Sunday, August 12, 2012

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...?


  1. I absolutely agree with this vision of MOOCs and the criticism of the Coursera system.

    I am myself involved in the creation of a MOOC that will try to combine creation with curation using some of the open tools you mention on

    However, I don't think it's nearly as dire, as you make it out. Traditional universities don't treat even PhD theses with much more respect than this course does its 320 word micro essays. And the forums do provide a basic form of self-organization. Not one that scales all that well, but one none the less.

    I think the tools can also grow out of such dissatisfaction and then their impact can be more powerful than if they were served up from the beginning.

  2. Dominik, that MOOC looks really fascinating. I am going to share that over at Google+ where there has been so much good discussion of MOOCs and sharing of different MOOC opportunities (are you at Google+?)... it is so exciting to see the many different ways people are doing the MOOCs. I picked this Coursera MOOC to do, and promised myself to complete the whole course... but I am looking forward to when this course is over and I can find another one to try; I am sure they will get better and better, too, over time as people learn from one another.

    And yes, absolutely, I am not writing in defense of traditional practices (it was a revelation for me when I arrived at my current school and was still teaching in a classroom to stand in the hallway and watch students coming out of a big lecture hall, throwing their papers into the big trash can by the outside door as soon as they had flipped to the back page to see the grade...). Instead, what I sadly see is that this Coursera MOOC seems to be taking some of the very bad practices of traditional university education and reproducing those practices (like having students write for the trash can), just on a more massive scale.

    I feel badly for the students who I really do think deserve better in this go-round, so I am not so willing to cut Coursera as much slack as you are in their failure to have learned from the many excellent online learning networks that already do exist... but overall, I share your optimism for sure. Bring on Coursera v.2!

  3. I never knew about Zotero's profile pages. I haven't really used it since I was a college librarian years ago, but am getting back in the swing of it now.

    I agree that the course should be offering starting places for research, any lecturer would in real life so why not online, where it is easier for people to follow links and the like.

    1. Zotero is SUCH a powerful tool. I am really just a neophyte, but even for the simple way in which I use it (managing my giant GoogleBooks library), it is so powerful and useful! They have been offering mini-courses on Zotero through the library at my school (Univ. of Oklahoma), and I was really glad to see that. I always figure the best way to convert faculty members to the online world is to give them a tool that totally saves them time! :-)

  4. I share your frustrations too. The level of frustration is palpable, the white noise deafening. I hope it does not completely suffocate the remarkable enthusiasm it started with. I came across a reference of 5,000 for the course. Whether 5, 10 or 20+ thousand, most do not participate in the forum. I haven't paid enough attention to number of visits to hazard any guesses there.

    As a closed rather than open system, Coursera probably won't make use of the many open resources. There also seems to more administrative variation from one to another too. A recent sociology course changed its grading scale from 1-3 to 1-5 because of student complaints. I registered in Al Fireis' Modern Poetry class in September. Fireis' course, much larger, sent out pre-course reading suggestions and all his web page links, has a course twitter account and is already posting to it. Follow through remains to be seen, but I take all this as a good sign.

    I find myself skimming email notices and spending more time with the Facebook group, diverse, congenial, smart and less unwieldy. The Google+ circle sounds fascinating judging from your comments and the few blog links I've seen. Participant blogs are another feature I miss. Although far too many to follow all, there are always gems in every course to save and cherish. That, and the new connections from them, is the real takeaway from a mooc.

    fyi Lisa Lane just posted this (pdf) article comparing 10 online teaching models for her POTcert course,

    1. Isn't Lisa Lane awesome? She is a real Internet hero of mine. In a very bad Blackboard MOOC which I participated in back in May, the single best class discussion was an extended discussion that took place at her BLOG, since the discussion space in the class itself was just a nightmare (Blackboard's Course Sites discussion board was no better than at Coursera), in which the instructor showed up, programmers from Blackboard - all because Lisa's blog was an open space that people could share and use for actual communication... unlike the tools made available to use by Blackboard.

      The variability in the Coursera courses is something that worries me, too - reading through the contract they have with Michigan, it is pretty clear that they envision a basically "instructionless" model. So, if a professor wants to be involved, that's fine, that's great - but it is not an expected element in their course design model. My guess is that some of these professors have a huge curiosity about how all this works and might participate with much eagerness the first time around... but are they going to be back again with that same eagerness and enthusiasm the second time or the third time or the nth time? I don't think so. The Coursera contract definitely envisions the course being offered multiple times, and they don't really have any provision in there except for the students basically to teach themselves, as if this were a connectivist course... but they have not given us any of the tools or the space we can use in order to connect. The more I ponder it, the more glum I become.

    2. You might want to give Lisa's Program for Online Teaching a look and a spin around the dance floor. She calls it SMOOC (small to medium open online course).

      Coursera is not doing right by participating professors either, not enough training / orientation / support for them. You are right, some are going to be lost to this kind of online teaching. The commercial ed-biz crowd don't get what truly open is ~ and would not like it if they did because it means relinquishing top down, hierarchical control. Or maybe they do and still think they can shape it to their purposes, keep everything in house. A connectivist mooc or so back, someone called that model the "toxic tree house."

      Have you tried Udemity? Margaret Soltan (University Diaries) is very enthusiastic about teaching in it and reports student enthusiasm.

      I find myself thinking, hey let's flip the xMOOC (virtual cow tipping?). MOOC MOOC, interesting (if not for the reason envisioned by organizers) but chaotic even for a mooc. Quite a contrast, dizzying but informative to follow both at the the same time.

  5. Virtual cow tipping: ha!!! You gave me my first laugh-out-loud for the day, Vanessa - thank you! I definitely need to look at Udemity - for all that I have been disappointed in this Coursera course, what a dramatic change this is from when I first started teaching online ten years ago and I felt alone, and by that I mean, really and totally and completely alone. Now with all these experiments going on in public places (even if they are not "open" in the sense that I understand open), surely we will start making real progress. I am going to enjoy looking around after I finish this Coursera MOOC to see what I want to try next!

  6. The problem with the forum is that I can't choose to see only the thread I followed or participated in, so I can't keep track of my discussion if I don't take the time to note the discussion title. Regarding your concern with students' participation, you might want to check this site:'s an online corkboard and is quite useful for group project or small to medium discussion.

    One more thing, Laura, and please don't get offended. I think you rant about so many things because you run online classes yourself. Not all teachers teach like you, and they bring their attitudes and views to their online class. You keep on comparing the class to yours, and that keep some people away from your posts, even if you did it with good intentions.

    1. Lisa, there are thousands of people in this class, and hundreds of people at the discussion board. Trying to please everybody is impossible - I'm not trying to attract people to my posts (what would be the point of that? this is not a high school popularity contest). I'm trying to share useful information and to gather useful information from others, that's all. I'm probably not going to participate much more at the discussion boards; more and more people are posting anonymously, which makes it impossible to have any kind of real conversation, especially when five or six people named "anonymous" are sharing comments and you cannot even tell one person from another.

    2. I didn't mean 'attract' in that way. I mean it's a pity that they don't get to read some great points you made in your posts.

      Regarding the 'anonymous' comments, I give up. I got confused more times than I could count since I couldn't tell who replied who.

    3. I was thinking they could at least number the anonymous people, so at least which could tell which anonymous was which, ha ha. :-)



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.