Mooc Link clean-up time

I have a post in mind about what is good about the MOOC thing as far as I can tell and I think I’m going to be proposing something with Bill HD and some others about MOOCs for ATTW. But first, I want to post all the MOOC links I’ve got open in browser windows right now; so in no particular order:

From CHE, “In Colleges’ Rush to Try MOOC’s, Faculty Are Not Always in the Conversation.” A lot of conflation between online teaching and MOOCs here (wait, it’s not the same thing? really?), a lot of enthusiasm from administrators, not much from faculty. A quote:

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is an example of a campus that moved swiftly. As soon as Phyllis M. Wise, the university’s chancellor, heard about Coursera from other administrators who had signed on, she wanted to follow suit. She asked the executive committee of the university’s Academic Senate for a recommendation on whether to work toward a Coursera deal, and a faculty task force quickly issued a report giving a green light for such a partnership.

The task force devised a list of questions about how a Coursera partnership would work, said Nicholas C. Burbules, a former chair of the Academic Senate and a professor of educational-policy studies. For example, how would potential revenues from Coursera be divided within the university, and how would faculty members be compensated for teaching Coursera courses?

“I don’t think anyone knows exactly where this is going,” Mr. Burbules said. “We’re on a very fast train right now, and we’re jumping on board and seeing where it ends up.”

From CHE, “Publishers See Online Mega-Courses as Opportunity to Sell Textbooks.” You get the idea from the headline. First off, this is at odds with the corporate MOOC movement’s public declarations of offering a free education for the world:  textbooks are expensive. Second, and this is partly what I want to write more about later, it seems to me that MOOCs could be a replacement for textbooks, or at least a platform for them.

A couple links via Stephen Downes.  First, “The Coursera Gift Horse,” from Jonathan Becker’s blog “Educational Insanity.”  Basically, he’s saying that there are some problems with Coursera, sure, but why are people complaining about this awesome and free resources? Of course, he’s just started this Social Network Analysis class, the one that Bill is taking too (more on that as I make my way through my links), so let’s see what he thinks in a couple weeks.

Second, “Why We Shouldn’t Talk MOOCs as Meritocracies” by Mike Caulfield. He has a lot of other smart things to say about MOOCs too.  Here’s a quote:

The danger of MOOCs (which, by the way, are at the intersection of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, two cultures inordinately obsessed with meritocracy) is that they will return us to seeing a world that sees large levels of failure validating small levels of success. And they will build a breed of student that is the Jamie Dimon or Bill Gross of tomorrow, someone who knows they are chosen, and becomes oblivious to their own privilege, luck, and detachment.

These are the cultures which have destroyed America over the last 30 years – the idea that our job as a society is to look only at the levelness of the playing field, and ignore how the rules consistently favor the team in power.

If we begin talking about MOOCs as meritocracies, we are doubling down on the flawed ideology that got us into this mess.

Sorta hard to be a movement that’s supposed to empower those who are disenfranchised from  higher education and to be a movement of elites at the same time, isn’t it?

Third, there’s, which is “a place to host MOOC  news and information,” for all your MOOC-y overload needs.

And last from Downes (for now) is this handy little graphic:

In the nutshell, this is for me the problem of Coursera and other models that are are trying to replicate/replace the way education works.  For education to work, you’ve got to have some version of the diagram on the left.  Education requires an instructor who coordinates what’s going to happen in a given experience (that is, creates the “syllabus” for a “class”), is the expert to whom students turn for a definitive answer (and in my view, this is true in educational settings that are “student-centered” and/or where knowledge is more epistemic, contextual, or contested), and is the person who determines if the student has learned what they were supposed to learn to get credit (assessing, grading, credentialing, etc.)  On the other hand, the “many to many” and scalable diagram on the right depicts learning, which can happen in lots of situations, including a MOOC.

From Inside Higher Ed comes “Marketing to the MOOC Masses,” which is about that textbook thing again. A quote:

Elsevier, the academic publishing giant, announced on Tuesday that it will offer a free version of one of its textbooks this fall to students who register for Circuits & Electronics, a massive open online course (MOOC) being offered by edX.

The publisher actually made available a free version of the textbook during the first iteration of that course last fall, with little fanfare. The results are in: Rather than prompting scores of traditional students in similar courses to pass on purchasing the textbook in favor of registering for the MOOC and freeloading, Elsevier found that providing a “static” digital version of the text for free to MOOC students actually galvanized sales elsewhere.

