World History MOOC Report 16: In which I try to sum the whole thing up.

21 12 2012

Well, I just hit submit on my last essay so even though I have a little bit of peer grading left to do, my MOOC experience is basically over. When I started this thing I wrote:

I could definitely stand to learn more specific factual knowledge from outside my country of specialty.

Although it turns out I knew a lot more about World History than I thought I did, there’s no question that I met that goal. Of course, I would have learned more had I read the textbook and took notes on the video lectures, but I’ll bet you anything I would have quit the whole thing in frustration if I had gone in whole hog. In that sense, maybe having different levels of MOOC participation is a good thing.

I still wonder though whether the course might have been designed better to draw slackers like me in further. When I teach my survey course, I spend the entire first lecture going through the syllabus and explaining the differences between history in college and the kind of history classes that students likely had in high school. Perhaps Jeremy does something similar on campus, but for this MOOC he certainly hit the ground running. Everything technical and bureaucratic had to be absorbed passively on the web site or through e-mail as the lectures (apart from the goofing around with Dan or Valeria) were all business – history business, that is, rather than the business of the course. I realize that the MOOC machine is supposed to be canned, but I don’t see why some of it can’t cover the course details that will change from semester to semester. After all, as numerous people have pointed out in the comments to earlier posts in this series, the history certainly does.

With respect to that history, what surprised me most is the way that I perked up more often when Jeremy was lecturing on material that I already knew rather than the stuff I knew nothing about. It’s not that I was determined to find errors in the lectures (I think I remember just one through the whole course).* I think it’s because that’s the material for which I already had the knowledge to put what I was learning into context. I knew there were lots of local revolutions during World War I, for example, but considering them altogether helps me understand that conflict better outside the limited American context.

Jeremy assumed a lot of prior knowledge for the students in his class. I’m sure that works for Princeton students. I had a lot of it (but by no means all that I needed). I have to wonder though if most of the 92,000 people in the course had what they needed to make sense of everything. And you have to remember, a lot of those lectures went over the “normal” three hours per week that you’d get in an on campus course. We were being inundated. For my peculiar purposes that was a good thing, but I doubt that was true for everybody.

If a history MOOC is really going to simulate a college class, it has to somehow teach writing and critical thinking. While I would quibble with a few of Jeremy’s administrative decisions with respect to the peer grading assignments (for example, I think the footnote/bibliography thing just confuses matters), I really admire his efforts to actually duplicate the Princeton in-course experience. I think the problem is that peer-grading is basically doomed from the start almost by definition.

I don’t want to get too much into this as I have an essay written up on this subject that I’m currently trying to place. The short version of the critique are two points that I think I’ve made in earlier installments of this series: 1) There simply aren’t enough incentives to make students care about their grading duties. [The last essay I turned in got a perfect score. Unfortunately, I was the only person who had bothered to grade it.] And 2) Even if they do care, there’s no reason to think that they can grade anywhere near as well as a trained professional. Maybe you can teach the world a lot of facts by showing them videos of the best professors of the world, but if you can’t teach them how to “do” history, then MOOCs will never be able to replace the in-class experience unless the powers that be no longer care whether students get access to that experience or not.

Alright, that’s it for me and MOOCs for a good long while. I’m going on a MOOC holiday. Unfollow the blog if you’re only here for the MOOC bashing as I think I’m going to start back after Christmas with a whole new topic. No, it won’t be all culinary history but there’ll definitely be a lot more history here than there’s been lately. I suspect I’ll even still cover some educational technology from time to time, but MOOCs are starting to bore me to tears.

Merry Christmas, everybody. Here’s hoping that 2013 turns out to be the year of something with a better acronym.

* It’s that bra-burning myth, Jeremy. The 1968 Miss America protestors actually dumped ladies undergarments and other “instruments of women’s oppression” into a “Freedom Trash Can.”

World History MOOC Report 15: In which I watch “a global conversation about global history.”

