29 September 2012

On the MOOC -- 3

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 was going to talk about the forums this time, but an announcement tells us that they are still working on the "Global Dialogue", so I'll hold off that for a while.

This is getting harder work (and it is still only week 2). I started the first lecture of the week on Monday. I haven't been unusually busy this week but I didn't get to its third segment until Friday afternoon and its fourth on Saturday. It's not that the content is getting any more difficult, by any means. It's just that the prospect of another quarter-hour or so of Adelman's halting nasal sing-song drone is not exactly inviting. Nothing personal and not his fault, but putting him up as the presenter says interesting things about the course design.

We know that video lectures can be compelling stuff. TED talks are hugely popular, and perhaps the producers of this course have learned something from them in breaking the lectures up into chunks of under twenty minutes. But TED talks are rigorously rehearsed, with a professional director advising on expression, and pace, and visual aids... (Not to mention that presenters are presumably selected in part on the basis of their screen presence and articulacy, in the first place.)

Adelman has, in a sense, "rehearsed", in that he has delivered these lectures live, before. And to his credit he is not reading them from an autocue. But it doesn't appear that he has rehearsed specifically for this recording. And he is not in a lecture theatre with real live students around, just in a studio with his two assistants and a few technicians--and if he is in a studio, why is the assistants' sound hook-up so bad?  He may not realise it, but he is missing a whole world of feedback from his non-existent audience. Their posture, their expressions, their dozing disengagement, occasional blankness as they miss a point; the opportunity to focus on a particular student or two as barometers of engagement and interest--all that is missing, and a half-decent lecturer makes more use of that than she recognises. It is as if he were singing in an acoustically dead room, rather than in the shower... (I am giving him the benefit of the doubt here--his singing in the shower may well be as irredeemably dire as mine!)

There are two ways of re-couping that situation. Rehearsal and re-takes. They are basically the same thing--repeat performances until you get it right, either before the main performance or during it. When the main performance is a public event, retakes are difficult and so rehearsal is ever more important. But these are not public performances, and I have occasionally detected some continuity glitches in the lectures which suggest that there have been some retakes, but very few. (Lecture 3, segment 4 about 19:15m in)

This is not entirely straightforward. The faultless presentation becomes a "Spiel"--a slick salesman's patter which does not convince, and certainly lacks any sense of the thought and research and scholarship and debate which has gone into the considered and measured judgements of the lecture content. 
But... Academic presentation is not about the presenter, but the content. Sometimes the issue is about the academic superstar's "Look at ME!" obsession (I shall refrain from mentioning names...) This time it is certainly not that, but the way in which personal characteristics just obtrude into the presentation, unintentionally. Whichever way, we return to George Herbert, whom I quoted in the first post in this series--
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.
The challenge for the presenter is to get out of the way so the student can engage as directly as possible with the content/

And that requires conscious and deliberate effort. And if it doesn't happen, it sends a message to the student. You ain't worth it. There are 70k students out there, we are told. The lecturing style of this course so far might pass muster for a couple of hundred students, live in a lecture theatre--where as I have argued, the situation is much richer than on-line. But for 70k students trying to engage with the material without the supporting ambience of a university, and a library... they need so much more. 

I am reminded of a post I wrote but never published from almost exactly a year ago, about an archaeology-themed holiday in Greece with a tour guide who was dire.
He rambled almost incoherently at inordinate length over the PA system on some very long coach rides (600 km on one day), his reading list was hand-written on top of typescript (and the citation was awful), his maps were badly photocopied from some school textbook, it appears... On the final evening, I took him aside and gave him some professional feedback (rising to the challenge of hints from some of the other participants*, and admittedly assisted by moderate wine consumption). I pointed out--much more gently than I would with my own students--that such an unprepared approach communicated effectively to the guests that this kind of job was really rather beneath him, and they weren't worth any greater effort.

It was when he admitted that the maps were not very good, but that he had not had time to get better ones, that I probably overstepped the mark. I reminded him that he had told us this was the sixth time he had done this tour. He rose, said he did not have to listen to any more of this, and walked off.
It's probably just me, with my background and professional interest, but I can't look beyond the presentation and "espy" the academic content. And I can't imagine--well, I can, actually--what it must be like to be a student on this course, where you are being assessed, and it is important that you complete it, and you find yourself approaching each lecture with foreboding... It's not that the experience is so bad, it's that it does not facilitate engagement with the subject-matter, it hinders it. Better not to have it at all.

The other point worthy of comment is the use--or lack of use--made of the assistants, who are brought in very very occasionally to answer questions about the images, with one or two word answers, as a cue for the lecturer to build on. Socratic questioning, it ain't. And the acoustics or sound-rigging make those answers barely audible. This is tokenism.

Sorry to have become so relentlessly negative.

* I do keep falling for this.

PS  Do take in  this post and comments from Historiann.

A useful selection of articles on MOOCs from the Chronicle of Higher Education

No comments:

Post a comment

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.