“The version that is online on edX is a static version — a PNG file, which is not downloadable, not manipulable and doesn’t have all the flexibility that a true full e-book does,” said Dan O’Connell, a publicist for Elsevier. “So we found that actually it isn’t cutting into, and in fact it seems to be elevating, sales.”

Many many moons ago, when I was working on a textbook and the editing people were asking me what I thought would be innovative, I suggested to make a version of it available online for free and so they could recognize the “value added” of the actual book. They thought that was pretty funny.

Also from IHE, “Gates, MOOCs, and Remediation.” Given the drop-out rate on MOOCs (which is all part of that meritocracy argument), I’d say this is not the role of MOOCs.  But there is apparently some grant money tied to it, so I don’t know, maybe it’s worth checking out.

The local “paper,” ran “Hundreds of thousands flock to free University of Michigan classes offered on web-based Coursera platform.” I have a comment in the discussion that people liked.

And last but far FAR from least comes news that my friend and colleague Bill Hart-Davidson is going to be blogging about the Coursera MOOC he’s enrolled in, “Social Network Analysis.”  Here’s his first entry; he’s apparently already getting into trouble.


On Frontyard Gardening

It’s been months since I’ve posted anything here that relates to “life,” so in the spirit of taking a day off from school (mostly), I thought I’d write a bit about the story of our front yard garden.

Annette and Will and I live in the Ypsilanti neighborhood of Normal Park, which is mostly older homes (ours was built in the late 1940s) with lots and lots of trees. Like lots of people in this neighborhood, we do a fair amount of gardening. I wouldn’t describe us as passionate or knowledgeable (I always admire people who know the names of all of their plants, especially when they know them in Latin), and I don’t think we’re going to win any prizes or be on a garden tour any time soon.  But we do pretty good, I think.  When it comes to flowers and the like, we tend toward hard to kill perennials, pretty standard annuals, a lot of hostas, and hanging baskets that always dry up and die by early August. Herbs grow like weeds, so almost all of them work. We’re not trying to live off the land or anything, so for the most part, food-wise we like the kinds of vegetables that are always best super-fresh, things like lettuce and especially tomatoes. We stick things in the ground, try to remember to water them, hope for the best.

Square foot gardenA couple years ago, I heard about and then bought a book by Mel Bartholomew and his “square foot gardening” methods.  My first efforts were back in 2009 along the side of our house in a narrow strip of yard that got a surprising amount of sun.  That worked out well (here are a few more pictures of that).

Huge Square Foot Garden (sitting area)So in 2010, I decided to tear up an even larger space for I referred to as “the huge square-foot garden” because it was four 4X8 foot raised beds of mostly perennials and herbs. I had pretty good luck with things in 2010 and 2011, though not as much this year– more on that in a second. But this way in the backyard garden has its limitations because it is largely shaded by the giant trees around there– you can see some of them in the background of the photo to the right.

But in 2011, we had a pretty bad year with the side of the house square foot garden, partly because of weather and partly because my neighbor’s tree really shot up and put this once sunny all day long spot into a lot of shade. We missed the tomatoes.

Anyway, that’s what started this year’s front yard garden.

Front Yard Veggie Box Garden

We started with a box built from three twelve-foot long 2X12s, one cut into four three-foot lengths (I had them cut at Home Depot).  Will and I nailed those things together, laid it on top of some gardening fabric, and filled it mostly with “Mel’s Mix” (1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 compost), though I also added a lot of garden store variety top soil and compost to fill this thing up. The 2X12 box is unnecessarily large and takes a lot of dirt; on the other hand, my smaller boxes are starting to warp a bit, and this thing seems pretty indestructible.

Then I tore up much of the rest of that part of the front yard and ordered several yards/a half-truck full of compost/topsoil.  As the video suggests, there was no going back after this.

It started off looking pretty pathetic back in April:


But we’ve seen pretty steady progress over the summer, and by early September, things were looking pretty good:

The perennials in the front yard, September

We didn’t do this as a political statement about urban farming or our rights as homeowners to plant vegetables in our front yard. We just wanted a sunny spot to grow tomatoes and things. But I remember mentioning these plans to my mother and she thought it might be “tacky,” and there have been some cases (including in a northern Detroit suburb) where it is against code or neighborhood agreements and such.  If you do a search for “front yard gardening,” you’ll come across as many “is this illegal?” web sites as you will pages with tips.

