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.
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.