Ah yes, the new honor code will fix everything

From The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Coursera Adds Honor-Code Prompt in Response to Reports of Plagiarism.”  To quote:

The step is a small one, but it was carried out with the start-up company’s signature swiftness. Students in Coursera’s courses must now renew their commitment to its academic honor code every time they submit an essay assignment for grading by peers.

Specifically, they must check a box next to this sentence: “In accordance with the Honor Code, I certify that my answers here are my own work, and that I have appropriately acknowledged all external sources (if any) that were used in this work.”

I noticed this in the World Music class this last week when I posted my writing about Aboriginal music, but I didn’t exactly give it a whole lot of thought.  Frankly, it reminded me a lot of all those “terms of service” agreements that we all check without reading.  Hopefully I haven’t agreed to some kind of sick HUMANCENTiPAD project.

Anyway, as I wrote before on this, I don’t think plagiarism is actually that big of a problem in these classes so far, and it is frankly low on my list for the problems of the writing assignments and the peer review process.  But hey, if it makes Coursera et al feel better that I check a box, sure.


MOOC Week five, and the peer review turns

I’m wrapping up week five of the World Music MOOC, and I have to say it’s starting to drag a little.  This week was about Australian Aboriginal music, though it was another week that had very little to do with music and more to deal with the politics of oppression against indigenous peoples.  I understand the obvious relevance for this being a part of the discussion of world music, but it’s all starting to feel more and more like I went to a music class and an anthropology/sociology class decided to barge in and taket things over.

I continue to be less than blown away by the quality of the presentation of class materials.   Just a simple example of what I mean about the lectures:  in the introduction to this week’s unit, Carol Muller gets the dates of when Australia was first “discovered” by Cook mixed up– that is, she says 1788, which was the year the British set up a penal colony in Australia, and not 1770, which is when Cook first landed in Australia.  The video is interrupted and the correction is clumsily inserted, and there was even a quiz question about the error.  Now, it’s not a problem per se that Muller misspoke.  Lord knows I say lots of wrong stuff to my students.  But isn’t that a reason why these ought to be rehearsed and organized for the screen and not just a rehash of a in-class lecture?  Isn’t this one of the benefits of recorded materials in the first place?

So I’m kind of getting bored here.  If I weren’t doing this thing for other academic purposes and future writing projects, I’d probably “drop out.”  This brings me to this Chronicle of Higher Ed commentary from Kevin Carey, “The MOOC-Led Meritocracy.”  Carey argues that the enormous drop-out rate in MOOCs is not only not a problem, but rather it allows MOOCs to operate as a meritocracy.  A quote:

That meritocracy will serve as a powerful mechanism for signaling quality to an uncertain labor market. Traditional colleges rely mostly on generalized institutional reputations and, in a minority of cases, admissions selectivity to demonstrate what graduates know and can do. The opacity of most collegiate learning processes (see again, lack of standards) and the eroding force of grade inflation have left little other useful information.

MOOC credentials, by contrast, will signal achievement selectivity. Instead of running a tournament to decide who gets to take the class and very likely get an A-minus or A, they’re running tournaments to decide who did best in the class. That’s why people are already resorting to plagiarism in MOOC courses. That’s troublesome, although perhaps not distinctly so, given that the antiplagiarism software that will presumably be deployed in defense was developed in response to widespread cheating in traditional higher ed.

In a sense, this was what college was like when I was a student nearly 30 years ago.  Most people who were in college 20 or more years ago can recall some kind of moment where the high drop-out rate was touted as a sign of rigor and that the earned college degree separated you from those drop-outs.  This is the classic “look to your left, look to your right, because one of you won’t be here at the end of this first year” spiel.  I don’t recall hearing that speech directly, but the University of Iowa at the time did have a reputation for being a fairly easy school to get into but not that easy to graduate from.

This has all changed dramatically and now one of the key markers of a successful and “good” university is its graduation rate.  There are lots of reasons for this change, but one of the reasons is a direct response to cost:  if you’re spending $40K plus a year for attending some quasi-fancy school (and I am aware that dollar figure is actually low for many fancy schools), you’d damn well better be able to graduate in a reasonable amount of time.

