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: (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.


: 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."

Anon. "Cute Angel Baby" image.
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:


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.

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: - 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. :-)

Yes, Plagiarism: How Sad is That?

As I try to finish up writing out my reflections on the Coursera course experience so far (previous post was about the "Course Criteria" as defined by Coursera itself), I have to write about the plagiarism, depressing though it may be. I've written about it over at Google+ (and in that way I learned about plagiarism problems over at the Internet History Coursera course also, so it's not just our course), but I see I haven't posted anything here. It's a complex topic; I'll write out here as much as I can stand... if I get too depressed, I'll just have to stop, ha ha.

I first became aware of the plagiarism problem on Tuesday of Week 2, when the Week 2 essays were released for peer review. Before I had even started to read any essays, I saw several discussion threads going at the discussion board about plagiarism. Boy, was that depressing! Also depressing: people were sharing links to some really dreadful online plagiarism checkers and urging "everybody" to use them. Then, it also surfaced that there had been plagiarism in Week 1, also discussed at the discussion board. I had missed those threads, but no surprise there: in the total chaos of the discussion board, it's very easy to miss something, even if it is a topic that would be of interest.

I then started reading the essays assigned to me for review; the first essays I read were definitely better than the first week in terms of the writing, but then I hit a patch of essays written in such poor English as to be almost incomprehensible... and then I hit an essay that was clearly plagiarized. There was an incomprehensible paragraph about the dormouse as a symbol of the proletariat. Well, that was easy to Google and instantly led me to the article that the student had copied, massaged, and not cited. It was a perfect example of "patchwork plagiarism," where the student had mechanically and mindlessly transformed the text (replacing every nth word with a synonym, reversing the order of phrases in a sentence, etc.) in order to defeat plagiarism detection software like Turnitin, but which was still patently plagiarism. A lot like, uh, what lost Fareed Zakaria his job this week (see the NYTimes article for a picture-perfect example of patchwork plagiarism in one of Zakaria's articles... talk about depressing!).

Well, being asked to review an essay that contained plagiarism really floored me. I mean, I had read about it at the discussion board and knew it was out there, but I had hoped the laws of random would protect me. No such luck: the plagiarized essay was the eighth essay I was reading for Week 2 (we are required to read four and encouraged to read more). Well, the plagiarism made me lose my enthusiasm for reading extra essays, that's for sure. Just as I do with my own students, I documented the plagiarism carefully and gave no other comments about the essay because, in my opinion, the plagiarism is a problem that has to be addressed first before it is worthwhile for me to give any other comments. (If this were one of my students, they would receive a zero for that week's assignment and turn in a rewrite for their next week's assignment, something that is very easy to do with the flexible weekly schedule of writing assignments in my classes.)

Then I went back to the discussion board and saw it positively roiling with people expressing strong views all over the spectrum, including quite a few people who said that since this was a free course and not for credit, the plagiarism did not matter. I also saw quite a few people who certainly seemed to be mis-using the plagiarism detection software without a clear understanding of just what plagiarism is and how to document it. Well, I figured that there would be some kind of email from the instructor and/or from the Coursera staff the next day to let us know what to do. At a minimum, I was expecting some helpful information about plagiarism to show up at the class website (links perhaps to online material at the University of Michigan?), a strong recommendation (I hoped anyway) that students not use plagiarism detection software (both because it is reckless and also violates the rights of the authors, who did not give you permission to feed their writing into the gaping maw of these commercial databases), and also specific information about what we should do if we found an essay that contained plagiarism (since we are not able to give an essay a zero and/or flag it as inappropriate; we can only give the minimum grade of 1-1).

But... nothing. An email went out within 24 hours to the students of the Internet History course, so I expected that maybe after that email went out, we would get something similar in a day or two. Nope, nothing. Even worse: we got a boilerplate email from the "teaching assistant" for the course that said "We’re now in unit 03! I hope you enjoyed the lectures from Unit 02 as well as the essays and peer responses. As always, the forums are active with wonderful discussion and questions and we thank you for that. Based off these discussions on the forums, Professor Rabkin has made a supplementary video for the Alice novels, which we hope you will take a look at. It can be found in Video Lectures, under the Unit Two header. Thank you again all your hard work and please enjoy the new video!"

I'm glad that Professor Rabkin shared his thoughts about metaphors and mathematics in the supplementary video... but where is the response to the plagiarism questions? The discussion continues to roil the discussion board because people feel very strongly about it - and we have now gotten to hear from people falsely accused of plagiarism (just as I feared) as a result of people using detection software who don't know how to interpret the results. My favorite: the person who was accused of plagiarism because they posted their essay at their blog, just as I do, and the plagiarism detection software found the match and identified it as plagiarism.

