Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Coursera Thoughts Part Four

This week I received two essays which were plagiarized so one can immediately see how well the addition of the Honor Code button is working.  Within the course, there have been a few other changes but, so far, they merely prove that the more things change, the more things stay the same and today I really want to weigh-in on the forums.
When the course first opened up, there was no individual place to discuss each of the units so it wasn’t long before people who were reading ahead were posting threads about Alice in Wonderland mixed in with Grimm’s Fairy Tales and there were a few very ambitious readers posting about Dracula and Frankenstein.  However, the coursera staff stepped up on 25 July and added folders for each unit to reduce the confusion that so many intermingled topics would inevitably create. 
Also, sometime the week before last, they introduced flags.  If someone were to post something that is completely inappropriate, the students can easily flag it and the coursera staff will take care of it.
On 22 August, someone copied and pasted an essay they received for the peer-review which they felt was plagiarized.  Someone immediately posted a comment that quoted from an email we all received when the course began and in this email, Dr. Rabkin wrote the following:
Please remember that the essay belongs to the essayist. None of us has the moral or, under U.S. copyright law, the legal right to post someone else's essay. One does have the right to post a brief  quotation if one is using that "for the purpose of criticism or  review" (again, quoting U.S. copyright law), but one can probably do   just as well with paraphrase. ("In an essay I read, the writer asserted that....") Even if one is praising a fellow participant, lengthy quotes are not legal. On the other hand, it is perfectly legal to post your own essay and invite criticism or use that posting as an opportunity to respond one way or another to a comment made about it.  Whether or not that is a good idea in any given case, I am happy to say, is a choice for each of you.
It took whoever is responsible for monitoring the forums an entire week to delete the post that clearly violated one of the few guidelines we students have received.   A week.  So you can imagine how much longer it takes for them to remove abusive statements, attacks, etc.  I have to imagine because, at this point, I am so put-off by some of the posts I see on the forums that I simply cannot expose myself to them any more than I do.  Reading what I think is a potentially informative thread only to see it degenerate into the sort of juvenile nonsense one finds far too often online is discouraging, to say the least.
(Interestingly, it's happened again today and I am almost curious enough to see how long it will take for the shared essay to be taken down.)
The thing is, what choice do the students, the ones who are taking the course in hopes of learning something?  What are they supposed to do?
The purpose of the forums is to give the students a way to ask questions, to discuss the literature, to perhaps share insights and ideas.  Without a professor to guide the learning experience, the students are given no other recourse.  Yes, we have the video lectures but these are only available after we have finished the assigned reading.  During the time we are reading these texts, the forums should be a safe place where people can let ideas flow without fear of judgment or attacks.
Why do these things happen?  
Simple:  Anonymous posting. 
Now, I want to state up front that there are some people who have chosen to use the ability to post anonymously to good purpose.  Some have even cleverly created a pseudonymous signature to differentiate themselves from all the other anonymous posters.  It is reasonable, when wanting to ask how to deal with an essay that is not in sync with the syllabus, what the reader should do.  If this week’s essay should be on something by Wells and the essay is on Stoker or a book we have not yet reached, how should the peer-reviewer grade the piece?  Or when a student is unhappy with the score they receive for an essay and want to get other people’s opinions, why shouldn’t they be free to submit the essay to the forum with the same anonymity with which the submitted it for peer review?  These students are using the ability to be anonymous in a manner that is appropriate and even respectful of the other students.  I’ve also seen people who could not submit their essays on time, whether because of a technical issue on their end or within coursera itself or for whatever personal reasons, choose to share their essay anonymously to get the feedback they couldn’t otherwise.  They know that they will not earn credit for this essay but they are here to learn, offering their own essay and offering to review other students' essays who may have been likewise unable to submit their piece. 
This is how the forums should be used and are meant to be used.  Of course, where anyone can post anonymously it isn’t long before those who want to abuse the system shall do so.  Hurtful and immature things will begin being posted in response to legitimate posts.  Perhaps not immediately but always inevitably. 
And so it goes.  The forums too quickly degenerate into bullshit. 
One person actually suggested I should post less on the forum so I could get a better grade in my essays.  And Laura Gibbs was told she is not “erudite” which is pretty impressive, to find a troll able to use a word that has more than two syllables, but to suggest a woman who has shared a lot of helpful information, has further proven herself to be more than knowledgeable in the potential of online education, and who is, as we all know, a college professor is not erudite is simply ridiculous.  And I think I’ve initiated about five posts all together.  Two of which were announcements for a study hangout on google+. 
It’s easy to dismiss such childishness for what it is but the implications of such behavior should not be so easily ignored.  In the media we are seeing the consequences of bullying in the educational system and the rally cry seems to be that the schools need to create a safe learning environment for all students.
How can a student feel safe when they are being slammed with ad hominem attacks?  How can a student feel safe when one person calls another “stupid” or a whole thread labeled as stupid or a waste of time or worse?  
I’ve said before that some of the things found in the peer reviews would never ever be tolerated in Dr. Rabkins University of Michigan classroom.  Yet, coursera does nothing to stop it, nothing to address it, and the nonsense perpetuates. 
I’ll take the time to offer some suggestions on what changes could be implemented to stop the abuses but I am frankly too disappointed right now to be bothered.  I have two essays to review and tomorrow I’ll have time to explore the issues with the forums some more.  In the meantime, I think I’m just going to avoid them altogether.  What beneficial content I might find in a thread that is trying to share meaningful discussion will degenerate into a pointless rant or anonymous attack anyway so why bother? 


