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The quality of MOOC courses


Well, the Coursera Fantasy/Scifi course run by University of Michigan’s Professor Rabkin is drawing to a close (two essays left, and I am a third through the final reading). I have persisted with this course, despite its problems.

Laura Gibbs, a fellow student of the course, has written a pretty good explanation of some of the flaws of the format, and her blog of the whole experience is well worth a read. This is just my brief take on the experience, as I’m late to the course-blogging game.

One of the problems with this particular course is the significant lack of engagement from the real-life Michigan team. Although the professor produces a number of interesting lecture videos every week, and a follow-up lecture at the end of the unit to remark upon some of the issues discussed in the forum, the last ‘update’ from Professor Rabkin on the announcements page is from the middle of August. Unfortunately, this is the front page for the course, so it gives the persistent impression of a lack of engagement. We receive formulaic emails every week comparing our grading every week, but these emails continued to refer to “your grading in Weeks 1 and 2”, as though the intervening weeks hadn’t happened! These are little details, but with an online course, they make a real difference to students experience and, consequently, their engagement.

I think that what was most disappointing about the course was the state of the forums that Coursera provided, something which I do not remember being so bad when I was taking a Coursera science course offered by Stanford. Gratingly, the professor has publicly lauded the forums when many of us have found so many problems there. It is true that other students often answer queries before any Coursera/UMichigan staff ever could. (Partly because there is no sign of Coursera/UMichigan staff 99% of the time.) However, there are major problems with the forums.

The first stems from the fact that the course is founded upon subjective (peer) grading of written essays, and so the forums saw a weekly proliferation of complaints about essays (plagiarised or otherwise: Laura and Satia have covered this topic fairly comprehensively, and as I have not had any personal experience of running into plagiarised essays, I don’t feel so well-qualified to comment). The ‘up vote’ system (intended to bring specific posts to the attention of staff) became a way to comment on one’s peers, and anonymous posting devastates any chance of creating an online community on the boards. I am a huge fan of pseudonymity, of course, this being a pseudonymous blog, but having a myriad of posts just signed ‘Anonymous’ makes having any real discussion impossible (and undesirable to boot).

Satia has written about improving community at Coursera. I think that preventing Anonymous posting would bring a real improvement to the forums. Students would be far less inclined to post disparaging rants about their fellows’ essays/reviews if this cloak of invisibility were removed. It would make having actual conversations much easier and more pleasant.* In conjunction with a format of ‘study groups’ (automatically grouping ten-twenty students in a group that reviews each other’s work and has its own forum for discussions) would boost the community atmosphere, which is one of the most difficult things for MOOCs to replicate from real-life courses.

With all these gripes in mind, I have gone right ahead and signed up for the Modern Poetry course offered by UPenn. I do not really have the time for the course, but I want to experience a better Coursera format. From reports, Modern Poetry appears to be far better ‘attended’ by the teaching staff and far more thoughtfully run in terms of mechanics, so we’ll see how it goes!

*So would improving the format of the forum so that even ‘replies’ were noted as posts for the purposes of demonstrating when a thread was last commented on, and either allowing proper nesting of replies (like livejournal) or no nesting (like most forums, such as TheStudentRoom). The current system has two levels of comments and allows one student to delete other students’ comments if they are ‘replies’ to their own!


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