09 October 2012

On the MOOC -- 4: Forums and Assignments

This is the last in 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 promised I'd look at the forums on the MOOC. It's when you do this that you realise just what "Massive" means. I gather that about 70,000 people are signed up, all over the world. (Here's a map of the distribution, as entered by participants.) Not everyone is posting, of course, but the simple truth must be that the "community" is unmanageable--and was always going to be. As Adelman has noted:
"The Forums have become an active site for the exchange of ideas, information, and solutions to technical problems. They are now overwhelmed. This "common good" that we have created is getting crowded out and I fear many of you will stop turning to it as a resource. I am no longer able to keep up with your conversations and as a result you are loosing (sic.) my engagement in the course." (Adelman, Thu 20 Sep 2012 1:14:00 PM BST)  
Coursera has been working on the threading and the facilities in the forums, but a casual review shows that despite entreaties from the moderating Teaching Assistants and Adelman himself, there are many repeated questions sometimes coming up on inappropriate forums. I'm sure that this is not because people can't be bothered to post appropriately, but that they don't know how to find the topic they are interested in.

But dig into the more specific and targeted sub-forums, and the impression which emerges is of a very thoughtful and well-informed conversation (with of course the occasional troll). And I can't fail to be impressed by the commitment of Adelman and his T.A.s to respond to the conversation; having run on-line courses myself, with much smaller groups, I'm well aware of how time-consuming it is. Despite his fears in the quotation above, he seems far from disengaged.

One feature of the lecture discussions which I suspect is unusual, however, is the number of posts correcting the lecturer (and even the textbook), which point to the atypicality of the constituency!

Just impressionistically, I've been trying to detect other more general patterns. Clearly some of the exchanges  take the format of hub and spoke, particularly when Adelman is involved, and that is as one would expect with the instructor responding to comments and questions. Others are more like nets, typically with just a few participants. I haven't come across any very long "rallies", as it were. But the regrettably typical viciousness which seems to characterise on-line arguments is sometimes here, too... It is very difficult to generalise--the course is so big that anything might appear.

Does it matter? Probably not. By which I mean that the forums are probably essential, regardless of what proportion of participants use them. In a MOOC, you're never likely to have them embarrassingly empty, which can all too easily happen in an ordinary on-line course, and leads to the use of assessment credits for level of participation almost regardless of a quality of content, which is a tactic fraught with unintended consequences. It may well be what they stand for which matters, rather than what they are supposed to achieve. They represent an essential channel back to the course organisers and teachers. They acknowledge, however crudely, many participants' desire to be part of a community which can share experiences and queries. They can model effective participation and the level of background knowledge expected of participants (dauntingly high on the evidence of what I've read so far, but then I'm not an historian). And I speak from experience when I say that the obligation to engage in forums as a tutor is a brilliant way to get a feel for your student group. "A" feel, of course. Not necessarily the best or most representative one, though.


The first assignment was due yesterday. There was a choice from three titles, one of which was:
Option A - What changed, and what survived, as a result of the plagues and disasters of the fourteenth-century in Afro-Eurasia?
Faced with such a title, I realised I hadn't a clue what to do with it. Partly that was because I recognised that I don't actually know very much about what happened--and that may well be because I have concentrated far too much on the online pedagogy of the course rather than its content. And partly it is because it is over thirty years since I have had to write like that at someone else's behest; I no longer know how to do it, other than that I would start by deconstructing the title... (And I gave up setting assignments of that kind in my own teaching about sixteen years ago.)

I also don't know at what level the assignment is set. Looking at the provided guidance on writing, I am struck by its emphasis on clear expression of an answer.
Don’t present a reader with competing arguments and hope they can make up their mind.  [...] The reader wants to know what you think.
and, in the assessment criteria:
3 points - A clear response to the question in the terms posed in the assignment. 
(My emphasis) Oh well, bang goes the idea of deconstructing the title!

I'm probably making this more complicated than it really is, but the title could be calling for a basically narrative and factual account of changes and continuities on the lower levels of Bloom's taxonomy in the cognitive domain, or it could be demanding synthesis and evaluation, although that is something of a tall order with a 750-word limit. Actually, I think the titles are well chosen, and, like the multiple choice quizzes at the end of the lecture segments, they do force one to think about the processes of change, which is a main theme of the course. My difficulty is with the effectiveness of this kind of exercise as a teaching device; the constraints of the online format are both limiting and shaping content and process of the course.

This becomes even clearer in the guidance on how to write the essay:
"Material for these essays should be only drawn from lectures, recommended readings from Worlds Together, Worlds Apart and comments from the Forums from this course [...] This is important because peers will assess each other based on the knowledge they share from this course."
I've never been keen on sticking to set reading, at the best of times. But the reason for requiring it here, to facilitate the peer assessment (good idea in itself, but...) really shows that the constraints of the medium have won, well thought through though the actual peer assessment seems to be.

Of course, this may well suggest that there are epistemological considerations in what content is suited to being taught online. History is, like other humanities subjects, contestable. It is studied not only for its own sake, but also in order to develop skills of critical thinking and argument--and so its teaching media need to support that process. In STEM subjects, on the other hand, the balance is much further in favour of sheer content--at least, Laurillard argues, until the final undergraduate year. The distinction is allied to that between divergent and convergent thinking (Hudson, 1967).

However, I have now fallen so far behind, and missed the deadline for the first essay, that I and the MOOC are parting company (the attrition rate is enormous, supposedly 80-90%). It's partly because the announced time-commitment (up to seven hours a week) is more than I can manage at the moment, but it is also because the experience has been distinctly unrewarding. After less than three weeks, it has become a chore; but that may well say more about me than about the MOOC itself.

Here are some recent related pieces from other people:

1 comment:

  1. Well, I for one am going to miss you James, as you make my comments about Adelman seem tame by comparison. Still, I can't say I blame you one bit.


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.