First off, I have to refer everybody to the EXCELLENT blog post by another student in the class here: Coursera Thoughts Part One - here's a brief summary, but I would really urge everyone to read her analysis in detail. Main idea is this: the course syllabus states it is intended for advanced undergraduate students, preferably with some experience in writing about literature, but the students enrolled in the class do not match that target audience; this problem is compounded by the lack of clear criteria for the writing assignments - perhaps explicit criteria would not have been needed in a class of advanced undergrads with writing experience… with the students actually enrolled in the course, however, the criteria need to be made more explicit.
So, following up on what appears to be a HUGE mismatch between the intended audience for the course and the people who are enrolled, I have to ask how this fits into Coursera's model overall. Earlier today I was looking at the Coursera-Michigan contract that got published at the Chronicle of Higher Ed (trying to find out just what is going on with ADA compliance), and I thought I would take a look at what the contract might have to say about the issue of course design and student support.
In the document language, a key term is "Course Criteria," which is presumably how Coursera wants to hold universities accountable for the quality of the content they are providing which is distributed via the Coursera platform. Here is the contractual definition of "Course Criteria" (contract is at Chronicle of Higher Ed):
"Course Criteria" means a rigorously designed Course meeting high academic standards that uses multi-media Content in a coherent, high-production-value presentation (i.e. not just simple lecture capture) to provide the End User opportunities for a rich set of interactions or assessment (whether provided by automatic grading technology or by peer-to-peer interaction activities), resulting in a meaningful learning experience that significantly transcends static content or plain video.WHOA… Notice that there is no provision here for actual INSTRUCTION… and even less so for REMEDIATION. We have opportunities for "interaction" and "assessment" … but instruction and remediation are conspicuously missing. So, Coursera definitely imagines that blissful world envisioned in the course syllabus: we are all "like" upper-division college students, hopefully literature majors, who are able to educate ourselves independently and already fully in possession of the skills we need both to complete the course assignments and also to effectively evaluate the work of our peers, those other upper-division literature majors who are taking the course with us.
Except… that is not what is happening in the actual course. There are students in the course struggling with the basics of written English (including many non-native speakers); there are students in the course who have been plagiarizing (I suspect because they really are not clear on how to do research that results in original writing) … in short: there are people who need basic instruction in writing and research methods in order to succeed in completing the assigned tasks for the class. In other words: they are not students who have gone through the usual process that leads someone to enroll in an upper-division literature class at the University of Michigan.
Now, I think this democratizing of the course could be a GREAT thing, and there are indeed some easy steps that Coursera and Michigan could take in order to provide these students with at least some of the instruction and remediation they need, simply by turning the course website into something more than a discussion board (right now that is all it is). I'll say more about that in a separate post. For now, though, I have to say that reading this contract helps me understand why Coursera thinks the course website is fine the way it is now. They actually do not envision anything that could conventionally be called "instruction" to happen in this course. I guess I could have reached that conclusion simply by looking at the design of the course, but it was helpful to see that it is also a principle embodied in the language of the contract itself.
Just because a course is massive, does it have to dispense with instruction? Personally, I don't think so at all. But I'll save for a separate post some ideas that I have about that, and you can also see the blog post I referenced above - Coursera Thoughts Part One - for thoughts on that subject from another student in the course.
Meanwhile, though, I have to say that this is a really sad thing for me. I love teaching online and have enjoyed nothing but success and satisfaction from the past ten years I have spent teaching fully online courses. Yet all around me I see a lot of doubt about and even hostility towards online courses, usually because people assume that an online course is one in which the instructor is basically absent. Well, that seems to be the case in the Coursera model, and it is definitely the case in the specific Coursera course I am participating in right now. Does it have to be that way? Obviously not! (Just ask my students.) But it looks like a Coursera course can easily meet the minimum "Course Criteria" without any instructional component. This worries me - a lot.