World History MOOC Report 5: In which I don’t want to work.

9 10 2012

As hard as I’ve been on Jeremy Adelman, I have to say that he has taught me a few things. I knew almost nothing about South Asian history going into this MOOC. He’s covered a lot of it. I’m surprised how much of the rest of the general story I’ve known already simply through my familiarity with American history going back to its beginnings, but Adelman does tell a good unfamiliar (to me at last) anecdote now and then. This material, however, is not what I wrote about for my homework.

I wrote my essay on the European conquest of the Americas because I already knew lots of details and I could write it up quickly and modestly competently. Seriously, what incentive did I have to do otherwise? The students grading me don’t know that I’m a history professor. They don’t even get their fellow students’ names. The grade I eventually get on this thing isn’t going to count at all for me one way or another. In fact (as many other professor/MOOC student bloggers have already made clear), you don’t even have to submit an essay in order to have access to future lectures.

I think this is one of those instances in which I could really help with the edtech here if anybody bothered to ask me. It strikes me that the fundamental problem with peer grading is that nobody has any incentive to work. That goes for both the writing and the grading (which gave me bad flashbacks from my usual job, but I drizzled out some comments anyways). What exactly does anybody stand to gain from working hard in this course? Will they get a better place in Heaven?

If I ran Coursera, I would leverage the wisdom and incentive of the crowd. Don’t ask me how to do the programing, but it should be possible for their computer geeks to create some kind of sorting mechanism. Each student would get an essay writing number based on how they’re rated by other students and a grading number based on how well they rate compared to other students.* The best graders would get the best papers, the worst graders would get the worst. And by worst graders, I don’t mean least skilled. I mean the ones whose scores fall furthest from the mean. Also, the papers that get the best scores deserve to be read by more than just five other people because the people doing the grading would learn the most from them. Maybe the worst writers could get special looks at them.

People can also be motivated by attention, so why not give them some? Perhaps the best writers and the best graders could make it onto some kind of international top one hundred list, like the ones you find on that trivia game that I always see at BW3 (albeit, it’s been a REALLY long time since I’ve been in a BW3). That page would be accessible to people who aren’t even signed up for Coursera so that the people who come out on top could amaze all their Twitter followers and Facebook friends.

But do you know what I’d really like to see? I’d like to see at least one of those essays make its way into one of Professor Adelman’s lectures.** Seriously, the way he’s going now Adelman could be replaced by tapes of himself because he’s offered no indication that the students even exist. He’ll address Valeria and Jeff, but not us directly as students. I think that’s just weird.

The student body will still change from course to course. The problems will change from course to course. Even if Adelman can’t acknowledge us individually, he can still use the submissions to adjust how and what he’s teaching. We didn’t even get a course e-mail this week and that was the only acknowledgement that I ever got that I exist. I am not a number. I’m a human being (and a rather lazy at that)! But when I fall down on this job, the only people who know are those of you who choose to read this blog. When he phones it in, 70,000+ people have to live with the consequences.

Perhaps being a super-professor means never having to say you’re sorry.

* By the way, for those of you in the course, I think rating yourself is an absolutely ridiculous and useless exercise. I gave myself all zeroes just for kicks.

** I guess he could surprise me and say something by the end of this week’s lectures, but I wouldn’t bet any money on that.



10 responses

9 10 2012
Vim, Ph.D. (@Exhaust_Fumes)

Last night, after a full day of teaching, I knew I couldn’t do any “real” work, so the MOOC papers seemed like a perfect way to work without actually working. That attitude, that it’s low stakes work and also not mentally taxing, says a lot about the enterprise I think. My sense that it’s neither real work nor difficult work might be a unique response that only a professor could have. But like you, I felt quickly that the process was too much like my day job to be enjoyable, and it was worse than my day job because the grading criteria were not particularly easy to apply. When 3 is “rockstar” rating and 1 is struggling, why wouldn’t most essays earn a 2? Moreover, the three categories were fine for evaluating a writing assignment generally speaking, but one of them (“Argument”) didn’t line up well with the verbs in the prompt.

Because the essay prompt involves a general question with multiple parts (“explain…the causes and processes” etc.), the task of both writing and evaluating an “Argument” in an essay ended up being more difficult than it might have been had the question actually asked students to make a claim about something for which they hadn’t been given all the answers, or that they had to formulate based on what they’d learned.

The lecture-only format means that the videos and transcripts contain the arguments and limit the amount of independent thinking anybody has to do. You simply set up what you’ve been told in a more or less organized way and offer the examples you’ve been told about. That doesn’t really involve much critical thinking. Do the papers make specific arguments? I suppose, though most of them did something closer to the verb in the prompt: they “explain[ed].” Were those explanations offering evidence of anything other than what was in the lectures? Not from what I can tell. Does that really constitute an argument?

One advantage of the MOOC for instructors seems to me that you’d have a large sample size and an easy way to take stats of which essay question generated the most responses. That should indicate what material students were able to remember and found most interesting (and perhaps easy) to discuss. If a small % picked option A, that seems like a good indicator that the material wasn’t as clear or explicitly discussed–or perhaps it required genuine and substantive thinking and students were unwilling to commit. Like you, I chose option C because it was most in line with what I already know…

sorry this is so long!

9 10 2012
Vim, Ph.D. (@Exhaust_Fumes)

oh, and also: you ARE a number! As you suggested in your previous post, that’s the point!

10 10 2012

Have you learned as much from this MOOC as you might have learned by spending a few hours with a good book on the topic?

10 10 2012
Jonathan Rees

Wow, that’s a good question. All things being equal, I’d prefer the book.

