they do, that is even worse, since no response of any kind has been provided for the people who have been complaining for weeks about abusive feedback. I'm not just talking about bland, unhelpful, vague, or inaccurate feedback, but instead about abusive language and mean-spiritedness of the worst kind. Here are a couple of examples people have complained about at the discussion board:
I believe you are either awfully young, typing for a parent who has no time to do it herself, or simply have received an inferior education. My guess is you lived in one of the Carolina’s where you neither spoke nor wrote a high quality of English. YOU CAN CHANGE THAT, if you work hard at it. If there were a zero to give, that would be your grade.
Well, I just have to say this. What the fuck? You completely force your arguments as if you were trying to fit a square into a circle. (Might this be another homosexual sign to you?)
Then there are the one-word comments:
Ug.

No.

Terrible.
Of all the mean-spirited feedback I have seen reported, I would say the most bizarre and strangely cruel is this one:
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty one, twenty two, twenty three, twenty four, twenty five, twenty six, twenty seven, twenty eight, twenty nine, thirty.
Yes, this is because our comments are supposed to be 30 words long. The software does not police this (hence the abundant one-word and two-word comments: "good!" or "liked it!") - but the idea that someone would deliberately put in a comment like this to meet the word count shows that there are some serious problems with the feedback culture in the class. Even if it is just a tiny percentage of the feedback overall, Coursera is going to have to find a way to do something about this; you cannot mandate participation in a peer feedback system as a requirement for the grade/certificate while allowing this kind of thing to go on unchecked and unattended. We are "graded" on our participation, and that participation grade consists of completing the peer feedback assignment. Someone who submits a comment that reads "One, two, three, four, five, ..." gets a full participation grade. Of course, a  GREAT solution would be simply to get rid of the grading entirely - but I don't think Coursera has any intention of doing that.

By far the biggest problem, though, is vague and/or inaccurate feedback… and that's a much harder problem to solve. It's much like the problem with the poor quality of the essays overall; yes, there are inappropriate essays (blank essays, essays only a few words long, plagiarized essays, even spam essays) that need to be flagged - but the larger problem is the bewildering number of essays that are of such poor quality that it gets very discouraging to spend time on them. Without some kind of additional instructional component to the class, I am just not convinced that this often unreliable and/or unhelpful anonymous peer feedback can really help people to improve their writing.

Of course, to get a sense of what is going on overall, Coursera would need to ask us how things are going - for Week 4 (most recent week completed), it appears that 2500 people turned in essays (compared to Week 1, when apparently 5000 people turned in essays), while there are maybe a hundred or so people (just a guess) who participate at the discussion boards. So, without gathering feedback from us week by week about our experience (self-assessment of our own writing, self-assessment of our improvement in writing, feedback about the feedback we are receiving, etc.), there's really no way to know what's going on overall. Yet Coursera is collecting no feedback of any kind, except for the chaotic comments at the discussion board and the grades assigned by the peer reviewers.

One discussion board thread proposes: "Peer Grading Exposed as Milgram Experiment." I have to admit, that made me laugh. But it's not a happy laugh. I really hope Coursera does something about this. Since they added a flagging system for the discussion board, maybe they will eventually do that for the inappropriate essays and feedback, too. It would also really be nice for there to some kind of communication about all this, as opposed to the outdated and stale content that currently appears on the homepage Announcements (the last announcement was made on August 14, ten days ago). I participate pretty regularly at the discussion boards (although, admittedly, less than I used to; it's not the most fun place to spend time), and it's been weeks since I saw a discussion board comment that came from a Coursera staff person or a member of the course's instructional staff. Is it a Milgram Experiment... or, shudder, Lord of the Flies...?


Monday, August 20, 2012

Slowly but surely...

I am glad that Coursera is willing to introduce fixes into an ongoing class! Today I noticed that there is an automated announcement on the course homepage to alert people to upcoming deadlines, which is not something we had before:

And there is also now an honor code declaration that we mark when we turn in our writing:

I still think that they need some actual plagiarism resources online to help people who are truly not clear on the difference between plagiarism (either verbatim or "patchwork") and original writing - but at least this is a first step in the right direction!

