World History MOOC Report 12: In which I am in a state of confusion.

14 11 2012

I am probably the luckiest MOOC slacker in the entire world. I looked at writing assignment 4 a couple of days ago. Two of the three questions made me scratch my head and go, “When did we ever even cover that subject?” The other one was about the Industrial Revolution. I actually know something about the Industrial Revolution. I wrote my 750 word essay in half an hour and submitted it about two weeks early.

This doesn’t mean that I have put nothing Jeremy has taught me to use. I actually opened up a new tab during the last industrialization lecture and wrote down the following points in Evernote for future use:

Organic power switches to inorganic power.
Instead of locating plant near energy source, the energy can be moved to the plant.
Use that Peter Breughel peasant Image to illustrate the pre-industrial norm?

I also had an earlier note about railroads as being the result of engines getting small enough that they could became mobile. Jeremy, I promise that if M.E. Sharpe does give me the contract to write that early-nineteenth century industrialization prequel that I wrote a proposal for a few weeks ago, you will be prominently featured in the acknowledgements because this MOOC has really helped. I find it interesting that the stuff I remember best is about the material I knew the most about going in rather than the least. In terms of personal practicality then this MOOC stuff has been a remarkable success.

However, Jeremy’s platform really isn’t serving the cause of global education very well at all. I’ve already complained about the old method of lecturing not fitting the new MOOC delivery system. As I’m writing about the assignments, I want to elaborate on how much I miss having a syllabus to fall back upon.

The class does have an announcements page. When Hurricane Sandy led Jeremy and folks to add a few days to the last assignment, that announcement appeared there. It also came via e-mail. The revised schedule appeared there, but that schedule keeps dropping further down the page the more announcements there are. There’s a page where the writing assignments are listed with links where you can submit your work and see your grades, but those assignments are just numbered and lettered. They aren’t even labeled by the question which means that I had the darnedest time remembering what the last question I answered happened to be.

Even when you find your question, you have to keep going returning there over a two-week period as the assignment progresses. It all makes me wonder whether some of these people who aren’t submitting assignments have the time to do the work, but they’re just boycotting the amazingly bad interface they’d need to master to get full credit (if there even is such a thing in a MOOC).

Even before Jeremy began reading this blog, I particularly enjoyed reading his weekly e-mails because they made me feel less like a number. While he doesn’t really address the class directly on video, he clearly writes his own e-mails. This helps bring a personal touch to a rather soulless system. Yet the extension e-mail was about a paragraph long, and I believe that there was no weekly e-mail at all again last week. This seems particularly unfortunate as that e-mail certainly could have helped me navigate my assignment due date related confusion.

A few days ago, while searching for the best way to contact my satellite TV company, I discovered a website called Speaking of world history, I’m old enough to remember the days that when it was something of a scandal that your customer service operator might be talking you from Delhi, India instead of Terre Haute, Indiana. Now we’re just happy to get a human, any human at all.

Maybe there should be a site called for students who feel alienated by the impersonal nature of the MOOCS that Coursera offers us. I feel very fortunate to have this platform which my superprofessor reads. What avenues do the other 81,999 students in my course possess?



12 responses

14 11 2012

Actually Professor Adelman has answered me directly twice on the Forums so I do feel the personal touch despite not having a blog 🙂

14 11 2012
Jonathan Rees


What did you ask him about?

16 11 2012

Check Anne’s interventions in the Forums, Jonathan! There’s a learning space where global conversations is really very illuminating. And “personal” (in the sense that we are all actually talking there to/with each other).

Actually, the problem I had with Assignment 4 was the messed up deadlines.

Jonathan, you allude to my lectures not being suited to the online, video format. Can you elaborate, specifically do you have pointers on what I might do differently to capture whatever benefits the recording might have?

One item that I have worried about are the lengths of some of the lecture segments, which seem too long. But then history sometimes takes a while to unspool, unlike applied science which is more naturally staged/sequenced.

16 11 2012
Jonathan Rees


I’m stuck w/ just my phone for the day. Otherwise I’d throw some links into this. So I’ll do my best to clarify on a small keyboard.

When I carp about the lecture format, I’m not complaining about the lectures. I’m complaining about the format. As I understand it, there are different kinds of MOOCs. Yours is almost exclusively content-driven. It didn’t need to be. For example, the forums could have been better integrated into the course so that a slacker like me had to go to them to pass. Instead, I can passively absorb stuff on video and do just fine. I suspect this is a function of Coursera’s desire for speed (in putting up courses) and massiveness. Different levels of engagement for different folks. Other folks have ben doing much more to reinvent what a course is in this format. I’m not sure I approve of that either but I give them credit for thinking outside the box.

So, like that woman you met in the dry cleaning place a few weeks ago, I think your lectures lose something coming through the computer screen. But I don’t think it’s your lectures that’s the problem. I think it’s the computer screen.

19 11 2012

Hi Jonathan: hm. But passing presumes that we are grading and giving credit — which is NOT what we are doing here and Princeton will never do with its on-line courses. Have you looked at the forums? They are quite impressive, actually. Almost overwhelming in the dialogues. True, it’s not “required”, but then nothing is in this course. But if you mean that my lectures can’t engage the dialogues, you ARE correct, and I am not sure what I can do about that since the forums are responses to lectures that had to be pre-recorded (since they take a lot of time to produce, they lose spontaneity — and for me personally it is what I lose most with this kind of platform).

I don’t think this is because Coursera wants speed, though certainly Coursera wants this in a big way, and for reasons that have nothing to do with my or Princeton’s objectives. This is because, I think, I have been very conventional about “the lecture.” Can you give me some specific models of courses I might look at to help me think outside the box?