  1. Thanks for posting this, Satia - I'm a pretty thick-skinned person and even I've been unnerved by the sheer meanness of the discussion boards, especially the way that the anonymous posters and other people whom I guess we do have to call bullies at this point will gang up and work together in a kind of team effort to just attack someone relentlessly... as if learning or even simple mutual understanding can happen as a result of such exchanges. I participate mostly with educators online, so I've actually never seen anything like this before, ever, in my extensive life online. It's been such a bad experience that my desire to even try another Coursera course again in the future is zero. There are so many excellent places to hang out online where you can learn from other people and share with them... why would I want to spend time in a place that is filled with such meanness? I regret the time I spent there and would gladly just erase all trace of my presence if that were possible.

    1. At the rate I'm writing these posts, I wonder if I'll ever get to exploring how this course is not utilizing the obvious advantages of being an online course. I keep getting so frustrated with the plagiarism and the hostility on the forums and in the peer reviews. And then who has time? I am juggling several things, including a conference call tonight and a seemingly endless job search, that I sometimes prioritize myself out of writing a blog post altogether.

  2. I read through parts of the "heated debate" on the essay or lack of essay on the forum. Heated debate is really an overly polite euphemism for the behavior. While I loathe the dreaded 1930's Germany comparison of anything and everything, the behavior shown in the forum could readily be compared to a miniature cyber development of the Brown Shirts. We have a group of people of an unknown number attracted to both authoritarianism and bullying. I am continually amazed at the vitriolic defense of arbitrary and unclear rules as in the essay versus the story or the even more ridiculous too many words in an essay when only 352 will fit in the box.

    As a side note, I wonder if anyone else has noted that the essays seem to have become more generic. This may be a function of pure randomness, but I have had far fewer second language learners as well as far fewer essays with any attempt to wrench meaning from the stories. Instead I've had neutral essays with adequate, but unenlightened writing. Historically bullying has always eliminated the outliers and left a pale, insipid, and passive population. Insipid and passive fit the last two groups of essays perfectly.

    1. Natasha, Your Brown Shirts analogy works for me.
      This week I had one ESL writer and I spent over an hour correcting very elementary errors (missing articles, odd capitalization choices, etc.).

      I have no doubt that my essays have become more generic and meaningless because my motivation to put something worthwhile together is gone. The peer-review feedback I get never suggests any areas for improvement. What I really want to write about anything we read would not fit within the strictures of 320 words. And when I receive two plagiarized essays I really can't help but ask myself: What's the point?

      I'm still registered for the Modern Poetry course and I plan on at least starting it. But if the bullies that endemic in the F&SF course (as evidenced by the abuse of the whole up/down voting nonsense), then I am done with coursera for the time being.

      I've found another website offering online courses that may prove to be a better choice for literature courses. I'm a little gun shy and feeling somewhat overwhelmed with life which both give me a reason not to jump into something new quite yet.

  3. I, too, have been turned off from the forums because of the rude comments made mostly by anonymous people. However, I understand the need for anonymity, too. If I had known that by putting down my real name it would show up for all to see, I might have used a fake name. But it's too late because I don't believe there's a way to change my name. Still, I don't post anonymously. :)

    1. I wasn't fond of the up/down voting from the start because I knew it would just end up being a sort of popularity contest. And you can see that the anonymous feeding frenzy is manifesting just as I suspected it would, with people voting down those who have been strong voices. It's typical and I'm hoping it won't carry over to the Modern Poetry course.

  4. A number of people on my journal list have signed up for these courses. They seem very excited. i mentioned that you wrote about the courses and your disappointment in them. May I share the links to your blog entries w/them?

    1. Kate, I want to give a qualified yes because my experience has been negative for this course but there are other courses that are run differently and, from what I understand, some of the students who are as disappointed with this particular course were thrilled with other coursera courses they took. I heard that one of the other coursera courses that was originally designed to include peer reviews decided to drop the peer review aspect altogether because of what has been happening in this particular course.

      Because some have said good things about other courses, I am still registered for the Modern Poetry course that begins on Monday. The opportunity to compare two humanities courses is especially interesting. After all, one would expect a mathematics or computer course to be different from this humanities course.

      There are other MOOCs out there. Udacity has been praised highly and, although what they offer is limited, the way things are set up seems to be far more conducive to a positive learning experience.

      Just this past week I came upon I haven't taken any of their courses but I have to say that I already like a lot of what I see. For one thing, they have a student handbook that includes a code of conduct and students are held accountable for such things as how they treat one another and addresses plagiarism. The problem I see with it is that it is strictly learn and multiple choice test. I stink at multiple choice tests. On the other hand, it includes an eportfolio and allows for more engagement between students.

      Obviously I can only write about my one experience and goodness knows I'm trying to be thorough. Probably sometime later next week or the week after I'll be sharing some thoughts about how this F&SF course compares with the Modern Poetry one. I've also signed up for Stanford University's Venture Lab ( where they have a creativity course. They offer another course I think looks interesting on education, discussing how learning in our technological age may be more conducive to a collaborative and interactive approach.

      Then there's WEU which is not yet up and running but looks very interesting as well.

      So I hope that when you direct people my way, and thank you for wanting to do so, they will understand that this is one course within coursera which itself is merely one option of many. Right now, I would definitely direct anyone to look at Saylor because they seem to be pulling together something truly remarkable. I'll be signing up for one of their courses in a day or two, depending on how things go around here.

  5. GREat Thanks..I just sent them the link to this particular entry and that you have written more on the subject. I think they can find the rest themselves.

    1. My pleasure. I do have some more positive things to share about this course coming soon. And I'll be blogging about any other MOOCs I try because I'm absolutely fascinated by this movement.