I didn’t think it would be a problem in our neighborhood because there are lots of gardeners around here, but I have to say I’ve been kind of surprised by the enthusiastic and nothing but positive response we’ve heard from people. Whenever Annette or I are out there weeding or picking things, people walking down the street stop and inevitably say something nice about it all. I think it’s fair to say I’ve talked to more of my neighbors in the last five or so months than I did in the previous 10 years.

And we’ve gotten a shitload of tomatoes.

A few tips and/or thoughts for next year:

  • One of the reasons why this has worked out so well is because I bought a cheap timer for the sprinkler, which I ran for 30 minutes a day, especially when it was super-hot and dry around here. The simple success of that was a real eye-opener for me, and I’m planning on doing more of that with some of the other garden spaces around here next year.
  • The tomatoes did great, though I am thinking that next year, I’ll try planting heirlooms and more unusual tomatoes instead of the more “garden variety” (pun intended) varieties. Carrots were a real surprise— we never had this kind of success with them before– so there will be more of those, and since the basil did crappy in the the backyard this year, I’ll try some more fo that up front next summer.
  • I’d like to rehabilitate the side yard garden again, maybe with some combination of perennials and veggies that don’t require quite as much sun. We’ll see.
  • And growing isn’t over yet, I don’t think. I need to figure out how late I can still plant stuff like spinach out there.

17 more universities jump aboard the Coursera express

Because I have a Coursera account (which apparently makes me a “Courserian”), I received the email below this morning about seventeen more universities joining in with Coursera.  You can read the whole thing, but to me, this is starting to have the feel of the metaphorical freight train and a lot of institutions are seeing themselves on the tracks.  They either have to jump on the train or get the hell out of the way.

Oh, and I could be wrong about this, but I’m willing to bet that all 33 universities associated with Coursera haven’t really had any sort of online course offerings to speak of before Coursera came knocking. So again, the “next big thing” in online teaching is being lead by institutions who haven’t done much of it.  Hmmm.

More great universities. More amazing courses. Huge Coursera welcome to our 17 new partners!
Dear Courserians,

Today, we are thrilled to welcome 17 more universities — including four international schools — onto Coursera:

Berklee College of Music
Brown University
Columbia University
Emory University
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Mount Sinai School of Medicine
Ohio State University
University of British Columbia
University of California, Irvine
University of Florida
University of London
University of Maryland
University of Melbourne
University of Pittsburgh
Vanderbilt University
Wesleyan University
View a full list of schools and courses here.

These 17 universities will expand the course offerings even further, adding new classes in the fields of music, medicine, and humanities (among other disciplines) from renowned professors like Arnold Weinstein of Brown University and Grammy award winning Gary Burton from Berklee College of Music. We are proud of the diversity of the course offerings — from “The Science of Gastronomy” from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology to “Financial Engineering and Risk Management” from Columbia University. Many of these courses are pushing the boundaries of what was thought to be possible to teach online.

Working with schools, professors, and students over the past six months has taught us that online education has an incredible power to bring people together and open up doors that might otherwise remain shut. If you haven’t already, read Laura Cushing’s first-person essay of how online courses have given her the opportunity to learn more than she ever thought was possible.

We are deeply inspired by these stories — your feedback continues to help shape the evolution of our course experience.

We’re learning along with you, and thank you for being part of this!

Happy learning!
Daphne, Andrew, and your Coursera team

Searching for an Assistant Professor/Associate Director of the FYWP

I am pleased to announce that we are conducting two searches this year in the rhetoric and writing program, a search for a position in technical communication (that committee is being chaired by my colleague Derek Muller) and this search I’m chairing for an assistant professor who will serve as the associate director of the first year writing program. Here’s the official ad as it will appear soon in various places:

The Department of English Language and Literature invites applications for a tenure-track Assistant Professor in rhetoric and writing, beginning Fall 2013. We are seeking a colleague who values teaching, research, and service to serve as the Associate Director of the First-year Writing Program in the Department of English Language and Literature at Eastern Michigan University. The Associate WPA is a faculty position which includes partial release for administrative purposes. Candidates must hold a PhD in composition and rhetoric (or a related field) by August 2013. Scholarship and experience in writing program administration also required. The ideal candidate will also have expertise in online and technology-mediated pedagogy. Secondary interests might also include comparative rhetorics, language policies, cultural rhetorics, or disciplinary literacies.

Applicants should submit a cover letter, resume, a statement of teaching philosophy, and a statement of administrative philosophy. Visit

Review of applications will begin October 26, 2012 and continue until the position is filled.