13 12 2012

I mentioned recently on this blog that I got absolutely no guidance in graduate school about teaching. At least I didn’t get a chance to teach my own course until my very last year. Starting in my second year, however, I did serve (off and on) as a teaching assistant.

If you don’t know, the sole job description of history graduate student teaching assistants in the pre-MOOC days was to run discuss sections and to grade tests and papers. My professors always graded three or four papers to show you what their scale would be so that you could do better. I don’t ever remember getting guidance on how to run a discussion and it’s not as easy as it looks. Sometimes students don’t do the reading and therefore won’t talk. Sometimes students do do the reading and don’t want to talk. On the other hand, students sometimes won’t shut up and you have to manage them. All that time, you need to try to pass on the kinds of skills that all those students need to succeed in the course.

I thought of those experiences while I was watching the “Global Precept” for Jeremy Adelman’s World History MOOC last night while simultaneously returning to the course’s forums (as I promised Jeremy I would) in order to read some of the comments there. I thought about being a TA not because the Global Precept conversation resembled that experience. I thought about it because that experience couldn’t have been more different.

For one thing, Jeremy Adelman did a fine job at keeping an interesting conversation going. Yet, at the same time, he didn’t really have to work all that hard to do so. The participants were a varied group of interesting Princeton undergrads, grad students and very interesting students from all over the world who have participated in Jeremy’s Coursera MOOC. He called it “a global conversation about global history” and it certainly was. It was also an excellent review of the general advantages of approaching history from a world perspective. It was obvious that this course has reached all of these students and taught them not just valuable historical facts, but historical concepts that they will find useful for understanding the world around them for the rest of their lives. As an educator, this was the most useful thing I’ve watched since I started taking this course. Bravo Jeremy.

But – And you knew there was going to be a “but” didn’t you? – I couldn’t help but think of all the people who weren’t participating because they already dropped the course or the ones who still might be in it and won’t watch it because it’s not required. When I went back to the forums I remained extremely confused, but I also noticed for the first time that each individual comment has a number of page views attached to it. None of the comments in recent weeks had more than a couple of thousand. Most of them had only a few hundred. [For context, Jeremy recently told us that 92,000 people have signed up for this course.] Some of that is obviously attributable to students dropping out of the course, but some of that has to be people like me who simply aren’t taking advantage of what the forums have to offer.

Jeremy got a chance to pick the best of the best for his conversation, but who’s going to teach this stuff to the people who are merely average or below? I guess I keep coming back to this because it’s my primary pedagogical takeaway from my MOOC experience: I think every student deserves a caring education professional directly monitoring their progress. Ironically, the people who could most benefit from a global conversation like this would be precisely the people who won’t watch it.

Contrary to my relatively newfound reputation as a Luddite, I don’t want to take anyone’s MOOCs away. What I want is to see caring educators everywhere join together to make sure that the new permanent worldwide austerity doesn’t leave anyone anywhere with those MOOCs as their only higher education option.

World History MOOC Report 14: In which I am disappointed in Jeremy Adelman.

3 12 2012

While I had planned to spend most of last Monday not paying much attention to Jeremy Adelman, things didn’t quite work out that way. It wasn’t that he was too compelling to ignore. Instead, I couldn’t concentrate on writing my faculty development grant with a World History lecture going on in the background. Therefore, I spent almost all of Thursday with him listening to two weeks’ worth of lectures instead. Even though I did a few other minimally important things (like cleaning up my office) at the same time, I’m proud to say that I aced every single one of the multiple choice test questions after each lecture segment.

Some of that success may come from the fact that the MOOC has moved into the twentieth century now so I knew much of the material already. However, I really enjoyed listening to very familiar stories from new angles: World War I as a series of local civil wars, World War II from the standpoint of comparative global supply chains, etc. [Come to think of it, I need to go back and copy that global munitions production chart for my own use.] Honestly, I’ve enjoyed the content of the class a great deal ever since the MOOC has moved into the centuries for which I have a decent frame of reference, namely everything after 1700 or so.