In addition, I have learned about all kinds of other inappropriate material turned in for the essays that needs to be flagged, not just given a 1-1 score. There have been blank essays turned in (no doubt due to technical problems, as people have discussed at the discussion boards - discussions to which there has been no response from Coursera staff), along with essays for the wrong week (people were getting Week 1 Grimm essays turned in for Week 2 Alice), and - here's my personal favorite - SPAM essays. Amazing, isn't it? Someone got an essay that was a promotional review for a book about Cleopatra, and the essay of course contained a link to the online bookstore where the Cleopatra book was available for purchase! People have also reported essays with tell-tale signs of being generated by Google Translate, and some students have freely admitted to using Google Translate at the discussion boards - a complicated question worth discussing in its own right, but suffice to say that if Google Translate has left words in the original language not translated into English (a common enough occurrence), then the essay is certainly not ready for a peer to read and review.

In some ways, this is very familiar to any university instructor (we all have to educate our students about plagiarism and also know how to respond to it, if/when it happens). Some of it is admittedly peculiar to Coursera (peer feedback with zero instructor involvement... as well as the truly bizarre phenomenon of spam essays!). At the discussion board, I shared a link to the assignment about original writing and plagiarism that I require my own students to read, along with a link to a helpful article from our student newspaper that addresses what is (I think) the key issue of patchwork plagiarism, something that really does confuse a large number of students (in my experience anyway). Of course, my post is long lost in the churning chaos of the discussion boards; as often, the most popular post is the first one on the topic... which is the one that recommends to everybody that they use the plagiarism tracking software; it currently has 1500 views.

Well, it's a big and complex topic and I have reached the end of my cup of coffee, so I will just list here quickly the top 5 reasons why I think this is important and demands a response from the instructor and/or from the Coursera staff:

1. Plagiarism is a violation of the honor code of the class. For that reason alone, it constitutes a problem. If there is an honor code, it needs to mean something. Otherwise, they need to just get rid of the honor code. Clearly, they cannot do that - so, they need a set of procedures in place to deal with alleged violations of the honor code. I'm sure the University of Michigan has procedures in place for its students; I don't recall anything in the Coursera-Michigan contract that addressed this division of labor, but surely under the "Coursera Monetization Model," this would be Coursera's responsibility, not that of the University of Michigan.

2. Plagiarism means that students are not learning. If Coursera is committed to providing a good learning experience for students in the course, then it needs to intervene with a student who is plagiarizing, making sure the student understands what it means to do original work and why that is crucial to the learning experience. This, for me, is actually the most important reason that something has to be done about this - and far better, of course, if something is done proactively, rather than after a student has plagiarized. Now that Coursera knows plagiarism is a potential problem in a course with these types of writing assignments, some kind of plagiarism education needs to take place before the writing assignments begin. In our class, that plagiarism education needs to happen ASAP.

3. Plagiarism violates the conditions of trust on which peer feedback is predicated. If I am asked to give feedback on an essay that is plagiarized, both my time and good will are being wasted. This also applies to other inappropriate essays as well; I need to be able to flag an essay that I think is inappropriate and draw another essay from the pool - and Coursera then needs to figure out how to handle the essays that have been so flagged. On this point, I would have disagreed with the instructions from the Internet History instructor, who urged his students to review the essay completely, in addition to identifying the plagiarism problem - just speaking for myself, I am not prepared to give feedback on an essay until the plagiarism problem has been explained to the student and the student understands the difference between original writing and plagiarism.

4. Plagiarism strongly suggests that a different approach to the assignments is needed. If people are bored and/or confused by the essay assignment (I've written about that elsewhere), then either more support needs to be provided for the assignment and/or an array of different kinds of assignments, not just essay-writing, should be used. The type of assignment we have been given (verbatim identical assignment week after week - even the glaring error in the assignment instructions keeps getting repeated every week) is cookie-cutter perfect for plagiarism, if a student - for whatever reason - decides to go that route. (I usually assume that students plagiarize because they are bored, confused, or have run out of time - or a fatal combination of all three.)

