More MOOC than I can chew: three (or four?) summer courses

Both my summer teaching and my coordinator duties are wrapping up on June 26 or so, and then I am transitioning into– well, not work. Actual summer “vacation,” more or less. The last time I had an eight week or so break with no direct obligations to EMU– that is, I wasn’t teaching and I wasn’t doing quasi-administrative work– was Spring 2010. Even when we were in Paris last summer, I was still actually working and responsible for things. I was wrapping up an online class and emailing with folks about coordinator duties for the upcoming term (thankfully we had quite robust wifi in the Paris apartment).

Anyway, as part of this break and also as part of trying to ease back into my sabbatical project of sorts, I’ve signed up for some more MOOCs.  


Two of them haven’t started yet. I signed up for “How Writers Write Poetry” from the Writing University Open Courses program at the University of Iowa. That course doesn’t actually start until June 28, which will be a bit tricky for me since I will be away– and likely completely be completely off-line– for the first week of the class. I’ll do my best to catch up, I guess; and it goes through August anyway.

I signed up for it for two reasons. First, it’s the one of the first courses I’ve peeked in at/taken that is not from one of the “big three” providers– Coursera, Edx and Udacity. Second and more important is I have a number of different personal connections to creative writing and Iowa, at least in my mind. That’s where I went for my undergraduate, and while I was a “straight-up” English major, I did take a fair number of creative writing classes and that’s more of less where I got the push to go on to the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth.

The other fun fact that I recalled recently (and I hope this anecdote finds its way into the MOOC book project where I talk about correspondence schools) is the last class I took at Iowa was actually a correspondence course in creative writing. A long story short: for reasons not worth going into right now, I found out I was four credits short of graduation during the middle of my last semester in college and after I had been accepted with funding to the MFA program at VCU. So I had to come up with four credits fast if I expected to graduate. Iowa used to have these one credit gym classes that ran at different times of the year, so I managed somehow to get into something– that might have been the term I took “relaxation,” which I suppose stretched the definition of “physical education” since much of the class involved laying around on the floor, but it was an interesting course. The three credit class was a correspondence course– that is, the old-fashioned mail– on creative writing. I remember receiving some sort of packet for the class that was a set of instructions for generating the ideas for the assignments I was supposed to write. What I did instead was I sent the instructor the portfolio I had put together for applying to MFA programs and a letter explaining my situation. I believe this person emailed me back with a few positive comments and a sort of “good luck” wish, and that was that. Anyway, pardon the pun, but there seems to be something “poetic” about taking a class like this now.

The second class I’m taking kind of began/kind of didn’t: it’s College Algebra from Udacity.  The reason why I say I’ve kind of have already started it/kind of haven’t is because the course doesn’t follow the sort of “semester”/synchronous schedule that seems to be more typical of MOOCs; rather, it’s more of a “self-study” approach. I had signed up for the course quite a while ago, and when I logged back in after not being there for months, it dropped me right back in the same spot I was in before. I signed up for the course because of Udacity’s previous collaborations with San Jose State University with the course (which didn’t exactly work out) and also because I wanted to take a MOOC where I knew my skills in the subject matter were weak, and I have always feared and been bad at math.  Along with the poetry, I’ll probably come back to this one in early July or so.

As a bit of a tangent: I noticed that Udacity seems to indeed be moving the platform into a different direction, though it isn’t quite clear what that direction is going to be. From the NYTimes comes “A Smart Way to Skip College in Pursuit of a Job.” It seems to be another effort at bypassing the traditional college degree in favor of something that is more “training-like” for business. Here’s a quote from the end:

The “NanoDegree” is a step in a similar direction: offering a narrow set of skills that can be clearly applied to a job, providing learners with a bite-size chunk of knowledge and an immediate motivation to acquire it.

It may not offer all the advantages of a liberal arts education, but it could offer a plausible path to young men and women who may not have the time, money or skill to make it through a four-year or even a two-year degree.