Instead it’s the administrative decisions that have really bothered me. Some of this is Coursera’s fault, but our last class e-mail from Saturday clearly demonstrated to me that some of my problems stem from decisions that Jeremy has made himself.

Vim., who’s at least reading the e-mails even if she’s hopelessly behind on the lectures, made me laugh out loud with this tweet about that same message:

That part of the news didn’t surprise me at all. Jeremy has shown a great interest in global dialogues, both in other e-mails and here at this blog so this seems like a natural extension of that principle. Nonetheless, the end of that tweet does suggest what students in our class aren’t getting.

Jeremy also announced that he’ll be re-taping some of his early lectures for next time because he didn’t like his performance. I, for one, have always thought his performance has been fine, but I still wish he’d re-tape them all anyway.

I was holding out hope that Jeremy might teach his next MOOC roughly synchronously with the dates that it’s open so that he could respond to the students’ collective concerns. After all, he has shown such an interest in direct interaction with as much of the class that’s looked for him. Why cut that avenue of communication off completely?

But Jeremy also announced in that e-mail that our MOOC has added about 10,000 people since it started. That left me truly shocked as it made me wonder why I’ve bothered to do my assignments on time. If this class is supposed to be interactive, who will the students going back to week one have to interact with? Will the TAs be covering the entire course spectrum at once in order to help those new ten thousand? I kind of doubt it.

More importantly, I figured Jeremy would re-tape all of his lectures because the maps he’s been using since the beginning of the class are ABSOLUTELY IMPOSSIBLE TO READ. Jeremy will periodically talk about some important geographical aspect of world history and all I can see on his map slide are some colored arrows and the names of countries. The city names and features on the maps are totally illegible. If that isn’t worth fixing, what is?

Coincidentally, also on Saturday I saw an epic post by Kelli Marshall about student use of laptops in the classroom. This is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart, which I also think applies here because if you think it’s bad when the professor is in the same room, think how many people are tuning out Jeremy in the privacy of their own homes? What really got me though was Marshall’s use of this quote from Patrick Allitt about how he handles his (face-to-face) classroom:

Whatever you do beyond the classroom is your own business, but so long as you are here, I am going to assume that you came here with the intention of learning. I am the teacher, and I am doing everything I can to put you in a position conducive to learning.

No matter how much work Jeremy puts into this MOOC, he is not creating an environment that’s conducive to learning because nobody is there for them the same way that Allitt is there for his students. Sure, everyone is welcome to join this global community, but nobody is going to do anything to help them understand what’s going on once they get there unless they seek help themselves, and most students will never do that. Obviously Jeremy wants to run the best MOOC possible, but in the end his ultimate goal is still to have the MOOC machine run itself.

Perhaps this sounds a little old-fashioned, but I think every student, no matter how casual they may be, deserves a caring, trained educator who will track their progress and work to ensure that they’re actually learning. I’m singling out Jeremy here because I’m taking his course, but he is by no means alone on this. Perhaps you run a cMOOC or a plain old MOOC in which you help students teach themselves or maybe even each other. Where does that leave the students who actually need instruction? What if you want to learn more than what your fellow students know?

Well, you can always pay to attend Princeton. I’ll bet you anything that Jeremy is easy to find there, and really helpful too. What I don’t understand is why students who can’t afford the tuition at Coursera’s expensive partner institutions shouldn’t get the same kind of attention from living, breathing professors of their own.

World History MOOC Report 13: In which I violate one of Richardson’s rules.

26 11 2012

“Please remember that your professors are human and it’s hard work to stand in front of a hundred pairs of eyes and talk for an hour. In the last decade, students seem more and more to regard us as if we’re behind a screen, and seem to think they can talk, read, sleep, or just stare at us glassy-eyed without it having any effect on our performance. This is a shared enterprise. It’s hard to lecture to an apparently disinterested sea of eyes. If you don’t think a lecture hall is intimidating, take a minute after class some day to stand behind the podium and look at all those seats. Then imagine holding the attention of everyone in those seats for an hour, two days a week. Wouldn’t it be easier if the people there seemed interested? You don’t have to act like you’re watching U2, but do try to make it clear your heart hasn’t actually stopped beating.”

