Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Coursera TOS: All your essay are belong to us

Something about the Coursera terms-of-service came up in a discussion at Google+ today which I thought would be worth noting here for future reference. Here is the quote from the Coursera TOS which someone shared with me:
With respect to User Content you submit or otherwise make available in connection with your use of the Site, and subject to the Privacy Policy, you grant Coursera and the Participating Institutions a fully transferable, worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free and non-exclusive license to use, distribute, sublicense, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such User Content.
 Compare this message from the instructor which we received early on in the course:
Please remember that the essay belongs to the essayist. None of us has the moral or, under U.S. copyright law, the legal right to post someone else's essay. One does have the right to post a brief quotation if one is using that "for the purpose of criticism or review" (again, quoting U.S. copyright law), but one can probably do just as well with paraphrase. ("In an essay I read, the writer asserted that....") Even if one is praising a fellow participant, lengthy quotes are not legal.
Well, judging by the Terms-of-Service, it appears that the essay does not really belong to the essayist after all - it also belongs to Coursera. So, as fellow students, we don't have the right to post someone else's essay without permission, but that same limitation seems not to apply Coursera. Instead, Coursera seems to have secured the right to re-use the essays whenever and however and for whatever reason they want. Coursera, yes ... but fellow students, no...?

Now, speaking just for myself, I would be glad for my essays to be re-used. Far better for someone to get some use of them rather than having them just go into the virtual trash can. That's one reason why I posted my essays at an open portfolio site. Future iterations of this course, in my opinion, would benefit greatly from the re-use of past essays as models of student writing so that students unfamiliar with essay-writing could have a gallery of styles and options to browse through and learn from.

Meanwhile, though, what prompted me to write this blog post was to note that while the instructor of the course seems to think we retain the copyright to our essays, apparently we do not.

All your essay are belong to us.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Teacher Authority and Student Initiative in a MOOC

I keep learning new things at this course although they are not exactly what I expected to learn about. One thing I have gotten to observe over the past few weeks is how there are many students who prize very highly the rules of a class and teacher authority, even in a massive course like this where the teacher is more absent than present. I had expected that people signing up for a course like this, a non-traditional course where we work mostly on our own or together with other students in the class, would be students who embrace that kind of learning, students who feel a sense of independence and self-determination as learners. What I've learned, though, is that this is not the case for at least some students in the class, who are very much expecting the teacher to function as the voice of absolute authority in the class. Part of this I think has to do with the international audience and different cultures of schooling in different countries - so that's yet another factor in the globalization of MOOCs. If students are coming from cultures that highly prize teacher authority, a pedagogical element which is largely missing from MOOCs, especially this one (in which students do the grading!), then this becomes another important factor for course designers to ponder.

I learned about all this by accident: back in Week 5, I wrote a story instead of an essay for my weekly writing assignment. We are now in Week 8, and the argument about whether I should have been "allowed" to submit a story for my writing assignment back continues to rage at the discussion boards. Each week, we have a writing assignment (identical prompt every week) where we are told to write an essay whose aim is "to enrich the reading of a hypothetical intelligent, attentive fellow student in the course," In Poe week (Week 5), I concluded that I could provide that enrichment by way of a story instead of an essay. There is a short story by Poe, "The Oval Portrait," which is incredibly short - the story-within-the-story part is just 480 words long (you can read Poe's story here). So, I thought it would certainly be possible for me to do a modernized version of the story within the 320-word limit for our own writing in this class. You can read the story I wrote (and illustrated) here: The Oval Portrait 2012.

