Thursday, August 16, 2012

Coursera Thoughts Part Three

As usual, I've created  a bullet-point summary at the end of this post, for those who would rather not read the whole thing from beginning to end.

In my previous post I focused on some of the more vicious peer-review comments I’ve come across on the forums.  Today I want to look at some of the issues faced in receiving the essays to be reviewed.  The truth is, you almost can’t blame someone for getting frustrated, especially when some people are receiving blank essays.  How is this even possible?  You either type your essay in the block of space where you submit it or you copy and paste in.   Either way, something out to be there. 

But here is what I’ve seen on the forums, examples of some of the issues the peer-reviewers are facing: 
  • One person received an “essay” in which the writer said they were too busy and didn’t have time to complete the assignment.
  • Another person said that their essay was a mere 63 words and another with only 52 words.
  • More than one person says that the essay they received is for a previous unit. 
  • One person said that their Unit 3 essay was not on Dracula but on Twilight.
  • Another person received their own essay. 
  • And more than one person has received an essay with emoticons in it.
  • Yet another person said that the “essay” they received was actually a promotion for their book and even included a link to buy a copy.

It almost makes one reconsider my harsh attitude towards anyone saying that the essay is “worthless.”  I mean, is it any wonder that people get angry when they get an “essay” and end up reading an advertisement?  There is also the issue of plagiarism which I will discuss separately.  (Yes that means I’ll be writing another post.)

I’ve been harping on the whole "clear criteria" issue for the past two posts so let me say this clearly:  Coursera is very clear that the essays are to be 270-320 words long.  This includes the title and any parenthetical citations.  And if the written statement is not enough, the professor has a whole video in which he talks about how to write an essay.  In other words, there is no excuse for anyone to submit an essay that is fewer than the required 270 words let alone fewer than 100.

And then these people get upset when they see how their essay was peer-reviewed and say that the comments were mean and unfair?  The thing is, we are required to read the essays and review them.  There is no option to not review an essay.  You get stuck with what you get.  You do have an option to read more essays but, after reading one with an emoticon, would you want to read more? 

When you’ve gone to the trouble of reading the text, of writing an essay that is thoughtful and maybe even insightful, to open an essay for the peer-review knowing that part of your own grade depends on your reviewing essays, and to see something that blatantly disregards anything that has been clearly stated in the course syllabus/work expectations can feel like a slap in the face. Especially when you are juggling this course with real life.  

Why should you waste your time reading an essay that is an apology from someone who didn’t have enough time to write an essay but is now wasting your time by making you read one? 

Anyway, here are the problems as I see them:
  • Some students simply do not care.
  • Some students are here to “work” the system.
  • Some students are sincerely trying but falling short.

And now for a more in-depth look.

Some students simply do not care.
While I appreciate the better intentions of the person who wrote a letter saying they were simply too busy to read the text let alone write the essay, the end result is they are now forcing four people to read what they submitted effectively wasting the time of their fellow students.  This is not unlike someone giving a single word or even two word peer-review.  Why even bother? 

Some students are here to “work” the system.
I am assuming that the students who submitted the essays that come up short think they are getting away with something.   By submitting an essay at all, whether it has nothing to do with the assignment or doesn’t come close to the required word count, they still get credit for doing the work.  Even if they get two scores of 1, if they then leave comments (which, you may recall from my previous post, are not graded), they will average out to a C or maybe even a B.  Obviously the person who is only trying to promote their book is abusing the system.

Some students are sincerely trying but falling short.
Giving the benefit of the doubt here, I’m going to guess that the person who wrote about Twilight honestly thought they were doing the right thing.  Maybe even the person with emoticons in their academic essay is well intended.  And, frankly, if I were to receive a copy of my own essay, I’d totally give it a score of 6, 3 for Form and another 3 for Content.  After all, if I can write something better I will submit that.  I’m not going to waste the peer-reviewer’s time by not trying to give them my best.  

Here are some of the positives with the peer-review process:

Because of anonymity, the peer-reviewer does not know who the writer is. 
I’d like to think I am not the only who would read a terrible comment from someone on the forums and then be unable to put my preconceived notion of their stupidity or superficial to properly assess the essay. 