For more information contact the Search Committee Chair Dr. Steven D. Krause, Search Committee Chair, 612 Pray-Harrold Hall, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI 48197.

If contacted, you will be asked to present official transcripts of your highest degree earned at the time of interview.

Let me offer a few other details about the place not in the ad:

  • EMU is a great place to work. English is a friendly and diverse department, and my colleagues in the writing program are fantastic. We have an undergraduate major with emphases in writing studies, technical communication, and professional writing, along with closely related programs in English education, journalism, and public relations. At the graduate level, our MA in written communications has emphases in professional writing and the teaching of writing. See:


Institutionally, faculty are represented by a union (we just signed a new contract, one of the better ones in my time here) which helps immensely in clarifying the process for things like tenure and promotion.

  • This colleague will work in a progressive and award-winning first year writing program. It has been an innovative program that developed the first “celebrations of student writing” events under the leadership of Linda Adler-Kassner and Heidi Estrem. The program continues its strong tradition with John Dunn in as the director and with Derek Muller as the current associate director. We have a great group of graduate assistants, part-time instructors, lecturers, and faculty teaching and supporting the program. See for more information
  • We’re in a great location. Ypsilanti is about 35 miles west of Detroit and adjacent to Ann Arbor. In fact, EMU is less than seven miles from the University of Michigan, which means that we are lucky enough to enjoy much of what they have to offer– for example, access to their libraries and the many cultural and lifestyle options of the quintessential “college town.” Plus we are close enough to the “big city” to take advantage of what Detroit offers– a conveniently located international airport, world class museums and theater, sporting events, and so forth.

Feel free to contact me at with any questions.

Exigency and viral feedback on “Innocence of Muslims”

This morning, I watched a few of the Sunday morning news shows, and part of the discussion is about the various riots across the Muslim world that came about from this movie (or a part of this movie), Innocence of Muslims.  A couple of comments/typing aloud sort of observations.

  •  This is a very veeerrryyyy weird movie.  Time had an interview with one of the actors who said that none of the experience made a lot of sense to anyone on the set, but basically a job is a job.  All the anti-Islamic stuff is clearly dubbed in and the 14 minute clip I link to here lends some credibility to this.  In places, it has the same obviously dubbed in jerkiness of Barack Obama singing “Call Me Maybe.”  In other words, beyond being anti-Islamic and racist and hateful and all of that, it’s just horrifically bad, so bad that I wonder if it would be better to think of it not so much as the cause but the opportunity of the events that continue to unfold.
  • I think it’s more complicated than a “video that went viral” on YouTube.  Not to rely too much on Time for this, but the article “The Agents of Outrage” points out that the movie (perhaps the whole thing?) was “screened in Hollywood early this year but made no waves whatsoever.”  It went up on YouTube and got in the hands of anti-Muslim Coptic Christians and infamous Koran burning Pastor Terry Jones in the hate blogosphere.  But it really didn’t escalate in Egypt and then Libya until someone named Sheik Khaled Abdaallah talked about it on his TV show in Egypt.  Abdaallah is described in this Time article as “every bit as inflammatory and opportunistic as Jones” (only he’s a Muslim highly critical of the Copts), so what we have here in a way is one extremist hate group versus another extremist hate group.  The point is I don’t think the video on YouTube itself spread virally before it was spread in comparably older mediums.
  • In any event, now there are protests all over the place, and I am willing to wager that the vast majority of the folks protesting at American (and apparently European) embassies around the world have not seen any of the movie that may (or may not) have been the exigency for these protests in the first place. I would even go so far as to say that if at least some of these protesters did see the clips of the video being circulated, they too would be confused.  I think most of the protesters now are protesting in reaction to the other protests and not the movie itself.  In that sense, it’s the other protests (and the coverage of them in the media) that have gone viral and not the original movie.
  • In the fourth chapter of my dissertation, I write about how easy it is in rhetorical situations mediated through technologies like the internet for the boundaries between the rhetor, the audience, and even the message itself to break down.  I specifically wrote about a “Mac vs. DOS” question to a mailing list and how that discussion moved far away from the original point of the question, and I argue that this is one of the inherent conditions of “immediate” rhetorical situations. But it is also simpler than that.  For example, there have been a couple of riots at MSU following basketball team losses, riots where the exigency was initially related to a game but which changed as the riots progressed.  And obviously, not everyone who participated in the riot as a result of the MSU loss; rather, some rioters took it merely as an opportunity to loot and cause damage.  I suspect there’s some of this going on with these riots.
  • Apparently there is some dispute as to whether or not Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens was killed as a result of the protests getting way out of hand or if it was premeditated, thus making the protests a sort of “cover story” for a previously planned killing. And what isn’t really being talked about much is the extent to which this was all connected to the anniversary of 9/11 and the extent to which the killing was undertaken by al-Qaeda related groups.  Of course, this too is still emerging.
  • And what you also see here is just good-ol-fashioned culture clash.  Folks in these countries where there are strict rules on what can and cannot be said about Islam or what-have-you wonder why there aren’t laws against this sort of blasphemy in the U.S.   Americans (and I suspect many others in “the west”) uphold the value of free speech even when it is hateful speech, and we (well, at least I do) wonder why such a shoddily done and ridiculous video that should perhaps best be simply ignored has gotten this much attention.  Add to that a technology– YouTube et al– that make it pretty much impossible to keep this particular video out of the hands of people who want to see it (even though YouTube has blocked it in some countries like Egypt) combined with the  fact that the protests themselves are being broadcast online and you have a feedback loop here:  protest leads to protest.

