21 September 2012

On the MOOC -- 2

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!

I've now read the recommended material (admittedly in an earlier edition), and "attended" the second lecture.

One of the first issues to strike me (and indeed Jonathan) concerned signposting--ways of helping students to keep track of where they are in the overall argument. There was a lot of verbal signposting in this lecture.
  • "Gold" --we'll come on to that, later
  • "China's approach" --later
...but still no visual depiction.

I wonder why. Indeed, the visual component seems to be deliberately minimal. Now, I hold no truck with the egregiously spurious bulls**t about sensory learning styles. (I hope that is clear!) But I don't really understand why state-of-the-art producers of these courses--and for better or for worse the technical complexity is such that the designer/writer/presenter/producer roles can only be held by the same person with great difficulty--why they don't make elementary use of simple tools.

To be fair, we do get to see the illustrations as free-standing screen images, before the lecturer re-appears and they revert to background, but...
  • The quality is strangely low. We know from the copyright acknowledgement at the end of each segment that most images originate from the textbook, so perhaps we are simply being trailed with images to explore in more depth at our leisure. The images in the textbook, however, are no better. On screen, of course, the potential for zooming in and out on the maps is great, for example--and generalising for a moment, it's really easy and cheap with a package like Prezi. Using the tablet to circle and highlight battles in the expansion of the Ottoman empire is OK, but it could be so much better...
  • And the visual content is unimaginative. I floundered through the first lecture because the time-scale meant very little to me. As Adelman admits, 1300 CE is not an intuitive starting point. So--using a very broad brush--he dipped back into Asian history BCE and up to the high middle ages. That is fine; but it would have been even better with a visualised sub-title or otherwise accessible time-line.
But that poses another question for me; what is the academic level of this course?  It's a big problem for such a course, and I don't want to be critical for the sake of it, but;
  • How much background knowledge can one assume? I've just been watching Wartime Farm on TV. This episode included a reference to children from towns subject to aerial bombing being evacuated to the country, together with film clips, a recollection and some photos from a local person who was a child at the time, and an explanation of how it all worked*. I'm not old enough to remember it, but it was common knowledge in my childhood, and "it made me feel my age" to realise that it would be effectively ancient history to most of the audience, and did need to be spelt out, despite my generation muttering, "Yes, yes! We know all that! Who doesn't?"
  • This is by definition an open-access course, and that means that it will lose people for whom it is too demanding, and also those for whom it is too basic. Adelman promises it will speed up later--when it may well lose me because it expects too much--but for the moment it is frankly boringly slow. 
    • A commenter on the previous post has helpfully pointed out that it is possible to speed up the playback (available via the "keyboard shortcuts" menu at the bottom of the playback window).
  • But that poses another question. Video plays at its own pace. And it is linear (despite Adelman's references to later and earlier lectures). The experience, like that of the lecture hall, is common, although not necessarily shared, when the presentation is virtual. I know in this case that had I had a transcript of the lecture, I would have preferred to have skimmed that, rather than listen to the professor. Do we know what video is more suited to--in terms of level of learning, take a bow Mr Bloom--or discipline? That is a real question--I've just consulted my own library, and not found any answers beyond the thoughts of Laurillard (2001), which are of course way out of date--so all leads gratefully received.
    • Actually, it is possible to access a transcript, in the form of the text for the sub-titles, on the right-hand side of the panel for each lecture segment, but they are unformatted .txt files, and thus difficult to read. I note that there is an announcement about editing and translating those files, dated 20 September. That's brilliant--perhaps someone could edit and format them to reflect the relative importance of topics? (No, sorry, I have other things on!)
  • Somewhere, there was also a point made about the quizzes at the end of each segment, and the lack of guidance about when there was a single acceptable answer and when more than one item could/had to be selected (but I can't find it again). I am not a great fan of multiple-choice examinations of any form, and several posts on the "lectures" forum show their limitations. But I must admit that these have been carefully designed so they are not merely tests of recall, but do require one to think back over the arguments and the less-than-obvious distinctions made in the lectures. The distractors (the suggested wrong answers) are the key to good MCQs, and these are well pitched.
Next time, unless something gets in the way, I'll try to engage with the forums--they are very important, but daunting on a course as big as this...

Jonathan's take--and interesting comments--are here.

* if anyone is interested, the best introduction to that snippet of history is probably Jack Rosenthal's wonderful 1975 BBCtv play.

Laurillard D (2001) Re-thinking University Teaching (2nd edn.) London; Routledge


  1. Don't give up
    And so much for formative assessment. Never reached this high level of the akademic world I suppose...

  2. Your comment about Prezi reminded me of just how good those RSA Animate lectures are. So simple and yet really captivating. I'm using a couple in a writing class I'm teaching this Fall, so when we hit that point in the semester, I'll be thinking more about why they work and why the MOOC lectures are so much less compelling...particularly as I'm able to watch my undergraduates watch them.

  3. Also: I was late in watching the 2nd lecture (just finished it), and MAN YOU ARE SO RIGHT about the image quality. He kept saying "look closely at" [maps/paintings], and I have to stick my face right next to my screen--still can't see well what's there. Sigh.


Comments welcome, but I am afraid I have had to turn moderation back on, because of inappropriate use. Even so, I shall process them as soon as I can.