– Heather Cox Richardson, University of Massachusetts, from “Richardson’s Rules of Order.”

I like that quote well enough that I use it on my U.S. survey syllabus (with attribution). I’ve spent far too much time freaking out about the effect of technology that I don’t control on my classroom, so my general solution is to meet students half way.* Put on a good show, and I can hopefully command their attention. As a result, students should learn much more than if they spend fifty minutes a week playing with their phones while I drone on in the background.

Superprofessors can put on a good show too, but they have no way of knowing whether their show is being well-received. Apart from the labor implications, I think what bothers me most about MOOCs is the general tendency from Coursera and elsewhere not to care how their courses are being received? You’re dropout rate is 95%? “Don’t worry,” they tell us. “It’s just a MOOC.” Perhaps that’s because one of the most appealing things about MOOCs from a financial standpoint is that once you’ve got the superprofessor on tape, you don’t have to change the lectures at all. The whole machine can run itself. Any impetus to make contact with the instructor has to come from students or no contact will occur at all.

Much to his credit, Jeremy Adelman is doing his best to overcome this structural defect for his world history MOOC. If you want to reach him, you can find him in the forums fielding questions. If you want to send him tiny parachutes of pedagogical wisdom (just like in “The Hunger Games”), you can find him on this very blog.

Which is why I’m writing about my decision to violate my favorite of Richardson’s Rules of Order with some trepidation. You see, I didn’t do anything at all on the MOOC last week. First I had to finish proofing my book manuscript; then, like a third of the population of the state of Colorado, I got the stomach flu. Then I spent Thanksgiving weekend with my in-laws on the top of a mountain outside of Boulder. Now I’m looking at four plus hours of lectures to get through even though I have a faculty development grant due today as well as other forms of non-teaching related bureaucracy.

My solution is that as soon as I finish typing this post I’m going to treat Jeremy like a podcast. He’ll be talking away on my office computer while I type away at something else on my laptop. I know Jeremy doesn’t mind – What’s he going to do, fail me? – but I’m still bothered by the whole thing because I believe in the bond between professor and student. I’m going to break that bond because I have to and because I can.

How is this different from the problems that Richardson confronts in her rules for face-to-face classes? Even in an ordinary online class, the professor is tracking the progress of all the students in the class. They might not read every comment on the discussion forum, but they at least know how many times each student has logged into the LMS. Despite Jeremy’s efforts, he can’t be everywhere at once. He’s a superprofessor, not Superman.

It’s not just that you’re on your own kid in a MOOC. It’s that the powers that be don’t really care whether you finish the course or not. That strikes me as a monumental change in the assumptions behind higher education about which I have seen absolutely no comment. It reminds me of the Clinton/Republican position on welfare reform. Education is now a “hand up” if you’re willing and able to take it rather than an obligation upon society to help you. Why any so-called “liberal” academic would accept this paradigm shift is completely beyond me.

Perhaps they’re all “well-meaning liberals” in the Mario Savio sense of that phrase. We all know how Clark Kerr’s university-as-firm vision has worked out, don’t we? Why on earth would we want that firm to get even more impersonal?

* That’s also my solution to the student reading problem, as I explain today in a new post at the blog of the Historical Society.

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?

World History MOOC Report 11: In which I have too much time on my hands.

9 11 2012

So I’m writing this post from a cheap hotel out by the highway in Lafayette, Indiana.* When I got back yesterday afternoon after a long day of research I thought I’d take care of my self-imposed MOOC-related responsibilities for the week before I did some other work and went to bed, when I realized that watching these videos was taking an incredibly long time.