5. Plagiarism detection and education cannot be left in the hands of fellow students. I've read outraged discussion board posts from people who are contemplating quitting the class because they were wrongfully accused of plagiarism; I do not blame them. If I were accused of plagiarism with no opportunity for redress, I would not choose to remain in the class. Obviously, the solution to that problem is to have an essay flagged for plagiarism (or as inappropriate for whatever reason) go to Coursera staff for review... but they apparently have not built anything into their model to handle such possibilities.

Okay, yes, there is more to say... including more to say about the good and bad of the peer feedback system for really challenging issues; plagiarism is just one such issue. But, sadly, it really doesn't matter what I say. What matters is what Coursera will say about all this. So far, no guidance of any kind has been shared with the thousands of participants in the class, and the discussion board continues to roil unattended.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

You're on your own...

As I mentioned over at Google+ earlier today, I'm going to try to take some time this weekend to put down here on virtual paper all my thoughts and experiences with the Coursera course so far (so, for example, I wrote up a long note about video captions earlier today). I start my own classes on Monday and they deserve my full attention. Plus, I am increasingly discouraged about this Coursera class; initially, I thought it would be something fun to do side-by-side with my regular classes, but as the class feels more and more like a chore, very badly hampered by the problems in the design and conduct of the class, I really don't see it having any meaningful connection to my own courses - hence my participation will be drastically curtailed after this weekend. So, in hopes that somehow a participant's thoughts and reflections might (?) matter to the people at Coursera, I'm going to try to get caught up on recording those thoughts either today or tomorrow.

First off, I have to refer everybody to the EXCELLENT blog post by another student in the class here: Coursera Thoughts Part One - here's a brief summary, but I would really urge everyone to read her analysis in detail. Main idea is this: the course syllabus states it is intended for advanced undergraduate students, preferably with some experience in writing about literature, but the students enrolled in the class do not match that target audience; this problem is compounded by the lack of clear criteria for the writing assignments - perhaps explicit criteria would not have been needed in a class of advanced undergrads with writing experience… with the students actually enrolled in the course, however, the criteria need to be made more explicit.

So, following up on what appears to be a HUGE mismatch between the intended audience for the course and the people who are enrolled, I have to ask how this fits into Coursera's model overall. Earlier today I was looking at the Coursera-Michigan contract that got published at the Chronicle of Higher Ed (trying to find out just what is going on with ADA compliance), and I thought I would take a look at what the contract might have to say about the issue of course design and student support.

In the document language, a key term is "Course Criteria," which is presumably how Coursera wants to hold universities accountable for the quality of the content they are providing which is distributed via the Coursera platform. Here is the contractual definition of "Course Criteria" (contract is at Chronicle of Higher Ed):
"Course Criteria" means a rigorously designed Course meeting high academic standards that uses multi-media Content in a coherent, high-production-value presentation (i.e. not just simple lecture capture) to provide the End User opportunities for a rich set of interactions or assessment (whether provided by automatic grading technology or by peer-to-peer interaction activities), resulting in a meaningful learning experience that significantly transcends static content or plain video.
WHOA… Notice that there is no provision here for actual INSTRUCTION… and even less so for REMEDIATION. We have opportunities for "interaction" and "assessment" … but instruction and remediation are conspicuously missing. So, Coursera definitely imagines that blissful world envisioned in the course syllabus: we are all "like" upper-division college students, hopefully literature majors, who are able to educate ourselves independently and already fully in possession of the skills we need both to complete the course assignments and also to effectively evaluate the work of our peers, those other upper-division literature majors who are taking the course with us.

Except… that is not what is happening in the actual course. There are students in the course struggling with the basics of written English (including many non-native speakers); there are students in the course who have been plagiarizing (I suspect because they really are not clear on how to do research that results in original writing) … in short: there are people who need basic instruction in writing and research methods in order to succeed in completing the assigned tasks for the class. In other words: they are not students who have gone through the usual process that leads someone to enroll in an upper-division literature class at the University of Michigan.

Now, I think this democratizing of the course could be a GREAT thing, and there are indeed some easy steps that Coursera and Michigan could take in order to provide these students with at least some of the instruction and remediation they need, simply by turning the course website into something more than a discussion board (right now that is all it is). I'll say more about that in a separate post. For now, though, I have to say that reading this contract helps me understand why Coursera thinks the course website is fine the way it is now. They actually do not envision anything that could conventionally be called "instruction" to happen in this course. I guess I could have reached that conclusion simply by looking at the design of the course, but it was helpful to see that it is also a principle embodied in the language of the contract itself.

Just because a course is massive, does it have to dispense with instruction? Personally, I don't think so at all. But I'll save for a separate post some ideas that I have about that, and you can also see the blog post I referenced above - Coursera Thoughts Part One - for thoughts on that subject from another student in the course.

