As I’m Richmond at the moment for the National Council for History Education conference, I wanted to turn over the blog to a few qualified people for guest posts and it appears that one of them actually took me up on the offer! He is the currently sabbaticaled, newly-tenured CSU-Pueblo math professor Jonathan Poritz, whose work I’ve recommended before. Besides being a most excellent human being, we both share the distinction of being natives of lovely Princeton, New Jersey.
This is Jonathan (Poritz), I’m a friend and colleague (and, oddly enough, alumnus of the same high school) of the other Jonathan (Rees). He has suggested I do a guest post in this, his very interesting and engaging blog. I hope the suggestion was motivated by more than merely our common first names (or current employer or high school alma mater); we’ll see.
Jonathan (Rees) has been discussing quite a bit in this blog the dangers of blind adherence to the “MOOCs are all new and shiny and technological, so they must be good” faith. I also have enormous concerns about the Rise of the Machines and, like Jonathan (Rees), I thought the best way to learn about MOOCs was to take one during my sabbatical. Unlike Jonathan (Rees), I decided to do a MOOC on a subject about which I have no professional knowledge: I’m taking edX’s course “CopyrightX” out of Harvard Law School, taught by Terry Fisher, while my home discipline is mathematics.
Why that course? Well, I’ve used and written free software (also called “free/libre open source software” = “FLOSS”; see my article in Academe) all my life. (You should too, and not only if you are a computer geek! It’s better in all ways than non-free software, and if you are an outspoken opponent of the corporatization of academia but you use non-free software, you are living (perhaps unconsciously, I’ll give you that) a kind of moral schizophrenia not unlike living in a jeweled Vatican palace while pontificating about the virtues of poverty.)
Free software, historically, helped pave the way for the Creative Commons approach to copyright. Also, the whole attitude of FLOSS that an owner of a piece of computer hardware should have complete control over their machine (well of course they should, you cry … but if you’re running Windoze or Mac or have an iPhone or Kindle then you do not control your hardware, alas) is what keeps the Recording Industry Association of America lobbyists up at night: how will they prevent peer-to-peer sharing of their *copyrighted* recordings if they can’t lock them up behind paywalls and encryption and fear of litigation if you so much as sneeze on your iPod wrong. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act made *public discussion* of DRM-circumvention technology (DRM=”Digital Restrictions Management”) illegal — I know people who own t-shirts with a one-line Perl program which is *illegal software*; cryptographers have gone to jail for their talks on such subjects at conferences….
So you could see how I would want to know more about the legal details of copyright.
I heard about edX’s CopyrightX course on a wonderful blog I read called boingboing.net. And here is my first confession: CopyrightX is not a traditional MOOC. In particular, it is neither particularly “massive” nor completely “open.” It was not fully open in that one had to apply for a position in the course, nor very massive in that only 500 students were accepted.
Perhaps these differences make CopyrightX’s strengths and weaknesses different from those of other MOOCs. Oddly, however, the application process was not at all centered on prerequisites or any kind of background in the law, instead it asked basically how interested we were in the subject, e.g., did we have particular experience creating or using (in complicated but legal ways, I suppose) copyrighted works. Since I assume no one takes a MOOC unless they’re interested in the topic (well, *today* they don’t, although some of us fear a future in which campuses outsource some of their requirements to MOOC providers), it is unclear to me how the application process improved the student body for that class.
Perhaps Professor Fisher or edX merely wanted to have better retention numbers (don’t we all know that pressure), and assumed that weeding out those who clicked through to the sign-up page but really had no intention of doing the work would be a way to get the numbers up. I don’t have any official numbers which would tell if this was an effective ploy, but I can say that my weekly on-line discussion section, which was announced as having 25 students (and one Harvard Law student as leader) typically has around ten attendees (of whom six or eight contribute significantly).
Or perhaps they budgeted for 20 discussion leaders, felt that 25 students was the most each leader could be expected to work with, and wanted something more seemingly than first-come-first-served.