Part of this was definitely the quality of the free wifi here. The thing buffered every minute or two for a few seconds. But then I took a look at the video listings and did some quick math in my head. The parts of the first lecture of the week added up to about seven minutes more than the first lecture of the week! That’s when I started experimenting with speeding Jeremy up to 1.25x and then 1.5x speed. That button is right there at the bottom of my pop-up screen, but then I felt guilty as I kind of know Professor Adelman now (at least just a little bit). Therefore, I just listened to him talk the way that God and Coursera intended me to hear him.

This does raise an interesting point, though. Ordinary professors are bound by the constraints of the periods that separate their classes from other classes. Superprofessors have no such constraints. After all, what are you gonna do? Demand your money back?

When I have too much time on my hands like yesterday, this is definitely a good thing but I wonder how people who are a lot more pressed for time than I am feel when they realize that this week’s lectures are going long. To compound the matter, Jeremy was recommending lots of outside reading books in this weeks’ first lecture. They were excellent recommendations (I need to sit down and actually read Alexis de Tocqueville straight through myself someday), but it makes you wonder exactly who is this class aimed at. Is it supposed to be fun extra learning for busy professionals and retirees or a substitute for college?

Apparently, Clay Shirky explained which students that Coursera is counting on at the opening session of Educause the other day:

The missing piece is a caveat in Coursera’s terms of service that prohibits the use of Coursera’s MOOCs for anything but informal education.

“You may not take any Online Course offered by Coursera,” stipulate the terms, “or use any Letter of Completion as part of any tuition-based or for-credit certification or program for any college, university, or other academic institution without the express written permission from Coursera.”

In other words, they’re not going to make any money unless their free product is a college substitute. If students speed all their superprofessors up to 1.50x, they could all shave fifty percent off the time they need to get their degrees. That’ll solve the college cost crisis!**

PS to Jeremy: Tell Dan that when you say that a map is particularly important, he should probably be absolutely certain that the audience at home can actually read the names of the countries and cities on it.

* FWIW, Purdue has the nicest food court in its student union that I have EVER seen. I am so jealous.

** Assuming superprofessors like Jeremy don’t spoil the party by making their lectures fifty percent longer than regular face-to-face classes are.

World History MOOC Report 10: In which I look on the bright side (sort of).

2 11 2012

If you haven’t checked out the comments to this post in which I discuss MOOC pedagogy with Jeremy Adelman, you really should. If nothing else, he’s given me an enormous amount of material for a week with no lectures. Like this:

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.

This came in response to my second mention of the poor response rate from my fellow students on the first writing assignment. Jeremy (and some new commentators on this blog) have been suggesting that there are multiple levels of engagement in a MOOC and that we should celebrate that for increasing engagement with the humanities, and world history in particular. That works for me. Despite my carping, I’ve come to enjoy my MOOC experience more the closer it gets to my period of expertise. I particularly enjoyed Adelman’s discussion of building national identities around the world during the Nineteenth Century and his brief history of the American West in global perspective.

The problem with this kind of cheeriness, however, is that even as some parts of American higher education reach for a broader audience, those parts are nonetheless doing their best to eat the lunches of those of us left in the vast MOOC-less wasteland. Mills Kelly described this process quite succinctly a few days ago:

Why are we in trouble? The answer is both simple and very complicated. The simple answer is that institutions with much better brands than ours have thrown themselves head first into the MOOC swamp and already we are seeing signs that in the coming year or two many, if not most (or even all) of these institutions will find ways to offer academic credit for what are now free courses. Once that happens, our students are going to vote with their feet (or fingers on keyboards) and will start taking increasing numbers of courses from these institutions–both because these courses are convenient, and because they are from institutions with better brands.

When that happens, we can expect that more and more of our students will be presenting us with transcripts from Stanford, Penn, Michigan, the University of Virginia, and other similarly better known competitors, and demanding that we accept these courses toward our degrees.

