Comments? You don’t need no stinkin’ comments. This is a MOOC.

17 07 2012

Everyone and their brother is going to be writing about this article today so I might as well get in on the action (since I’ve staked out this beat for some time now). Among other things, the article tells us that the MOOC-meisters at Coursera are getting in on the humanities already:

To date, most MOOCs have covered computer science, math and engineering, but Coursera is expanding into areas like medicine, poetry and history.

I’m a historian, so let’s talk specifically about history, OK? Specifically, let’s look at how all those essays this massive number of online students will write are going to be graded:

Grading presents some questions, too. Coursera’s humanities courses use peer-to-peer grading, with students first having to show that they can match a professor’s grading of an assignment, and then grade the work of five classmates, in return for which their work is graded by five fellow students. But, Ms. Koller said, what would happen to a student who cannot match the professor’s grading has not been determined.
[Emphasis added]

Gee, you’d think they’d actually work that out in advance, wouldn’t you?

But let’s suppose they actually did work that out. Your students can match your grading on history essays. Can they match your reasoning too? When I grade, I spend the vast majority of my time writing comments in the margins (on essays, papers and draft papers) and at least one paragraph at the end explaining why a student got the grade they got so that they can do better next time. I do this because a) It’s my job. and b) That’s kind of what education is all about.

Are student peers going to do that? Can student peers do that? Well, if they could they would have to know all the historical material covered on the test, but how would they respond to information they didn’t know if they’re grading a test that’s better than their’s? More importantly, at least for my classes, they’d have to know something about what makes good writing good. I have plenty of students who do, but that’s after three or four years of having people like me (and their English professors*) explain to them why they got the grades they got and how they can do better.

Does Coursera really think they can get away with making money off substandard education for the masses? The article offers me a hint of why I think they might:

“About two-thirds of Coursera’s students are from overseas…”

I think they’re counting on those international students not being able to tell the difference between an actual education and rote memorization. That’s why it’s so important that we non-super professors do our best to get the word out about what a real college education can be.

* Geez, if I’m freaked out by this part of that article, I can’t wait to wake up tomorrow morning and see what all the English professors out there think.

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9 responses

17 07 2012
Randolph Bourne Identity

One of the money quotes:
But even Mr. Thrun, a master of MOOCs, cautioned that for all their promise, the courses are still experimental. “I think we are rushing this a little bit,” he said. “I haven’t seen a single study showing that online learning is as good as other learning.”
But hey, full speed ahead, most likely for the reason you’ve singled out (huge market of overseas students).

17 07 2012
Rohan Maitzen

“Peer to peer grading” is a phrase that will strike fear into the heart of anyone who has ever overseen a peer editing session in the classroom! What on earth does it mean to “match the professor’s grading of an assignment”– that they could guess what letter grade or percentage the assignment would get? Like you, I comment extensively on my students’ assignments. As you say, this is one way we have to help them do better next time. This kind of feedback (which continues and individualizes, rather than punctuates, the learning going on in the class as a whole) requires not just superficial knowledge of the course content but pretty rich discipline-specific understanding of what the stakes and possibilities and nuances are for the often quite specific project the students has conceived of. Mind you, we all know that some students care almost exclusively about the grade they get (how many of us have files of uncollected final essays tucked away in corners of our office?) but I can’t imagine institutionalizing such indifference to the process. But maybe they do intend for student commentary to “match” professional input?

I’m not saying no good can come from peer to peer engagement or assessment, but the idea that our expertise is somehow peripheral to the evaluation process seems crazy to me.

17 07 2012
Higher education is dying already. Therefore, we’ll just finish it off for you. « More or Less Bunk

[...] breathless post about that Coursera announcement in Forbes is just too much. Here’s my favorite part: “Quizzing is an absolutely critical [...]

18 07 2012
brianmmulligan

“When I grade, I spend the vast majority of my time writing comments in the margins (on essays, papers and draft papers) and at least one paragraph at the end explaining why a student got the grade they got so that they can do better next time. I do this because a) It’s my job. and b) That’s kind of what education is all about.”

Maybe education is about one or two other things as well.

18 07 2012
Rohan

Some related discussion at Margaret Soltan’s place: http://www.margaretsoltan.com/?p=36570#comments

18 07 2012
Britney Titus

If my phd plans weren’t in the graveyard already, this about sealed the deal. I mean why go on if I can be the professor as a student?

A wise man (and by man I mean professor and not student) once told me that class is your relationship to another person in society….if students are put on the same wavelength as those who teach them, then professors lose all authority in the classroom. Looks like cellphones being used in class are the least of your worries now.

19 07 2012
brianmmulligan

Ahh, “authority”. Don’t you miss the old days.

6 08 2012
“Has he lost his mind?” « More or Less Bunk

[...] covered this precise subject before, but this sounds even worse to me now than it did then. When testing becomes the be all and end all [...]

23 08 2012
“Yoshimi, they don’t believe me. But you won’t let those robots defeat me.” « More or Less Bunk

[...] going to bleed into the face-to-face ones as time passes. Perhaps more importantly, I suspect the inherent limitations of MOOC grading will make teaching writing harder because students will be less prepared. Perhaps writing will [...]

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