World History MOOC Report 8: In which I explain my MOOC student survival strategy.

23 10 2012

I’ve been doing a lot of writing this sabbatical using Scrivener for the first time. I’ll write about that more here when I really feel like I know what I’m talking about, but for now I just want to mention the “Full Screen” feature. At the touch of a button, most of your screen goes black and all you can see is black words on a white background. This is designed to let you concentrate better, and I think it works.

I’m now employing the same strategy to survive this World History MOOC. When I hit play on one of Jeremy Adelman’s lectures, I walk away from the computer so that I won’t open a tab and start checking e-mail, close my eyes and make believe that I’m listening to him in a real classroom. As I’ve already mentioned, I can’t read most of the maps and the slides on the blue screen are mostly straight out of the textbook so I don’t really feel like I’m missing anything. In fact, I’ve been doing much better on the mid-lecture multiple choice questions since I started employing this strategy (although that may just be a function of me knowing the recent centuries better than the earlier ones).

This sounds bad, but I think my strategy plays towards Adelman’s strengths. I don’t think he’s a bad teacher. He’s obviously extremely knowledgeable about a huge swath of world history. I just think his teaching style doesn’t work well in the MOOC format. Certainly the grading system isn’t working at all. Judging from his e-mails, I bet he’d be the first one to admit that he’s not a rock star. I blame Coursera for this debacle a lot more than I blame him.

By far Adelman’s most admirable trait is his honesty about this entire experiment. For example, I bet Coursera was really mad at him for giving out the number of students who turned in the last paper (1800 out of 82,000+). In this week’s e-mail, Adelman revealed that they also had a free rider problem with respect to grading. In other words, some unspecified number of people turned in their essays, but didn’t grade anyone else’s. That means those numbers were even worse than they already suggested!

I’ve been fortunate with respect to the essays as I have been able to write two Columbian Exchange answers, one for each assignment, and that is a subject I already knew well. Since I really do know the later material better, I’ll probably be able to escape the class with a decent grade even though I’m not taking notes or reading the textbook. That means another big part of my survival strategy is luck.

In that same weekly e-mail, Adelman suggested that he is working on trying to figure out a way that students can “pause” the course so that they can take a breather and catch up later. Unfortunately, that would further mess up peer grading as students need to grade and get graded at the same time for the implicit deal to work. I also think it’s fundamentally wrong-headed. Adelman’s assumption is that if students had more time, of course they’d catch up and complete all the assignments. I think the only way to get most people to do everything would be to allow everyone to get by doing less. Which approach do you think Coursera would prefer?

The answer to that question may be the primary danger of MOOCs to education in general, rather than just to the employment of professors. When Coursera starts worrying about making money, nobody will need a survival strategy to complete their courses successfully.




13 responses

23 10 2012

I think you are giving a partial representation of a more complex story that would involve the multiple tiers of students, some auditing, some doing the full-bore (as it were). The submission levels are low compared to what? Compared to all enrolled? Or compared to other MOOC’s? What we know about MOOCs is that they all have very high attrition rates and uneven participation rates. My main concern is that people understand the principle of reciprocity so that peer support and assessment doesn’t run into free-riding; which is not the same as more passive forms of using the course, like watching the lectures no more. And that people feel welcome. Sorry this is such a survival grind for you; I don’t think many of us are experimenting with an idea of becoming a rock star.

But I do appreciate your insights because I/we have a lot to learn about the promises and problems of this domain for teaching an learning.

23 10 2012
Jonathan Rees


I agree that the standards for judging participation are relative, but if MOOCs are the future then we should judge them against what they aim to replace: traditional college courses. I admire your efforts to simulate the Princeton experience, but will Coursera (or Princeton for that matter) still let you do that when money inevitably becomes an issue?

As you’ve probably just scanned my posts about your course, you should also know that I’m a trade unionist. My primary concern about MOOCs is their effect upon the future employment prospects for professors. I will survive because you are teaching me a lot of interesting world history [your industrialization segment did rock, by the way], but I still wonder whether this is the best way for people to learn it for many reasons.

