Saturday, August 11, 2012

You're on your own...

As I mentioned over at Google+ earlier today, I'm going to try to take some time this weekend to put down here on virtual paper all my thoughts and experiences with the Coursera course so far (so, for example, I wrote up a long note about video captions earlier today). I start my own classes on Monday and they deserve my full attention. Plus, I am increasingly discouraged about this Coursera class; initially, I thought it would be something fun to do side-by-side with my regular classes, but as the class feels more and more like a chore, very badly hampered by the problems in the design and conduct of the class, I really don't see it having any meaningful connection to my own courses - hence my participation will be drastically curtailed after this weekend. So, in hopes that somehow a participant's thoughts and reflections might (?) matter to the people at Coursera, I'm going to try to get caught up on recording those thoughts either today or tomorrow.

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.


  1. Oh dear Laura, I was just feeling kind of perky after reading a discussion of how Moocs are being handled in the Netherlands, and then I read this post--and I agree with every single word--and got kind of pokey again. However, I believe that Massive Open Online Courses do NOT have to dispense with instruction and with time and money spent on them, they can both engage and instruct students.

    But if Coursera, as I have read, is the front runner in the MOOC market, I am concerned because. from my perspective, they haven't a clue about how to instruct, support, or assess the students flocking to their courses.

    Still it's not over until the fat lady sings, or something like that, and given the potential of on line courses and especially massive ones, I'm hoping other companies will come along and do a better job. It seems to me they will have to if they want their certifications to matter in the world of both school and work.

  2. Hi Laraine! Google+ to the rescue... as if knowing that I needed a boost, some people I really admire there have shared some AWESOME stuff to re-optimize me (and I am an optimist!!!), very much in the nick of time. Take a look in particular at this post by Kim Hayworth from Stanford: a TON of stuff to explore and ponder. Happy stuff - I feel better!!!

    1. Hmmm, that link didn't work - let's try that again
      Ugly URL - but I think I got it right that time! :-)

  3. Laura, I've shared you blog post in g+ and I'll link to it as I post more about my own coursera thoughts. I have some ideas about how coursera could modify what they have already created and allow for, if not direct instruction from a professor, at least a more intimate engagement with other students. Of course, I don't know how easily any of my ideas can be implemented. But this is why I'm thinking this is all about dialogue, of throwing out the issues/questions and then trying to come up with solutions with an awareness that others may have alternative ideas.

  4. Interesting post. I have a sneaking suspicion, that there's nobody there (whereever 'there' is - a little office at Coursera HQ or a virtual space where the Staff work on updating our Course page). I'm guessing that they only check in twice a week - to upload the videos, debug and that's it. The rest is automated)
    When I look at the video lectures, I get the feeling that they have been pre-recorded, so that Prof. Rabkin can go off and enjoy his summer holidays. Sending an occasional video in at the end of each Unit (from Camp, from living room, etc.) Which is fine, I guess, unless we're expecting a level of interactivity that neither Coursera nor U of M were anticipating.

    They probably weren't expecting a mismatch of ideal student body/ audience and actual audience. Or maybe they were hoping that those who didn't meet the snuff would drop out - instead of compensating thru cut and paste.

    Just off the top of my head...


    1. Hi Melanie, I've been surprised at how little communication there is coming from Coursera - I understand that in a massive class, it will be broadcast communication, but in addition to the videos, I expected a steady stream of daily announcements, some acknowledgment of the general trends in the discussion board, answers to real problems and concerns that have come up. All of that is missing, and I just don't seen how an online course can succeed without it. That kind of thing would not be hard to provide - we're talking about maybe an hour of someone's time every day. If Coursera does not have one hour per day to devote to the communications in this class, then I think they have really misunderstood just what is required to make an online course successful at any scale, small or massive.



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