Meanwhile, though, I have to say that this is a really sad thing for me. I love teaching online and have enjoyed nothing but success and satisfaction from the past ten years I have spent teaching fully online courses. Yet all around me I see a lot of doubt about and even hostility towards online courses, usually because people assume that an online course is one in which the instructor is basically absent. Well, that seems to be the case in the Coursera model, and it is definitely the case in the specific Coursera course I am participating in right now. Does it have to be that way? Obviously not! (Just ask my students.) But it looks like a Coursera course can easily meet the minimum "Course Criteria" without any instructional component. This worries me - a lot.

The Lack of Video Captions

Update: it looks like Coursera is now taking the video captions seriously; almost all of the videos now posted have captions. Strangely, there is no announcement on the homepage to let us know about that. I found out just by accident. The latest announcement on the homepage as of August 26 is an announcement dated August 14.


As I mentioned in my earlier post about course communication problems, people have been complaining - to no avail - about the lack of video captions for the latest videos. During the first week, when we were reading the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, transcripts were very helpfully supplied for the numerous videos. Then, starting in Week 2 - Alice, there were no transcripts (although for one "extra" video about the Week 2 content, a transcript did appear this morning, oddly enough), and there is no transcript for the first video for Week 3 - Dracula, the one we are supposed to watch before we start reading for Week 3 (reading that people are doing this weekend, presumably).

As a result of the missing transcripts, people have been making requests at the discussion forums - I've seen requests from deaf and hard-of-hearing students, and also from many non-native speakers of English who find the transcripts essential in being able to follow what the professor is saying accurately. I'm someone who would like the transcripts just for sheer convenience; it is faster, easier and more accurate for me to access the information in text form. I really don't have time to listen to all the videos and, just as a general rule, I would prefer to read.

So, the complete lack of a response from the Coursera staff for the course got me curious about this. I remembered that the contract between Coursera and Michigan had been leaked and reprinted at the Chronicle of Higher Ed. I figured ADA had to be discussed in there, and sure enough it is. Here is what it says about transcripts/captions for videos:

Company will provide an "Audio Text Transcript" for the audio stream (i.e. captions), as follows:
  • For all University Courses offered to the public under the Coursera Monetization Model whose initial enrollment is above 10,000 End Users, the audio will be proactively captioned within seven days of the time that the Instructor uploads the video onto the Website.
  • For all University Courses offered to the public under the Coursera Monetization Model whose initial enrollment is fewer than 10,000, the audio will be captioned upon the request of an End User, who has a disability, in a timely manner, as specified below.
  • For any University Courses under the University Monetization Model or the Registered Students Model for which University requests such captions, at an agreed-upon fee.
For the people who are under the impression that Coursera is some kind of charity because we are not charged a fee for this course, think again: reading through this contract is a great reminder that they are very much a business venture. We are operating, I believe, under the "Coursera Monetization Model" - and I think that our enrollment is surely over 10,000 for this class (even though not all enrolled students are turning in written assignments). So, based on this contract, I would assume that we should be seeing transcripts within one week from the date when the video is uploaded. That does not seem to be the case, though, because the "Alice: Before You Read" video was uploaded on Thursday, August 2, and there is still no transcript for it (and we are now completely done with the Alice material, of course, having moved on to Dracula). Based on what I understand about this contract (don't quote me, though - eegad, lawyer-ese is hard to understand), that means we should have had the "Alice: Before You Read" audio transcript by now.

Worse, though, is that the one-week delay allowed for in the contract is really not feasible for this class. If the "before you read" video is released only on Thursday, and our writing assignment is due on the subsequent Tuesday, five days later, that means deaf students who are dependent on the video captions will not be able to access the "before you read" video before they do the reading and writing assignments for the unit.

One of the reasons I am not interested in developing video materials for my own courses is exactly because of the time-consuming need to supply a transcript - it's faster and easier for me to supply the content to the students in written form which does not have the same accessibility problems. I know that video appeals to a lot of people, of course... and if Coursera is committed to the use of video, as they are, then this question of timely availability of transcripts is a very important issue for them to resolve. Even if they did follow the terms of the contract and supplied the transcripts one week after the video is made available to the students, the deaf students in this class would not be getting the video transcripts - esp. the "before you read" video - in time to access that video before they do the week's reading.

