Since I have two very different motivations for taking this class - one is the WHAT of the class (I love the reading list!) and one is the HOW of it (I am curious about MOOC pedagogy) - that means there are two different kinds of posts in this blog. Today I am jotting down some thoughts just about MOOC pedagogy, and communication in particular (my previous post in this line was about the value of student blogs). Also, I have started getting my own courses ready for Fall, and that has made me more aware of the pedagogical side of the course, while also giving me very little time for thinking about content (that will have to wait for the weekend…).
Anyway, what I wanted to reflect on today was COMMUNICATION - specifically, communication TO STUDENTS (I'll say something more about other kinds of communication in another post). I would have to say that it seems to me that Coursera is doing a really poor job with communication, and that the poor communication is a serious problem with the class, even though that would be something really easy to fix. From many years (10 years!) of teaching online courses, I have concluded that there is little or nothing that is obvious about an online course; as a result, it is really important to communicate both the big picture and the little details very clearly. Students often have very little experience, or no experience at all, with online courses, and they may be operating with assumptions that are totally inapplicable. As a result of their lack of experience, they are often worried and anxious. Lots of clear communication is the best way to dispel that anxiety and help everybody aim for a successful course. In the case of a MOOC, it is an even more unusual type of online course, requiring - in my opinion - even more communication from the organizers to the students, yet instead we have had very little communication at all.
For example, in my online courses, I do daily announcements, including some fun or intriguing item in each day's announcements, always with an image (or video), in addition to specific information about the class. Here's a typical week's worth of announcements: April 2 2012 - April 8 2012. I know that the students are not necessarily reading the announcements every day, so I repeat important announcements - but by including something fun and new for each day's announcements, I try to entice people to take a look at the announcements every day (they can also sign up for an email subscription). The students who are aware of just what is going on in the class at any given time obviously have a better learning experience, and these announcements are also a way for me to reduce the amount of email I receive. It is my goal to make the communication channels as shared and public as possible, reserving email for things that require for some reason a real level of privacy (grades, reminders about deadlines for people who need reminding, etc.).
At the Coursera course, however, there are just two announcements on the homepage, although the class has been going for 11 days now. There is a welcome message from the instructor, and then there is an announcement for today in which he remarks about the serious technical difficulties from this morning (but without apologizing for them…), along with the announcement that he will no longer be responding to emails. It is totally understandable that the instructor in a massive class like this would not be responding to emails, but apparently that means that the instructor's only involvement will be in the delivery of lectures to the class. He said he is keeping an ear to the forums although I don't think he is actually participating… again, understandable - but I better not start talking here about the shortcomings of the Coursera discussion forums or else I will never finish this post. There have also been emails, but the emails have not been posted on the announcements! That, to me, is also a big mistake. People can lose track of email easily - so, since everybody's email inbox is more or less total chaos, it seems to me very important to post the contents of any course-wide emails on the homepage (announcements page) of the course website, but that has not been happening.
In my own courses, I teach only 100 students per semester… not 5000. I was really hoping to learn some good methods for scaling a class up to a massive size - and I think communication, excellent communication, would be a key element in scaling up. Unfortunately, I would rate the communication I have seen in this Coursera course as quite poor… but it does inspire me to try to do an even better job of communicating in my own classes this Fall!
Meanwhile, I wait to see how things evolve at this Coursera course ... and I am excited to have an excuse to spend some time this weekend with Lewis Carroll!