20 11 2012
Jonathan Rees


It doesn’t matter whether Princeton will give credit for its MOOCs or not. Other colleges will give credit for the certificates as long as they are willing to give Coursera a cut of what that student ends up paying for the whole degree. For Princeton it may be brand extension, but for the rest of us it is literally a matter of life or death. I think you have a responsibility to understand exactly how your course is being used.

On thinking outside the box, as I am a committed non-super professor this is a little over my head . You might start here:

Anybody else out there have any suggestions?

20 11 2012

Hi Jonathan:

Maybe I am thick or something, but I don’t follow your logic. I know exactly how my course is being used. We/I have explicitly forbidden anyone from using our course for any credit. I realize that Princeton is a loner on this — but it was a principle of my participating. We also have so little need for brand extension that to infer this a big driver means one cannot understand the spirit with which we/I have plunged into this, which is to improve my teaching at home and if possible create social knowledge. Again, I am quite aware that many universities have financial reasons. Indeed, this is quite possibly the dominant reason for the onrush. But if we can’t articulate alternative, compelling reasons why, and thus defend and uphold standards of online learning, the finances will be the only reason. This is why I keep repeating that we need to be open to the counterpoint reasons.

Interestingly, today at the meeting among the five faculty members at Princeton who have done/are doing these courses (did you see Mitch Duneier’s course features this am in the NYT?), I told them about your blog. I also mentioned that you thought I was doing a poor job shifting my teaching to the format. They too were all interested in what you mean about being overly content-driven. Of course, most of them are applied scientists so they understand that students learn, say computer programming, by following tasks of applied math or problem sets. But they too were a bit stymied about how one might do this in a humanities course.

The taxonomy on the link you sent is helpful, but still does not address the lecture.

The forums have been important sites. I haven’t seen you there. It’s hard, though, to cycle back into the lecture from the more spontaneous conversations since the lectures require so much advance planning. Something I will think about for v.2.0.

20 11 2012
Jonathan Rees


So Princeton has a clause in its Coursera contract that explicitly prevents the company from allowing other schools to use its courses for credit? Not that I’m an expert on these things, but that would be news in some circles.

On this lecture thing, let me see if I can bring some more-qualified people to bear on the problem. New post pending…

20 11 2012
Jonathan Rees

One more thing,

I promise I’ll give the forums one more try. The problem is that Thanksgiving is likely to leave me a week behind on lectures. Thank goodness my paper is already in.

21 11 2012

Jeremy, I understand and respect the spirit in which your MOOC is being offered. But I’m wondering exactly how the credit exclusion (“We/I have explicitly forbidden anyone from using our course for any credit”) can be enforced. I’m trying to think how that would play out on the ground.

If my own humble institution were to start offering credit for MOOCs, it would doubtless do so under our Credit for Prior Learning policy. Let’s say a participant in “A History of the World since 1300” winds up learning enough to qualify for credit under our CPL policy. Are we supposed to tell this student, “Sorry, kid, no credit for you, because even though you clearly know the material, you learned it from a MOOC with a credit exclusion”?

That seems neither sensible nor fair. Furthermore, how would the person charged with evaluating the CPL application even know whether there was such an exclusion in the first place? We certainly can’t rely on the student to tell us. It wouldn’t be in the student’s best interest to tell us, and anyway how many students would even read, much less remember, that kind of fine print? So, should Adams State University be keeping a list of which MOOCs can be used for credit and which cannot? I suppose we could do that, though it might prove difficult. (It would certainly be easier if it were the MOOC-provider’s responsibility to notify colleges about credit exclusions, rather than the responsibility of colleges to research the question themselves.)

Suppose that ASU were to go ahead and approve credit for a student who took “A History of the World since 1300.” Whether this happens with or without our knowledge of the credit exclusion, what exactly would be done about it? Is Princeton going to sue Adams State University? If so, on what grounds? Is there a law preventing us from giving the credit? Not that I know of. Is our accreditor going to come down on us? I doubt it. (Accrediting agencies are pretty much always the last to get up to speed on new developments like this.)

Note that the student might have made an agreement with Princeton not to seek credit for the MOOC, but ASU is under no comparable obligation not to grant such credit. So, would Princeton sue the student? What great publicity THAT would be! I really doubt it would happen. I’m thinking that Princeton can no more prevent its MOOCs from being used for credit than Netflix can prevent me from using a DVD in my classroom.

All of which is to say that MOOCs might have some or all the deleterious educational effects that Jonathan keeps harping on (automation, deskilling, the lowering of standards and outcomes, the diffusion of inferior pedagogy, the eventual immiseration of the professoriate), regardless of the spirit in which they are offered.

20 11 2012
Help me help my superprofessor. « More or Less Bunk

[…] funny that on the same day I discover this parody of how unoriginal MOOCs can be, Jeremy Adelman asks me to elaborate on how he can do a MOOC without straight […]

20 11 2012
James Atherton

The first requirement is to get away from the economic model. The Dearing report on higher education in the UK, in the late ’90s (sorry, I’m just responding on the hoof, so referencing takes a back seat) in an appendix, argues that simple lecturing requires 6 person-hours prep. for each hour of “delivery”. “Resource-based learning” as it was then known, might require up to 100 person-hours of investment for each hour… And that was about delivery of content…

So on-line learning should be prepared to spend about 15 times as much per hour as face to face. But the student numbers are a thousand times as great or more!

Whatever recent commentators such as Alex Tabarrok have argued–from an economic rather than educational perspective–the online model is impoverished–and especially if it relies on the “lecture” model.

[I seem to have come up against a commenting word-limit. The argument continues at …]

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