Crystal Gazing, by Northcote Thomas

WOW - I have found a truly fascinating book to read at GoogleBooks - it is leading me farther and farther away from Dracula, so I probably won't post any notes from this book here, but I will share the link for anyone else who finds this kind of stuff to be of interest. I'm going to curl up for an hour or so and just read through this book. Andrew Lang: that man had such a wide-ranging set of folklore interests. I would love to sit down and have coffee with him in some supernatural cafe!

Crystal Gazing, its History and Practice by Northcote W. Thomas, with an introduction by Andrew Lang. Published in 1905. Online at GoogleBooks.

Table of Contents
I Superstition and Incredulity
II Vision and Visions
III Crystal Visions
IV The Speculum
V Historical
VI More Historical
VII The Incantation or Call
VIII Egyptian Scrying
IX More Egyptian Scrying
X Prophetic and Telepathic Scrying
XI Evidential Cases

Happy reading, everybody!

Mirror Myths: Medusa and Basilisk

So, after a dutiful look at some literary theory about vampires and mirrors (I mean, it was Lacan, right? I did my duty!), here are some more rambling thoughts about mirrors and folklore that in my mind are interesting intersections with Stoker's Dracula.

Let's start with the Greeks. Two thoughts come to mind:

Medusa. Remember Medusa? ( is a good source to refresh your knowledge.) She was the monster with the snakes for hair whose gaze was deadly (and who surely is part of the inspiration for the super-fabulous weeping angels of Doctor Who). So, how can a hero ever hope to defeat Medusa if merely looking at her will get you killed? You use the power of a mirror to defeat her! Perseus was able to slay Medusa because he guided his deadly sword by looking at Medusa as reflected in his shield (a gift from Athena); he beheaded Medusa and then used her head as a weapon in turn; the deadly power of her gaze persisted even after death. Poor Perseus: imagine if he had to battle Dracula - he could not use the power of the mirror to avoid Dracula's gaze, ha ha. And we know there is something funky going on with the power of Dracula's gaze - he has those WEIRD RED EYES. There are also numerous references to the power of the evil eye in Stoker's novel (cue eerie music…).

Basilisk. Medusa was not the only one with a deadly gaze in Greek mythology; the basilisk was also able to kill with a look and had to be defeated with a mirror, because you could cast the basilisk's own gaze against itself. Thanks to Hermione Granger and Harry Potter, this is an old myth that has taken on new life! Here is a wonderful illustration from a 1501 edition of Aesop's fables which also contains all kinds of animal legends from the bestiary tradition, beyond just the canon of fables - and you can see here a knight with his shield mirror, turning the gaze of the basilisk back upon itself! (The weasel is also making a frontal attack, biting the basilisk on the foot; the accompanying poem is about a weasel, reflecting the basilisk-and-weasel legend from the bestiary tradition; full page here). Now, I have always personally suspected a cross-influence in Greek between the scientific etymology of basilisk meaning "royal, kingly" (from basileus, king; hence the regulus snake in Latin) and the word for the evil eye in Greek, baskanon (compare Latin fascinum, English fascinate, etc.), which is a sound-alike word. We'll never know, of course... but I imagine if I had been an ancient Greek person obsessing about the evil eye (as they did), then I would definitely have felt a connection. :-)

Allegories of Vampire Cinema, by Jeremy Magnan

So, I am going to give myself a couple of hours this luxurious Saturday morning to learn something about the folklore of mirrors, and the folklore of mirrors and vampires in particular. It's not something I have ever looked at systematically (vampires have actually never been a real interest of mine, but I loved this novel by Stoker!), so I will have lots of learn.

I start with Google… but I know better than to just search for "vampires mirrors" - the sheer abundance of fan fiction and fakelore on the Internet is a bad problem in general, and I suspect for vampires it is especially bad. So I am going to search for "vampires mirrors site:edu" to see what I can turn up at university websites; maybe I will get some conference papers, materials from courses, etc. Yep, lots of results. And the first result is an article that is so darn interesting that I am going to devote a whole post to it here.

ALLEGORIES OF VAMPIRE CINEMA by Jeremy Magnan - online here - downloadable PDF.

This is an article focused on film, so it doesn't really get at the folklore angle, but the mirror motif in vampire films is definitely something I would like to know about! (I have not seen any of the vampire movies.) The author brings in material from three dozen vampire films, so this will be worth skimming at least. The author's focus is a "reader-response" approach, looking at parallels between vampires and victims / vampires and spectators.  Intriguing; one of the things I liked most about Stoker's book was how the Count is really repulsive; the really powerful seductive effects are more focused on the his three female sidekicks (but of course the gender questions in this novel are just huge... I wish we had Mary Shelley's take on vampires, ha ha). Anyway, the idea of spectators and spectating is one that is really fascinating to me, so I am going to plunge into this article with a lot of questions… ooooh, and the questions are well worth it. This is a good article I see as I get into it.