Update: There is now also a way to flag "inappropriate" content in the forums, but there is no definition of just what is inappropriate content. For example, there is currently a very active discussion thread which consists of making fun of other people in the class - making fun of people with poor English skills, making fun of people who ask questions about the assignments... and yes, people do ask obvious questions sometimes - it would be surprising if they did not! Of course, almost all of the postings in this thread are by the "anonymi" (who knows how many of them there are; there is no way of telling one anonymous from another). I'm not going to say it is something to flag as inappropriate, but there is a lot of sheer mean-spiritedness at the discussion forums for this class, something that came as a real surprise to me. I wonder if that is true at all the Coursera courses.


Tomorrow we will get our fourth batch of essays to review. I hope there will be a flag available there now too, or a zero score option, for essays that are blank, spam, for the wrong novel, etc.

Most importantly, I wonder if there will be a flag for inappropriate feedback. There is plenty of mean-spiritedness, even viciousness, in some of the feedback people have shared at the discussion board... and the feedback is all anonymous, which I increasingly think just does not bring out the best in people. Between the rudeness in the anonymous feedback and the rudeness in the anonymous posting at the discussion board, I am not impressed. Pseudonyms are fine with me - but all this anonymous meanness is really troubling.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

My Essay Portfolio: Our MIrror Selves

I've mentioned before that I think it would be so much better for people to have a writing portfolio, rather than just a disjointed series of essays. Even if the essays are not on related topics, putting them into a portfolio is a still a good idea - plus, it would encourage people to REVISE their essays after getting the feedback (what's the point of feedback really, unless you are committed to doing some revision...?).

So, thanks to the power of Google Sites, I have created a portfolio website for my essays in this class. My students use Google Sites to create their project portfolios in my class, so it felt good to go through the same process they do in building my little website today. If you would like information on getting started with Google Sites, a free web publishing service offered by Google, here are the instructions I share with my students: Google Sites Tips.

Meanwhile, here is a link to my new website: Coursera Portfolio: Our Mirror Selves.



Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

As I've mentioned previously, I was hoping to find a common theme to use to make my mini-essays for the class into a coherent piece of writing, using each essay to explore the theme from a different angle. With the first week and the Brothers Grimm, I was really taken by the proof-tokens in Cinderella and The Robber Bridegroom, so I wrote my essay about that, thinking that I would like a "proofs of identity" as my general theme. It's a topic that is of long-standing interest for me and one that I could feel confident I would find cropping up in every book for the class; basically, it's a social and literary conundrum that crops up everywhere. Over the past few weeks, though, I've been zooming in on something more specific: the use of the mirror as a proof of identity, as well as the mirror as a deception and the mirror as a gateway. Literal mirrors, and metaphorical mirrors. Once I realized that I would be going in this direction, my Grimm essay really did not fit properly, so I decided to write a new Grimm essay today, one that will fit more nicely into the evolving collection of essays. So, here is that new essay:

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

The Crane edition of Grimm contains only two stories about mirrors, but they are a perfect pair that illustrate the mirror's opposite functions: the reflecting mirror whose images appear real but are not, and the scrying mirror that instead reveals otherwise invisible truths.

In The Little Farmer, the mirror is deceptive, presenting an image that is alluring but unreal. The result in this story is fatal: the Little Farmer tricks the other farmers into drowning themselves by telling them they can gather up a herd of sheep from the bottom of the lake - sheep that were only clouds reflected in the mirror of the water.

In Snow-White, on the other hand, the mirror is a source of truth. This mirror does not just reflect the surface of things; instead, it is a "magic looking-glass," a device for scrying the truth. The evil queen knows that "the looking-glass spoke the truth," and so it did, giving the queen all the information she needed to monitor Snow-White at a distance. Things end badly for the queen, but it is not because she was fooled by an illusion in the mirror; instead, she was undone by Snow-White's own good luck.

