“Has he lost his mind?”

6 08 2012

So I signed up for a MOOC. Seriously. A History of the World since 1300, taught by Jeremy Adelman from a certain university located in my hometown of Princeton, New Jersey.

Why would I of all people do such a thing? Well, I’ve had something of a complex about my overspecialization in American history since my first teaching job at Whitman College. Unlike Wisconsin, which had Americanists coming out of its ears, Americanists were in the minority at Whitman so the old Europeanists teased me for having such a limited knowledge base. I’ve rectified that somewhat through independent reading, but I could definitely stand to learn more specific factual knowledge from outside my country of specialty.

Then I watched this TED talk by Coursera’s Daphne Koller and got a little excited. I had never seen so detailed an explanation of the mechanics of MOOCs, and it seems as if they’ve gone to great lengths to help students learn the kind of factual knowledge that I’m missing when it comes to world history.

Have I lost my mind? Nope. Am I pulling a Whittaker Chambers or a David Horowitz on the subject of MOOCs? Nope. As anyone who’s ever watched a TED video knows, there are parts of every such speech that make you want to take a hammer to your computer screen (and I’ll get to that one for me in this speech in just a second). However, as I’m on sabbatical for this coming this semester, learning world history seems like a good use for some of my extra time.* In fact, there’s a place on my annual performance review for extra education which I’ve never had occasion to mark before. I’m absolutely going to put this down.

So what’s the problem? Well, for starters the course has only one text and even that’s only recommended. Is there a history class anywhere in America (let alone Princeton) which has no required reading? Seriously, I have a question for all the education geniuses out there who want me to flip my classroom: When are students going to do the reading I assign them? After all, history is a literary art, not a trivia game.

Now here’s the part of that Daphne Koller video that came close to inspiring me to violence (my transcription):

“Well, of course, we cannot yet grade the range of work one needs for all courses. Specifically, what’s lacking is the kind of critical thinking work that is so essential in such disciplines as the humanities, social sciences, business and others. So we tried to convince, for example, some of our humanities faculty that multiple choice was not such a bad strategy. That didn’t go over really well.

[Audience chuckles]

So we had to come up with a different solution. And the solution we ended up using is peer grading. It turns out that previous studies show, like this one by Sadler and Good, that peer grading is a surprisingly effective strategy for providing reproducable grades. It was tried only in small classes, but there it showed, for example, that these student-assigned grades on the Y-axis are actually very well-coordinated with the teacher assigned grades on the X-axis. What’s even more surprising, self-grades, where students grade there own work critically – so long as you incentivize them properly so that they can’t give themselves a perfect score – are actually even better-correlated with the teacher grades. So this is an effective strategy that can be used for grading at scale and is also a useful learning strategy for the students because they actually learn from the experience.

I’ve 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 of American education at all levels, we act like it’s OK to care only about the math and not about actual learning.

How are students ever going to learn anything about critical thinking in any subject without good, thoughtful comments? The students are incentivized to get done with their peer grading as soon as possible because it’s not their grade. When I grade, my salary incentivizes me to actually explain to my students how to do better next time. As further incentive, when my comments actually help, it makes grading their papers easier in the future. That kind of attention will never scale up. Period.

I only worry if anyone will care. I guess I don’t care for purposes of what I want out of this class, but presumably I know something about critical thinking already.**

* No lazy professor jokes, please. As anyone who’s ever been on sabbatical knows, it’s not a work-free period. It’s a period when you do different kinds of work. I’ve been telling people that I’ll be a professional writer until January. I have a new research project to work on, but of course I’m going to write about taking this course too.

** If I can’t ace this course I’m going to be so ashamed.



14 responses

6 08 2012

Lost your mind? Not at all. I am proud of you, rolling up metaphorical sleeves and doing field work ~ kept wondering when you would. When, not if. fwiw I’m taking a Coursera too ~ and in a familiar subject area too, Fantasy and SF. All the more time to spend observing. Besides courses about teaching and theory get really boring.

Apparently structures can vary from course to course (and sometimes will during a course) but peer grading counts in this one. Not submitting peer grading assignment takes 20% off their grade. As far as I can tell so far, most are taking grading seriously, taking more time on it than on the assignment. I feel for the ones who haven’t done much grading.

Students (age, language, education level, background, profession, geographical area) are about as diverse as possible (which in this format is *very*). Participant enthusiasm is palpable, particularly among ones who, for whatever reason, had to interrupt their education but never stopped missing it, and international students. Plenty of academics too. Some really cop an attitude (adjuncts too, I am saddened to admit). Some get really chuffed about grading ESL writing … and even more chuffed when the rabble grade them… low. No telling how many for profit moles either.

Forum discussion can be a zoo but I see a learning curve there. I wonder if not putting out good handouts on strategies for navigating the chaos is incompetence or deliberate, for data gathering purposes. How long, how may keystrokes, will it take subjects to figure it out? Did they forget that Dr Moreau’s Island is on the reading list?

I suspect international students and institutions may be the real market target.

Tony Bates in Canada http://www.tonybates.ca/2012/08/05/whats-right-and-whats-wrong-about-coursera-style-moocs/

Have fun.

6 08 2012
Jonathan Rees


Even if I’m wrong about the length of the comments, there”s still the question of ability. I’m of lhe school that an advanced degree actually means something. Peer grading is the result of the dangerous assumption that anyone can teach (and those who can’t can still teach gym).

6 08 2012

Grading is the design sticking point. I have grave doubts about peer grading ~ but also remember it takes time students to get good at peer review. That’s with competent training, which these are not getting, not even guidelines, which does not make sense. The alternative is machine grading, Even you might prefer the gym teacher (who, for all you know, holds advanced degrees in kinesiology and psychology) to the machine.

Keep an open mind. Don’t underestimate the participants. Very mixed bunch, many, possibly even most, non-academics are educated professionals, many with advanced degrees ~ including doctors, engineers, lawyers, librarians, IT designers, social workers, etc ~ as well as academics or working on it. All readers and interested in the subject. No figures, admin is not into data sharing.

Consider too how you can subvert the machine and encourage questioning among the crowd being sourced.

7 08 2012
Chris Beneke

You’ve inspired me to sign up myself, Jonathan. We’ll be classmates. I’ll be the one in the back with my cap turned around, and my sabbatical sunglasses on — furtively working on a couple of books on religious tolerance.

7 08 2012
Jonathan Rees


I guess we’ll both see soon whether I deserve credit or blame.

7 08 2012

religious tolerance… nice touch.

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Hi classmates! I’ll be taking this course too. Hope to meet you behind some firewall and ping some class notes.

I think Vanessa has identified the real target market – international students and institutions.
Chris, I’ll tweet you when we get to Akbar’s policy of religious tolerance… 😉

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