Lacan's mirror stage is invoked as a theoretical model, and sure enough, the author asks what Dracula's "mirror stage" would be. He then invokes another scholar, Fiona Peters, who says "Vampires have no need for an unconscious - nor can they be seen in mirrors because they do not need to rely on the process of identifications that Lacan describes; in other words, they have not become formed as human subjects." YES - that is very much the feeling I was getting from Stoker (sans Lacan). The author then invokes a HILARIOUS quote from Slavoj Zizek: "It is therefore clear why vampires are invisible to the mirror: because they have read Lacan and, consequently, know how to behave." HA: that is perfect! That was, in fact, just the feeling I got when Dracula smashed Harker's mirror, as he made a moralistic, self-righteous argument to justify his action, while cloaking his real motive. Gotta love Zizek.

The author then deploys his film-specific argument, which he adapts from Christian Metz: the film itself is a mirror; (quoting Metz) "although everything comes to be projected, there is one thing, and one thing only that is never reflected in it: the spectator's own body." Magnan then goes on to apply this idea to vampire cinema; here is his claim: "the mirrors in which vampires cannot be seen are analogous to the film-mirror that we encounter when we go to the cinema to view on of these films. As such, it is clear that not only are we aligned with the vampire through the space we wenter and the darkness we become enveloped in, but we are the vampires we see in front of us."

Now, that is interesting - and I think just the OPPOSITE is happening with Stoker's book, exactly because the only first-person experience we are denied is that of the Count himself. Writing is different from film; it is not 'spectating' in the same way (although I should probably think about that some more). When Stoker gives us diaries, documents, even phonograph records, he is prodding us to share the first-person experiences of so many different characters in the novel… but never the Count! I wonder if Magnan will comment on this - but his interest is in the films, so it's not exactly relevant to his topic.

Yep, as expected, the rest of the article is really concerned with questions of film and visual representation (it's fun stuff; in general, I enjoy film criticism so much more than literary criticism… I wonder why that is… hmmmm). Anyway, this was very useful. I probably cannot get hold of Zizek's "Enjoy Your Symptom!" as cited here, but I would read it with pleasure. Eegad, I guess maybe I should read some Lacan. But really, I would rather read some FOLKLORE.

So, while this article was good fun and thought-provoking, I am going to seek out some folklore to read next.

Self-Reflection: Dracula Essay

I guess this will be my usual routine for the next seven weeks: since the essay-writing is my least favorite part of this course, I will just pound out the essay on Friday night or Saturday morning just to get it over with. Then I can get on with the task of reading, researching and learning things about these marvelous books! I've always found the folklore of mirrors to be something really fascinating. So here is my dutiful essay about mirrors in Dracula, and after posting this I will give myself the treat of prowling around in some old folklore books at Google Books to see what other nifty things I can find about mirrors in folklore. :-)


In Through the Looking Glass, Alice became her own mirror self. Count Dracula, however, has no mirror self. Early on, Harker notes the lack of mirrors in the Count's home; later, he sees that the Count casts no reflection in his shaving mirror. The Count understands the danger posed by the mirror's revelation. He grabs the mirror and smashes it, calling it a "foul bauble of man's vanity." But do we look in the mirror only out of vanity? No, for Lucy has looked in the mirror to learn how to read herself, as she writes to Mina, "Do you ever try to read your own face? I do, and I can tell you it is not a bad study." Poor Mina will have her own mirror crisis; looking into a mirror, she sees the foul "red mark" on her forehead and "knew that [she] was still unclean." The Count, however, can never know himself in this way; he cannot read his own face because he can never see it reflected back to himself: he can't see himself as others see him.

Just as Stoker denies the Count a mirror image, he denies him a place in the documents that mirror for us the events of the novel. We have the words of the Count recorded by others, but the Count is never reflected in the mirror of a diary. This absence makes the Count strange to us, and also strange to himself. That makes me wonder what would have happened if Seward had tried to record the Count on the phonograph. I imagine that just as the Count's face cannot be seen in a mirror, his voice could not be recorded by a machine. Just a guess, though: what a fascinating experiment that would have been for Seward and Van Helsing to conduct in the name of vampire science!