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!