Given the number of people at the discussion boards very determined to enforce all kinds of rules (including the Americans who want to insist that the British use American spelling!), I was prepared to get low scores on this writing assignment, which would have been fine - no harm done. But when I got very positive feedback from three of the four peer reviewers for the story (see below), better than for any essay I had done, I decided to share it at the discussion board. Many people share their assignments that get a high score at the discussion board, often with peer review comments included, so I shared the peer review also. Three of the four reviewers were very explicit about how the writing achieved the goal of the assignment, even though it was not an essay; I included all four sets of comments at the discussion board:
student1 It surely was not what I expected - but it did enrich my reading! For it's originality, I'll give you a 2 (I do not feel comfortable in giving a 3 out of respect for those who stick to the proposed form). student1 It is a great re-reading of the story!

student2 Structure is definitely not of the essay type student2 This idea is neither original, nor enriches the understanding. There's been stories on the net about family letting their kid starve because of being too engrossed with social networking sites, on-line games, etc. I think you have missed the major idea of The Oval Portrait, which is that the process of creating of true art is closely connected with suffering (and even death in this case).

student3 It is not a traditional form for a university essay, but I think it was well written and it really showed a new way of thinking. New ways of thinkings are even discussed in this unit. I think it is a great work, very creative and still reaches the goal of our course and work. The images are good ways of illustrating and still communicating when we have such a small space for showing our theory. student3 Bringing the story to the current time is a good analyses of how some fantastic aspects of literature can be found in real life. Reality can be stranger than fiction, it really can. It made me think more than any other essay so far. I am really a fan.

student4 This is the best essay I've got for evaluation :) You, actually, demonstrated "admirable and noteworthy skill with which evidence is woven into the argument" student4 And I cannot find words that are good enough to describe my sincere admiration!
As you can see, even the student who did not like the idea of writing a story also disagreed with my interpretation of Poe to begin with, so that is actually a useful comment. I don't think that Poe's story is a story about suffering, but it's an interesting point and shows in fact that I conveyed a definite interpretation of Poe in my own story, seeing the Artist as more like a vampire, and not as a romantic genius of any kind - which is exactly the goal of the writing assignment: the story conveyed my own understanding of the Poe story, which others might agree or disagree with.

But is there a discussion of Poe and the meaning of his story to be found in the over 50,000 words worth of commentary that people have spilled forth on this topic at the discussion boards? No, unfortunately not. Instead there is an outraged chorus of people who think I broke the rules of the class and should be punished. There are lots of ad hominem attacks but I've omitted those here (just to note, they are intense - I stopped participating at the discussion boards as a result). What I've provided below is a sampling of the comments strictly about rules and teacher authority… and a related theme: to write the story was not just disrespectful of the professor, but of Poe, too! I thought that was really interesting: the connection between author and authority is a very real one.

So, here are some of the comments - just a few, out of the enormous mass of words people have spilled arguing about this. I should note, by the way, that there is nowhere a rule saying that we should not write stories - although reading the comments of some students, you might think there was such a rule! There is not a rule one way or the other, and evaluation as to the acceptability of an assignment is made by the peer reviewers (for which, see above). The fact that the assignment got favorable reviews seems only to have made people more indignant, rather than less:
You did not wrote an essay, which you were supposed to do. So you failed on this assignment.
You prooved your words with actions that you will not abide by the Coursera rules, by the Staff rules and by the rules that the professor stated for this course by writing a story instead of an essay.

The rules exist, and if one wants to follow the course, one has to abide by its rules.

Why is she insulting the educators of this lovely course by not following the rules they have laid out for the students?

I will conform to these criteria because I honor the professor.

Since he's a professor and since he's the expert on this subject, he has the right to set up the rules. And we should follow those rules.

The teacher knows all there is to know about the subject, and they know exactly what they want their students to learn.

You than also will see professor Rabkin as an example from whom you can learn; you can only learn by looking up at those who know better than you.

This is not about point of views. It's about rules you are obliged to abide (freewill) when following a course. There is no point of view when it comes to that.

The law is as it is, and if you don't want to end up in jail, you'd better not break it.

Since she didn't follow the rules of this course, she insulted all the other students who are trying very hard to write those difficult essays while she in fact got away with writing a very easy story since all she had to do was copy the story from Poe.

