Monday, September 3, 2012

Done (More or Less)

I would be really curious to know how Coursera is going to judge the success or failure of this class. What criteria will they use? From my perspective as a student, I realized this weekend that the course is basically a failure - I'll finish up with the reading (which is great), and I'll write the essays and continue to do the peer review, but I'm no longer participating in the discussion boards (except to reply to any non-anonymous comments someone addresses to me directly) and I'm probably not going to do much more blogging here. Below are the criteria by which I'm rating the class as a failure for my own purposes and why I have no interest in participating beyond the bare minimum at this point.

1. Anonymous posting makes a toxic discussion board. I've never participated in an online environment where anonymous posting is allowed, and I don't think I will ever do so again. I wonder if Coursera is even thinking about this problem? If people want to sling mud online, there are plenty of places to do so, but it has no place in an educational environment. Persistent pseudonyms, yes, no problem at all - but anonymous posting, based on my experience over the past six weeks, adds nothing to the experience and instead has the potential to ruin it. To me, the most important part of a course like this is to participate in a community of shared learning; that has not happened, despite my best efforts. I have been a very active discussion board participant, which just makes me a bigger target for the anonymi to hit… although I am not only the type of person subject to mockery - there's a discussion board thread which consists solely of making fun of other people in the class. Everyone is a potential subject for abuse; anonymous is an equal opportunity scoffer.

2. Coursera is completely unresponsive to student requests for help and information via the discussion boards. We are told at the Coursera Contact page that any course-related questions should be posted at the discussion boards because Coursera staff are monitoring them regularly. I have to conclude this is not true. I have not seen a post from a Coursera staff member in response to a student query since the first week of class. One week ago, I asked some important questions about the wiki which appeared out of nowhere one night; I renewed my question periodically, other students bumped the thread so that it appeared on the main page of discussion board posts all week - but no response. (The wiki could have been an incredibly useful addition to the class, but since Coursera has provided no information about its long-term fate, it's impossible for me to decide about whether it is worth participating there or not.)

3. The work for the class is not intended to have any lasting value. Week after week we write essays, but there is no archive of student work. Week after week we write reviews of essays, but it is all anonymous, with no sustained person-to-person contact. The emphasis is not on the quality of that contact, but on the numerical grades - every week I get a robomail from Coursera that gives me a numerical breakdown of the grading in the past week. I don't want a numerical breakdown of grading… I'd like to see the best essays of the week! I'd like to know that the time I invested in providing feedback was actually of value to others! I'd like to know that we are not just doing this "for the grade" - but in the Coursera model we are, in fact, just doing it for the grade, and the discussion boards are filled with complaints from people who feel, understandably, that they are being graded unfairly (for all that I dislike grading, it needs to be done fairly - but that is not the case here at all, as people get marked down because of accusations of plagiarism for which there is no appeal, just to take one example).

I could go on (and on and on) about other aspects of the class that I don't think are working very well, but I'll stop with the folkloric "law of three" and list just those three reasons, since these are the reasons why I have decided that I am no longer going to participate in the class in any meaningful way beyond the requirements (and the requirements are only to write the essays and do the peer feedback).

So, as I said, I would really like to know how Coursera will judge whether the class succeeded or not. So far they have collected zero input from us about our experience in the class - are they only going to gather input from those who are left standing at the end? To be honest, that is one of my few motivations for continuing to participate at a minimum level for the next four weeks; I would like for my input to count, if they do indeed gather input at the end. Of the three reasons for my basically quitting the class now and just persisting in doing the minimum, two would be incredibly easy to fix (they are administrative problems), while the third item is more complex, since it gets at the underlying course design which, for many reasons, I would rate as a failure. Will Coursera do anything about this? Do they care? I will certainly sign up for the class again the next time it is offered, just to take a look and see if there are any positive changes - or whether Coursera is going to simply plow on ahead, confident in its large enrollment numbers, without evaluating the actual student experience.