“What did we learn here and what’s it worth to you?” The end of World Music, part 2

I probably have only two or three more posts in me about MOOCs generally and World Music in particular. This is one that I’ve been working on off and on while the course was wrapping up.  I don’t know if it’s really done, but I decided to go ahead and post it because the World Music/Coursera people sent around a survey about the course.  Here’s the link to it; I’m not sure if just anyone can get to it or not.  Most telling to me was the last question:  “If Penn hosted a World Music Extension experience based on the priorities you selected, what rate (US $) would you be willing to pay to enroll?”  The answer space was a sliding scale going from $0 to $500.  This email also said “we are working on grades; and the certificate system, which comes from Coursera, is currently being revised, so information about certificates will probably come later next week.”  So wish me luck on that.

So, while I wait to find out if I’m “certifiable” from this class or not, I contemplate the basic “what did we learn here” questions of this experience.  What exactly was this?  What would I pay for this?  And is this the future of education?  I’m tempted to just point everyone to these last lines from the Coen Brother’s black comedy Burn After Reading and leave it at that:

But I will add more for now and I am hoping to write more about this and other MOOC-iness later.

The first thing I’m still wrestling with is just what exactly a MOOC is and what is it for.  I can tell you what it’s not: I don’t think this version of a MOOC is “educational” in the sense of having all three of these components:

  • Learning, or the opportunity for people to learn.
  • Teaching, which is the active involvement of a person(s) who is in some sense an expert in the subject and process.
  • Credentialing, which is some sort of evaluation process that others acknowledge and, explicitly or implicitly, has merit and value.

I blogged in more detail about what I mean by all this here back in April.  Some may think I’m setting the “educational” bar too high, but I’m trying to get away from the way the word is casually tossed around, especially in the press reports that have suggested that MOOCs are the next big thing.

Okay, learning:  yes, World Music was clearly a “learning opportunity,” but so what? Learning is really the easiest part of education because learning opportunities are everywhere; almost any content provides it. I learn a lot from watching cooking shows or DIY home improvement shows on TV, not to mention listening to NPR or browsing web sites or even reading those old world content management systems, books.  The World Music MOOC provided learning for learning’s sake/learning as “infotainment,” and it’s a resource for the motivated self-learner/student of life, which is fine. Creating content that people can learn from is easy and it scales well. So yes, there was learning– or at least the potential of learning.

How about teaching?  Not really.  All the lectures and graduate student discussions were recorded months ago and there was minimal interaction from Professor Muller and her grad assistants in the class.  Teaching, as opposed to content, requires some give and take exchange with an expert who has enough experience with that content to at a minimum guide the student interaction and make some judgement of student success.  This teacher/expert presumably is a human, though, as I was discussing with a colleague the other day, maybe a teacher could theoretically be a machine with enough artificial intelligence to anticipate and respond to questions from the student.  To the extent that students can teach each other (and I think that’s limited), Coursera didn’t work because the discussion forums were almost useless.

And just to head this off at the pass:  yes, it is possible for one to “teach one’s self” how to do something just from the content, but as I wrote about back in May playing off of some posts from Aaron Barlow, few of us are “true autodidacts,” self-motivated or self-disciplined enough to do this effectively.  Most people who begin something as “self-taught” eventually seek the help of some teacher or other expert.  Also, I think there’s a limit to what one can teach themselves:  learning something procedural like computer code or how to juggle (I taught myself to juggle when I was in middle school) probably lends itself to self-instruction more than learning about a more abstract concept, like “World Music,” or learning something procedural but with a high degree of difficulty and complexity, like surgery.