13 10 2012
Anne Corner

Well this is thought-provoking! I was rather enjoying the class but I thoroughly see what you mean about the essays and even the videos. I can write a history essay in my sleep but that doesn’t seem to be true for the papers I graded. It was difficult to grade them because most had no idea how to write a history paper and I don’t think my comments or this course will teach them. I feel somewhat engaged with the teacher as Adelman did respond directly to me in the Forums but that certainly won’t happen for most students. I think he is particularly uncomfortable with talking to a camera and his two standin students are his attempt to help with this but I must admit a rather lame attempt. I do have to say, however, that Coursera is a work in progress and still a great opportunity for expatriot Americans like myself.

13 10 2012

Hi Anne–may I ask you the same question I asked Jonathan, namely, have you learned as much from the MOOC as you might have learned by spending a few hours with a good book on the topic?

I think we should all keep asking this question to keep ourselves from being bamboozled by what seems to have become the default “Gee whiz!” framing. You know, as in “Wow! The MOOC allows the masses to learn from the best minds in the world!” As if books don’t allow the same thing….

What we should be asking is this: What (if anything) is the MOOC doing BETTER than the book? Not much, if you ask me. That’s not to say that MOOCs cannot do lots of things, just that they can’t do those things better than a book.

Consider the many breathless claims that are made as part of the general MOOC mania:

— A MOOC allows you to interact with powerful arguments by great minds! But of course, so does a book, every bit as much as the typical MOOC allows you to interact with the instructor.

— A MOOC allows you to participate in discussions, just like in an F2F course! But of course the MOOC format is not the only format that allows this. One can do the same thing (and for years people HAVE been doing the same thing) in other online formats, such as the “book event,” where people in an online community all read and discuss a designated book–e.g., as is done over at Crooked Timber. Or, for that matter, in any of thousands of online classes offered by hundreds of colleges and universities. Or, for that matter, at the local Starbucks.

I could go on. MOOCs are free! (So is participation in a book event.) MOOCs allow you to read and evaluate the writing of your peers! (Ditto.) MOOCs may soon be transcriptable! (Any institution willing to evaluate and award credit for work done in a MOOC could also do so, often with considerably more justification, for work done in a book event or similar format.)

The one thing a MOOC cannot do is ensure that your work is read and commented on and evaluated by the one person best qualified to do so, the professor, or even by someone reasonably qualified to do so. The MOOC apologists are furiously trying to convince us that peer evaluation by randomly selected members of the masses is an adequate substitute–but before I buy that, they’ll have to take me snowmobiling in hell.

The One Percent is obviously tired of subsidizing the education of their inferiors–this is what is driving state disinvestment in higher ed–so naturally they’re promoting MOOC mania, the illusion that we can educate the masses, with no loss of quality, at no cost. No longer do we have to offer Harvard for the Best and Podunk State for the rest. Now we can offer Harvard for the best and MOOCs for the rest. Podunk State, with its armies of adjuncts and tenure-track profs hired at $40K to teach 4-4 loads, is now considered too much of an expense. At bottom the appeal of MOOCs is that they look enough like real college courses (a brilliant guy is lecturing, people are writing stuff, “grades” are being generated) that they can be offered up as a no-cost, “good enough” substitute for the lower orders.

13 10 2012
Music for Deckchairs

I have to agree: I don’t think we can begin to understand the promotional ballyhoo around MOOCs simply by looking at their content or structure. Most are a bit clunky, but they’ll improve — witnessing their emergence is like watching early cinema without the benefit of hindsight.

It’s easy for us to think “Once the novelty wears off, we’ll be done with this tiresome sideshow. People who could otherwise get along to live theatre won’t stand for the fact that the projector keeps catching on fire.” But if there’s sufficient effort being put into distribution and the underlying reorganisation of industry, as early cinema history also tells us, these kinds of online courses will be around in the future precisely because they offer debt-heavy institutions a no-frills redeployment of their surplus content, with the door wide open to future subscriber services.

The analogue from the other media industry is the shift from free, public television to pay-per-view. My sense is that this is the devil in the detail of the Coursera contract: the reserved right to sell tickets in the future, once everyone’s got into the cultural habit of using MOOC content in their own courses, or using MOOC badges in their transcripts.

So the big issue for me is their interaction with very big shifts in the economic viability of mass higher education delivered via bricks and mortar, all over the place. And really, it’s very interesting that the rush by prestige institutions to offer these no-frills versions of their standard service, a bit like airlines, is proving the exact opposite of a reputational risk.

13 10 2012
Music for Deckchairs

Tiny update, from trade press I’ve just been reading. In the early 1920s, cinema entrepreneur, J. D. Williams—someone I’ve thought before knew what was coming to us—had a canny eye on the idea that Hollywood’s business troubles could be eased exploiting the global economy: “I found exhibiting conditions very similar in England to those in America. Exhibitors are not breaking even on ordinary program pictures, but when they have a big picture they do capacity business. I think the public are bargain hunting for pictures nowadays and instead of spending their amusement allowance in seeing several picture shows a week they are spending if to see fewer and better pictures. It is going to be a difficult problem for the exhibitor to get enough of the big worthwhile pictures in future and I think it is necessary to create big independent stars, directors and producers who can deliver the goods, otherwise our business will suffer.” Substitute our business for his, and we’re seeing a very similar argument.

15 10 2012
World History MOOC Report 6: In which I take one for the team. « More or Less Bunk

[…] make matters worse, Mazel has been pursuing another killer anti-MOOC argument in the comments to my last report on this experience: I think we should all keep asking this question to keep ourselves from being bamboozled by what […]

18 10 2012
World History MOOC Report 7: In which I wanna be a rock star. « More or Less Bunk

[…] I predicted, all of the comments I got were very short – a few incomplete sentences really, just like I wrote […]

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