In another Grimm story (not included in Crane), there is a truth-telling mirror in the possession of a good princess, rather than a wicked queen. The heroine of the The Crystal Ball has been cursed with an ugly appearance, but she has a truth-telling mirror that reveals her inner beauty, as she explains to the story's hero: "That thou mayst know what I am like, look in the mirror; it does not let itself be misled: it will show thee my image as it is in truth."

So, there are mirrors that lie, as well as mirrors that tell the truth. As for mirrors that provide a portal into another world, we must wait for Alice and her looking-glass to show us the way!

Works Cited:

Crane, Lucy (translator). Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm, with illustrations by Walter Crane (1886). The illustrations on this page also come from this book. Online edition at Project Gutenberg.

Hunt, Margaret (translator). Household Tales (1884). Online edition at Sur La Lune Fairy Tales.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Evils of Plagtracker

I mentioned in an earlier post how I was really distressed that the main piece of advice circulating on the discussion boards for the course was that people without any special training or understanding of plagiarism should use Plagtracker (or similar) to check on essays. What a terrible piece of advice! There are now quite a few people who are indignant that they are not getting comments back on their work, except for a Plagtracker report telling them that they essay is 20% plagiarized or 30% plagiarized or some such nonsense. I feel so badly for those people - especially because Plagtracker cannot tell the difference between quoted material that is being used specifically for as a supporting quotation and actual plagiarism.

So, out of morbid curiosity, I decided to test my own recent essay with the evil Plagtracker (I'm not even going to link to them from here; really, there is no good reason ever to go there). And what happened? My essay is 40% plagiarized! And why? Because it contains four quotes from the novel (Plagtracker ignored two quotes that were just tiny phrases). What does Plagtracker cite as the sources for my plagiarism? My sources are ... Shelley's novel! The source list contains one website after another, each of which republishes the text of the Shelley novel; since the novel is in the public domain, it appears at literally hundreds of websites online.

Even worse, for some reason, Plagtracker considers the entire sentence containing the quote to be suspect and highlights it as such. Because I tend to write in long sentences (yes, I have learned to stop worrying and love the semicolon), this means that my quotes from the novel are embedded in long sentences, all of which got flagged as plagiarism, as you can see in the screenshot below.

This is exactly what people reported on the discussion boards also: because they included a quotation from the novel, they were deemed "plagiarists" by peer reviewers who were using Plagtracker without any understanding of how to interpret the results. I wish Professor Rabkin had addressed the serious problem of people using this type of software in his statement on plagiarism; it seems to me that no good whatsoever can come of this software - not to mention the ethical problem of putting someone else's writing into a commercial database without their permission. At least I have the right to put my own essay in there, as well as the experience to simply laugh at the results.



Thursday, August 16, 2012

Reading is Fundamental

When I read Shelley's Frankenstein (I had never read it before!), I knew instantly that I wanted to write about the monster discovering those books in the woods. So, I've written my essay (see below), and the mirror theme is definitely taking hold here; I've had mirrors in my last three essays. Since I would really like for there to be a theme that brings all my essays together, just to give the writing project for this class a more coherent purpose, I think I am going to go back and write another Grimm essay. From the start of the semester, I knew I wanted to do identity in some sense - but now I have really zoomed in on the idea of mirrors, doubles, emblems, etc. So, here is my Frankenstein essay and this weekend I'll poke around in the Brothers Grimm to do a mirror essay for that entry also just to try to give the writing a real sense of continuity.

~ ~ ~

Reading is Fundamental

"I am self-educated," writes Captain Robert Walton, "and read nothing but [my] Uncle Thomas' books of voyages." He did not choose these books; his Uncle Thomas' library contained no others. Yet in a cruel twist of fate, young Robert was forbidden a sailor's life by his father's dying wish. Even so, Walton went to sea on a voyage foretold in the books of his youth.