So in theory, Carey has a point:  who cares if the drop-out rates from MOOCs are super-high if that means that the best and brightest are able to make it through these free courses, separating them from the many drop-outs in their wake?  Maybe that could be something that employers could look at as a sign of success.  But right now in practice, there are no standards governing this meritocracy and I don’t think some crappy plagiarism software is going to make these problems go away.

And that brings me to peer review.

Continue reading “MOOC Week five, and the peer review turns”

More MOOC than you can MOOC at! (or, World Music Week 4 and Some Thoughts on Peer Review)

Jeez, MOOC-mania is busting out all over!  I was going to begin this post by posting a ton of links to other sites and references to MOOCs that have cropped up in the last week, but there are just too many.  If this is the “year of the MOOC,” last week felt like the week of the articles about the year of the MOOC.  But two resources I’ll point to that also point to a bunch of other links:

  • Just this morning from The Chronicle of Higher Education comes “What You Need to Know About MOOCs,” which is both a summary and a timeline of a lot of/most of the articles they’ve had about MOOC and MOOC-related stuff all the way back to 2008.
  • Then there was the MOOC MOOC, a massive (though in this case, I think it was less than 1000 people) open online course about MOOCs that lasted a week.  I unfortunately didn’t have time to actually participate– day job, class I’m teaching, World Music class I’m taking, etc.– but if you follow that link and then check out each of the day’s activities, you’ll see lots more info and links.

As is so often the case in education, what’s emerging for me is a simplistic and reductive view of “good MOOCs” versus “bad MOOCs.” And to give credit where credit is due, “Good MOOCs, Bad MOOCs” was the title of a pretty insightful column from Marc Bouquet.  Good MOOCs are characterized by the socialization and openness of learning (and learning for the sake of learning is in and of itself its own reward), they highlight how knowledge is constructed by participants, and good MOOCs are more or less run by people out of the goodness of their hearts as experiments of one sort or another– like the MOOC MOOC.  I don’t think anyone in the Good MOOC world is thinking “we’re going to make a lot of money at this.”

Bad MOOCs are also social and open, but they present knowledge as a product apparently possessed by the elite (why else would Coursera focus on partnering with the most prestigious American universities?) but also as something that can be delivered from an expert to students, and ultimately those students can somehow be tested or credentialed as having gained enough mastery to have that learning experience validated by others.  I don’t want to speak too much about the sincerity of Coursera founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, but it seems a given that if you’re going to raise $20+ million in venture capital, someone somewhere is thinking “we’re going to make a lot of money at this.”   

It’s all more complicated than that of course, and I don’t want to rely too heavily on the caricature.  The good MOOC people ain’t all good and the bad MOOC people ain’t all bad.  But as is often the case in education when innovation and corporate values rub up against each other, the conflict is about how teaching ought to take place (and fundamentally the elimination of most faculty from the process) and how (and if!) we can reliably and ethically credential students on their experiences in MOOCs.  Good MOOCs are not (or at least not much of) a threat to the status quo, whereas bad MOOCs are.

Anyway, on to week 4 of World Music after the break.  Last week’s topic was on pygmy music, though it really is beginning to feel like less about music and more about the anthropology/sociology of different peoples and how that’s all tied up into geopolitics.  Professor Muller spent most of her lecturing time discussing the ways in which the Pygmy people have been misused and abused by colonizers up until this day– even the word we use to describe this group of nomads in central Africa, “Pygmies,” is a slur that the people themselves don’t use.  But there was very little time spent on the musical traditions of these folks, and the only connection to a western tradition (which I think in some ways is what defines “World Music” in the first place) are the appropriation of some Pygmy-styled techniques in Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” (it’s the kind of whistling sound at the beginning) and in the Madonna song “Sanctuary.”  On the one hand, I totally understand why so much of the discussion and the class is about these non-musical issues, and I’m grateful for it too.  I didn’t know that much about the Pygmies before this.  On the other hand, I kind of thought that in a class called “World Music” that there would be more examples and discussion of the music.