So to continue the cooking show analogy: sure, I can learn a lot about how to make Linguine Con le Vongole and Penne Puttanesca by watching Mario Batali on Malto Mario,  but that’s different from Mario actually teaching me to make this stuff– answering my questions about measurements, checking on my work, offering me pointers, etc.  And by the way, I think this is true with even this segment of the show, where Mario actually does something closer to teaching than happened in World Music in that he actually interacts with people who are there while he’s cooking, answering some questions and explaining some finer points of techniques.  But he’s teaching them, not me.

Again, content scales easily and teaching doesn’t, which is why education is still expensive.

And just to repeat again a reoccurring theme:  specifically with “World Music,” the production values of the video lecturers and graduate student talks in this class were piss-poor. This whole experience could have been dramatically improved if there was even a tiny bit more time and thought put into how the course should be presented. I think the usefulness of Khan Academy is highly over-rated, but at least this guy can give a presentation.  These videos and a few other really well-done instructional sites (like Instructables or Code Academy) can come pretty close to teaching, particularly when dealing with very procedural instruction.  But it still ain’t teaching, and Sal Khan has made it clear in a number of places that he sees his materials as a supplement for actual teaching and not a replacement for teaching.

I think MOOCs could provide something closer to what I mean by teaching if there was less “freeze-dried” lecture content and a lot more interaction between the professor and graduate assistants and students. I think this is possible because even though all the hype around MOOCs have focused on the large number of students who sign up for these courses, the real number to focus on is the number of students who are active in the class.  So in the case of World Music, we were never really talking about 30,000 students, but rather 3,000.  I suspect that ratio is pretty consistent across these different MOOCs.

Of course, even if the class were “only” 3,000 students, effective teaching would take more than one professor and one or two GAs. In other words, you still have the problem of scale, again bringing us back to the reason why universities have lecture classes in the hundreds and not thousands and why universities employ graduate assistants and other part-time labor to supplement (well, in many ways surpass, but that’s another story) the labor of faculty.

Credentialing?  Clearly not there yet.  The peer rating/review of short writing assignments failed for lots of reasons I’ve already covered and which I am hoping to write about in more detail later.  But if I were to sum it up in a long sentence:  because there was no instructor involvement, because there was no reason for students to take the process seriously, and because the peer rating instrument itself was so poor, the results of the process were meaningless. If the Coursera people came to me asking for advice on what to do about this, I’d tell them to abandon the short writing assignments entirely and to focus instead on measuring student writing and involvement in the class with the discussion forums.  To me, that’s a much better level of judging engagement with the material and it would be a lot easier for peers to rate.  As it was, there was no accountability in those forums, and as a result, the discussion was scattered, meaning that to the extent that there was any assessment process for the class, it was all based on this heavily flawed peer rating of short writing assignments, the quizzes that popped up immediately after videos, and a final that repeated many of those quiz questions.

This missing credentialing piece is critical. Unless you believe that there have been tens of millions of dollars invested in Coursera et al for quasi-charitable reasons, the goal of these corporate MOOCs is to have them be worth something to consumers (both students and other stakeholders, notably employers), to have them “count” in the real world.

My guess is that Coursera is working on two angles to get over the credentialing problem. The long-term/long-con business plan is to convince the world that corporate MOOCs are in and of themselves valuable, thus bypassing entirely the whole college degree process.  Who needs a bachelors degree–especially in jobs where a college degree might not be needed at all (e.g., sales) or fields where people already succeed without degrees (e.g., computer coding, especially for various web/mobile apps) –when you can take a curriculum of sorts through these different platforms, and/or when you can demonstrate what it is you have learned/know via various MOOC certificates?

Given that a college degree has been the ticket to the white-collar class in the U.S. and beyond for quite some time and with higher education, we’re talking about international institutions that have been around for hundreds of years, I think this is a very long con indeed.  So the more realistic and shorter-term goal seems to be to get these classes to count as transfer credit in some fashion– general education, for example. As CHE reported, Colorado State is going to accept a Udacity Intro to Computer Science course on building a search engine as credit after the faculty reviewed it, and according to this CHE piece, edX is planning on offering proctored exams for some of their MOOCs; the exams will cost $89.  This could be a good deal for students if it worked, much like the CLEP test.  (By the way, one of my other MOOC-oriented posts is going to be on that Intro to Computer Science course, but I need to monkey around with that one a little more first).