Young Victor likewise was enamored of books - specifically, books of alchemy - although his father was dismayed by this choice ("Do not waste your time" he told Victor). The Ingolstadt professors were also appalled (Krempe told him that "every instant that you have wasted on those books is utterly and entirely lost"). Yet the forbidden mysteries tugged at Victor, despite the warnings of his father and professors, and thus he made his monster, pursuing a mad science of transmutation.

And what of the monster's reading habits? He too was shaped by the books of his youth, having found three books in the woods as if by fate: Goethe's Werther, Plutarch's Lives and Milton's Paradise Lost. While the monster is moved by Goethe and Plutarch, he calls Satan "the fitter emblem of my condition" because he too felt "the bitter gall of envy" just as Satan did when he looked upon man, that godly creation.

Paradise Lost is only an emblem, of course; a worse reading experience yet awaits the monster. When he discovers Victor's journal, the monster gazes into a mirror; the journal is about his own self, a "description of my odious and loathsome person." Both Captain Walton and Victor were tempted by the books that they read and so endured paternal rebuke, but the monster was utterly damned by a book written in his father's own hand. Shelley's poor monster might have been better off as Boris Karloff in the 1931 Frankenstein film whose defective brain spared him such bookish suffering.

(The Monster Gazes into a Pool, Lynd Ward: web source)


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Thoughts about College Writing... not just Coursera

My own classes have started (it's the pre-start, I guess you could call it - classes start officially August 20, but I'm glad for people to get a head start, so about half the students are working on stuff already this week, which is great)… so, that means a lot less time for this Coursera class, including less time to blog about it. But something came up in a couple of different conversations I was having with people today, and it seemed important to note it here. While I can see a lot of problems with the Coursera course (both this specific course, and also the specific model), I don't want people to assume that I am implying that the same problems do not beset regular college courses: when it comes to finding ways to teach writing, everybody is struggling! Writing is surely one of the most important skills that someone can learn in school… and it is also one of the hardest skills to teach. In general, colleges don't do a very good job with it at all.

Sure, college students write papers - but does their writing improve as a result? Or are they just writing in order to write, to get the assignment done, to get the grade? Do they feel confident in their writing? I would suggest that the widespread problems with plagiarism in college writing (and they are, indeed, widespread) are mostly a reflection of how alienated students are from their own writing, how unconfident they are in their own writing, as well as being bored and/or confused.

So, just very quickly, here are some of the things that I would like to see happening in ANY college writing course - not just in something offered by Coursera. How many college courses that require some kind of written work from the students include all of these features? Precious few, I am afraid. I would be curious to hear what features others would add to this list, based on either your good or bad experiences in learning to write and/or in teaching writing.

* PERSISTENT WRITING. Don't let everything go into the trash can! Every course can yield a writing portfolio or mini-portfolio, whatever you want to call it - just so long as it does not all go into the trash can, real or virtual. It would be so easy for our writing to appear to us in the Coursera course in something more like a portfolio. Even better if people are encouraged to at least consider exploring a theme or themes in more than one essay, for a sense of continuity and building connections.

* REVISION… AND MORE REVISION. No piece of writing is ever good the first time around, much less great! Writing, all writing, wants to be revised, and then revised again - preferably over a period of some time to allow for self-reflection, feedback from others, etc. The complete lack of revision in the Coursera course is very discouraging. At a minimum, I would suggest that people be required to revise their essay each week - or maybe just pick five essays to revise out of the ten, for example, and put the revised essays in a course portfolio.

* REAL AUDIENCES. Getting real feedback from real readers (NB: plural!) is essential. To make that work, you also need to learn how to give good feedback in return. Being good both at getting feedback and at giving feedback are skills that every writer needs - and like any kind of skill, these skills can (and must) be taught, with "feedback on the feedback" to help people as they acquire and master those skills. I would say Coursera definitely needs to help people in giving better feedback, and "feedback on the feedback" in an important part of how that could happen.

