Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Goals, Persistence, and Projects: The Value of Making Things

I'm starting to worry that the pace at which I can record some ideas here about the MOOC is not going to be fast enough - argh! Quick note re: content: I am enjoying Dracula so much, far more than I imagined. About the class set-up, I wanted to jot down a few notes here about class projects, and the lack thereof in this class (it's a follow-up to my concerns about the exclusive reliance on essay-writing for the class). The reason I wanted to do this now is because yesterday and today I am working on the archives of students projects in the classes I teach; here are the archives for Myth-Folklore and for Indian Epics. At the beginning of each semester, I add links to the previous semester's projects to the list, and I also look to see which projects can be used to help students explore possibilities of both form and content. Yesterday, I worked on form, updating the reference pages for the various Storytelling Styles and Strategies people have used in their projects, and my big task for today is updating the specific topics pages for each class so that students this semester, as they choose their topics, can explore the ways students have approached those topics in past semesters.

The point I wanted to make here is just how incredibly valuable the project experience is for the students in terms of their persistence in the class and what they take away from the class at the end, and also how valuable it is for me as the teacher, since the projects give me an archive full of ideas and inspiration that allow the students in each new semester to hit the ground running right from the first week (one of the first week's assignments is to explore the archive, so that the new students can get ideas for their own projects by seeing what they like and also what they don't like in past projects). Basically, my classes work like the Coursera course in terms of the week-by-week schedule (reading, writing on the week's reading, and reading the writing of other students)... PLUS the project, which is on a topic of the student's choice, and which also has a week-by-week schedule, but one which builds from week to week, culminating in a finished project. Here is the week-by-week schedule for the project. I sure wish we had projects to go with the week-to-week reading and writing in the Coursera course.

From the student evaluations, and also just seeing the effort that the students put into the projects, I know that for the large majority of students the project is the most important learning experience they have in the class. By choosing their own project topic, they make a personal commitment to it, based on their own motivations and interest (there are two weeks of brainstorming assignments to help them choose a topic and develop a plan for the project). By sharing the project with others in the class, they take responsibility for their work; the person-to-person peer interaction provides a motivation to do well - quite a few students who might not care one way or the other about the quality of the work they turn in to the instructor (esp. students who are taking the class just to graduate) are very highly motivated to impress their peers. By working on the project all semester long, with detailed weekly feedback from me along with lots of peer feedback, the students have a chance to revise and improve their work, so that they can end up with a project they can really be proud of at the end of the semester. That sense of pride is something I really enjoy, too - the students are proud of their work, and so am I. In the evaluations, some students refer to the weekly readings and weekly blogs as a feature of the class that they enjoyed - but a far greater number of students spontaneously mention the project as their favorite part of the class.

As a teacher, I also really appreciate the sheer variety of the project topics and the approaches that the students choose. It means that every semester is new and different, and that makes my job a fun and exciting one. I never know just what projects I will be spending my time on in any given semester, but in the ten years I have been teaching these project-oriented classes, I have never had a dull semester. I spend around 30 hours per week every week giving students feedback on the projects; that is my main task as the teacher of the class. It is something I really enjoy: for someone like me, who loves stories, the idea that I could be paid to read and reply to around one hundred stories every week is just amazing, and the variety of the stories that I get to read keeps me going week after week. The students also enjoy the variety of stories and styles that they see when they read the other students' projects; we don't all think alike or share the same interests, and the array of projects in each class in each semester provides ample proof of that wonderful fact.

So, the absence of anything like a semester-long project in the Coursera class is a real drawback for me. Just as a student in the class, I would have a lot more motivation if I felt like I was building something week by week, making something with lasting value. I would far prefer that to just jumping into the essay wheel and running around like a hamster, doing the same thing week after week, knowing that my writing is just going into the virtual trashcan week after week. Of course, to cover the content of the course, there does need to be that week to week dimension of the class - but in my classes, the stories that the students are reading as the course content and the weekly writing that they do for their blogs is meant to be in support of their projects, exposing them to stories and ideas that will enrich their own skills and experience so that they can do a better job with their own projects in turn.