But there are at least three catches.

First, getting these classes to count as real college credit depends on the educational system that MOOCs are supposedly trying to disrupt.  This strikes me as awkward:  “We think we can provide a better education to students than traditional universities, so we want traditional universities to let students take our courses and then have you count them for credit at your university for a degree.” Rrrright.  Second, as every transfer student knows, the portability of credits from one institution to another varies wildly.  It’s all fine and good that Colorado State is contemplating taking that Udacity Intro to Computer Science course, but if there are only a handful of institutions that follow suit, that doesn’t do much good.

Third, I’m afraid that ultimately the real impact of corporate MOOCs on higher education– if they are even modestly successful at granting actual college credit for their courses at some universities– is that both the explicit and implicit distance in the value of degrees from different types of universities will only widen the already existing gap.  As it is, there is a bias against online versus “real” classroom experiences, which is what is so maddening about Coursera and the elite institutions “discovering” online teaching in the first place, as if this hasn’t been going on at places like EMU for years.  If we add MOOCs into the mix, I think that simply expands the already existing gap between elite and non-elite universities.

In fact, just to be overly cynical for a moment, this is perhaps the main reason why elite institutions have gotten into the corporate MOOC business in the first place.  It’s a good PR and “branding” move for them to offer up some content for free, recognizing that content in and of itself– especially without teaching and credentialing– isn’t worth anything to their bottom line.  At the same time, if corporate MOOCs take off, then that only rarifies all that much more the elite sort of instruction at the top of the heap, making the rich even richer.  Seems like a win-win for the likes of Stanford, UPenn, and U of M.

But I digress.

Even if I can’t exactly come up with an answer to the “what exactly was this” question (other than to say that it is not “educational” per se), I can come up with an answer to the “how much would you pay for this” question:  $0.  Judging from what I’ve seen in the discussion on the Facebook group for the class, I’d say that my answer is in the general price range of my fellow students (though one went as high as $25).  In fact, now that I think of it, I’d say that Coursera has more or less the same problem as Facebook: I know lots of people who are wildly enthusiastic and near obsessive users of Facebook, but I don’t know anyone who would actually pay for it.  Content (aka learning) in and of itself has very little value on the internet.

That said, if there was a test or certification that you could use to get general education credit transferable to a community college or a university as part of some other more traditional degree program, that’d probably be worth something.  I don’t know if that’s a multimillion dollar business or not, but I am awfully confident that it is not “the future of higher education:”  that is, maybe these kinds of MOOC, CLEP-like tests/classes will be a part of the system, but I find it extremely unlikely that they will replace the system.

And if MOOCs do replace higher education as we know it, well, then I want out– or rather, I suspect the administration will be kicking me out.

The end of the World Music MOOC (part 1)

Well, that’s it:  I’ve reached the end of Coursera’s World Music,  and it seems like over the last seven weeks the MOOC talk in CHE and InsideHigherEd and other places has done nothing but get even more out of hand.  I was going to catalog/index all of the articles I’ve seen one way or the other on MOOC-madness just this past month and then have a “grand statement” on what I think of MOOCs and all MOOC-iness.  But it was all proving too much for one post, so I’ll concentrate here on just the end/last week of World Music.

This last week of class was on the Buena Vista Social Club specifically and Cuban music generally, and I appreciated this as a close-out to the class.  I learned a few new things about Cuban music and it’s fun listening to it– I have several examples in my iTunes.  Of course, all the previous problems of the class were still there:  the bad public access quality production of the videos, the unrehearsed lectures, the rambling grad student responses, and the generally thin content.  Largely absent by now were students in the conversation forums specifically about this week’s materials.  I would guestimate there were about a total of 200 or fewer posts last week, which isn’t a lot for a class that supposedly has thousands of students.  The Facebook page for the class has been a lot more active lately, largely made up of fans and world music enthusiasts more than students, if that makes sense.