* STYLES GALORE, CONTENT GALORE. There are so many styles of writing, and there is something to be learned from the process of trying a variety of different styles - and along the way discovering just what styles of writing work best for you. So too with content. The breadth of content that is relevant to any given college class is very extensive; helping students explore that breadth of possibility and make good personal connections, choosing topics they really care about, is one of my very favorite things to do. We could do with a wider range of writing style options in the Coursera course, and I think we could also do with a different way of presenting the writing prompt each week - open-ended is good, but completely directionless is, for many students, not so good.

* MULTIMEDIA WRITING. Combining writing with images, for example, which is so easy to do when writing for the web, adds a new dimension to the finished product. Working with audio and with video can also be thought-provoking and energizing! I feel so image-deprived everywhere at the Coursera course website, truth be told.

* REMEDIAL WRITING.
This doesn't have to be something to be ashamed about - it's important to figure out if you have some actual writing skills deficits and work on them until you have acquired those missing skills. That might mean spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, word choice and idiom, etc. Accurately identifying skills deficits and being committed to remediating them is an essential part of becoming a writer.

What do others think? What elements of a good writing strategy have I left out here? I'm so much "inside" this in my own classes that I am probably leaving out something hugely important. But even with this short list of elements which I consider really essential, I think it shows just why I am not especially satisfied with the writing dimension of the Coursera course, and what enormous work remains to make writing work in a MOOC like this one... and in any college course with writing assignments!

Is it worth all that work to get it right? ABSOLUTELY.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Uncommunicative Communication

In a previous post, I had mentioned a boilerplate email from the teaching assistant for our course which thanked us for all our great contributions at the discussion boards, but didn't respond to any of the concerns that had come up there. Well, we got another boilerplate email this morning from the professor to let us know that the videos were available for the unit we just finished (Dracula); here is the text of the email: "I hope you enjoyed your reading in the unit and, if you used them, the Forums. Now you can view some video clips that I've recorded and, if you've submitted an essay of your own, read essays by some of your fellow participants. Please comment on at least four of those essays and return the Peer Responses work by the deadline, about forty-eight hours from now, so that others can learn from you and you can learn from them."

That is verbatim identical to the email we got one week ago - the only difference is a change in the subject line. This week the subject line reads "Videos Clips for Unit 03" and last week (wait for it…) "Videos Clips for Unit 02."

So, in what sense is it fair to say that the email came from the professor? In a sense, it didn't at all - it's just a canned email, something going out automatically, planned from the start of the class. In fact, because of some software problems with the peer review assignment system, the peer reviews are NOT actually ready according to the timetable that was originally announced, so even though we got an email telling us that the essays were ready for review, they were not actually ready at all (which of course led to people posted questions at the discussion board, asking why they had not gotten any essays to review as stated in the email).

Meanwhile, did the contents of this announcement (because that's what it is, right? an announcement) show up on the homepage announcements for the course? Nope. The latest announcement at the course homepage is from August 3 and tells us, "You may now submit your second assignment for the course." Well, no, the deadline for that assignment was a week ago, on August 7, and this morning we passed the deadline for the third assignment.

As I've written about in previous blog posts, communication - lively, personal, timely, clear communication - is vital in any online course, especially in a massive one like this. So far, Coursera does not seem very attentive to this aspect of the course at all. Based on the past couple of weeks, I foresee no changes in the future, just more canned emails. I wonder if there will ever be an update to the homepage announcements at all… or if instead the homepage is an eternity out-of-time like some Wonderland Tea Party, where it will always and forever be time to submit the second assignment!