23 10 2012

Jonathan: but you describe the course and the students in such a condescending way. (1) It’s hard to see how anyone would get anything out of it in your narrative. And yet, thousands are. (2) This course never claimed to replace traditional college courses; it’s one part of an existing college course that has the added benefits of creating accessible points for the rest of the world. One problem with the rhetoric around MOOC’s is that they are overburdened with expectations — and now fears. They are only one piece of a larger puzzle. If we can’t think of higher education in complex ways, the system is doomed. So, if you want to think about 21st century jobs (just to borrow a phrase), we might think about the global system of the production and distribution of knowledge, of which MOOC’s are a part.

23 10 2012
Jonathan Rees


I don’t mean to condescend to other students. How are they to know what a historical argument is if they haven’t taken a college history course before?

Really this is where my strongest criticism of you would be: I don’t think you’ve spent nearly enough time worrying about the pedagogy involved with such a diverse population. To me, that explains the huge non-completion rate. To be fair, getting everyone (or even a majority) of students onto the same page might be impossible, but then rushing headlong into our MOOC-y future might not be such a hot idea.

24 10 2012
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24 10 2012

Jonathan: You are right, rushing headlong into a MOOC future might not be such a hot idea. But who, other than overheated advocates like a few regents at the University of Virginia or some reporters looking for a magic bullet, thinks MOOC’s are defining the future? It helps to step back from the rhetoric. After all, Coursera’s only 6 months old. It takes time to have perspective — it’s a benefit of being a historian.

Second, I do not believe we can really know until we do, try, and experiment. I am a committed skeptic; but I need to know more from experience (because the data are just not there, especially in the humanities) before I judge.

Third, you think I haven’t spent nearly enough time worrying about pedagogy involved with such a diverse population? What is your evidence? Did you collect data? You know what I worry about? I won’t even begin to describe the time and thought that has gone into this.

Fourth, your argument is circular. How are students to know what a historical argument is if they haven’t taken a college history course, you ask? Yet, how are they to get a college history course if they are working as a real estate agent in the Ukraine or are busy raising children in Utah, especially given the soaring cost of higher education? I have my criticisms of Coursera, and especially the rhetoric that surrounds it, but there are not a few students who are taking this course who have discovered the magic of studying and profess to want to take a real live history course one day — if it weren’t so inaccessible. But then, since they can’t get access, they can’t properly understand (in your logic) what I am talking about in lectures.

I am not a Pollyanna, but it is entirely possible that reminding people of the relevance of history and the humanities might reverse the industry-wide plunge in numbers of enrollments and majors in history and the humanities — which what is really going to put us out of jobs if we don’t wake up. Don’t you think we need to address this industrial crisis with new models? To stand behind the barracks of an increasingly exclusionary regime means not exploring solutions to an industrial crisis whose main institutional response is not Coursera (that’s just a noisy side-show) but to tilt massively towards teaching marketing and management studies with the dubious precept that these will at least yield rewarding jobs that help students pay off their debts.

Your spirit is to be commended and your determination to survive my course and share your thoughts with others will help us all understand what is happening. But there are logical and empirical problems with the fundaments of your position that we need to be aware of to have better arguments for or against MOOC’s.

So, how did you do on your papers anyway????


25 10 2012
Jonathan Rees


Many things here. I may need another post to get to them all.

1). To learn about what an historical argument is you could spend some video time on that subject. People absorb written things (especially on a computer screen) poorly compared to things spoken to them. I’m sure you or your TAs talk through this on campus. You might consider doing this here.

2). That’s also one of the reasons I don’t think you’ve spent enough time on MOOC pedagogy. I can’t know for sure, but it feels like your Princeton course on tape with a few adjustments in grading brought on by the scale. You are also working from assumptions about our background knowledge that I don’t think hold. That was worse early on, but now the lectures build on each other better so I am less lost. Had you started with more intro more people might still be hanging on.

3). My numbers were terible on essay one because I thought giving myself zeroes was the best way to stick it to the man (not you, Coursera). My peer numbers were 2s and 3s. Those were fair numbers as I wrote that last essay at 11pm in a Fort Collins hotel room. I’m not sure if I’ll ace this coming one as I haven’t got the textbook (besides price issues I do have writing of my own to finish on this sabbatical), but I did give it my best shot.