And yes, it does take time. The students consistently note on my class evaluations that they think my classes take up more time than their other classes, and I do in fact expect 6-8 hours of week per work every week. I don't think that's unreasonable, though, since it is an online course with no classroom time at all; that's 6-8 hours per week total (so, if we did have 3 hours per week of class, it would be 3 hours in class and 3-5 hours outside of class - but I love the fact that we don't have classroom time; all the class time is based on work put forth by the students, rather than just sitting-in-class time). Yet many students are so overcommitted in terms of school, work and family that they don't have 30-40 hours per week to spend on school, even if they are enrolled as full-time students.

When I look at the Coursera course description, though, it says: 8-12 hours per week! Now, I'm quite sure that almost no student is going to invest that much time in this class... but if there is some thought that students are going to spend a significant amount of time on the class, then surely it wold be possible to build in a course project component along with the regular 300-word weekly essay assignment. I actually have lots of ideas about how that could happen - the kinds of projects, how peer feedback could work, etc. ... but I don't have time to write it all out now and, to be honest, it's probably a waste of time for me to do so - since I'm not a professor (I'm just an instructor), and I don't teach at an elite university, ha ha, there's no way I would ever be able to teach a Coursera class. So, I'll spend my time instead prepping for my classes and all the things I need to do to help the students with their projects in those classes. But I sure do wish there were some kind of project-oriented approach in the Coursera course I am taking. Just speaking as a student in the class, it sure would be a huge motivator for me! Reading is great... but I think MAKING THINGS is even better. :-)


  1. Good point. Maybe we should be thinking about how some ideas are repeated or developed from story to story.
    I mean, we have Alice dreaming in Wonderland, and then Jonathan Harker wondering if he is dreaming at the beginning of Dracula. Even the notion of "going down the rabbit hole" is one that has passed into common use as something crazy, or fantastical, happening.

    1. Yes, I agree with your comment, Fence, and my weekly essays are based on a common theme "why, or why not, has this literature endured?". It's been a lot of fun so far and in the four essays I've completed, different aspects are examined.

      Laura, thank you again for explaining on one of the Coursera discussion threads that you were doing examination of identity through-out the readings, and, if you will, giving "approval" of this approach. It has been enjoyable identifying different aspects of this theme of enduring literature and I hope further insights on this theme will continue to enrich my Coursera Fantasy and Sci Fi experience.

      Regarding the hours per week for this course, I am already spending at least 8 hours per week on reading, writing, reviewing and watching the video lectures. I would prefer not to spend any more time on this for pleasure, no credit course, even though it's all very enjoyable.

      However, I agree that a synthesis would be useful and a final assignment or project could be to take all the essays written and bring them together in one overview "essay" or other creative vehicle to pull together what a student has taken from the course.

      Laura, again thank you for enriching the MOOC experience with your thoughtful, insightful and sensitive observations both on the discussion threads and in your blog!

    2. Fence, that dream theme is GREAT - and I bet we will see dreams again and again in the readings for class, since dreaming obviously has so many connections to the basic idea of fantasy literature! Since I am interested in identity, I will almost for sure write about vampires and mirrors/shadows, but I haven't decided yet. :-)

      Teach College, I had not factored in the time to watch the lectures! I prefer to read the transcripts exactly because of the time involved - it takes soooo long to watch a video and I would prefer to spend my time in other ways. I sure hope they get the transcripts up for the Alice videos. I am curious what Prof. Rabkin had to say about Alice, but not curious enough to spend an hour or two listening to video when I will be able to read the transcripts in 10 or 15 minutes... if/when the transcripts arrive!

      Thanks to both of you for your comments... blogging is something that is useful/therapeutic just for "thinking out loud" even when no one is reading it (like little Alice talking to herself all the time in Wonderland, ha ha) - but it is even more interesting when you see how different people's thoughts intersect while also going off in different directions. Education: people learn better together! :-)



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