20 September 2012

On the MOOC --1

This is one of a series of posts about participation in the free Massive Online Open Course [MOOC] on the History of the World since 1300 CE, from Princeton U via Coursera. Jonathan Rees, at More or Less Bunk, is also blogging his take on it. I'm sure he has more readers than me, so if you feel like commenting, please do there first--no objection of course to getting his leftovers!

Day 1. I am emphatically not planning to live-blog this whole thing, incidentally.

This post is not enthusiastic, and given my track record, I really don't want to become a professional whinger. But writing this, I realise an important distinction--one which I engaged with almost every day when I was assessing the practice of learner teachers--between the perspective of the observer and that of the participant. (Etic and Emic ...sorry!)

Most people who take the course will not give a damn about its design and implementation. They will quite rightly be interested only in what they can learn through it. That preposition is apposite. [I love it when I can be so precisely pompous!] As George Herbert put it:
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye,
Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav'n espy.
I'm afraid that although I hope to espy the heaven, I cannot but stay my eye on the glass. And the glass is presumably the most refined, transparent, and distortion-free available.

I have indeed signed up for the course because I am quite interested in the subject, although it is worth noting that I have no extrinsic motivation at all (unless you count acquiring material for this blog).  The course carries no credit, which probably makes some difference to how it is experienced by its participants. But the majority of the 70,000 participants presumably could not care less about the features I shall comment on---until they pass a threshold beyond which they obtrude onto their learning experience.

My problem of course, as it is when I observe direct teaching, is to tell what matters and what does not.

I'm starting from the position that this is the best course its originators can design. It carries the Princeton brand--one of the most prestigious brands in US academe. It's far from an amateur (Khan academy in its early days?) production. I haven't seen a credits list, but I assume that it benefits from the input of very accomplished instructional designers, production staff and online developers.

The preface to the textbook (I wasn't prepared to pay £90 for the latest edition, and settled for £15 for the 2002 version--it arrived today) states:
"For an entire year we met to discuss [...] what global themes we wanted to stress. Only after intensive and sometimes contentious discussions were we able to decide on our over-arching framework, the chapter divisions[...]" (Tignor et al. 2002: xxv)
I'm assuming that a similar vigorous debate took place about the design of the MOOC (although probably not with the same team, and given the shift of focus, perhaps lacking some of the expertise?)

So what we are participating in is probably pretty well what was intended. I'm labouring this point not because I want to beat the authors around the head with what I see as their failures, but because I want to understand why they made the choices they did. This is the state of the art.


(* the single "l" is correct British spelling.)

I signed up easily, and the course details were accessible and adequate. I don't think the nature of the course contract was as clear as it could have been, in terms of probable time-commitment, assessment load, and so on.

In this case, as a free non-credit-bearing demo course, to emphasise such things could be overkill, and put off some prospective participants, but I noted some anxious questions on the forums---"I'm already juggling work and single motherhood, so I can't be sure I'll get the assignments in on time--can I still sign up?" (A paraphrase of several posts.)
    [Actually--off topic--that's not a problem for the course. The applicant has clearly not understood the nature of the contract. In this case, it is simply a gift. She can take whatever she wants, and there is no obligation in return.
    (Sweeping generalisation without evidence alert) We're not very good at gifts nowadays when they are so exploited commercially as portals to bait and switch deals. Even I feel a little "ungrateful" as I critique (not the same as criticise) this course. One shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.]
The confirmation and welcome emails were really helpful, because just as you need to know what room your course is in at college, we need to know precisely where to go (url) actually to start this course. Fortunately, online you can't be late for the first class. The introductory page is clear, welcoming, and instils confidence.

The bottom line.

It's based on video lectures. That's a very conservative approach, and I'm trying to weigh up the considerations which may have been taken into account in going down this route. But a little more detail would be appropriate for any of you who has not signed up for the course;
  • there is one lecturer (Jeremy Adelman)
  • these are not videos of live lectures (I think--there are some token gestures to the audience and a grad. assistant, but the setup is more studio than lecture theatre).
  • the lectures are broken up into 10-15 minutes segments, punctuated by "quizzes"--Adelman admits he does not like the term, but he has put out a rather good explanatory email about them, presumably in response to confusion about how many of the multiple-choice responses can be chosen. Even so, I am struck by the contrast between the pace of this presentation and that of "factual" TV, which covers material about five times as fast, although of course its aspiration is to entertain rather than educate (perhaps--bear in mind that some of the best factual programming on the BBC is supported by the Open University).
  • they are supported with minimal slides, at the rate of roughly one every three minutes. So far they are only maps and pictures--no bullet points, thank goodness. Of course, whether the absence of text-heavy slides reflects a principle about presentation, or a pragmatic acknowledgement that it's not a good idea for an international audience, (or both/neither) I don't know.
  • but--the segments are crude divisions, and there is no sign-posting of topics being addressed--other than verbally. Adelman makes an effort to re-visit his points and itemise them, but without any visual anchors. There is a handout to accompany the first lecture, but it consists solely of a list of names, locations and terms which may be unfamiliar--it gives no guidance on what to expect when.
  • this links, too, to my recognition after a while that I had no temptation to take any notes (partly a reflection of the speed of presentation--see below). One reason for taking notes in a live lecture (at least before they started to be recorded and placed on the VLE) was of course to capture this live one-off moment (at least, for the student!) This time, I knew I could re-visit any time and re-play a segment so perhaps I did not concentrate in the same way. The way in which I did concentrate, however, has swings and roundabouts. 
    • however, the absence of signposting would make it difficult for me to select a point in time to revisit the video for clarification. A continuing sub-title, or a crib-sheet handout showing at what point the lecture moves on to a different sub-topic would have facilitated such re-visiting.
  • a participant commenting on the forums thanks the lecturer for not going too fast--her first language is not English. I appreciate that, but the pace in the first lecture is turgid (Adelman promises it will accelerate shortly). That is not a critical comment aimed at the presentation, just something to bear in mind about lecturing in English to an international and multi-lingual audience.
  • Sub-titles are available, but the synch leaves something to be desired.
So what does that say about the strategy of the course? I can only make inferences, but I need more evidence...

Until later...

1 comment:

  1. Clearly I'm not paying quite enough attention to the materials supplied because I didn't realize there was a handout. Agree with you on the lack of sign-posting and on the pace (which I found untenable until I noticed you could speed it up a bit).


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