Actual enrollment in an actual MOOC has made me more optimistic than that for two reasons. 1) If actual professors review the course structures of these MOOCs for which they are supposed to award credit, they’ll see that they differ greatly from the brand images of the institutions that hosted them. [“So you took a history course from Princeton, but there was no required reading?”] and 2) I don’t think most college students will pick this kind of education if given a real choice because it is impersonal, superficial (since drilling down in history requires reading and real time responses), but still incredibly time consuming.

Professor Adelman is doing the best he can to create a worthwhile experience, but the format in which he’s operating has made it very difficult for me to see any of the pedagogy which he tells us he’s considered. As Alan Levine put it in a post I read yesterday:

…I have the question of how video lectures of people reading content is really going to play in parts of the the world where connectivity is not what it is in Palo Alto.

And is this really the best learning we can give the world? Lectures, machine grading, and multiple guess? Really? Check the century on your digital watch, Socrates.

In short, it’s not the MOOCs that I’m afraid of – it’s the people who insist on making their declarations that MOOCs are the future a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some of them actually have the power to make that happen.

World History MOOC Report 9: In which I prefer peer evaluation to peer grading.

29 10 2012

For the uninitiated, let me try to explain the process by which the assignments in my world history MOOC work. Students have a week to answer one of three questions with a 750-word essay. The guidelines for writing the essays stress all the important things: Evidence, argument, not plagiarizing. So far, I think, all the questions have been one sentence long.

You can type your essay right onto the Coursera site, but I’ve found it much easier to write mine in Word and cut-and-paste it into the box once it’s ready. Before you submit, you have to pledge that your work is your own. You can even go back and change your essay after you’ve submitted it as long as it’s still before the due date.

Once you’ve submitted your essay, it’s your responsibility to grade the essays of five other students over the course of the seven days following the deadline. You use the 0-3 scale that I’ve mentioned earlier. You award three grades: one for evidence, one for argument and one for exposition. There’s a space for anonymous comments, and also a place where you can leave your initials and your location if you so choose. Once you’re done, you see your essay again and you do the same thing to your own essay. You can even leave yourself comments! You get your grade back a week after you turn in the paper. I haven’t paid much attention to the math involved, but every single grade (your peers’ and your’s) is used to determine your final numerical grade.

On the one hand, there’s something incredibly appealing about students anonymously reading other students’ papers. I do something like this all the time in class, and am constantly stymied by the unwillingness of students to be critical of one another, especially when the author is in the room. This system could prevent that. It also saves the time during class that students spend reading each others’ work. This way they’d get more and probably better evaluations than they would ever get in a 50-minute class period.

On the other hand, when you move from peer evaluation to peer grading I still have many problems. I find the notion that students can grade their own work even for just a portion of their eventual final grade and get college credit for that to be too utopian to take seriously. And as I’ve already suggested before, there’s something insulting to professors about any system that suggests that anyone can grade. Let me explain how this played out in practice for me on the second assignment in order to illustrate my point.

The last one of my five peer papers was my first example of plagiarism. As a huge fan of Laura Gibbs’ Coursera Fantasy blog, I was fully prepared for such an occurrence. Even if I hadn’t expected this, just think about the audience. As I learned last summer while teaching in South Korea, there are huge differences in what constitutes plagiarism across cultures.

We students got very little guidance as to what plagiarism is. I spend at least ten minutes in class a semester on this subject, but all I remember reading was a few lines at the bottom of the writing guidelines and what’s in the pledge. Why spend more time on plagiarism? My example was hardly clear cut. Unlike the usual examples of plagiarism that I see when grading, a single word that I know the average college student would never use in any context did not set me off. This time the alarm bell sounded because the essay was almost completely off topic. When I Googled a uniquely-constructed sentence, I came to a year-old blog post. While the “works cited” section listed that blog post and noted that the author and the student were in fact the same person, none of the words duplicated in both essays had quotation marks in the assignment.