What CopyrightX represents, in any case, is a thing that Jonathan (Rees) has talked about a lot on this blog: a (very) low calorie version of the same course offered on the campus of Harvard Law School. Apparently there is an HLS course which is running in parallel with the MOOC, using the same lectures (?) — maybe this is one of those famous “flipped” classes — and reading materials.
Actually, I have trouble believing a Harvard course could be requiring so little reading: each week we have typically a few pages (at most ten) of a wiki document on some copyright treaty or procedural issue and sometimes an article or court opinion (often from a non-US journal or jurisdiction) of 20-25 pages.
(My mother went to Penn law school when I was in elementary school, an I still remember her bringing home stacks of *enormous* casebooks, which seemed to my eyes to weigh more than she did. Not so similar to today’s law school courses, at least in the edX version.)
We also watch videos of Prof. Fisher lecturing straight to the camera (well, he sometimes has something of a Michelle Bachmann thing going, but I suspect his is merely trying to keep closely to a lecture transcript without as much teleprompter practice as a US president, say), interspersed frequently with video of him driving a mouse over one of several mind-maps he has created for the class, or images (or short recordings) of copyrighted works which were subjects of litigation. The lectures are broken into three to five segments and total probably around a couple of hours each week. There are no interactive features, retention quizzes, or other decorations such as I have
read about in other MOOCs.
Another weekly feature of the class are the discussion sections I mentioned above. These are supposed to run 1 1/2 hours, but often go to more like two hours. We use a program called “Adobe Connect” which allows the section leader to speak to all of us and to call on individuals who can then speak — anyone who has a webcam can also be seen. The software is reasonably easy to use, although it took some getting used to and lag time for speakers coming from places with slower Internet connections is quite distracting.
Another thing that is distracting is a small panel in which anyone can type a comment, question, or joke while someone is speaking. This is liberating as people can quickly get in a response or suggestion without waiting to be recognized by the section leader and then fiddling with their microphone and webcam settings. But it is also very distracting, as the chat panel is always nattering off in random directions and tangents. Participation in the weekly sections is said to be required.
We are also required to maintain a steady involvement in the (written) discussion forum which is (mostly; this has be inconsistent) restricted only to participants of our particular weekly (live) discussion section. Certainly many people participate in the written forum who have spoken very little (or never) in the live section meetings. Contributions tend to be questions about how something should be interpreted or discussions of some event or case which is relevant to the course material but in the news at the moment.
Most threads have a number of respondents, but herein is a serious flaw similar to one that Jonathan (Rees) has pointed out for peer assessment and grading: the replies in discussion threads are by other students who also do not know the “right answers.” Our section leader contributes very little to the forum, Prof. Fisher far less, so in the end we are merely the blind leading the blind. In fact, my main enormous concern about the course is that I do not feel I am learning how to think like a lawyer, even on the specific topic of copyright. I’ve learned some specific facts about the laws and procedures, but I don’t really know how to go about setting up an argument which might claim or deny copyrights for particular works in particular
In any case, merely to finish the list of course requirements is quite simple: there will be a four hour, open book, written final at the end of the course, which will be graded by a section leader (not our own). If we perform reasonably on the final, have posted in the fora and attended (most of) the live sections, we are told we will get a certificate asserting our satisfactory conclusion of the course. We are encouraged not to worry too much about the final: “If you have participated in the course conscientiously, and if you review the material before the exam, you should have no difficulty obtaining a passing grade,” we were recently told.
Oh, there is one other part of the course which is optional I believe. That is, there are six special events, which are live in evening on the US east coast and which we can attend in our sections’ Adobe Connect rooms, where lawyers, law professors, and copyright content produces have speak about particular issues related to specific issues in the material. The events so far have been very interesting. A technical issue: the distracting chat goes like crazy in these sessions, and the long Q-and-A sessions which are part of each event have very little time, when it is sliced into (potentially) 500 parts, to answer any particular student’s questions.
So let’s get to some specific analysis of the efficacy of this mode of instruction.