  1. While I would like to believe they are paying some attention--such as their addition of the honor code checkbox (useless) and flagging of messages (virtually useless). There are so many things that will need to be changed if they hope to make this course something that reflects positively on their university and coursera while also being a positive learning experience for the enrolled students.

    And next week I bite the bullet of a second coursera course. I'm either an optimist akin to Pollyana or I am a masochist. A sado-masochist in that clearly, I'm hurting myself with impunity. Not unlike Griffin's wonderful plans.

    1. Satia, which one? ModPo is showing clear signs of addressing some of these problems and being more attentive to students.

  2. Satia, I hope so much that course will be better, and I am sincerely curious. The checkbox for the honor code doesn't mean anything if there is no way to enforce the honor code (there is not)... so to me, that makes it worse than useless - kind of like the way people just click through a "terms of service" without thinking about it. As for flagging of messages, I have no idea what it accomplishes - I just know that I never got an answer to my question about the wiki. Just as well; I suspect they have not even thought about what will happen to the wiki when it's done, which is to say they have not even thought about the value of our work, its real value (as opposed to the grade).

    Ugh, you can tell I have hit bottom here. But I hope the other classes go well. It did not have to be this bad! I hope you'll post at G+ or at your blog about it! :-)

  3. Interesting to read your reaction. I am following this course too, and also have mixed feelings about it. I think as far as "non-technical" courses are considered, I like World Music more than Fantasy, also because the interpretations of the works sometimes appear to be a bit too biased in the direction I don't like very much. Simply speaking, I am not always on one page with the professor.

    The idea of best essays is great, and I am sure Coursera will sooner or later realize it too.

    Regarding the "lasting value" I had another unpleasant surprise with the Sociology course, where the site was closed before I had the chance to get a copy of my work. Will be more careful this time. I think there is still some value, if only in the fact that we had the possibility to (re)read these works. But like almost any other thing, this one could have been done better.

    May be what we feel now is simply an "early adopter" case and the next incarnations of this course will be better?

  4. Thank you for your comments, Anna - it really is interesting to hear about the other Coursera courses. I know in World Music you watched one of my favorite documentaries of all time, Genghis Blues! I didn't even know it was available at YouTube until I saw that in the blog of someone doing the World Music class. The lack of responsiveness by Coursera is a crucial issue for me - I totally understand that these are early days, which means Coursera should be gathering every possible bit of student feedback in my opinion... and instead they seem to be gathering no feedback at all, at least in the Fantasy class, alas.

  5. "The work for the class is not intended to have any lasting value." To be fair, that's the case for many traditionally taught on-campus courses, too!

    Thanks so much for these reflections. They help clarify some of the challenges of teaching an online course at this kind of massive scale. Addressing these kinds of challenges in a course of, say, 30 students (online or face-to-face) is relatively easy. In a course of 3,000 or 30,000? It doesn't sound like Coursera has figured that one out yet.

    1. Derek, so true about on-campus classes squandering their students' work also (I blogged about exactly that in another post; building a persistent archive of student work is a crucial element in my own online classes). It seems to me that online is exactly the right environment for persistent student content. Plus, Prof. Rabkin (who is teaching this class) had his Michigan students built a kind of online encyclopedia of symbolism - just think he had undertaken that project with 39,000 willing helpers in this class!

  6. Below is part of a thread on the ModPo Fb group that Fireis (who even posts occasionally) and presumably assistants monitor. Sounds like he or someone has also been watching Fantasy/SF and thinking about how to avoid them. Whether this will suffice remains to be seen.

    Al Filreis
    Oh, ModPo people - there are now 28,031 of us enrolled. I frankly expected 10,000 and when we hit 15,000 I thought that would be it. It seems that we'll be at 29,000 by next Monday when we start.

    BTW, the screenshot here depicts the ModPo home page that you'll see when the course site opens on 9/10. The "announcement" (on the home page) will change whenever I put a new one up, which I intend to do quite often. The links on the left give you access to all the important sub-pages.