Can you plagiarize yourself? Leaving aside the actual answer to that question, where does the average MOOC student go for guidance if they’re faced with this kind of dilemma? The whole point of a MOOC is that the machine is supposed to run itself, but effective grading requires knowledge and experience that students and their peers don’t have. I decided to give the essay mostly “1”s for its off-topic character and to explain that some people might define this as plagiarism in by far the longest comment that I’ve written for this course.

To fully understand my decision here, you also need to understand what I think the problems are with the assignment itself. Jeremy tells us that a lot of thought went into the design of these assignments, and again I believe him. [It’s the parts that resemble traditional history classes that I don’t think have been changed enough.] However, this kind of assignment has the feel of being designed by committee because it doesn’t know what it is.

Is it the equivalent of a blue book essay? Sort of, but there’s a section for “works cited” at the bottom of the paper submission form. Not footnotes. Just works cited. Is it a research paper then? If so, why are we frequently reminded that we need to rely on the knowledge that we all hold in common from class in order to make the peer grading system work? But how can we cite the textbook then if the textbook is not required reading for the course? If forced to choose, I’d pick blue book essay over research paper if only because I wouldn’t want to teach proper footnoting techniques to 82,000 people. In my case, I pretty much have to treat it like a blue book exam essay since I don’t have the textbook and the forums aren’t really helpful for answering the essay questions. No matter what, it really should be one thing or the other.

So how’d I do this time around? Solid rock star all around (thank goodness). However, I can only find one comment from any of my peer evaluators. Does this mean that four of my peers couldn’t be troubled to leave comments? Does this mean that only one person evaluated me? I’m not sure, but either way it is pretty clear that peer grading isn’t quite working out the way its creators anticipated.

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.

World History MOOC Report 7: In which I wanna be a rock star.

18 10 2012

I’m not going to tell you what my exact grade was on my first peer-graded assignment because then I’d have to explain the entire system. I will tell you this: giving myself all zeroes for kicks really hurt because Coursera actually counts your self-evaluation as part of peer grading. How is it possible to be your own peer? I have no flippin’ idea.

As I think Vim, Ph.D. pointed out somewhere, there isn’t a lot of room for nuance when the scale goes all the way from struggling to rock star in just three numbers (1-3). [Zero, it seems, is for plagiarism and empty fields.] Taking my zeroes out of the equation, I think the peer assessments were fair for something I threw together rather quickly. They were not, however, particularly helpful.

As I predicted, all of the comments I got were very short – a few incomplete sentences really, just like I wrote for the essays that I had to grade. While the numbers were fair, the evaluations themselves were all over the map. The one I liked the most suggested that I should have used one of the arguments offered in the question. Leave aside the fact that I had an absolutely killer argument. The question was exactly one sentence long.

A system that allows a student who doesn’t know what an argument is to score the argument of a student who does is fundamentally flawed. Sure, I use peer evaluation all the time to help improve student writing, but I do all the actual grading myself because – shockingly enough – I have the knowledge, the experience and the writing ability to help more than any student can. I’m not being egotistical here. Anyone who’s been teaching history for fifteen years like I have [Ugh, it really has been that long!] should be in the exact same position.

I’m beginning to think that the whole idea of peer grading is an insult to the knowledge and experience of professors everywhere. Our knowledge and experience are what make faculty highly-skilled labor, which in turn makes us worth an upper-middle class wage. Therefore, the people who want to profit from the corpses of our careers have to find a substitute. Like those UPS interns at the University of Louisville who Marc Bousquet describes (.pdf) in the still must-read classic How the University Works, perhaps peer grading is just another example of higher ed using students to do work for free that really ought to be purchased on the open labor market.

I’ll withhold final judgement on peer grading though until after I complete an experiment. I have another paper due soon, and I’m going to be a rock star. I’m drafting my answer already, and it’s not due for days. I’ll visit the forums in search of additional facts to sprinkle into the essay. I’ll actually proof it this time too. I’ll even give myself all threes.

Then let’s see what happens…

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