MOOC week 6, from thousands to hundreds (maybe)

First off, this past week of MOOCs in the news:

There’s “Learning From One Another” from Inside Higher Ed, which looks at Coursera’s MOOCs generally and from the peer review process in particular.  I’ll chat more about my own peer review experiences again from this last week, but I think the approach that student J.R. Reddig (who is also a “61-year-0ld program director for a Virginia-based defense software contractor”) has taken to these peer reviews synchs with my experiences: “Mainly, Reddig said, he learned how to read past the spelling and grammar hiccups of non-English speakers and try to grade them based on their ideas. ‘I said, Well, O.K., you can’t apply an empiric standard to them,’ said Reddig. ‘These people attempted to follow a thought, and so give them a 10.'”  Very much a “shooting from the hip” to commenting, reviewing, and grading.

Then there’s this quote:

Daphne Koller, one of the co-founders of Coursera, says that the peer-grading experiment is still very much a work-in-progress. “We will undoubtedly learn a lot from the experiences of our instructors as they encounter this phenomenon, and then have a better sense of where exactly the tensions lie and how one might deal with them,” she says. “We also have some ideas of our own that we’ll throw in the mix and evaluate as we plan the next phase of this experiment.”

Which basically means “we’re making this shit up as we go along and we’ll see what sticks.”  A shame since there are academic fields/disciplines out there that have been working through strategies for peer review and writing instruction for a long long time.

The other thing in this article I found interesting is information on the drop-out rates in these courses, which I will also get to a moment in relation to World Music.  The class that Reddig is in,  Internet History, Technology and Security, started with 45,000 registered students and after one of the writing assignments, dropped down to 6,000.  The fantasy and science fiction class that I believe Laura Gibbs is taking dropped from about 39,000 to 8,000.

If these classes are anything like World Music, I don’t think people are dropping out because the class is “too rigorous,” though since there are a lot of people taking these classes who are not native English speakers, I am sure language problems are proving too much for many students.  Rather, I think there are two basic causes for the drop-out rate.  First, I think people are “dropping” these classes in the same way that folks sign up for some kind of service just to see what it’s like:  that is, the numbers that Coursera et al are reporting are grossly inflated by the “I’m just curious to see what this looks like so I’ll sign up, look around, and then never do this again” factor.  Which is to say that the majority of people signing up for these classes were never really interested in taking these classes in the first place.  Remember Second Life?  Tons of people (including me) signed up, played around with it for a while, thought it was kind of dumb, and then never went back.  The same is true here, and much like Second Life was over-hyped based on misleading numbers of users, so is the case here.

Second, I think a lot of people are dropping Coursera courses because they are disappointed in what’s being offered– at least there has been some commentary along those lines in World Music.  I think that’s a different phenomenon than “this course is too hard for me.”

Speaking of Coursera and their ongoing efforts of making it up as they go along:  they have spiffed up their web site a bit.  Students can set up profiles (I set one up and I would link to it here but I don’t know how) and they have a link for jobs at the start-up.  It would appear that most of their hiring is still focused on computer programmers of various sorts, though they are searching for “Course Operations Specialists” (which is an “interface” position between the “world-class instructors” and Coursera engineers) and “Community Managers,” which I think is kind of like people who patrol the class sites to make sure nothing bad is happening.  Following the trends of conventional higher education, it would appear that Coursera is going to continue to keep hiring the people who actually teach and provide the content for these courses on a contract and/or part-time basis.  It’d be interesting to find out how much they are paying people like World Music Professor Carol Muller.

The other article I thought I’d mention was from The Chronicle of Higher Education “U. of South Florida Professors Try ‘University of Reddit’ to Put Courses Online.” Apparently through the University of Reddit, just about anyone can teach or take a class online, and two folks at USF are jumping in to see how it works.  I’m not sure why the CHE focused on these two since there are dozens and dozens of courses on Reddit already, but there it is.

More about World Music:

I continue to work through World Music and many of the problems I’ve already discussed in past posts are still there.  At this stage, the most annoying thing for me in terms of the content of the course is the focus for the last three weeks on what I would crudely generalize as oppressed and “primal” cultures:  the “Pygmies” of central Africa, the Aborigines of Australia, and now the Kalahari Bushmen of south/central Africa.  These are of course all important cultures to consider, but in the context of a class that is supposed to be introducing “world music” generally, it seems a little repetitive to tell the stories of tribal people being oppressed in remarkably similar ways.  Here’s a class in “world music” and we’ve got nothing from South America (not counting Cuba, which I don’t), nothing from the various American Indian traditions, nothing from India or the Middle East (some of the best contemporary “world music” traditions), nothing from the Pacific rim generally (and again, the story of Hawaiian music I know is just fascinating), and nothing really from Europe (e.g., traditional Jewish music, Romani [aka “Gypsies”], Spanish, Celtic, etc., etc.).  Of course a gen ed course in “world music” is going to have to leave stuff out, but what is the narrative of a class that spends almost half of its time focusing on some fairly similar traditions?

