Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Coursera: my blog spam trap

It is a fitting irony that of all my many blogs, this is the only one that gets spam comments every day (all those online essay-writing and/or plagiarism services...), so I am shutting off new comments.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Postscriptum: The Grading Debacle

The Fantasy-SciFi debacle continues; I thought I was done writing at this blog, but I feel obliged to write up a note here about the postscript to the course. Some weeks after the course was finished, Coursera finally got around to issuing the certificates for participation and recording our grade on a sort of transcript page where the grades for all a given individual's Coursera course grades are kept. People were understandably outraged to find out that the professor's grading scheme had been discarded and replaced with a new scheme, not explained clearly anywhere, that gave a percentage grade instead of a letter, and which also seems to result in some unspecified number of people not receiving a certificate despite the fact that they passed the class according to the professor's original grading scheme.

There is a lot to say here but since it is so incredibly depressing, I am just going to write out five thoughts and then be done with it. I won't go into the details of the grading scheme itself; instead, I will try to stick to more general comments.

1. People are very emotional about grading. Even though the course is long over, the discussion boards have suddenly become active again. Earlier in the course, Coursera really could do no wrong; any criticism of the course was generally frowned upon by the majority of students participating in the forums. Now, though, things have changed. Grades are different. Even students who are not likely to be critical of other aspects of the course design are ready to stand up and speak out if they feel they have been wrongly graded. A sad reflection on education in general, where people are more focused on how they are being graded as opposed to the learning process itself.

2. Grading is a contract that must be respected
. I am staggered by the idea that anybody at Coursera thought they could just throw out the professor's grading scheme and replace it with a different scheme. What does that tell us about Coursera? Nothing good, in my opinion. Even if they decided that this professor's grading scheme was not sustainable over the long term, they should have asked him to change the scheme for the next offering of the class, rather than retroactively changing the scheme for the class that has already taken place.

3. But … grading really has no place in a MOOC
. Seriously, what is the point of all this? Bitterness and acrimony about the grading scheme was a drag on the class week after week, and now it is adding a new dimension of dissatisfaction to the experience… for no good reason whatsoever. Peer feedback is great, because it is sometimes useful - and if it is not useful, you can just ignore it. Grading, however, is different - grading distracts from the emphasis on giving good feedback and it is also very hard to ignore. Yet the grading is also utterly pointless, given that this course is not for credit. The grade literally does not matter.

4. Alternatives to grading. At a minimum, students should have been allowed to opt out of the grading process at the beginning of the class, receiving feedback but no grades and likewise giving feedback but no grades. That would have been a fine option for me and for many others I am sure! There could be a certification of completion based purely on participation as a combination of writing essays, giving feedback, and participating at the discussion board. I would argue that such a participation-based system would actually have been just as effective as any formal grading scheme, given the chaotic nature of peer-based grading to begin with.

5. Poor communication
. Throughout the class, Coursera has had an incredibly poor communication strategy overall, and this grading debacle has shown their communication at its worst. I have received two emails from Coursera about the grading debacle, although comments at the discussion board  indicate that there are other Coursera emails that I never received (an email about the availability of the end-of-course survey? never got it; an email from the professor about the grading debacle? never got it). The sheer chaos of the discussion boards makes it a very poor vehicle for class-wide communication. The staff postings to the discussion board have been limited to "no comments," so it is not possible to ask questions about what the staff has posted there. Meanwhile, there is still no announcement of any kind on the announcements page of the class; the last announcement is six weeks old and for the entire ten-week course there were a grand total of four announcements. Many of the problems in this class could have been overcome with better communication, but the communication strategy appears to be non-existent, just ad hoc and ad libitum.

I learned a lot from this course - but mostly what I learned are things NEVER to do when creating a massive open online course. And my already bad attitude about grades and grading has definitely not improved, that's for sure. :-)

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). 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.