Update:  There is an announcement today, Aug. 14, referring people to two memos from the professor about the plagiarism problem and also about the workload. To be honest, I really don't think the plagiarism memo is written in a way that will be helpful to the students who are prone to plagiarize - but it is an acknowledgment that the problem exists (as for the specifics, well, I think the problem is likely to persist until somebody grapples with the specifics of just what plagiarism is, and what peer reviewers are supposed to do about it exactly, how to document an incident of plagiarism if it is undeniably obvious, etc.). Interestingly, no comments are allowed on either item, even though they appear at the discussion board.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Peer Feedback: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly :-)

Okay, in the post about the virtual trash can, I promised to say something about the student feedback system, since that is indeed one of the remarkable and more interesting features of the class. For some students, it is clearly a strong (STRONG) motivator in their participation (and that means not just the getting feedback, but also in their motivation to give feedback), but for other students, it is a very negative motivation, and they have posted at the discussion board about leaving the class because of the poor quality of the feedback, and even the rudeness of the feedback.

This is a big topic again, I'm not going to be able to address all angles of it, but I want to start with exactly this inevitable element: the variability of the feedback. In a class with 5000 active participants (although I think we are down to closer to 4000 active participants during the second week), there is going to be a whole range of feedback, from the very zealous people who give feedback longer than the essay itself, to the grammar police (yes, they are everywhere), to the ill-informed grammar police (the single most active discussion that I have seen on the discussion board was about US v. UK spelling - the Brits were not happy about being told that they needed to learn to use a spellchecker), and on down to the "good job!" people with their two-word comments, and finally the people who commented not in English or who offered incomprehensible comments that had been translated by Google Translate (or similar), and, at the bottom of the heap, the sadistic comments (your essay is bullshit, you are a complete idiot, I cannot believe I had to read this crap, etc.). Oh, and don't forget the vigilante accusations of plagiarism based on misinterpretation of plagiarism detection software (yes, someone was accused of plagiarizing... from their own blog).

So, what kind of data is Coursera collecting about the efficacy of this process? None. What kind of feedback are people getting on their feedback? None. What kind of guidelines and tips did we get on offering feedback? (Almost) none. Given that this is a skill, and a skill that many people have not had to use in the past, I think we would need a LOT of tips and guidelines to help with that, along with feedback so that people who are just now developing this skill can estimate how well they are doing. My simple proposition (received with surprising assent at the discussion boards when I have suggested it... surprising because an awful lot of people are really hostile to any criticism of Coursera there) is that there should be "feedback on the feedback" - a simple 1-2-3 system, like the system we use for marking the essays, to send feedback back to the people about their comments. The 3s would be for those people who are totally knocking themselves out on the feedback and doing a really super job (god love 'em)... most of the feedback responses would probably be 2s (people would have to decide for themselves how they feel about the very large group of "good job!" feedback providers)... and some of the feedback would be 1s, as a way to let people know that something went wrong. Now, not all those 1s would be reliable (it could reflect something wrong on the receiving end of the feedback of course) - but I think there would be enough 1s both for individuals to benefit from that needed feedback and also for Coursera to ponder some intervention. If someone gets all 1s for several weeks in a row, something would have to be wrong, right? I would also suggest a 0 for inappropriate feedback; to tell someone that what they have written is "bullshit" is really unacceptable, at least in my opinion.

Plus, I would really really really like for all those people knocking themselves out to provide truly good feedback to get some 3s right back at them. Since the feedback is anonymous, there is no way to even say "thank you" for much-appreciated comments.

Okay, time has run out - there is more I should say here, but dinner calls... and I'm not sure I have the oomph left to say anything more about Coursera today. I wish them well, I really do... but I'm also surprised at how little they seem to have learned from all the things that are already going on in the world of online learning. Sadly, I am starting to think that is because they really are not interested in the radical newness of what online learning can offer. Instead, they want to replicate those big lecture courses at the elite universities... along with all the inherent weaknesses of those courses. Yes, this peer feedback is better than the single and perhaps hasty reading some students get from their overworked and underpaid TAs in those cattle-call lecture courses, and it certainly beats robograding. But couldn't it be even better? Absolutely yes. This peer feedback is the most social and the most intriguing aspect of the Coursera course for me, and I really hope they will improve on it in future iterations of the classes!