    [comments and questions about assignments and grading]

    Al Filreis - I'll explain the system of submitting and commenting on essays when we get to that point. Meantime, here's the short version. The essays are short and the assigned topics are pretty specific.

    I and the ModPo TA's will offer valuative comments on a sampling of submitted essays.

    ModPo people will be asked to comment upon 3 or 4 peers' essays based on a detailed "rubric" I have written that describes what ideal /remarkable essays might include.

    Then (and this is new to ModPo among Coursera courses) the essays will appear in the discussion forum & anyone will have a chance to respond, comment, and discuss. So the essays will in effect serve as further stimulus to discussion.

  7. I hope it goes better! Clearly this instructor is going to be much more actively involved... although unless some substantial changes are made to the discussion board software, I don't think it can sustain the weight of what it is going to be asked to do here. A microblogging system something more like Google+ would be able to accommodate thousands of people sharing and commenting on each other's work - the Coursera discussion boards as they stand right now would not be able to do that. But maybe they are going to completely revamp the discussion boards (they certainly need to do so).

  8. I have to agree that the Fantasy and Science Fiction Course has been less than successful. I strongly doubt at this point anyone is truly learning from the class. Without any meaningful interaction with fellow students or instructors, I suspect most students are not listening to the lectures and even those still turning in essays are probably only reading a portion of the material. There is no incentive to participate, only disincentive.

    As far as the discussion boards, I am perhaps jaded, but I was not surprised at their descent into toxicity. My experience on the internet has not been in tightly regulated communities but in the open waters and toxicity is the norm. In general I find those few who are trying to have meaningful discussions are drowned out between static and ugliness. Dissent in anything from the party line of those who believe they are lords of the discussion boards is an unpleasant business and leaves the majority unwilling to participate.

    For those of us in the internet fiction community, toxicity is so normal that one has to either ignore it or leave whatever particular genre in which one participates. My impression from these past experience is dissent from the "party line" is unacceptable, and discussion boards are more a place for people to stroke their ego or form cliques reminiscent of junior high. They are not a place for true discussion. Because of these limitations, I do not see how a course taught in absentia can possibly function.

  9. Thanks for your thoughts here, Natasha - in my online life, I hang out mostly with educators, who are pretty good at that whole "let's be nice and learn from each other" thing, since that is an attitude teachers naturally cultivate. I hadn't realized before this course how spoiled I was by the kind of online interaction I am used to. The only interactions in my own classes are really positive, too, but I don't use discussion boards (and after this class, I never would even consider it) - instead, students blog, comment on each other's blogs, create websites, comment via the blogs on each other's websites, and it all works just fine! So I know an online course can work, with students working very much on their own most of the time... but it takes a plan for that to succeed, a commitment to that plan, and speedy responses to any problems that come up. All of that seems to be lacking in this course, alas.

  10. Oh my...Laura, I tried to find Beatriz's thread but I couldn't. Instead I spent two hours reading the forums (I saw yours), which I swear I will not do again. Till now I was lucky and somehow missed the worst threads. Definitely not healthy. My blood pressure sky rocketed. :(
    The coursera staff seems to be an illusion. I could not find any sign they really exist. Did you see this post: ? I am sad you leave, but I completely understand. After Miss Piggy I opened my essay to see the grade for my last essay and: Congratulations! Finally I have met my first personal "troll" (funny though it's the first time I got a 5 and that even though there was somebody else who miss understood my opening question for a statement I think it maybe happened because of a rather feminist view about Wells I expressed (can't help it had to pick this topic every time - the stories/authors we read are just a perfect fit, but it's risky. Luckily I don't care for grades).
    I hated school and I start feeling transported back in time. Bullies and only "mainstream" is safe. Very boring! Maybe I will go back to watching online lectures without all the course thingy around it, but I wonder if there couldn't be/grow a community, where people who really want to learn just help each other out. I find as much as I despise coursera's peer grading, it really helps to write an essay and I really want to learn to write. Maybe such a community wouldn't be free of trolls either... but at least people wouldn't have to take them seriously and could concentrate on the peers who give constructive criticism. I don't need all that much interaction, but all alone doesn't do the trick either.