26 10 2012


As always I much appreciate your advice. We agree on one premise at least: I could do better, and will try. Perhaps a little historical explanation would help explain things? Coursera is about 6 months old; when we first made the decision — and it was faculty-driven, not imposed by our administration (who remain skeptically interested, like me) — to do this, I was glad for the opportunity to experiment. What I was able to put together on fairly short order is what you see — including that I myself am learning and adapting. “Poor Valeria” was in there with me on the learning curve.

As I explained at the outset, was that this was an experiment for me and Princeton and that I figured I would learn by doing, even, as I have discovered, in the face of some pretty hostile tutoring from cognoscenti. At the risk of sounding self-defensive, let me be a little historical: no one had any idea what kind of constituency would enroll, the scale, or diversity. It is not as if there is a deep reservoir of experience in massive, online, global humanities teaching that any of us could tap into.

You are quite right about your second point: you can’t know for sure. The fact was, a great deal of time was spent thinking about the writing assignments and the lectures. But it would be hard to imagine immaculate conception coming before historical experience. Next time I do intend to address the writing side with more preparation for all the students. Help me out here, Jonathan: I don’t know what to make of your blanket claim about discrepant learning patterns from aural versus visual information; the data are so complex and research so vast (and yes, I read some of it as part of the time I was not spending thinking about MOOC pedagogy) that I will have to consider whether your formulation helps. Could you give me some references since you know more than me?

As an aside, there are outlines and close captioned scripts for all of the lectures which you can use during, before, after the lectures. They appear on the left hand side of the menu of the lectures. A great deal of time was spent working on this material while we weren’t thinking about the pedagogics.


26 10 2012
Jonathan Rees


Outlines? Really? I see the subtitles, but an outline running along the side of the lecture would be fantastic. Looking again before I finish this week’s lectures though I still don’t see where it is. When I double-click the lecture segments I just get a popup of you.

Maybe my failure to find this is a function of me reading too quickly, which would go to prove the point about absorbing information differently in text than from somebody telling it to you. I’ll look for the studies that I’ve read when I have a chance, but seriously I can’t tell you how many times I am tempted to say “Have you actually read the syllabus?” every single semester that I’m teaching, and sometimes on my bad days I actually do. I haven’t spent that much time on the forums, but I can’t tell you the number of questions that even I’ve seen there that were answered somewhere else on the site. Maybe a separate assignment-only video segment would be appropriate.

I think the next MOOC post I write will be on Monday afternoon, after I get a chance to see my scores from the last assignment. The Luddite in me wants to dismiss peer grading out of hand, but I do think there’s something about it that could still be really helpful. Maybe Coursera could sell a peer-grading app for us only face-to-face professors so that we can customize it to meet our needs.

26 10 2012

I’m in my first 2 MOOCs. I was surprised that they have group start. Why not batch students by month and run as a pipeline? They’d need a set of equivalent level quizzes and assignments of course, but then you could pause.

I also think public course stats would be good, moti ational.

29 10 2012
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2 11 2012
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3 11 2012
Contingent Cassandra

Interesting discussion. I think the need to foreground/explicitly discuss the assumptions and methods underlying a particular kind of academic argument might be something those of us who have taught at less-selective institutions are more aware of than those who have taught primarily, or at least recently, at extremely selective ones like Princeton (I’ve done both: state schools as professor, Ivy as grad student). While Princeton students would probably benefit from explicit discussion, many (or at least significantly more than at a less-selective school) will, given examples of argument, think about, and figure out, the underlying assumptions and methods on their own. That may be as much a matter of prior training as of inherent habits of mind, but, however it comes about, it’s a real difference in the student populations, and one which needs to be taken into account when designing a MOOC for an audience which is much more like the somewhat-selective state-school student population than the Princeton one. In fact, the above example might even suggest that professors accustomed to crafting effective lectures for large intro courses at modestly (at most) selective institutions might be better candidates than Princeton professors for creating lecture-based MOOCs that would reach, and be genuinely helpful to, a broad audience. A Princeton professor who does a lot of lecturing to non-Princeton audiences might also have greater success (I don’t know whether that describes Adelman or not. Of course creating a MOOC provides such experience, but the feedback is much more delayed than that at an in-person talk would be).

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