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.