Because we are all reading the same content at the same time, the material is fresh in the peer-reviewer’s mind. 
I think this is self-explanatory but it also highlights the issue that many peer-reviewers have  regarding the carelessness with which some people are submitting their assignments. Several people complained during Unit 2 that they were receiving essays for content from Unit 1.  This week it seems to be worse because one person said they received an essay on Frankenstein (Unit 4) and others are receiving essays for Units 1 and 2.  

While I’m not overly fond of the scale system that has been designed into the course, it is simple. 
Well, it’s sort of simple.  Apparently, some peer reviewers misunderstood and thought that 1 was Excellent and 3 was Unacceptable.  Can you imagine the confusion of the essay writer, receiving only positive comments on their essay but receiving the lowest of the low scores?  However, the Work Expectations are fairly clear so it would be nice for everyone to read them with the same care as they should the text itself.

Peer-reviewers cannot exchange one essay for another. 
Each person is required to review four essays and is invited to read more, should they choose to do so.  They cannot, however, reject an essay.  It is luck of the draw.  You get an essay and you have to review it.  This is effective because it ensures that an essay, which is poorly written, will receive reviews.  I’ve no doubt we’d all like to receive essays that show potential or are absolutely brilliant.  And I’m not the only one who would rather not be polite when, maybe deep down inside, you want to say “Your essay is worthless.” 

And now, onto some possible solutions:

Peer-reviewers need a means of reporting inappropriate essays.
When a person receives an “essay” that is an apology from the writer saying they were too busy to read the text or write an essay, this is patently unfair to the reader.  There should be a way to flag such an essay and not be forced to even give it a 1.  It’s not fair to the essay writer, who put sincere effort into what they submitted but whose writing skills are inadequate, to receive the same score as the person who didn’t bother writing an essay at all.

It has been suggested on the forums that when a peer-reviewer reads an essay, it would help if they could see how other people reviewed the same essay.
The opportunity to see if your scores are on par with your peers can help keep anyone from being overly kind with the scores or overly critical.  I don’t think we should necessarily need to see what other comments were made; the numbers alone would suffice.  Not that this would necessarily change anything. Most people would probably stand by their initial response and not consider being more rigid or gentle with the next round of essays.  For those who really have no idea whether their scores are fair or not, this could help.

But you know what would help still more?  Examples of essays and ratings. 
I know, I’m harping on the same thing over and over again but without some examples, too many students are flying blind.  I see it in the contradictory comments n I receive.  I see it in the things said on the forums.  Or, if they simply cannot or will not supply students with examples then

This course needs a prerequisite. 
Yet again, I’ve said it before, but it would benefit those students who are truly in over their heads to have some core-curriculum courses laying a foundation upon which a course like this can build. 

So in summary:

  • Some students simply do not care.
  • Some students are here to “work” the system.
  • Some students are sincerely trying but falling short.

What’s Working:
  • Anonymity of peer-reviewer.
  • Everyone reading and writing about the same content at the same time.
  • Simplicity of grading:  Form and Content on a scale from 1-3 for a maximum sum score of 6.
  • Essays cannot be exchanged for another essay.

  • Peer-reviewers need a means of reporting inappropriate essays.
  • Peer-reviewers should be able to at least see if how they grade an essay is on part with how others have graded it.
  • All students should have examples of essays and the score to better understand the course expectations.
  • This course should have a prerequisite in which students learn how to:
    • write an essay
    • read an essay
    • score an essay

Monday, August 13, 2012

Coursera Thoughts Part Two

This is Part Two.  You can read Part One here.

As before, I've summarized things at the end, for those without the time or inclination to read the essay from beginning to end.

One of the suggestions I made in my previous thoughts included offering sample essays, ones that would clearly show what an essay with a 1 in form and a 1 in content should be and comparing it with an essay that is 3/3. This would, of course, benefit both the essay writer and the peer reviewer.

Here are some of the key phrases culled from the “Work Expectations” in the “Peer Evaluation” section:

  • [The] essays will be anonymous to you.
  • [P]lease write a brief response (perhaps a sentence or two) that accomplishes two things: pointing out at least one aspect of the essay that is good and pointing out at least one aspect of the essay that would profit by improvement.
  • The Comment box is a place to offer your fellow student direct, helpful thoughts that may not fit neatly under the categories of Form and Content.
As before, I want to take these point-by-point.