AT&T will accept the NanoDegree as a credential for entry-level jobs (and is hoping to persuade other companies to accept it, too) and has reserved 100 internship slots for its graduates. Udacity is also creating NanoDegrees with other companies.

If all goes according to plan, Mr. Thrun says, Udacity will ultimately create an alternative approach to the “four years and done” model of higher education, splitting it into chunks that students can take throughout their lives.

“It’s a more focused education with less time wasted,” Mr. Thrun told me. “They can get a degree quickly, get a job and then maybe do it again.”

We’ll see what happens, but it seems to me that this plan has the same demographic problems of the previous plans: besides the ridiculous drop-out rate, most of the people taking MOOCs already have degrees and jobs in hand, and are thus the exact wrong target audience.

Then there’s a fourth one I might take on– assuming I don’t drop one of the other three– which is “Introduction to Mobile Journalism” from the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. It looks like it might be kind of useful relative to some of the work I’ve done with multimedia/new media writing; though it also looks like it might be a little repetitive and basic based on some of what I know about this stuff.

The Coursera course I’m in right now is Internet History, Technology, and Security.  It’s being taught by Charles Severance– aka “Dr. Chuck”.  He is a clinical professor at the University of Michigan, has written a number of books that seem to be in the “how to” genre for O’Reilly, he apparently had a lot to do with Sakai, and way back in the early 1990s, he did some kind of TV show about the Internet. I signed up for the course because I thought it might be interesting, and also because since Severance is local, I might be able to interview him for the book.

This course is more or less a “repeat” of the version of what he did last year, which makes this video I stumbled across all the more useful:

I think Severance is adding two interesting new ripples on the whole MOOC experience– at least new to me. First, because he has some background in television, Severance has a better “presence” on camera and slightly better “production values” than I’ve seen in previous MOOCs– particularly the really early ones like “World Music” from a couple of years ago. He’s still more or less sitting in a home office or a school office and just talking into a webcam and doing some kind of clunky slides and some of his lectures are too long and wander about too much, but the sound and video is better than most of the previous examples I’ve seen. Plus the lectures I’ve seen so far have also included some historic videos that are kind of interesting.

Second, as he demonstrates in this video, Severance has done a number of “office hour” appearances/events around the world. He announces to his students “I’m going to be in such and such a Starbucks in Manila, Philippines at such and such time.” Then he shares very short videos (probably shot on a cell phone) of those meet-ups. It’s not a whole lot more than people waving at the camera and saying “hi” and the gatherings I see on the class right now are from the last time he taught it.  Still, the idea of actually meeting with students in real life seems… novel.

Another interesting feature I see in the class itself is there are collective student notes for each week on a wiki– mostly a series of links to things that might be interesting to the material of the class, but still, useful. The discussion forums so far seem about the same drinking from a firehouse to me.

The biggest problem I have with the class so far is it is more “wonky” than I thought it was going to be/than I am interested in, and that’s saying something. For example, the first week had a video about the early days of Bletchley Park and British intelligence in World War II and the first mechanical computers and code breaking. Sounds interesting, but after about five minutes of watching a machine doing, um, a lot of clicking, I decided to skip ahead. So I don’t know if I have to drive to stick with this.

Two last things I’ll mention for now, related issues that come up in that TED at Kalamazoo talk video.  I think Severance’s vision of how a MOOC works is really as a sort of textbook space students can use for autonomous study. In that talk, he mentions that he only spends about an hour a week doing stuff with the class now. He has some kind of “teaching assistant” arrangements with past students who are all over the world (former students who I hope are getting something out of this deal) who point him to some of the discussions to weigh in on once in a while, but now that the class is created, he doesn’t seem like he needs to do much work. And I think Severance makes an interesting point in briefly discussing the high drop-out (or never even start) rate of students: we say we want to give students autonomy to do what they want, but then we say that these classes are failures because students do what they want by opting in or out of classes, by doing or not doing the work and tests, etc.

That’s all fine and good, but I have to wonder if Severance isn’t really “teaching,” is this an “educational” experience?

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