And beyond that, the content of the course is just very very thin.  With the discussion of the Kalahari Bushmen, there was almost nothing about the music, lots about how they have been repressed (very similar to what was done to Native Americans, incidentally), and a discussion/encouragement to watch The Gods Must Be Crazy, the 1980 goofy movie that depicted the Kalahari peoples in some very problematic ways.  Thin thin thin.

Judging from the drop-off in discussion and interaction, I’m not the only one who feels this way.  Two simple examples.  For week two’s class, which was about Paul Simon’s Graceland, there were seven different discussion threads in the forums and some of the posts within those forums had hundreds of comments/responses.  And of course in that second week of class, we actually talked quite a bit about music– Simon’s album and the contributing artists.  This past week, there were four discussions and while some of the threads under these discussion have hundreds of views, I think there are many fewer posts.  Though this is just eyeballing it.

A second example:  during one of her lectures, Muller asks students to watch a YouTube video titled “300 Year Anniversary of Khoisan Icon,” which more or less acknowledges anew the contributions of the Kalahari Bushmen.  As of this morning (which is the Monday after this unit), that video has just shy of 900 views.  To me that means that there are A LOT of people either not following Muller’s links to some of these videos or there just aren’t as many students around anymore.

The latest tweak in the peer review part of things were these explicit instructions on responding to our peers: “To be fair to your peers you are required to provide some rationale/justification for the grade you give for their assignment. Provide between 5 and 100 words in the space below.”    “Between 5 and 100 words” is better guidelines than none at all, I guess, though one thing at occurred to me with this peer review was it was pretty tricky for me to give decent feedback because the prompts weren’t there.  This made it awfully hard for me to say something about the extent to which the writer addresses the question.  I mean, that’s the teacher’s question, not mine.

I’ve been pretty busy lately, so for last week’s assignment, I dashed off something very quick, less than 300 words with no citation, etc.  I spent about 10 minutes on it.  And once again, my grade was 8.5.  Here’s what my fellow student reviewers said about my work:

student1 → Very good and explicit essay. Though it lacks references and examples that were not discussed in class.
student4 → I like that you state your personal opinion. Good job in general.

So, if I didn’t know better, I think my reaction to this round of peer review would be “well heck, it doesn’t really matter what I say here!”

I’ll be curious to see the results of my “essay” on the Kalahari response because it was even more hap-hazard and rushed.  Essentially, I wrote about a prompt that asked me to watch a brief documentary and respond.  I only watched a minute or two of the documentary, but judging from the question and the general content of the course, I took an educated guess as to the kind of response the question was seeking, a “writing what the teacher probably wants to see” kind of essay.  We’ll see how that goes.

And that’s the last writing opportunity for the class.  This last week is about the Buena Vista Social Club,  music I have and love and a movie I thought was pretty good.  I’m curious to see if my enjoyment of this will be spoiled by the class.  At the end of this week, there is instead of a writing assignment a multiple choice final.  Wish me luck.

3 thoughts on “MOOC week 6, from thousands to hundreds (maybe)”

  1. I too am in the World Music course through Coursera. I am a Univ. music professor who also teaches a World Music class and by week 4 in Muller’s Coursera course was so irritated and bored that I lost all interest in this “World Music” course. I have been participating in MOOCs largely to discover what a student would experience and it certainly is a GIGO situation. But, this particular course, IMHO, is particularly offensive – from the inaccurate content to the “TAs roundtable” to the most offensive of all – the apparent lack of any participation from the “content leader” after the rather amateur video lectures. I hope my MOOC will be significantly better.

    1. I mostly agree with you, though I don’t think I’m really offended by the “freeze-dried teaching” so much as I think it’s just bad. But I’m curious because I don’t really have a lot of mastery of the content of the course– I was an English major-type and I am a scholar in rhetoric and writing after all. As someone who does have some expertise and who does teach a world music course, what would you do different in terms of content in a 7 or so week MOOC-like course like this?

  2. Hi Steve, that 8000 figure really caught me by surprise, truth be told. I think that might be the number of people watching videos. It looks like the number actually turning in essays last week was just 2300, but I could be wrong (even though the class is very curious about participation levels, no information is being shared with us – but you can hack the URL of the essays that we are given to use in sharing our essays, and that numbers shows that we started out with 5000 essays the first week, then 4000, then 3000, then 2500, where we seem to have more or less leveled off). I’ve basically had it with the course – I explained my top three reasons for no longer participating beyond the bare minimum here:
    I would rate the content of the class as pretty high – the readings are excellent, there is a steady stream of video lectures that are very entertaining and informative. The issues I see are instead the steady deterioration of the discussion boards and the ongoing problems with the writing / peer review aspects of the class (I got another plagiarized essay to read this week, lifted verbatim from a website ironically named 123helpme dot com).

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