There was one more peer review based on the week six unit on the Kalahari Bushmen.  As I posted here last week, I rushed to complete the assignment and I wrote something very short not based on the material (I was supposed to watch and respond to a movie but I skipped it) but rather based on what I thought “the teacher would want.”  And guess what?  I got a 9 out of 1o!  Here’s what my student reviewer peers wrote:

student2 → Interesting general conclusion but lack sufficient information about your argument. You think Voter ID laws are racist, you may be right but “half” the USA politicians claim you are wrong. Give some reason for us to believe you, explain why or link to a website link or two that explains. Are you saying building a border fence was racist? Again, you may be right, but tell why we should believe you instead of the officials who say “no, it was for national security.” Is all use of art for money “selling out/buying in”? The essay is a good outline of points, but your arguments need development and support.
student3 → Well written, although you seem angry about it. Relax! The class is almost over.
student4 → You make a good point about the “fine line!” I’d like to have seen more of your personal reaction added to your essay. Do you think it is right/wrong, good/bad, etc. for each of the examples you gave. You showed how the question is not simple, and yet we still need to evaluate it critically and form an opinion!
student5 → great piece – no reference to the video clip that was required for that question, though.

I’ll return to the problems of Coursera peer review in another post that’s coming, but as a student, I am once again left with the feeling that it just doesn’t matter what I write.  Garbage in, garbage out.

Instead of a writing prompt, this week featured a 100 multiple choice question final.  I got a 73.  I didn’t exactly study for this test and I am sure some simple review of the stuff we had done before would have probably helped my score quite a bit.  It was also a test fairly easy to cheat on take advantage of the open book/open note format of things.  I had plenty of time to do some Google searches for some of the questions that were stumping me, and if I had thought about it ahead of time, I probably could have opened up parts of the course in another browser to look stuff up as I was taking the test.  Plus, if I’m understanding things right, it appears that I could even retake the exam if I wanted to, which seems like quite the advantage, especially if I had saved the original exam.

Anyway, I’m not quite sure what my grade means yet, though I am hoping I am going to get some kind of certificate I can print out and put up in my office.  Or maybe a t-shirt that says “I survived to the end of World Music” on it.

Just this morning, the Coursera (or the folks at UPenn running the class, I’m not sure which) sent around an email with some interesting stats on the course.  Here’s what they sent (with a few comments from me along the way):

Total Registered Users 36295
Active Users Last Week 3859

So, just over 10 percent of the students stuck it out until the end.  I don’t care how much a course does or doesn’t cost, a teacher who had that kind of drop-out rate in anything approaching a “normal” setting would be likely looking for a job.

Video Lectures
Total Streaming Views 206621
Total Downloads 67884
# Unique users watching videos 22018

I’m not sure what this means, but I think it means that videos were watched by 22,000 people, though obviously, a lot fewer people at the end were watching them.

Total quiz submissions 3503
# Unique users submitted (quiz ) 1671

Total video submissions 353999
# Unique users submitted (video ) 9822

These numbers seem kind of out of whack for me: how doe they get 350,000 quiz submissions from just shy of 10,000 quiz submitters?  Maybe that’s 350,00 quiz answers?

Peer Assessments Total Submissions 8077
# Unique users who submitted 2731
Total Evaluations 45242
# Unique users who evaluated 2191

Again, less than 10 percent of the students who were “enrolled” in the class participated in the peer review process.

Discussion Forums
Total Threads 8045
Total Posts 17339
Total Comments 5419
Total Views 243711
Total Reputation Points 6947

Given the number of students who started , this isn’t a lot– like an average of 1.5 comments per student just assuming that we count the students who finished.  Just to give a point of comparison on the opposite side of the spectrum:  a couple years ago, I taught an online graduate course called “Rhetoric of Science and Technology.”  It had (I think) 13 students and there were a total of 884 comments in the discussions, or (if you include me in the mix) an average 60 or so comments per student.  That’s the difference between an online class where the discussion matters and counts for the grade and one where it doesn’t– not to mention the difference between an online course of a manageable size where students are actually involved in the learning process and a MOOC.

So for now, I’m left with two thoughts.  First, the reporting on the number of students enrolling in these MOOCs is pure hype and nearly meaningless.  As I mentioned last week, what is clearly happening here is 30,000 (or so) people signed up for World Music the same way that people sign up for lots of internet services, just to check it out.  It’s not just that they didn’t stick with it; they never intended to stick with it.

Second, I am just baffled and puzzled as to why this attrition rate isn’t being described in the media as one of the reasons why MOOCs are a failure as a solution to the educational crisis.   EMU only graduates about 30-40% of the students within five years of starting their degree and this low graduation rate is considered a major part of the crisis in higher education; 90% of students who started World Music dropped out (and there is no reason to believe that these are atypical results) and Coursera is being trotted out as the solution to the higher education crisis.


More MOOC summing up is coming, along with news (I hope) about a certificate or a t-shirt or something.

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:

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