Creation, Curation... and the Virtual Trash Can

In my previous post about decorating the virtual classroom, I promised a post about content creation and curation (yeah, I thought I would do it sooner, but too much interesting conversation at Google+ intervened, ha ha). In the meantime, though, someone posted an item at the Coursera discussion board about using Zotero, which really enthused me, since Zotero would be an excellent tool for the professor to use in curating and sharing bibliography and for interested students to do likewise. Heck, Zotero even gives people public profile pages (here's mine)... which is more than I can say for the poor Coursera discussion board.

Alas, the poor Coursera discussion board. I keep coming back to this problem over and over again simply because Coursera is expecting (wrongly) for the discussion board to accomplish curation purposes, something it is just not capable of. Various good-hearted souls are sharing links to online resources in the discussion board forums (some of them are even trying to make good use of tags, albeit inconsistently and with zero guidance from the instructor or course staff), but their helpful information is getting drowned out, irrecoverably, in the chaos that reigns at the discussion boards basically all the time (and our class is small compared to some others at Coursera; we are probably right at the 10,000 enrollment limit that represents a kind of dividing line in how Coursera itself classifies its own courses as defined in its Michigan contract).

My vision of a MOOC is that it would be an incredible opportunity for CREATING content collaboratively as well as CURATING existing content along with the content that we ourselves are creating. Instead, though, we are throwing everything into the virtual trash can. What a loss! In real classrooms, of course, there is only so much room on the real walls to put stuff, only so much room on the real bookshelves (and only so much money to use to buy the books), etc. But in a virtual classroom, there is no limit to the amount of content we can create and share together (8000 essays have been submitted for this class in just two weeks), as well as the content curation efforts we could engage in collaboratively.

Admittedly, I am disappointed that the instructor has not gotten things started for us by sharing lists of links to recommended resources online, and I am really surprised that the Coursera staff does not have a ready-made library of links to help people with writing and research that they can deploy in all the classes that involve writing and research as this class does (people's eagerness to do research is kind of surprising but also very invigorating, too, of course!). One of my main tasks as an online instructor, at least as I see it, is to prepare libraries of online resources for my students to use as they get started on their work for the course (see the Online Books Sidebar here as just one example), and I am very happy curating the amazing content produced by my students every semester; more about their class projects in this earlier blog post: Goals, Persistence, and Projects: The Value of Making Things.

But okay: let's say we just have to do this ourselves as students. Could we do this on our own? YES, WE COULD. Absolutely. But we need a better tool than the discussion board with which to do it. Luckily, there are free tools out there to help us, like Zotero, Diigo, Twitter, etc. All we would need are organizational getting-started tips from the folks at Coursera (generic tips, which they could use for all their classes, so it's a good investment on their part), along with some course-specific tags provided by the course instructor or staff, based both on the weekly content and also the recurring themes that the instructor wants to emphasize. Of course, students could start creating tags of their own, and we would need a way to have a dynamic library of tags to reflect what emerges - but a basic tag directory from the instructor could go a long way.

And hey, they've got all those programmers and millions of dollars at Coursera. Could they build on the APIs of services like Google, Twitter, etc., and collaborate with software developers like the great folks at Zotero, in order to really integrate these kinds of activities into the course itself...? Yes, obviously they could do that.

Instead, all we've got is an incredibly primitive and clunky discussion board, thousands of essays going into the virtual trash can, and a "participation grade" in the class that recognizes ONLY one kind of participation: providing grading and feedback on the essays that are all going into the virtual trash can anyway. Surely there are all kinds of valuable, lasting contributions to the class that could be recognized as part of the participation grade, right?

Argh! Well, before I totally run out of steam today (and I really am running out of steam...), I will end this post for now (although there is so much more to say here about the joys of content creation and curation), and instead move on to a seriously important and related topic: what's up with the student feedback system...?

What's on the Walls of Your Online Classroom?