    1. Thanks for your note, Céline! I too was thinking about how this class had brought back for me all kinds of memories about how much I disliked school, along with the very worst classes I had in college - I'm such an optimist about the Internet and the possibilities that online learning offers, possibilities different from any classroom... but of course it is also possible to take a classroom mentality and just reproduce that online, which is what has happened here (everything is for the grade, nothing the students do have any lasting value, the only content that matters is what the professor provides, etc.). I think the question you have asked is exactly the right question: how do we make a COMMUNITY OF LEARNERS online...? It doesn't have to be big (something too big is just as bad as feeling isolated and alone, as I've learned from this class) - and it takes a lot of work and commitment to make such a community succeed. But it really is worth it, absolutely! It bothered me that Prof. Rabkin was invoking "our community" in his message about the wiki today. What we have in this class does not feel like a community at all (and insofar as it is a community, he is not really a member of it, not in any back-and-forth sense of community participation) - but it could have been a community or, rather, lots of little communities that intersected and overlapped and interconnected in those ways that happen so easily online, but not at a rigid discussion forum like the space we are trying to use. Oh well - by way of negative example, I have learned a lot. But I would have far preferred to learn from more positive experiences instead! :-)

  11. I am sorry to hear that your experience has been so unpleasant. My wife and I are both auditing the course and are having a great time. The readings are great and the lectures are superb. The discussion group has mixed value, but when discussions are focused on the texts they tend to be decent. I have especially valued reading some of the additional web resources and articles that students have dug up. When discussion posts are annoying my brain quickly filters them out.

    Neither of us has participated in the essay writing, as we don't care about the credentials. I think the beauty of this method of learning is the freedom to keep doing what works, and to abandon any aspect of the course that doesn't work. I get plenty of value just from doing the readings and viewing the lectures. I actually find the appearance of the lectures one of the highlights of my week.

    It is odd that there is so little monitoring of the discussion groups and feedback from staff. It may simply be a question of budget. Many other courses (this is the only non science / engineering on-line course I've experienced) have much more staff participation.

    I'm looking forward to taking more literature courses through coursera; however, based on what I've heard from you and the discussion boards I'm a bit wary of taking one for credit.

  12. If you go under Jobs on Coursera's website, they're hiring a community manager. Maybe they will get better as they add more staff.

    I wonder how you would pick the best essay's out of 13,000 or so? Maybe a ranking of the 5+ that each person reads would help, but you still wind up with tons at the top middle and bottom. I suppose you could make a community of people who know each other and connect to each other and rank the essays within that group somehow? Anyway, interesting suggestion and I hope they take you up on some of the ideas.

    1. Well, we've never had 13,000 essays - last week was just 2,000. But even with 13,000 it could work - with the power of random. You'd have to ask people if they would volunteer to share their essays, as a checkbox when they submit (I'm curious how many would check a box to volunteer - the majority, I would guess - it would also be good if we could choose, or not, to let our name be visible, too, when our essay is shared). Then, after the grading was done, we could have a "View Essay at Random" where you set your own limit - view only essays that got a 6, view only 5.5 and above, view only 5 and above (computers are good at accepting parameters, so let the user decide) - the computer could then take you at random to an essay and, ideally, it would have a discussion board already attached to it so you could comment if you want, with a notification going to the author that someone commented. You could view one at random, or 10, or 20 - with the power of random, scale would not be a problem. Out of a group of 2000 essays, I'm guessing there are maybe not more than 50 or so that got 6s (in general, the essays I've seen have really not been all that good...) - but with a randomizer, it wouldn't matter - you could see as many as you wanted out of the pool, at random. I don't mean I want to read ALL the best (doing "all" of anything in a massive class would not work) - but having ACCESS to the best essays would be great! And random would work just fine. Perhaps also the ability to search the public essays for a keywords, to see if there were good essays on a topic you were interested in. So many possibilities - computers are GREAT for this kind of stuff, provided you envision it to begin with.



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