It is scary to give 1's to people who honestly try to say something interesting (but can't because this or that), when 6's are given to people who retell the story or invent a new one.

I don't want my essay graded by somebody who wrote a short story decorated with faux-social media screenshots.

It's really presumptuous to think you can redo Poe's work. Poe's work is fine at is is, there's no need for correcting Poe.

Your lack of respect towards the professor I find troubling. It's the same kind of disrespect you showed when you tried to rewrite Poe's story.
Quite the sociological experiment. When I think about how MOOCs could work, I assume that we are talking about a new mode of teaching and learning where the students take on a lot of responsibility for their own learning, setting their own goals, exploring and sharing together. For some students, though, the absence of the teacher as a determining factor in the day to day activities of the class, as someone who gives the grades, as someone who enforces the "rules," is clearly going to be a shock. In the absence of the teacher-as-rule-enforcer, some students seem ready and willing, even eager, to leap into that role themselves. The phenomenon of student-as-rule-enforcer is, I suspect, one factor contributing to the sometimes very negative and even cruel content of peer feedback in the class, along with the often hostile atmosphere at the discussion boards. It's not really something I had expected to encounter, since my own classes have a very different dynamic. So, while I did not expect or enjoy the tidal wave of vitriol when I shared my story, it was a good learning experience and made me realize even more fully what a huge challenge the MOOC course designers have in front of them.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Words of Cartoon Wisdom

After my experience at the Coursera discussion boards, this really made me laugh (it's making the rounds at Google+ today):

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Final thoughts about plagiarism

I hope this will be my last post about plagiarism in the Coursera class (now that I have written my final essay, I feel such a sense of relief - since the worst possible score any essay, even a plagiarized one, can get is 1-1, I can be sure of not writing another essay). The reason I am posting here is to follow up on what Satia, who had not just one but two plagiarized essays in Week 6, said in her post: Coursera Plagiarism Deniers.

As you can guess even just from the title of Satia's post, there is now a strong movement in the discussion boards against anyone who thinks plagiarism is a problem. Their motivation is the related problem of unfair accusations of plagiarism (a very serious problem which I have also written about in previous posts), but instead of saying we need to put a stop to plagiarism AND to wrongful accusations of plagiarism, here is the public vow they are asking people to take: My Promise as a reviewer: I will NEVER accuse an essay author of plagiarism. It's a popular post, people are chiming in about how great this is, and the one dissenter has been put in his place (I'm guessing that most people, like me, have learned that these discussion boards are a very dangerous place for dissent; it's better just not to participate).

The post contains a list of reasons provided for why plagiarism should simply be taken off the table (my responses, if I dared post at the discussion board, are in parentheses):
  • plagiarists cheat only themselves (I would agree with that, except for the "only" part; they also steal my time as a reviewer, cheating me of time and cheating other students of my feedback)
  • plagiarism is extremely difficult to detect (well, some plagiarism is difficult to detect, but some is laughably easy)
  • a false accusation is more damaging than cheating (I'm not sure you can make such a comparison; the point should be instead that they are both bad and nothing but bad)
  • the anonymous submissions makes it completely impossible to prevent plagiarism (the author of the post contends in all seriousness that it is possible for students in course to be the people who wrote the essay for the paper mill, etc., to begin with - on the same logic that would have me invest my life savings in lottery tickets).
Interestingly, the one reason I would propose is not included on that list: if Coursera does not care that there is plagiarism, why should we?

It's quite clear that Coursera does not care about plagiarism in any meaningful way. They added an "honor code" checkbox which you are required to check in order to submit your essay, but plagiarism clearly is going on despite the checkbox (see Satia's post for her Week 6 plagiarized essays, and I had one also, one of those laughably easy to detect ones, documented here). So, did they add a checkbox in the grading form so that we could indicate that a possible violation of the honor code? No. Did they make it possible for us to give a zero to an essay, rather than the minimum score of 1-1? No. Are there any procedures in place for someone who violates the honor code? Presumably not; if so, we have not been told about them - and what kind of honor and justice is there in a system where we don't even know what will happen to us if we violate the honor code we have agreed to? In fact, it's a bit frightening to agree to an honor code (as we have been forced to do) when you do not know what the consequences will be if you violate the code. But that's what Coursera did - they added a box, and made us check it. That's all.