Continue reading “More MOOC than you can MOOC at! (or, World Music Week 4 and Some Thoughts on Peer Review)”

“Dozens of Plagiarism Incidents Are Reported in Coursera’s Free Online Courses”

There’s an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (or maybe it’s just on the web site, I’m not sure) called “Dozens of Plagiarism Incidents Are Reported in Coursera’s Free Online Courses.”  I’m quoted in it as is one of the frequent commentators here on this MOOC stuff, Laura Gibbs.  You can go read it if you want and other than the one issue I raise in the comments, I think that Jeff Young’s take on this in the article is pretty accurate.

I’m guessing I’ll be writing more about the whole peer review thing this week(end?) as part of my ongoing MOOC-iness, but three other things I’ll mention for now:

  • “Dozens” of plagiarism incidents out of 39,000 students (this is how many are in the class the article is about) is actually not that bad, when you think about it.
  • The short writings that I have peer reviewed as part of my participation in the World Music class so far seem to be both not plagiarized and surprisingly earnest in addressing the assignment.  Mind you, that’s a small sample– like 8 examples– but still.
  • Plagiarism in these writing assignments is only as important as the class itself.  In other words, if the value of the Coursera credit/certificate/badge/gold star/fuzzy feeling is ultimately high (for example, it actually counts as honest-to-goodness college credit toward a degree at the University of Pennsylvania or wherever), then this is an enormous problem.  If the value of the experience is not (for example, it’s all about sharing in a personal learning experience with a community of other interested people and that’s it), then it’s not.  Not be too clichéd about it all, but in the “personal growth” scenario, cheaters only hurt themselves.


MOOC Week 3, wherein I sympathize with some of my students

Last week was a tricky week for me in the World Music MOOC because I do have a day job that required some attention, it was a busy week of teaching in my SOPOC and I was traveling (I began writing this post from a family gathering in Iowa).  So I am falling behind.  I missed the deadline for peer evaluations (again), I have really been having a hard time keeping up with the video lectures, and I just barely got my assignment in on time.

But this has all been quite useful for me to think about as a teacher.

When my ego and/or self sense of importance is unchecked, I am certain that the classes I teach are critically important to my students, at least as important to them as they are to me.  The reality is students (like all people) have complicated lives that involve families, jobs, distractions, surprises, and a whole lot more than my their classes.  So the moral of the story for me this week is it is probably useful to remember that usually my students have other things to do besides worrying about me.

This week has been about Tuvan throat singing, which is this weird kind of tonal singing/sound from a region in central Asia sort of between Mongolia and Russia.  A bit more on that and more on the logistics of the class below, but I have to say that the earworm I’ve been rolling over and over in my head this week is a song by Dan Bern song “Go To Sleep.”  Here’s a link to the MySpace version of it (go figure, there is still a MySpace!); here are the lyrics I’m thinking of:

Enough of this throat singing already
If you wanna sing two notes at once
Why don’t you do like everyone else
Get a multi-track machine
Lay ’em down separately
Make a little harmony
Maybe a bass track
Like one from the Rolling Stones
None of this long lost art
This archaic stuff
Go out and make something

Continue reading “MOOC Week 3, wherein I sympathize with some of my students”

“How To Public Speaking”

I have posted here once in a while about public speaking and conference presentations– how it’s bad for people to just read papers, but it’s also as bad (maybe worse) for people to just “wing it” since very few of us are actually good at that.  But the main reason I’m posting this here is as a “note to self” and also as something that I think might make a good teaching tool in the next class I teach that involves student presentations.  As is usually the case, ze frank offers advice that is both humorous and extremely useful.

More MOOC-iness than necessary

I’ll get to my update on my experiences in World Music and it’s interesting twists and turns after the break.  First I wanted to comment on a few important MOOC-oriented presentations I came across this week.  First, there are these two TED talks, the first from Daphne Koller, who is the cofounder of Coursera:

The second is by Peter Norvig, who taught a MOOC on artificial intelligence at Stanford in 2011:

Last and far from least is a talk that George Siemens gave at EDUCAUSE recently called “MOOCs:  Open Online Courses as Levers for Change in Higher Education.”  The slides are below, but this link will take you to Siemens’ site and a link to his actual talk.

