I was in graduate school when the Internet first became a sensation during the 1990s. Therefore, I never had to join America Online since I got all the access I needed on campus. I do remember, however, helping my friend Jackie join AOL during a visit to NYC. The first thing she did was go to the chat rooms. Not only were they all total anarchy, I remember she got hit on three times in her first ten minutes there.
I haven’t seen anyone get hit on in the Coursera World History forums yet, but they do have the same sense of anarchy. There’s maybe 20 different discussion categories. The comments don’t nest very well. There’s some kind of voting system on the side of each comment, which actually makes it harder to follow any conversation. A lot of the comments ask questions abott things already covered elsewhere. This week’s e-mail had a link that supposedly led to some kind of forum user guide. Instead, it led to a post that compiled all the student suggestions to make the forums better. Sigh.
Since I’m doing this course without the textbook, I may go back and visit the assignment thread when I’m doing my first essay. After all, I’m going to need to find my facts somewhere. But for now it seems to me that the forums for this history MOOC are a waste of time.
Do they have to be? Of course not, but making this Wild West into a serviceable learning environment would require a lot more than just three TAs. I think the more enlightening way to look at that question is to approach the answer from the student’s perspective.
Out of all the faculty-who-are-MOOC-student blog posts I’ve been reading lately, everyone who has trouble keeping up blames their day jobs. Here’s Kate, for example:
But already the first chocolate had fallen off the conveyor belt, for work-related reasons. I couldn’t justify taking the time to watch a longer video because I had other more urgent stuff to do. And things went quickly to pieces: the content kept coming down the chute, and within a week it was unimaginable that I could find double, then treble the time to catch up.
It makes sense when you think about it. After all, if we had all the time in the world to learn we would be back in college or local retirees attending practically for free. I, for one, wouldn’t even have bothered to attempt this MOOC if I weren’t on sabbatical this semester.
Regular college students are really no different than MOOC students when it comes to time. We have jobs that get in the way. They have jobs that get in the way. They have families and friends they want to see. We have families and friends we want to see. They don’t want to read the textbook. We don’t want to read the textbook.
That’s why professors really should be respectful of their student’s time. We get about three hours per week with them plus homework. If the homework or the textbook doesn’t jibe with what you’re teaching, why should students bother to read it? If your bells and whistles don’t help students get better grades, why should they care about them as much as you do? This has been my problem with class blogs. When they’re not central to the course, you have to force students to talk to one another and this doesn’t make for particularly enlightening conversations.
When you have 70,000 students talking to no one in particular in a design structure that doesn’t promote conversation particularly well, the quality of that dialogue will also be subpar. But even the best dialogue is no substitute for face time with a caring professor because, shockingly enough, professors actually know more than students do.
Say what you will about face-to-face instruction, but it has been awfully durable. As Nick Carr wrote yesterday:
Colleges, in particular, still look and work pretty much as they always have. Maybe that’s because the right technology hasn’t come along yet. Or maybe it’s because traditional classroom schooling, for all its flaws and inefficiencies, has strengths that we either don’t grasp or are quick to overlook.
I think a lot of those strengths involve the effects of proximity. I would argue that the intensity of the urge to play with your phone while someone is speaking correlates directly to their proximity to you. If there’s fifteen people sitting in a circle, you won’t do it even if you’re sorely tempted because you don’t want to be rude. If you’re at the back of a room with a hundred other people, you’ll do it because you know the speaker will never see you. If it’s Jeremy Adelman in Princeton speaking to 70,000 plus people around the world a week and a half ago for a course in which the students aren’t really being graded, most of the audience will open up a new tab on their browser and check their e-mail before the first multiple choice question ever flashes before their eyes.
Professors aren’t just educators, they’re enforcers. If they leave the room in the middle of a college class, it won’t be like 3rd grade or an AOL chat room, but little learning will occur. When the professor never leaves a studio in Princeton, the result is similar.