Sunday, September 16, 2012

Coursera Thoughts Part Seven

These are my ongoing thoughts regarding the Fantasy & Science Fiction course being conducted on the coursera website.  My hope is to see some truly meaningful changes put into place before coursera offers this course again or for other MOOCs to possibly take note.  At the end of this post is a "label" or "tag" and you can see a link to all of my coursera posts, including a few on plagiarism and one on what I particularly like.    

What more can be done to create a stronger sense of community?  After all, where people are invested, whether financially invested for emotionally invested, there is an increased desire to experience success and to share success.  There is ownership and accountability.  

I think one thing they could do that wouldn't require hiring additional staff is to create study groups or allow students to create their own study groups. The large "Study Group" folder is inadequate.  In the F&SF course I saw a thread for GA so I responded, as did others.  Nobody ever scheduled anything and  I had participated in a hangout someone else organized that first Friday.  So I kept an eye on the discussion for a local study group on the coursera site but decided to just keep doing the hangouts.  When the other person stopped organizing them after the first one, I took over and started scheduling them myself.  I still haven't seen one face-to-face study group session organized in the forums for the Atlanta area.

The same thing is happening in the ModPo class.  One person says, "Hi, I live here let's meet" and then doesn't coordinate anything even after a few others chime in.  I see where coursera is trying to use meetups to encourage meetings but they are not course specific so you have people saying, “I’m taking this course we should meetup” and nothing happens.

The google+ hangouts have worked for me and a couple of other people as it allows me to give a face, a voice, a person to the screen names of some of the students.  Ironically, the people using the hangouts have been least inclined to actually use the forums.  In fact, at least two of us aren’t even bothering to check in with the forums whatsoever. 

The goal of the forums is presumably to take place of the engagement that one would have in a typical college course—to interact with one another, to allow students to ask questions and answer one another’s questions, to share their thoughts about the literature, to debate the different perspectives and explore different interpretations. 

In a “class” of 39,000 registered students, many of whom believe there is only one right answer (thank you multiple choice tests and schools that emphasize rote learning than legitimate exploration!), there will be a feeding frenzy mentality and, whenever anyone voices a different opinion, “anonymous” and the coterie of other anonymous students will pounce. 

So what do you do?  Hire more people to monitor the forums?  I don't feel that is necessary and, in fact, the up/down voting is unnecessary as is the flagging.  Where there is community, troll behavior is not tolerated, condoned, or encouraged.  

Drawing on the example of other websites (where large groups of people have gathered) and adding to some of the ideas I’ve recommended in my previous postse, I would suggest the following:

Allow students to block/friend one another
When the course began there were no profiles but this has since been added.  This still doesn’t allow much opportunity for a true interaction between students.  The ability to block another student would obviously not be conducive to building community but it would allow the individual to not see posts from anyone who is being intentionally inflammatory.  This would also allow the staff to focus on any student who is statistically being blocked more often than would be expected.  If the forums are set up to just let the students police themselves then the students need to be empowered to do that. 

Friending another would add another layer of interaction but that is not enough to create a more classroom-like experience.

Create a way for students to create their own study groups within the forums.
This can be done in several ways.
  • One, assign students into study groups from the moment they enroll.  Each study group should be large enough to allow for the high dropout rate. (Apparently, although 39,000 registered, fewer than 5,000 are still submitting essays.)  Each group would have its own forum thread with a unique password for that area and they could discuss openly, without the luxury of anonymous posting.  This is a space where students would get to know and trust one another.  Even with the high dropout rate you would have a large enough group of students who could interact with one another and the text.
  • Two, make course specific meetup links.  Apparently coursera is using (and odds are there’s some b2b purpose behind it) meetup as a way to encourage students to interact.  So what happens when you click on the link?  You find a list of people introducing themselves by course and now I can see at least twenty people in my geographic area who are taking other courses but none taking my own.  Nobody has coordinated a local meetup and even on the forums, where there’s a study group thread, people are waving their hands saying “I’m here” but I have yet to see anyone say, “Hey, let’s meet here on this day at this time.”  And with nobody taking the initiative and everyone waiting for someone to be a leader, nothing happens.  Rather than have the meetups go to a communal coursera meetup site, create different meetup groups for each course.  That will narrow down the ridiculousness of reading endless lists of people taking every other course except the one that is currently being taught. 
  • Three, create a means to private message friends.  Friend requests would obviously need to be mutually accepted.  Also, people could/should be able to message more than one person in a single message.  This way if a person finds likeminded people on the general forums and they do not necessarily click with the people in their study group, they could communicate with one another directly through coursera.  Private messaging would only be available between friends, thus avoiding the inevitable hostile private message sent from some anonymous asshole.  (Better yet, provide ways for students to do video hangouts, like google+ does, or at least conference calls, etc.)

The thing is, coursera is not going to gauge the success of this course based on any relevant protocol.  You have students who are manipulating the system—writing nonsense peer reviews, plagiarizing essays—who will still get their certificate alongside students who really tried to do their best.  In the meantime, coursera will crunch the numbers and say, “Woohoo!  Although we had a high dropout rate, we had this many students who did the work.”  That some students aren’t even doing the readings will not concern them and that many students are literally avoiding the forums altogether won’t be an issue either.  From where the coursera people are sitting the Fantasy & Science Fiction course will be a winner but the truth is, for those who understand the value of learning, the actual experience of taking the course is a failure. 

So long as students find it easier (and I’d even suggest safer) to engage with one another outside of the coursera experience, whether via facebook or google+, then I do not see how coursera can suggest this is a success.  That’s not unlike saying students are using the public library to do their research because it’s easier (and safer) than using the campus library.  If that’s true, there’s obviously something wrong.  


  1. I am now living in a not very big city, but we managed to have a meetup. 5 people out of 7 planned to come, 4 actually came, everybody except the guy who had organized it)) No local people, only newcomers who apparently don't have any friends here. Has it helped our study? No. We talked quite nicely about politics and travelling and then told each other how nice it was and that we should do this again, and that's all. Nobody there was taking SciFi, so the only course I had in common with one guy was Machine Learning. He was quite desperate about it and asked me to help him with the homework the moment he heard that I consider this course quite easy. I said something vague about not having so much time etc (the guy was really strange), but at least promised to look at his question. Hes he written me? No. So... even meeting in person actually don't work, at least here

    1. Strange, really. The idea of meetups is all well and good but your experience exposes the obvious flaw in the way it is set up. People are vague and polite and maybe more than one person is taking the same course and have something in common to discuss. This is not a successful meeting, let alone a successful study group. The hangouts have been good. We don't always stay on topic (i.e. talking about the coursework) but so far everyone says they walk away from them with a better idea about what they want to write for their essay so they must be somewhat productive. Thank you for sharing your particular experience because I obviously can only write from my own and my observations are limited as a result.

    2. It's a pity I usually work on the weekends (I always have a sudden flow of inspiration when there is nobody in the lab), because I'd love to take part in hangouts. The other problem is that I usually finish the book in question only on Monday... But I'll try to make it this week, I'm really very interested :) I wasn't really expecting anything useful from that meetup, I was just curious, but next time I'll probably spend my time better, unless there are some new people, and the topic of the meeting is clearly set.

    3. I think that if coursera created a way for people to have their own study groups within the site, whether assigned or through private messaging or even by allowing us to interact in our profiles, then it would have built a stronger sense of community and where there's community people are generally kinder towards one another.