Okay, having gotten the awful plagiarism thing out of the way, in this post I will present a tale of two online classrooms... but first I want to remind everybody of the general contrast between K-12 classrooms, which usually belong to a teacher (or a small group of teachers), and university classrooms, which usually belong to nobody and are assigned by central scheduling. You can probably remember some wonderful classrooms from elementary school or high school, even years later, right? The books the teacher had on hand, the posters and artwork on the walls, cartoons taped to the door, etc. University classrooms are completely antiseptic by comparison, where professors might tote a few things into the classroom to use for a given class session, only to tote them out again, after having carefully erased everything from the chalkboard. The classrooms have no soul, no personality. The professors' offices are instead the places with personality on a college campus, with cartoons taped to the doors, books abounding, posters and artwork, etc.

Well, one of the great joys for me in switching to online teaching ten years ago was that I was FINALLY able to decorate my own online classroom just the way that I wanted! (I had done a stint as a high school teacher before going to grad school, so had developed a passion for classroom decoration... and I had sorely missed that when I started teaching college classes.) Years ago, I hired a genius student to build a tool - online here for all to use: RotateContent.com - which takes content of all kinds (text, images, links, embedded video, etc.) and converts it into a javascript that displays the content by date and/or randomly. That means my online classroom can get redecorated as it were every day or every time the student "walks in," all automatically, without me having to do anything. (I LOVE JAVASCRIPT!)

So, in the homepage for each course that I teach with the course management system I am required to use at my school (Desire2Learn), I use content widgets that provide dynamic content for the students to look at, enjoy and learn from; you can see a screenshot below. I also have dynamic content in the sidebars of the blogs I use for the class, as at the Announcements blog and at the Storybooks blog. There are widgets about mythological images, widgets of stories and fables, widgets of the Greek gods, widgets of the Hindu gods. I also have cartoon widgets, powerful quotes widgets, an Internet bumper sticker widget (that is a big favorite). You can see how a widget works, and even grab the scripts yourself if you want, at my Schoolhouse Widgets blog. You can see a "Tenniel's Alice" widget I have added to this blog in the sidebar, too, for example. I did that for myself, just for fun.

Is it all just eye-candy? No, not really. In the humanities, I figure we are not actually teaching a systematic body of knowledge (canon? what canon?), but instead just trying to stimulate people's curiosity, make them want to learn more, and lead them to good information. If I can use really cool images to get people intrigued about an ancient story or some cultural tradition, and then get them to go to Wikipedia or some other web source to learn more, I consider that a total victory. Humorous content in the widgets helps people relax (and college students are often so stressed). Plus, even if they are not clicking on links all the time, I know the images just jiggle their brain and get them READY to learn. Finally, the widgets also convey to them that I care: they often remark that the other professors don't do anything at all to the default appearance of the D2L course homepage. The mere fact that I bother to decorate tells them that I care. And I do care! A lot! So it's nice to be able to let the students know that I care, both directly and indirectly.

Now, by way of contrast, take a look at the Coursera homepage (screenshot below). No images of any kind except for the tiny little robot in the page banner. No dynamic content of any kind. No personalized content. The announcements themselves are outdated, telling us that we can now turn in our second assignment (uh, no - that assignment was due last Tuesday; we are now supposed to be working on our third assignment... but nobody has updated the announcements in the past ten days).

Surely Coursera can do better than that. They have expert programmers and millions of dollars at their disposal. I, on the other hand, have me, myself, and I (and no money at all) - but, thank goodness, I also have the wonderful free tools available on the Internet, like Blogger, Feedburner, GoogleGadgets, RotateContent, Wikipedia and other OERs, etc.

What has gone wrong here exactly? It seems to me that Coursera is thinking about the course webspace as something like a university classroom - bland, generic, and basically empty. Instead of thinking of it as the classroom, they should think of it instead as something more like the professor's office, or like the university library, or the study spaces in the student union... in short: an inviting, exciting, stimulating place that makes us eager to learn.

They could even get the students to help build the space if they don't want to ask the professors or the universities to do that... so, in my next post, I will have something to say about exactly that: student content creation and curation. :-)