Did they do anything about really educating the students as to what plagiarism is? No. They apparently left it up to each professor to do that in his own way and the rambling, vague statement provided by our professor was clearly not effective, as the plagiarism still continues. I was tolerant of the plagiarism at first, because I figure everybody can make a mistake. There's a lot of mis-information about plagiarism, especially patchwork plagiarism, even among college students. So, when someone plagiarizes, they need specific, targeted instruction in plagiarism and how to avoid it. Yet in our class, there is no such intervention - because there is no process in place to identify the people who need this intervention. If someone plagiarized in Week 6, as I saw for myself, it seems to me entirely likely that they also plagiarized in some prior week(s). Does Coursera have anyone on staff who is prepared to take on the task of investigating this important matter? Apparently not.

Which leads me to conclude that, for Coursera, this is not important.

Now, I think there are far far far more serious problems with the course than plagiarism, simply because plagiarism is not as abusive as other kinds of behavior. Remember the peer reviewer whose feedback was "One. Two. Three. Four." etc. on up to "Thirty." to meet the 30-word requirement? Well, that person (or persons, who knows?) was still offering that same kind of feedback in Week 6 as in previous weeks (a distressed person reported this at the discussion boards). Because Coursera gives us no way to indicate abusive feedback (and I would call that a particularly cruel, and needlessly cruel, form of feedback), this sort of thing can go on week after week.

As on every Thursday, in fact, last week people were posting at the discussion forums about the mean-spirited things people had said in their feedback, a problem that can and should be fixed - along with the more intractable problem of vague and useless feedback, inaccurate feedback, totally contradictory feedback. Last week, I had the pleasure of writing an essay (here's the essay) that received a score of 2 from one reviewer (who frankly admitted that they had not understood anything I said) and a score of 6 from another (who found my writing "deep and insightful"). Result: I got an average score. I guess Coursera is satisfied that it does all average out.

My take on this is simple: get rid of all grading in the course and make the peer feedback optional. If people want to submit essays for review, great. If not, then don't. If people want to read other people's essays, great. If not, that's fine, too. Get rid of the attempt to grade and also get rid of the certificate of completion. If credit is going to be awarded for this class by any institution of higher learning, they are surely going to require people to present a portfolio of written work for evaluation, right? They are surely not going to take the so-called "grade" seriously. So I would suggest that the focus be ON THE PORTFOLIO, helping everyone create a portfolio (most people don't know how to use free web tools to do that), encouraging them to revise their best writing (we have no revision at all in this class! crazy!) and put their best writing in the portfolio - the portfolio itself constitutes a certificate of completion. That would be my modest proposal.

But then, I am a fan of portfolios.

Of plagiarism, I am not a fan.

Friday, September 7, 2012

My Final Essay: Edgar Rice Burroughs

I've submitted my final essay and, after my peer responses next week, I'll be done with the class. So, I'll have some final reflections when that is done... but for now, I am very glad to have ended up with my seven little essays about mirrors. Pretty nifty. Now if only I could figure out how to get myself to Wonderland, or to Mars - either one will do!

I've published the essay over at my writing portfolio: Edgar Rice Burroughs: An Uncanny Death.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Plagiarism continues

As I mentioned, I'm only writing essays and doing peer review for the remaining four weeks of the class. I just got my robomail (verbatim identical every week), telling me my peer essays are ready to review. I open the first essay. I read this sentence:

The War of the Worlds was written in 1898 by H.G Wells in response to several historical events such as the unification and militarization of Germany.