[The] essays will be anonymous to you. 
This is an excellent decision on the part of coursera because, obviously, it would be too easy for people to adjust their grade based on personality. If they favorably recognize the writer’s name from the forums, the reviewer might give a 3 where one is not deserved. Or, if the reviewer has taken offense to something the writer has said, they could give a lower grade, even a 1. By keeping the writer anonymous, they allow the reviewer to retain some objectivity. However, one could argue that the reviewer should be objective, regardless of who the writer is.

[P]lease write a brief response (perhaps a sentence or two) that accomplishes two things: pointing out at least one aspect of the essay that is good and pointing out at least one aspect of the essay that would profit by improvement.
The wording varies slightly between the “form” and “content” sections but they pretty much say the same thing: write a response that points out one thing you like about the essay and one area for improvement. Sounds reasonable, right? Here are some examples of feedback that students have received that I found on the forum:
  • Nice
  • Nice work
  • Content was very good and detailed.  However, it did not answer the assignment question if this is for children or adults. 
  • Too wordy 
  • Your vocabulary is OK I’m sorry to be harsh but your essay is worthless
The proof is in the pudding and what I’ve been saying about how many of the students in the course do not understand what is expected of them because it hasn’t been clearly explained is evident in the above examples. For one thing, there was no “assignment question” but the reviewer gave one essay writer a lower grade because they didn’t answer it. And when did saying “nice” and “nice work” qualify as giving useful feedback? Given that the essays are limited to a mere 320 words, how can anyone's essay be "too wordy"?  Do I even need to comment on that last comment?

Then there's this:  the writer receives contradictory statements:
student1 → The development of the argument is fuzzy.
student3 → Clear and convincing argument.
What is the essay writer who receives this supposed to do to improve their writing for the next essay? The anonymity is mutual—both the writer of the essay and the peer reviewers do not know who is doing the writing. As you can see, however, this can be a double edged sword. While this allows students to be honest, it also allows them to tell someone that their writing is worthless.

The Comment box is a place to offer your fellow student direct, helpful thoughts that may not fit neatly under the categories of Form and Content.  This is optional and often the reviewer leaves this blank. Typically, this space adds nothing to what has previously been said even when it is not left blank, because the reviewer merely repeats what they have previously said in the comments.

In addition to the above, I’ve seen people state on the forum that they deducted a point because someone used citations or because they disagreed with the person’s thesis even though they say n the same post that the person wrote a good argument. In effect, they are admitting that they grade based on personal preferences.

I felt it would be important to pull some of the reviews off the forum for this course because sharing my own might make me seem embittered, assuming I didn’t get a perfect score. So these are the guidelines as established by coursera and here are the problems as I see them:

Summary of Problems:
  • Anonymous peer-reviews allow people to be assholes.
  • Not all reviewers understand how what is expected so they review based on what they “think” is right.
  • With no criteria, reviewers often grade subjectively rather than objectively.

And now, my suggestions for how to improve these issues.

Possible Solutions:

First, peer reviews should be kept anonymous; however, the essay writers should be allowed to review the reviews. 
The obvious problem here is that a person who receives a bad score may reciprocate in retaliation. However, there should be a means by which a student could report a peer-review which, like the example of saying the essay is “worthless.” When a peer-review is reported, someone would be able to assess whether it is a useful review or simply a “worthless” one. Here is how I would see this working:
1) Student A receives a review they feel is not meant to be constructive.
2) Student B, the anonymous peer-reviewer, would receive a notice that their review has been reported.
3) Coursera would assess the report. If they find that Student A is correct and Student B is just being an asshole, the following would happen:
a. Student B would lose all credit for their reviews for that unit. This will save coursera the trouble of reviewing everything the student reviewed to see if this is a pattern. Also, knowing this going into things, all students would be more considerate or at least try to be less abusive in their comments to their fellow students when writing a review.
b. Student B would also receive an email saying that if there is another report made against them, they will be expelled from the class. If this student has been expelled from another course for the same reason they are expelled from coursera altogether. 
4) Student A would know nothing about the outcome because Student B’s peer-review does not affect Student A’s final grade. 
Without any criteria, the students have no means of adequately assessing some of the essays. 
Speaking for myself, I have received compliments on my citations on an essay and for the same essay been told I need to learn how to cite properly. Why? I am assuming that one student uses the same citation style I do and the other does not so in the former student’s eyes what I did was perfect while in the second’s it was flawed. Both are correct. In my previous look at this course from coursera, I suggested that a prerequisite course, a Composition 101, should be mandatory. In this course, students would not only learn how they should cite an academic literature essay but they would also learn to be objective in how they assess one another’s writing. Nobody should receive feedback that says “nice” any more than they should receive feedback that says their essay is “worthless.”

