Reflections on my summer of MOOCs

It didn’t start with the early “summer unpleasantness” at the University of Virginia ( I was already enrolled and enthralled with the Massive Open Online Classroom (MOOC) movement. The UVa discussions and debate, however, led me to further investigate and challenge the movement.

First, let it be known that I want MOOCs to succeed. I define success as participants learning the content at a level that shows competency to address/discuss the subject and the ability to seek a higher degree of expertise in the subject. I’ve taught online and technology courses/workshops for years. Great benefits, no panacea.

In order to truly understand the medium, I have enrolled in both Udacity and Coursera courses to assess the experience. Quite frankly I am very disappointed.

Coursera courses are not close-captioned, no transcripts, and no visual description of diagrams/processes. People with language issues and those who are visually impaired (who are the perfect target audience for these courses) can’t access much of the material. Pleas have gone out from these students unanswered by the Coursera admins.

Coursera has instituted an empty honor code that you need to “click a box” for each quiz submission in response to recent news on widespread cheating. They fail to realize the distinct difference between discussion of “what” the answer is and “how” to solve a problem. And, an honor code without meaningful sanctions is worthless. Their draconian approach makes it impossible to work through problems collaboratively. Of course that might not be as necessary if their problem sets were correct in the first place, and clearly demonstrated upon completion of a quiz – or if a teacher/mentor was engaged in the online discussion.

Again, a group of students, myself included, immediately turned to the discussion boards to question the validity of one of the quizzes. Several students encountered the same discrepancy, asked for clarification – Coursera was and still is silent. After 3 days, the students determined that we were indeed right and that the “fill in the blank” numeric answer boxes are not being properly interpreted by the grading software. And, this is not the first course where this has happened. In a nutshell, .4333 is not 0.43 Yikes!

Incidentally, the #NetworkedLife Coursera student group established a Facebook Group for building community. The image below provides a snapshot view of our “network” on day 3. I used Gephi and Netvizz to download the Facebook group network and model it. I’ll be tracking the network over time to see if our #NetworkedLife experience leads to a true network by the end of the 6-week session. Both the Facebook network group and Google map mash-up are provided to illustrate visual models of the group.

NetworkedLife FB Group

NetworkedLife Google Map Mash-up

My Udacity Statistics 101 experience shows parallels. Sebastian Thron starts the course with clear examples, reinforcement, fun interaction and clear problem sets. Then, pow, the programming challenge which follows lesson 12 is presented by an assistant instructor. The problem set-up is so confusing – the discussion boards reflect this change in clarity. Udacity has been connecting and listening to students, but the jarring change from Sebastian’s clear presentation and problem set-up is disconcerting. It is very reminiscent of a large college lecture hall where once a week you break up into discussion groups moderated by the graduate assistant instead of the best university professor on campus.

Maybe MOOCs have inherited some of the negatives of our traditional classroom dynamics.

The problem with errors and experiences such as these is not the loss of a point on a graded multiple choice quiz. The problem is that it leads to frustration, doubt, and anger in the learner. If I solve a problem and feel confident I have mastered the knowledge only to find out that I am wrong, my confidence is shaken. If I continue without knowledge of how my solution inadequately solved a problem, I leave knowing less, not more, than when I started. Add to this the lack of immediate reinforcement and correction, the learner is left frustrated. In a learning scenario where mentor/learner can interact, this can quickly be addressed, energy refocused and confidence rebuilt. Asking for clarification in a room full of 20,000 people, with several experiencing the same confusion, and no one stepping in to redirect and acknowledge the source of confusion, leads us through a series of emotions (similar to stages in mourning): confusion, dejection, doubt, loss of motivation, and anger. Certainly we do not want our future education pedagogy mirroring the stages of grief.

Especially considering the conversations around MOOCs as an answer to remedial math and science, I fear they may further divide society. Some colleges and universities are looking to MOOCs as alternatives to the increasing burden of financial aid – a way to reduce the cost of providing education to those in financial need. I fear how changing the college learning experience for an already at-risk group of students will impact these learners.

Think back in your academic life to a time when you may have struggled with subject content. If you succeeded in getting over the hump, was there a teacher or mentor who helped you individually get over that hump, or even help talk you down from the ledge when you were ready to jump? Collaborative learning environments aren’t yet here – they aren’t collaborative. Crowdsourcing from classmates often leads to more confusion in MOOCs. Without the subject expert weighing in, we are finding our way out of a dark cave – scary.

I think feedback (and outrage) from participants at this early stage is desperately needed to help shape this model into a better quality education alternative/supplement/life learning model. I want the model to work, but it really needs evaluation and evolution to be effective.

I feel we need to make sure that there is awareness and distinction between blended, online, technology-enhanced learning and MOOCs. Until MOOCs are based on a solid pedagogy that supports feedback and learning, their promise is greatly eroded.

Don’t even get me started on the #moocmooc experience this summer (August 12-18th) supported by Hybrid Pedagogy –
MOOC Monster
I signed up for the experience, received a confirmation and from that point – silence. I could not log in to the “canvas” and sent numerous support requests, tweets to #moocmooc, and tried to contact Hybrid Pedagogy directly. Sure there will be flukes, but the point is, I was an engaged, pro-active learner and I was prevented from participating due to lack of technology support to assist in connecting to the course (a course I was registered for). I did and still do follow #moocmooc, but I don’t feel part of the learning community.

And, I’m sorry, the hideous alien on the home page neither inspires nor motivates me to learn more about MOOCs. They are not monsters, although many are doing their best to give them monstrous characteristics.

©2010 BellCow Inc.