More on MOOCs, writing in November

It’s been a while since I’ve posted about MOOCs or anything else, mainly because I’ve been pretty swamped with teaching and other work-related things, far too busy to have stayed active in either of the Coursera courses I had signed up for, a course on Python programming and Introduction to Genetics. More on that genetics course in a moment; first an update on other things MOOC.

PLEASE NOTE: THIS ONLINE OFFERING DOES NOT REFLECT THE ENTIRE CURRICULUM OFFERED TO STUDENTS ENROLLED AT THE UNIVERSITY
OF PENNSYLVANIA. THIS STATEMENT DOES NOT AFFIRM THAT THIS STUDENT WAS ENROLLED AS A STUDENT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF
PENNSYLVANIA IN ANY WAY. IT DOES NOT CONFER A UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA GRADE; IT DOES NOT CONFER UNIVERSITY OF
PENNSYLVANIA CREDIT; IT DOES NOT CONFER A UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA DEGREE; AND IT DOES NOT VERIFY THE IDENTITY OF THE
STUDENT.

In other words, “here’s your certificate, but it doesn’t mean anything.” That’s fine because I wasn’t expecting anything more than this, I wasn’t paying for it, etc., etc. But I think this also speaks to the various things that Coursera and its like are going to have to overcome before they will be able to offer these things for real credit.

Some promising models for non-instructor-based interaction are emerging. These include crowdsourcing or automation of grading, using grad students or alumni volunteers as online discussion leaders, or having centralized course materials supplemented locally by individual instructors. These approaches may create scalable opportunities for feedback, and are in many ways more consistent with the student drive toward peer-to-peer, customized learning than the kind of broadcast lectures that are currently the foundation of many MOOCs. Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the degree to which a sense of connection with an individual instructor, one who models the project of intellectual inquiry, is a key dimension of many students’ motivation. A charismatic instructor of many students is likely to feel the pressure of that desire for connection.

I’m not sure what Byerly really means by “non-instructor-based interaction.” She suggests “crowdsourcing” kinds of opportunities, but a) again and again I read about the concerns over cheating in these classes, and you show me someone who “cheats” and I’ll show you someone who is successful at “crowdsourcing,” and b), how exactly do you accredit and credential this?

But like I said, I’m finding it pretty much impossible to keep up with the Introduction to Genetics and Evolution class I signed up for because of my own teaching and work and writing about MOOCs, which is kind of a shame.  I will continue to pop into it once in a while as time allows, but I’m not going to even try to spend any time doing any of the quizzes or things I need to do to get certified here.  A couple of quick thoughts for now:

  • The class is very straight-forward/old-school: lectures and problems with due dates. That’s it. True, there is a discussion forum that is for answering questions and the like, but as far as I can tell, there is no reason to actually participate in these discussions– well, unless you had a question, and then you might or might not get an answer with a post.
  • The plus-side of Mohamed Noor: he’s a good lecturer who has clearly given these kinds of talks in front of a camera before. He’s comfortable– almost too comfortable. I think the “production values” format are better than in “Listening to World Music” in that they are more Khan-academy style: it’s a white board-esque presentation that Noor annotates as he talks, and while he is still present as a talking head, he’s off in the corner. Here’s a brief screen capture of what I mean from one of his lectures. The sound quality is kind of bad because of how I captured this on the fly, but you can get the idea.
  • The down-side of Professor Noor: Well, here’s what it says on the “class philosophy” page:

Students in this course should be aware that the instructor, Dr. Mohamed Noor, has freely (with no compensation) donated his time to producing this course, above and beyond his regular duties and responsibilities as a faculty member of Duke University. In addition, there is only one of him and many thousands of students. Please take this into consideration, and do not directly email Dr. Noor about the Coursera class or expect that he can respond to forum posts.

First off, the idea that Noor has “donated his time” is a wee-bit problematic from my point of view, mainly because I do the work I do not out of the goodness of my heart but because I get paid. I certainly wouldn’t donate my time to Coursera like this.  Second, if you are explicitly not available to students, then you aren’t an “instructor;” rather, you’re more of a presenter or author, which is why I think MOOCs are a lot more like textbooks than classes.

To be fair to Noor: he actually has been a lot more available than this passage suggests. He even did a Google Hangout discussion that was captured on YouTube:

As is often the case with things like Google HangOut, a lot of the discussion (I just skimmed bits and pieces of this) seems to be “hey, we’re on a Google Hang Out and talking to each other! Hi! Hi!”

Anyway, all of this is to suggest that I think that “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution” seems potentially better than the World Music class, but it too seems to be less of a class involving interaction than it does an opportunity to see someone talk about a topic and take some tests. You know, a textbook.

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