Friday, August 24, 2012

In Praise of Coursera and the Fantasy & Science Fiction Course

Before I dig into what I am loving (or at least mostly liking) about coursera’s Fantasy & Science Fiction course, I want to share a few links.

First, Laura Gibbs wrote about the peer-review process in her blog. Yes, I’ve already written about it but, since then, there have been more threads about the abuse some students are receiving in the peer-review comments and she specifically addresses some of those. 

Okay.  Time for me to roll up my sleeves and focus on the good.  Why?  Because I’m tired of the negativity and need a break from it.  And I do not want anyone to think that there is nothing of value in this course.

First and foremost, the readings.
I’ve taken online courses that purport to be college level and this is the first time I’ve seen evidence of this in the resources used in the class.  Not simply because many of the books are canonical but because the rate at which we are expected to read is not casual.  More than one unit requires that two books be read in a single week.  This is not unusual for a typical college course and it is nice to finally see an online course that meets at least that expectation.  In fact, if you look at the coursera syllabus for this class and compare it with the ones the professor has posted for his traditional classroom courses, there is very little difference between the reading requirements.

Second, the introductory “Before You Read” video for each unit.
Just as a professor would do in a class, some contextual introduction is offered.  Whether the idea is to consider the cultural or societal changes occurring when I novel was written or the personal life experiences of the author, and whatever else seems to strike a professor’s fancy.  In a traditional classroom these are meant to whet the appetite of the students and I have to say that Dr. Rabkin does a good job with this.  I’m tempted to say “great” but I don’t really know where the quality of what he says ends and my personal enthusiasm begins.  I mean, I signed up for the course for a reason and I really do love to read so I might be more open to appreciating every word than not.

Third, the writing assignments.
I’ll go into this more when I write about the process of sharing essays but I do appreciate the opportunity to once again write about literature.  I have missed doing this.  I am begrudging when it comes to the word count because I have only once managed to pick a thesis that is narrow enough to be adequately supported in so few words.  Then again, recalling some of the essays I’ve had to read as part of the peer-review process, I’m not sure I would want to read longer essays so that seems like a fair trade-off. 

Fourth, the whole idea of MOOCs in general.
College level courses available for free.  Sure, one can find a plethora of syllabi online.  Theoretically one could grab a syllabus, obtain the various texts, and read through the course independently but the give and take of a classroom discussion, the lectures and background information a professor provides, would all be lacking.  It would take a remarkable amount of discipline and flexibility to recreate that college course experience.  And yet, here they are for the taking.  Just register and participate.  When one considers that I am currently unemployed, I cannot emphasize enough how profoundly I appreciate the opportunity to take a college level course.

I had hoped to link to someone’s blog post about why they are really enjoying the coursera experience but they posted it on google+ and now I can’t find it anywhere.  I am guessing she didn’t hashtag it or I’d have found it by now.  Anyway, her reasons were, for the most part, subjective—the convenience of taking a course from home, at odd hours, not needing to commute to a classroom. All of these are good points and ones she offered as a counterpoint to the many complaints floating around. 

To be frank, I don’t know that subjective reasons outweigh the very real problems that students are bringing up but this is all beta.  Coursera is still trying to get some bearings and will hopefully be making changes as we progress.  They’ve already made a couple of tweaks that I’ll be happy to mention in my upcoming blog posts.  In the meantime, I really wanted to express some of the things that I appreciate about this course.  Perhaps this will also put some of my other posts in perspective because I seriously want to see MOOCs succeed.  There are a lot of articles floating across the internet about coursera and other sites where similar courses are being offered, most of them not highlighting the best or even considering the positive potential of what is being created.

I consider it a privilege and even exciting to be at the groundswell of what I hope will be a thriving movement.  Maybe it’s just a part of my post-punk-ethic; or maybe it’s my fundamental belief that knowledge and art should be free and freely accessible. 

MOOCs matter.  In an election when candidates are suggesting that higher education is not necessary while making promises to cut “discretionary spending” which includes funding all levels education, MOOCs really matter!


  1. Laura,

    some really excellent points here. they haven't thought this through properly have they? i'm currently doing a coursera course and i'm kind of in trepidation about the idea of a random stranger being given my essay to critique.

    regarding plagiarism, you are quite right. i know from teaching Chinese for example, that they just do not have this in their culture.

    1. Thank you, Drew but this is Satia, not Laura. Hello!

      I don't think they have thought it through well and there is a lot that needs to be changed before the next iteration. Given the small staff and other things, it would have made so much more sense to simply open the course to a smaller yet large enough group of students. I'm sure 1000 would have sufficed. It would have limited the number of potential trolls who are only there to have fun at the expense of others. It would have also helped to reduce the negative experiences of too many people who didn't deserve to be mistreated or attacked by said trolls.

      Thank you so much for your insight regarding cultural differences because my experience is limited to American education. I am aware that there are differences but was intentionally vague about where and what given my personal ignorance.