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.


  1. Brilliant Alice illustration! I just read with dismay Prof. Rabkin's two useless communications. I cannot believe that there is no substantive reply or practical resolution to the matter of plagiarism. Are we, indeed, at a "wonderland tea party"??? And, imagine the hypocrisy of encouraging "discussion" but not permitting responses to these "communications".
    Thanks for your recommendation about Google +. I'll check it out. Hope your first week of new semester is going well.

  2. I was surprised by the plagiarism statement, too - it just didn't seem to get at the basic question of what is plagiarism, offering helpful information to students who really are confused about it. I'm also worried about a model where there is no administrative layer of any kind - I just don't see how peer review can handle this responsibly (and just speaking selfishly, I sure hope I don't have to review another plagiarized essay - luckily, the odds are in my favor - but then the odds were in my favor when I got that plagiarized essay last week...). Since Coursera is insistent that these are college-level courses with grades, I'm guessing that sooner or later they really are going to have to grapple with this, just as universities grapple with it also. Or maybe they could just get rid of the grades: that would suit me just fine! :-)

  3. The title of this post is perfect. Like you I was somewhat dismayed by the post on plagiarism. It contained many words, yet failed to address the problem in a helpful manner. While I don't teach and my undergraduate years were pre-Internet, I suspect some of the plagiarism is a result of a complete lack of direction. What exactly is an essay for the mythical engaged and attentive fellow student at the advanced undergraduate level? I am a graduate of one of the institutions involved in Coursera in Slavic languages and literature, and I can only make an educated guess at such an essay, a guess that is far different from many of my fellow students' submissions and ideas.

    1. I was thinking that also, Natasha - when I imagine the student whose plagiarized essay I read this week, and the students with very poor essays over the past three weeks (I have given more than 30% 1s, that's for sure), I do not think that these messages from the professor will be really helpful to them - and the course is a MOOC, with one of those Os standing for "open," open enrollment to all. I really believe in that, but it means that guidance and help needs to be available to all, directly addressed to their questions and problems. I feel badly that it is not. There was a post from someone at the discussion board I saw today, someone who had written a very poor essay; she was dismayed at the comments she had gotten, so she was asking for more comments via the discussion board and the comments she got back at the discussion board were nice and friendly messages to "keep trying!" - nothing more than that, nothing substantial or specific. Will that really help her to improve her writing? No, I don't think so. I'm guessing that even though I have provided very detailed comments for every essay, just as I do for my own students, in the context of this class people's writing will not necessarily improve at all, esp. given the variability of the comments they are getting back in toto.

      I was wondering from your name if perhaps you were Russian! Was Russian your major language? I was a Slavic major also, at Berkeley, way back in the 1980s. I did Russian and Polish, and I lived in Poland for a while... although that all seems like such a long time ago. That was People's Poland back then, Polska Ludowa. The world sure has changed in that time! Amazing! I was so happy when for the book I wrote this summer (a collection of Latin distich poetry for Latin students), I was able to include a Latin poem by Jan Kochanowski, the Polish Renaissance poet that I wrote my master's thesis about... so many years ago! :-)

    2. Natasha is a pen name I use for my fiction writing on my blog. I dabble in a bit of erotica at times, so I am careful about real name use on the Internet and currently my only blogger account is under Natasha.

      My primary language was Russian with a little Czech for good measure, and I am old enough to have studied in the Soviet Union. I am now on the medical/scientific side of the world, but my heart still rests with the humanities.

      I agree in general that the students' writing will not improve over this course. The feedback is conflicting and contradictory. A cursory read of both the forums and essays makes clear that no consensus exists on the qualities of a poor, average, and good essay. The essays I received this week were particularly shaky in my mind, leaving me with the strong impression that last week my essays were only a recycling of the Annotated Alice. An annotated Dracula must be harder to acquire.(I took a flyer on the opening of my essay this week which I am sure will meet with disapproval of my fellow students.)

    3. Yes, Natasha, I would agree - all kinds of contradictory advice abounds at the discussion forums, so it is easy for me to imagine an essay that receives a 1 from me receiving a 2 or even a 3 from someone else - and those are just the number evaluations! In terms of the more detailed feedback, I can imagine all kinds of conflicting or unclear feedback, given that people are applying such hard and fast rules (they suppose) as "no use of 'I' is allowed in an essay," etc. I've noticed that it's easy to provide feedback on an essay that is good enough to really only be in need of editing (I've had a few of those - not great but definitely acceptable)... but for essays so poorly conceived or executed as to require revision from scratch, it's hard for comments in this format to be really useful.

    4. So many people seem to have these hard & fast rules about what should, and shouldn't be in an essay. Personally if it is well written, properly laid out, and makes sense then I'm happy to read it, and to call it an essay.

      Following rules that may have applied when writing a 1,000 essay, or longer, at a specific college, for a specific lecturer makes no sense here.

    5. One thing I might try to do in a course like this is have an orientation week where these kinds of issues are covered, and one of the assignments would be a personal statement about "The Kinds of Essays I Like to Read and Write," where people would have a chance to read through a wide variety of essay styles (that itself might be a revelation to many!), and ponder then a kind of personal strategy for the styles they want to adopt, while indirectly gaining a tolerance for the existence of other styles. I have a similar sort of assignment in the first week of my classes, although I really don't emphasize essay-writing in my classes at all (exactly because I'm not really ready to un-school people in the way essay-writing is often taught) - anyway, here is that assignment... very energizing and informative for the students every semester: Storybook Favorites.

  4. I actually sent an email to Prof.Rabkin last week, and it was replied with a message stated that he was out of office until September.

    Canned messages, huh. I hope he can address more issues via weekly videos. That's the next best thing if he couldn't really give personal message.

    Natasha and Laura, problem is not everyone in this class is able to appreciate your views. Like Laura said, the open nature of MOOC makes it difficult to measure its participants' education background. Perhaps the class is not supposed to be open for ESL, or people with no literary background from the way things are. It's aimed to people with at least decent knowledge of what will be done, including decent writing skill.
    I'm not the best essay writer myself, but some students are so desperate that they either submit half-baked essays or plagiarized ones. Getting one from serious student is a rarity.

    @Fence: Yeah. I don't have problem with style, as long as it conveys the idea effectively.

  5. I'm not really sure that Coursera can make these courses work without an instructor who is really engaging more with the students in some way - via the discussion board, reading some of the assignments at random, etc. From following the blogs of other people in Coursera courses, it seems to vary from one course to another just what the instructor does, which I guess means that Coursera just leaves it entirely up to the instructor. Of course, an instructor doesn't have to be the professor - it could be a graduate student, someone with an interest in the course content and an interest in the world of teaching online. I think we need someone to be providing good, stimulating, clear information on a daily basis, even if that is not someone we are interacting with one-on-one like you would in the classroom.



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