I don’t have a recommended order for looking at these talks and I also realize that watching them all is going to take more than an hour, but if you’re interested in the whole MOOC thing, I’d encourage spending the time.  For me, these three talks– and really the TED talks vs. Siemens– cover a lot of the possibilities, perils, and frustrations of the current “MOOC-olution” that’s going on in higher education right now.  A few highlights for me:

  • Koller begins by talking about the issues of access to higher education all over the world and relates the story of a stampede of people trying to get into the University of Johannesburg, an event that the New York Times reported as embodying the “broad crisis in South Africa’s overstretched higher education system.”  Coursera, Koller argues, is part of the solution.  That’s a noble sentiment and it went over well during Koller’s TED talk, I suspect because the audience is made up of a lot of people who could have also been characters in that South Park “Smug Alert” episode. (For those who don’t remember and/or non-fans:  this is where Kyle’s family has to move to San Francisco after his father buys a hybrid car; while in SanFran, the Broflovski’s befriend similar high-n-mighty smug folks who also enjoy the smell of their own farts).
  • And it’s also worth noting that Siemens mentions in his talk the encouraging signs he saw first hand of MOOCs being used by students in India.   But I have to wonder:  do those thousands of largely poor South Africans have the level of computer and internet access to take advantage of MOOCs?  And given the larger problems for poor blacks in South Africa (the NYTimes article mentions that the jobless rate among poor youths is 70%, for example), isn’t this a bit of a “let them eat cake” type of proposal?
  • The thing I find most surprising and even irritating about both Koller’s and Norvig’s videos is they make it sound as if they have “discovered” online teaching.  For example, Norvig makes a big deal about how it turns out that one of the ways to help students succeed in online classes is to have deadlines.  Koller makes a big deal out of one way to deal with the huge numbers in Coursera courses is to have peer evaluations.  (And more about the troubles with peer evaluation below).  It’s maddening, and as you see in the beginning of Siemens’ talk, he feels the same way.  To paraphrase/more or less quote him, “It’s as if they are discovering North America all over again.” Coursera et al, Siemens argues, have spent a lot of money on hiring a lot of programmers to get the infrastructure up and running, but they have clearly not paid a lot of attention to the well-developed thinking about online teaching.
  • And just to be clear:  online teaching is a) not particularly new, and b) it is not only  happening in proprietary schools like University of Phoenix or Kaplan.  I’m far from a “pioneer” in the field, but I’ve been teaching online for seven years, and I’ve always had online classes that included these radical pedagogical innovations called “deadlines” with students all working together on projects (sometimes even collaborating!) and “peer review” where students comment on each others’ writing drafts.  I’m not alone in this.  As Siemens points out, about one third of U.S. and Canadian college students have taken at least one class online, and these are at “traditional” universities.  That’s hardly undiscovered territory.
  • I think Siemens is correct in assessing why MOOCs have all of a sudden become a big deal:  money.  He say’s in the last 8 months, there’s been around $100 million invested in MOOCs by venture capitalists.  You put that much money into anything and there’s going to be at least a ripple.  You put that much money into higher education, which runs on the cheap as it is and which has been all about slashing budgets every which way to stop the rising costs of tuition and fees, and you’ve got more than a ripple.
  • Finally, I think Siemens draws a good contrast between his MOOC experiments and what Coursera (et al) are doing with MOOCs.  Siemens and his colleagues were all about demonstrating how knowledge creation is messy and social, about using relatively low-powered and open-source tools, about emphasizing the development of social relationships that can be fostered after the class, and Siemens describes how he ran his MOOCs “off the side of my desk.”  Coursera is all about delivering knowledge in a rather conventional “sage on the stage” lecture format, about using a mix of proprietary tools (like its course shell software) and more open media tools (like YouTube), also about social relationships inside and outside of the class, and Coursera is ultimately about a hope/dream for making a lot of money.  Again, Coursera’s founders stated goal of giving the world access to “the best” higher education is noble, but I guarantee that the investors who have put up the money have other goals.

Anyway, on to a few specifics about “World Music” after the break:

Continue reading “More MOOC-iness than necessary”