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). It is a great re-reading of the story!

student2 Structure is definitely not of the essay type. 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. 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" 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.


  1. In the online classes I've taken I have seen this sort of thing also. Not to the extent this seems to have gone to, but there is a definite push by some students to being the enforcers.

    On the other hand, I applaud your taking the chance and doing something a little different with the assignment!

    1. Thanks, David! I teach online and rely a LOT on peer feedback (and it works great, all very useful and good-spirited)... but not peer grading. One big question I have, to which we will never know the answer I guess, is whether all this tension would have emerged if the class had been WITHOUT grades. I think that maybe if the class did not have grades, then people would have regarded it differently - but if there are grades, then there is a strong assumption that you are being graded "on" something... something only the teacher would really know, even if students are strangely given the power to do the grading. Without the grading, maybe people would have just been more open-minded about the whole thing...?

  2. The authoritarian bent of many students has been a fascinating study, but not a pleasant class experience. This authoritarianism not only shows up on the discussion boards but also in the peer grading. While my writing is modern enough in style to avoid the two space versus one space after a period controversy, I've had several heated comments about my failure to adhere to a five paragraph essay. It is amazing the stubbornness of some about absolute rules. Of course, this is probably the same longing that attracts people to extreme religious and political groups only in a more benign form. At least wars are not usually started over the number of spaces after a period or the form of an essay. It is somewhat ironic that a genre that has often been used to criticize and dissect authoritarianism is so peopled by students desperate for rules.

    1. That irony has been so much on my mind, too, Natasha - here is this course about worlds of the imagination (both fantasy and science fiction), and also about authors who daringly created entire new genres of writing... but instead of letting all that inspire us to be imaginative and ponder the new, we are employing what is, at least for me, a very tired and old-fashioned approach to the literature, with some people actively punishing anyone who wants to do otherwise. Definitely not fun. I am glad not to be doing any more essays (I've written 7: done).

      I had to laugh about one of the reviewers I had this time - s/he warned me that I better learn how to write a real essay and stop listening to people like Laura Gibbs who think you can break the rules. Now THAT made me laugh.

    2. Natasha's mention of the five paragraph essay format reminded me of the article, A Win for the Robo-Readers. In the comments, Les Perelman posted his satirical essay that received a perfect score from the automated grader.

    3. Aaron, isn't that hilarious? Here's what's ironic: one of my main motivations to do this class was because it was NOT using robograding, as some of the other MOOCs have (the whole robograding thing is something I am very interested in as a writing teacher and geek; the science of it is fascinating but inherently flawed for individual responses IMHO - it can really only work to measure a large corpus in toto, not for individual assessment really). Anyway, now I have learned about the perils of peer grading. All along I have thought we should have peer feedback for this class, but not grading, and now I am even more sure of it.

  3. It killed me that when you pointed out the obvious metaphor of the invisible man's increasing violence due to his being "hidden" you were attacked by the anonymi who were not even brave enough not to hide themselves when commenting.

    Disgusting and vulgar, to say the least.

    1. It was interesting that the argument about the Poe story brought out both the anonymi and people posting under their own name. The most vicious attacks admittedly came from the anonymi, but there were a few people who had no hesitation about being very aggressive even when posting under their own name - which, I guess, is an indication of sincerity at least!

  4. I took this course for a while but got tired of the interactions I was having. However for the first assignment, one of the papers I graded was more of a rap, so that was fun.

  5. Some of these comments are really telling. Having recently taken a Coursera MOOC, I think that cultural differences among students is one of the largest challenges. There are fundamental differences in perspective on the concept of education itself that are unlikely to emerge in a physical classroom.

  6. Honestly, I think this is bigger than pedagogy. As a former moderator of an online political community, I can tell you that this is the direction most community discussions go on the internet when they get to a certain scale -- discussion about the rules of discussion starts outstripping actual discussion (just look at Wikipedia). It takes pretty strong moderation by a site moderator (or a core community) to bat down this behavior, and I'm not sure that any of these xMOOCs have invested in that sort of moderation.

    Clay Shirky actually had a good post on this about ten years back here: -- basically he says groups need explicit structure to protect them from themselves. Stephen Brookfield has some similar points in Discussion as a Way of Teaching -- if the creator of the environment doesn't set boundaries, constant struggle over the rules of engagement ensues to no one's benefit; anti-democratic behavior is how organic community ends.

    I think the issue here is that people in any learning situation have to understand what the rules are and through what system differences get resolved. Unstructured churn on this stuff isn't productive, and someone from the course should really be stepping into that conversation and either resolving it or validating that the ambiguity is OK.

  7. I can definitely see your point, Mike - and I guess we have to hope that you are wrong, since in the world of MOOCs it's clear that they are striving for automation and the cheapest possible route, which means the fewest possible number of actual human beings involved.

    I've been really impressed at the way that Google+ feels very different from a discussion board forum - a discussion board forum space doesn't really belong to anybody, but in Google+ you are always posting "in someone's house" as it were, commenting on a person's post that "belongs" to that person much more so than a discussion forum topic belongs to the person who starts it. In Google+, as the person who creates a post, I have the ability to block and delete comments if there are problems, for example - a power people did not have in the Coursera discussion forums that they created (you could just delete your thread in its entirety; you could not control individual comments). Thankfully, I have not had to use that power in Google+... but it is there, and I think it makes sense. It certainly seems to have resulted in incredibly civilized behavior. In something like a year and half of very active posting at Google+, I don't think I've had more than a half dozen comments that I had to delete, and those were just good, old-fashioned spam, not trolls. So, by having the discussion belong to persons and also by asking persons to use their real names, Google+ seems to have found a good solution... a better solution, anyway, than the discussion-board format at Coursera, which was so easily derailed by people's bad behavior (the anonymous posting problem was really terrible).

  8. I think you are completely right about Google+ -- there is a fairly clear understanding that the person who starts the post sets the rules for that discussion -- and like you say, it's less that that authority has to be used than that it is defined, so people don't waste time engaging in power struggles, chest-puffing, and whining. If discussions start to derail, simple nudges back to the subject by the post author generally work.

    On the whole, I've found xMOOCs to have a fairly simplistic notion of discussion boards. The idea seems to be you just take a class style discussion board and use it for a class 100 times bigger than a normal class.

    Forums that work at that scale almost *always* are not temporary forums. Reddit works, for example, because long-time Redditors work to preserve the community. These Redditors often have many years of history with the site, and a long reviewable history of comments and rate-ups.

    You can't do that in a class that exists for 10 weeks and cycles through an entirely new set of people each iteration. You can't build a neighborhood if everyone has to move every six months.

    Normal online classes are small enough that the moderator can fulfill the cultural memory function, but clearly that is not the case in these classes...

    I do think the ultimate solution is probably to build an cMOOC around the xMOOC -- then people could use things like Google+ and the system could scale.



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