Saturday, August 11, 2012

Coursera Thoughts Part One

As some of you know, in my endless desire to bite off more than I can chew, I signed up for this free online course and now I'm in the middle of the third week of it all.  I have found the experience fascinating and am trying to process some of my thoughts about the course and the overall MOOC experience.  This is the first of what will be several parts addressing the issues I have seen, whether I've experienced them myself or overheard others complain about them.  Hopefully, by the time I finish processing all of my thoughts, I'll be able to give the people who have created this course/site some useful feedback, something beyond "I really liked this course" or "This course sucked."  

For those with little time, there is a summary at the end of this that lists the problems and solutions I've suggested.  I am open to other suggestions and, for those taking the course, please feel free to share any problems and/or solutions you find.  This is only part one and there is room for all of us to explore how to create a better MOOC experience.


Per the course’s Recommended Background, we have the following, emphasis added:
There are no prerequisites for this course. However, the course will be conducted at the level expected of advanced undergraduate students. Therefore, for all participants, reading comfortably in English at the undergraduate college level is desirable. For those also participating in the writing and written responses, which is recommended, some experience in writing about literature is desirable.
Beginning with this "Recommended Background" information, here are some of the problems I've seen arise already followed by some suggestions of how these can be resolved should this course, or one like it, be offered again.
  • No Prerequisites

No matter how far I look, I cannot find a single university that does not have a composition writing course as a prerequisite for all other required English courses.  The college to which I went had four literature courses as part of the core curriculum and you could not take any of those classes until you have taken and passed this course. 

In not requiring at least some prerequisite proof of being able to write a coherent essay, the students who have little to no essay writing experience are left to flounder and the students who have experience are forced to read mediocre essays.   This has created some hostility from the writers who have received harsh reviews.  I have also seen more than one person explain that they were dropping the class because they were so disappointed in the quality of the essays they had to read and review. 
  • Advanced Undergraduate Students

I take this to mean that this course is considered at least a third level literature course.  However, I see that some of the people who have registered for this course are not even out of high school.  Now, I am not suggesting for an instant that there aren’t some remarkably intelligent and creative young people out there.  I gave birth to three of them; I know they exist.  However, whether highly intelligent or not, without the foundation of proper essay writing techniques, I’m afraid that these young people will be struggling unnecessarily. 
  • Some Experience in Writing About Literature is Desirable

Unfortunately, it is not mandatory and this shows in both the essays I have read and in some of the reviews I’ve received and still more in the reviews I've read in the forums.  During week one, more than one of the five essays I read needed to be run through a spell-check.  If the writer can’t be bothered to run their essay through a simple spell-check (which is freely available online) then why should I be bothered reading the essay?

In addition to the above issues culled from the course syllabus, I have found a couple of others.

  • No criteria for citation—style

Some of the reviews I’ve received love the way I cite the text.  For the same essay, however, I will receive a negative comment on how I cite the text.  How is this possible?  Simple.  One person is familiar with the form I’m using and commending it and the other is using another form altogether.  Any and every English syllabi I ever received in my years of going to college, in the syllabus itself it clearly states what form of citation should be used whether MLA, APA, Chicago Style.  Had this been clearly defined, as it should be, before we began writing let alone critiquing the papers, the comments in the reviews I’ve received, and I imagine others have received as well, would not be so disparate.
  • No criteria for citation—content

Should we be citing from the text?  Should we be citing from secondary texts?  Nobody seems to know and nobody has told us whether this is a good idea or not.  Of course, anyone who has taken an upper level undergraduate literature class and written papers for it knows the answer is yes.  To both questions.  However, I’ve seen in the forums where people are clearly stating that they are taking away points from anyone who cites outside texts and even a few who have said they do so for citing the primary text.  As a result, my guess is that some brilliant papers are being diminished in the final tally because people don’t understand that personal preference, to cite or not to cite, is not a criteria for reviewing a paper.

Okay.  So there are some of the problems as I see them.   

It is easy to see what is wrong but to see how to fix these issues is another thing altogether.  Solutions that work in a typical college course, with a classroom size of fewer than 50, cannot possibly be effective in a course that includes thousands of students.  I am not sure that I can come up with every problem upon which I am stumbling but let’s begin with the above:
  • There should be a composition prerequisite.

If the goal of MOOCs is to create a learning environment that can complement a traditional degree program then there needs to be a course that teaches how one would write an academic paper, using citations, etc.  This course should also address the issue of plagiarism.  (It is my intention to address plagiarism in more detail in a later discussion about the course and courser.)  You cannot expect students not yet out of high school to know how to write an academic paper nor can you assume that the older student is familiar with the changes that have occurred since they were last in school. 
  • Clear criteria should be delineated in the syllabus.

I am confident in saying that all students would benefit from examples of what constitutes a 1/2/3 in form and a 1/2/3 in content.  If the lowest score a student can receive is a 2 and the highest is a 6 then there should be five examples, one each that addresses a 2 (a paper earning only a 1 in form and content), 3 (a paper earning a 1 in form or content and a 2 in the other), etc.  Students would then be able to see for themselves what is truly a wretched paper and what is unquestionably brilliant.

Also, it should be stated in the syllabus what citation format is to be used for the course.  Furthermore, a link to an online resource should be provided so those students unfamiliar with the format would have a reference and could use it.  Consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds but it makes grading easier and will avoid the confusion that arises when an APA user is commenting on an MLA user’s essay.   This would also end the debate about whether citations are expected and should be rewarded and whether citations, if used, should be limited to the primary text (those listed specifically in the syllabus) or if secondary texts are permissible for those who have the time and/or inclination.

These two very simple steps could conceivably resolve the several problems I’ve listed. 

Now, these are not the only problems I’ve come up against and it is my intention to address them all. However, to do so in a single post would be overwhelming to write let alone read.  And I am not certain that I am able to find solutions for each and every problem I’ve discovered.  I’ll be inviting other courser students to share their insight as I share my thoughts.  I also recognize that we are relatively early in the ten week course.  At the third week, I don’t know that I can comment on other problems because I’ve already seen the coursera people attempting to be proactive in meeting the needs of the students.  (e.g. creating separate threads for each unit in the forum, adding a citations field so that “works cited” will not count against the overall word count)

It may be that the problem that’s tripping me up now in week three will be a non-issue when I am in week ten.   

Summary:
Problems:
  • No Prerequisites
  • Advanced Undergraduate Students
  • Some Experience in Writing About Literature is Desirable
  • No criteria for citation—style
  • No criteria for citation—content

Solutions:
  • There should be a composition prerequisite.
  • Clear criteria should be delineated in the syllabus.