That's odd, since we were not assigned to read The War of the Worlds. So, I Google the sentence, and here's the top hit:

So, I guess the Honor Code didn't solve everything, did it? Surprise, surprise. The rest of the essay is plagiarized verbatim from this website, ironically named "" Coursera still has nothing in place for such assignments to be flagged for inspection. This student clearly needs help - but who is going to provide that help? Apparently not Coursera or the course instructor.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Done (More or Less)

I would be really curious to know how Coursera is going to judge the success or failure of this class. What criteria will they use? From my perspective as a student, I realized this weekend that the course is basically a failure - I'll finish up with the reading (which is great), and I'll write the essays and continue to do the peer review, but I'm no longer participating in the discussion boards (except to reply to any non-anonymous comments someone addresses to me directly) and I'm probably not going to do much more blogging here. Below are the criteria by which I'm rating the class as a failure for my own purposes and why I have no interest in participating beyond the bare minimum at this point.

1. Anonymous posting makes a toxic discussion board. I've never participated in an online environment where anonymous posting is allowed, and I don't think I will ever do so again. I wonder if Coursera is even thinking about this problem? If people want to sling mud online, there are plenty of places to do so, but it has no place in an educational environment. Persistent pseudonyms, yes, no problem at all - but anonymous posting, based on my experience over the past six weeks, adds nothing to the experience and instead has the potential to ruin it. To me, the most important part of a course like this is to participate in a community of shared learning; that has not happened, despite my best efforts. I have been a very active discussion board participant, which just makes me a bigger target for the anonymi to hit… although I am not only the type of person subject to mockery - there's a discussion board thread which consists solely of making fun of other people in the class. Everyone is a potential subject for abuse; anonymous is an equal opportunity scoffer.

2. Coursera is completely unresponsive to student requests for help and information via the discussion boards. We are told at the Coursera Contact page that any course-related questions should be posted at the discussion boards because Coursera staff are monitoring them regularly. I have to conclude this is not true. I have not seen a post from a Coursera staff member in response to a student query since the first week of class. One week ago, I asked some important questions about the wiki which appeared out of nowhere one night; I renewed my question periodically, other students bumped the thread so that it appeared on the main page of discussion board posts all week - but no response. (The wiki could have been an incredibly useful addition to the class, but since Coursera has provided no information about its long-term fate, it's impossible for me to decide about whether it is worth participating there or not.)

3. The work for the class is not intended to have any lasting value. Week after week we write essays, but there is no archive of student work. Week after week we write reviews of essays, but it is all anonymous, with no sustained person-to-person contact. The emphasis is not on the quality of that contact, but on the numerical grades - every week I get a robomail from Coursera that gives me a numerical breakdown of the grading in the past week. I don't want a numerical breakdown of grading… I'd like to see the best essays of the week! I'd like to know that the time I invested in providing feedback was actually of value to others! I'd like to know that we are not just doing this "for the grade" - but in the Coursera model we are, in fact, just doing it for the grade, and the discussion boards are filled with complaints from people who feel, understandably, that they are being graded unfairly (for all that I dislike grading, it needs to be done fairly - but that is not the case here at all, as people get marked down because of accusations of plagiarism for which there is no appeal, just to take one example).

I could go on (and on and on) about other aspects of the class that I don't think are working very well, but I'll stop with the folkloric "law of three" and list just those three reasons, since these are the reasons why I have decided that I am no longer going to participate in the class in any meaningful way beyond the requirements (and the requirements are only to write the essays and do the peer feedback).