By taking this prerequisite, coursera establishes an opportunity to learn how to objectively read an essay, setting aside your personal beliefs, your preference for one way of citation over another, etc. would allow all students to benefit from giving and receiving feedback.

However, barring their offering a prerequisite, I also suggested that a criterion needed to be established.  Even if all they do is show samples of essays (as I recommended in my previous post) and samples of peer reviews, that would help. But having neither, too many of the students participating in this course are not giving nor receiving the intended benefits of the course. And that is unfortunate.

Worse, and I’ve seen several people post this to the forum, students are dropping this class because of the abusive things being said to them in the peer-reviews. I realize that some people might argue that the writers need to develop thicker skin but I am not talking about someone giving constructive criticism. I’m not talking about that; I’m addressing myself to the vitriolic and unhelpful comments that some of the students have been receiving.

Abusive language would not be allowed in the classroom. It should not be allowed in coursera.

Because this piece focused on the receiving of peer-review, my next thoughts will be on giving the peer-review and some of the problems I’ve seen mentioned on the forum.

Summary of Problems:
  • Anonymous peer-reviews allow people to be assholes.
  • Not all reviewers understand how what is expected so they review based on what they “think” is right.
  • With no criteria, reviewers often grade subjectively rather than objectively.

Possible Solutions:

  • Essay writers should have a way of reporting abusive peer-reviews.
  • Criterion established of sample reviews that are acceptable and considered "constructive criticism."
  • Prerequisite wherein students would learn how to read an essay objectively.

I am hopeful that, at the course's conclusion, we will have an opportunity give some feedback on the peer-review process, allowing the students who received such comments as "your essay is worthless" a means of sharing what they think.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sometimes Breathing is Enough

Bleh.  Seven deaths since April and I wonder why I’m having a hard time focusing on things. 

The thing is, here I sit, still relatively untouched by death.  My uncle died in June but I never met him.  Not even as a small child.  I know him only through holiday cards sent once a year. 

So the most recent deaths?  The week before last it was our neighbor’s brother who was killed while riding a bike because a woman was texting while driving.  I think Rob said that the driver was nineteen, which adds a whole new layer of emotional complexity.

I love our neighbor.  He is a very sweet man and a joy.  I hate that he’s lost his brother and in such a senseless way.  It’s not fair; not that death is often fair.  (Sorry, Hitler and some others absolutely deserved to die so sometimes death is fair.)  Death is, however, inevitable and I know that my neighbor has the loving support of his husband and family and friends to carry him through this. 

I also hate this for the driver, this young woman who will live the rest of her life with the awareness that she was responsible for someone’s death because of an irresponsible choice she made.  

Just like that.  An instant and lives are gone, shattered, left grieving. 

On the 1st, Rob found out that someone with whom he has worked in the past, a sort-of associate/friend, has cancer and on the 9th he found out the friend is dead.  One week in hospice and gone.

Just like that.

But you see?  Does any of this affect me directly?  Step-father’s cousin dies.  Uncle I’ve never met dies.  Rob’s aunt dies.  Friend’s mother dies.  Neighbor’s brother dies.  Rob’s friendly associate dies. 

It isn’t like any of these touch my heart beyond the compassion and concern I have for those I love.   There is, however, a cumulative effect on how I am coping with my trying to be there for so many people, not knowing what to say and knowing that there is nothing that can be said. 

You can only be there.

And in all of this my life goes on.  I get up and let my yoga hint at what I can expect for the rest of my day.  I try to get as much studying done as I can while also not burning myself out.  And I forget things.  Still trying to get into the habit of using my white board.  In fact, shortly after I post this I’ll be making changes it so I will be better able to see what I hope to accomplish this week. 

One of the things I hope to accomplish is more engagement with my blog and your blogs.  I just didn’t have it in me the past couple of weeks.  If I do manage it, yay.  If I don’t, I’ll try to pick it up again next week and the week after and the week after.  It is something I want to do but it is easy to put what I need to do before what I want to do and then the wants never get done.