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.

LibraryAnywhere: Smart App needs more brains

LibraryAnywhere is one of my favorite iphone apps. It allows me to search a library catalog – preferably my own, but not yet. However, it does allow me to search a library within my library’s consortium. So, hey, I can easily search the catalog and place holds on books.

The closest library found when I browse for libraries nearby is less than 5 miles away from my home library. Extra bonus, I’m sitting in a coffee shop 3 blocks from that library and I have reciprocol borrowing privileges.

Seems like I should be able to locate the book I want, place a hold and pick it up on the way back. Let me search for that book and see if I can pick it up.

I search for the title, locate the book, and request that book.

Upon making the request, I enter my library card info and voila!, like rubbing the genie’s lamp, my wish has been granted.

Oops – not at all what I wanted. Looking at the message, it tells me that I will be notified when to pick up the book at Riverside. I wanted to just drop by LaGrange and pick it up. So, now, I realize I’ve inconvenienced people at two libraries who will have to process this request triggered by my love of technology and the convenience of accessing a library anywhere requesting materials.

When I requested that item and LibraryAnywhere (or more accurately, my SWAN catalog) had my patron information, at minimun, it should have asked, “Which action do you prefer?”

  • Pick this book up at LaGrange (by the way, the GPS locator shows that you are only 3 blocks away)
  • Request LaGrange staff find the book, send it through the delivery system for pick-up at your home library in Riverside

Since I work with libraries, I realize the implications of my actions and quickly try to put the genie back in the bottle. I go to “My Account” using the awkward web based access on my iphone to connect to the catalog. I remove that hold to avoid all this unnecessary work.

In all fairness, this really should not be considered a fault of LibraryAnywhere, rather a shortfall of my library’s consortium catalog. But the example illustrates how an eager patron can easily take advantage of all the services offered through smart apps, without a clue to the triggers and work involved behind the scenes. Consortiums need to coordinate registration/licensing of LibraryAnywhere throughout their membership. Otherwise the inadvertent increase of ILL requests marches on – and haven’t we all learned there is no such thing as a “free lunch” or “free delivery of a book.” Kudos to Lincoln Trail Libraries System’s LINC LibraryAnywhere which is coordinated through their consortium.

Not sure how we bridge this knowledge and technology gap. I do know as a library patron, I don’t want to waste valuable time and money having library staff and system delivery resources used to pull a book from the shelves, send it 10 miles in one direction, sort it into a bag to ship back 12 miles in the reverse direction, have a staff mark the book as received setting an automated email saying I can pick the book up. Hope that email didn’t get stuck in my spam.

The problem is really larger than this simple example. LibraryAnywhere is a web application too, so I can make the same exact mistake using my laptop or work computer, even without being in a hurry. I really like the fast, clean interface of LibraryAnywhere – think of the resource wastes if that becomes my default method of locating and receiving materials (in a nice stack at the circulation desk all bundled and waiting for me).

There is a difference between “customer service” and “customer being overserved.” Patron initiated holds are not the problem, uneducated patrons initiating holds is – how do we effectively share good practices?

Irony of all this work is that the title was sitting on a shelf at my home library and I could have gone there to check it out on my way home, rather than waste all these resources. Technology is great – but, too often it helps us make bad decisions faster.

My Year with a Kindle

About a year ago I purchased my first Kindle and was immediately impressed. I thought I’d found a new technology partner to take with me everywhere. The task of reading and holding the Kindle is quite enjoyable – easy on the eyes, easy to page forward through a book and lightweight.

But, I quickly discoverd I have some very definite preferences in reading material selection and how I use my books. Ok – now the confessions.

First, the reading material – I read lots of reference books, science and philosophy. Also, I’ve been doing research on social network analysis and the impact of social media in organizational development. Secondly, I have to admit that I am a note taker (in pencil, in the margins) - thinker – go back and review page turner - compare that with a previous passage flipper - turn down a corner kind of reader. I have a much more tactile engagement with books than I ever realized or analyzed before my Kindle adventure.

Although I’ve taken lots of self evaluations on learning style and know that I am a kinesthetic, visual learner, I never really thought about how that translates into “kindling.” I did take copious notes on the Kindle when reading reference books. It took so long that it really disrupted my thinking process. On several occassions I had to do an Internet search to find a table or graphic that just wasn’t up to snuff on the Kindle.

I do think I gave this a good workout in the past year. I read 6 books and subscribed to two newspapers via the Kindle. I purchased three eBooks for roughly $1/each. Although I wanted to try out the blog feeds, I had a real aversion to paying $1.99/monthly for those. Note to Amazon – if you really want this technology to become pervasive, you need to make as much content free as possible, especially content you can access free via other technologies. No one has to pay for free blog feeds on an iPad.

The purchased eBooks were a joke as I mentioned in a facebook post at the time:

Quote from article downloaded to my Kindle, which I paid $1 for
(the article that is): “In social networks, you don’t converse face-to-face,
as there is no contact directly on the face.” Really Amazon? Does anyone
read these articles before you make them available? So far 3 of 3 artcles/white
papers I’ve purchased for… the Kindle have been worse than high school
term papers.

More stellar commentary from this article: “Sometimes people get so addictive
with the sites that they may not like to go out and socialize. There are other[s]
who like flirting online and say lies to people. These are unfair practices and
make it a bit dirty.” I take it back, this article is worth $1 in entertainment alone.

As for the newspapers, they get a mixed review. First, monthly charges can really creep up on you. If I could not make it a daily habit, it had to be cut. My husband was thrilled when the Chicago Sun-Times became available on the Kindle. The plan was he would take the Kindle to work reading the paper on the train and I would get it at night. He suddenly realized that his two favorite parts of the paper were the comics and the sports box scores – neither of which were provided. If you can’t get the whole paper and have to buy the print version for those missing pieces, it doesn’t make much economic sense to get the Kindle edition.

So, based on my experience, I totally understand why “E-Book Readers Bomb on College Campuses.” I agree that one day students may be reading all their schoolbooks on some type of handheld device. But, those students will need to be introduced early so that they can build new habits of highlighting, folding and leafing through their books.

And, it fits right in with my other green technologies (at least their cases). Definitely a plus in my “book.”

I’m not giving up yet – I think the Kindle is perfect for fiction. And as one of my friends once told me “it really is ok to read for fun!”

©2010 BellCow Inc.