So, as I said, I would really like to know how Coursera will judge whether the class succeeded or not. So far they have collected zero input from us about our experience in the class - are they only going to gather input from those who are left standing at the end? To be honest, that is one of my few motivations for continuing to participate at a minimum level for the next four weeks; I would like for my input to count, if they do indeed gather input at the end. Of the three reasons for my basically quitting the class now and just persisting in doing the minimum, two would be incredibly easy to fix (they are administrative problems), while the third item is more complex, since it gets at the underlying course design which, for many reasons, I would rate as a failure. Will Coursera do anything about this? Do they care? I will certainly sign up for the class again the next time it is offered, just to take a look and see if there are any positive changes - or whether Coursera is going to simply plow on ahead, confident in its large enrollment numbers, without evaluating the actual student experience.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Thoughts on Anonymity

Below is something I posted over at the Coursera discussion board. I've always allowed anonymous comments on my blog posts and never had a problem with it, but then there usually are not that many comments on a blog post - I've never gotten confused about which anonymous is which, and I have never encountered the same kind of mean-spiritedness that motivates a lot of anonymous posters over at Coursera. So, I started the discussion below (which will no doubt get ugly) because I am sincerely curious if there are anonymous posters who would be satisfied with a pseudonym, or whether they are committed to anonymous - and I also really was struck by the notion of "invisibility" as explored so darkly by Wells as it applies to the anonymous world, esp. the anonymous culture at Coursera, at least in our course.

Meanwhile, by cutting and pasting into the blog post here, I learned that in the HTML code for the discussion forums, there is a student ID for every post... so the anonymous users do, in fact, have a hidden pseudonym, a numerical code that is visible to everyone in the raw HTML. Intriguing. I guess now if I really want to know how many anonymi are cluttering up a discussion, I can look at the HTML and count the number of student IDs for the anonymi!

Anyway, I'm no fan of a real-names policy like they have at Google+ (pseudonyms are fine with me), but I have developed a strong distaste for anonymous posting as a result of the Coursera experience. If anything of note happens at the discussion, I'll report back here.

One of the most striking moments for me in reading the Invisible Man was when Griffin realized that his sense of untrammeled freedom, his high hopes at being invisible - "plans of all the wild and wonderful things I had now impunity to do" as he said - were simply an illusion. Instead of being free to do whatever he wanted, moving invisibly among his fellow men, he found out that the experience was nightmarish in the extreme, rendering him unable to do anything really… except to commit murder: "This invisibility, in fact, is only good in two cases: It's useful in getting away, it's useful in approaching. It's particularly useful, therefore, in killing. I can walk round a man, whatever weapon he has, choose my point, strike as I like. Dodge as I like. Escape as I like."

So, just to propose what we could call a kind of digital allegory:

The Invisible Man is like the anonymous poster, someone who wants to be part of things but to remain invisible at the same time - invisible, unaccountable, slipping away at a moment's notice, causing confusion or worse.

The Invisible Man wrapped in his costume is like a pseudonymous poster - someone who has put on the external trappings of an identity in order to be able to participate in human society and conversation.

I know there are some people here who are devoted anonymous posters. I know there are some people here using pseudonyms. Just speaking for myself, I think pseudonyms are fine - a very logical solution to the problem posed by anonymity. But as for anonymity, the more time I spend here at the discussion boards, the more I think anonymous posting is just a bad idea.

I know others disagree - and this has been discussed in other threads. I'm just bringing it up now in light of what struck me as an intriguing parallel with the dilemma that the Invisible Man found himself in. Until reading the Invisible Man, I had not realized the possible downsides of invisibility. Until participating in the discussion boards here, I had not realized the possible downsides of anonymity online either.

For those of you who post sometimes/always as anonymous, would you find the use of a pseudonym a barrier to posting? Or would that meet your needs...?

Invisible Man: Memento Mori; Memento Videri

For the first time so far, I actually ENJOYED writing the perfunctory 320-worrd essay for class this week. In part, this was because Invisible Man was a wild book to read, full of surprises, hilarious and horrifying at the same time - and I had never read it before! Most of all, though, it was because I invented a new Latin proverb to go with the essay... Memento videri ... :-)

I've published the essay over at my writing portfolio: The Invisible Man: Memento Mori; Memento Videri.