Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Does Coursera Care About Copyrights?

Coursera’s Science Fiction and Fantasy course is currently going through its second iteration and I was momentarily tempted to see if anything had changed but I resisted the temptation.  Knowing how poorly structured and run the initial course was the last thing I needed to confirm is that nothing had changed.

Recently it came to my attention that something quite significant has not changed.  Forget the abuse and harassment some students experienced within the course.  Ignore the plagiarism and the worthless peer reviews.  (Remember the person whose peer reviews amounted to nothing because the reviewer merely wrote out the words one two three etc.?)

What I want to know is this:  What, if anything, does Coursera plan to do about the pirating of copyrighted materials? 

While most of the material used within the course was freely available through Project Gutenberg, on ereaders like the Kindle or Nook, etc.  However, not all of the books were available online for free.  Specifically:
The course description clearly states that all of the readings, except these two, are available for free.  Furthermore, the course was designed in such a way that the student did not have to submit essays or even do evaluations for 3 of the assignments so skipping these two books would be of no consequence.

It wasn’t long before one could find people on the forums offering copies of these books, saying they would scan copies of them and send them to whomever.  Were they charging for the copies?  Does it matter? 

Fact:  Copying the books for distribution was not necessary for someone to pass the course.
Fact:  Copying the books is illegal and a violation of copyright.
Fact:  The students are cooperating in this on the forums within Coursera
Fact:   Coursera isn’t doing a damn thing about it.

Dr. Rabkin assures and reassures the enrolled students that the forums are monitored.  If that’s the case, does this mean that someone in Coursera is seeing the students offering pirated copies of these copyrighted texts and saying nothing? 

If someone is truly monitoring the forums then yes, Coursera is turning a blind eye to copyright infringement.

I can understand why publishers are unable to address the issue of individuals scanning and distributing copies of books but I would imagine that they would at least be able to demand that Coursera do something about this.  They did nothing about it when I was taking the course.  And, from what I understand, there are already students boldly announcing that they have pirated copies available to anyone who wants or needs them.  But since nobody needs to do all of the assignments to pass the course, then there is no need to do this whatsoever. 

So clearly Coursera doesn’t care or Rabkin is lying when he says that anyone is monitoring the forums.  Either way, Ace Books (a division of Penguin Publishers) and Simon & Schuster can enjoy many iterations of Coursera condoning illegal use of their copyrighted books. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Coursera Modern Poetry Course Really Better?

I wrote a lot about the Science Fiction and Fantasy course I took through Coursera but never took the time to write about the Modern Poetry course I took.  Naturally, I will fall into writing about both courses because that is simply unavoidable.

There were a few things I found highly disturbing about the SF&F course.  What I found most remarkable about the ModPo course is that none of these issues were evident or, if they were, they were nipped in the bud fairly early.  It only makes sense to begin there.

Apparently there was one essay where the commenter suggested that the essay was plagiarized.  I did not receive a one, myself, and I actually evaluated more than the required number of submissions plus I read quite a few more.   In fact, the issue of plagiarism came up as a subject in essays towards the end of the course when we began looking at “chance” or “found poetry, where the poets piece together elements of what they see out there in the world.  If everything that can be said has already been said, it’s merely a matter of representing it in a new or different way.  Kenneth Goldsmith does this in Day, a book that was referenced in but not part of the course. 

In the end, the issue of plagiarism became more a subject of interest than it did a bone of contention.  Unlike in the SF&F course, it did not become a topic of endless discussion nor did the discussion ever degenerate to abusive attacks.  Which brings me to the next issue.

I was understandably alarmed at how hostile the forums in the SF&F course became.  Towards the end of the course, I simply refused to look.  In fact, I hesitated to look at the forums for the ModPo course and had difficulty motivating myself to participate in the discussions there, even though I soon saw that they were not falling apart to the same degree.  Why I could not do this is not the issue at hand.  Of more interest to me is the question why?  Why was ModPo capable of succeeding where SF&F failed some utterly?

The answer is simple:  the professor cared. 

Al Filreis’ presence and participation throughout the course was evident from day one.  His enthusiasm for seeing this experiment be a success is undeniable and infectious.  When someone expressed a concern, he more often than not responded with compassion mixed with honesty. 

The option to post anonymously was still there but when you know that someone with authority—a professor and/or his TAs—is reading what you write, I think some people think twice before being rude or crude.  After all, we all know that whether one does something anonymously online or not, there are means of finding out the true source. 

I have little to no doubt that his responding to things posted kept people from getting too belligerent.  In fact, when one person dared to criticize the hemming and hawing that was part of the videos, the professor stepped in to defend his TAs and the person, who never posted anonymously, immediately engaged in an intelligent manner.  There was no defensiveness or sophomoric nonsense.   Which brings me to the next point.

Peer Evaluations
After the essays were assigned and submitted, a peer review rubric was provided through which we could filter our reading of the essay. 

  • Does the essay discuss (whatever)? 
  • Does the essay writer mention (something or other)? 
  • What else does the essayist have to say about the poem?
The clarity of expectations made the evaluation process over all a more positive one.  But my experience alone cannot suffice so I went to the forums in search of complaints fully expecting to find some.  I am thrilled to say that it was nearly impossible to do so.  The one and only post I could find that was especially critical of the peer review process was responded to by the professor himself.  (May I interject, I don’t know how he found the time!)  The original poster complained that the critiques received were unfair but the professor said that only one was inadequate. 

The truth is I received a rather unhelpful peer evaluation the first week.  I immediately contacted the professor and did not expect a response.  After all, Dr. Rabkin, when he was confronted with an issue with the course, sent a statement to the students saying that he was not to be contacted and all future issues should be addressed on the forums. 

Imagine my surprise when the professor responded within an hour.  More remarkably, I wrote very early in the morning and received his response before business hours.  I don’t know what time this man gets into his office but Al Filreis was there before 7am.  And his response was enough to keep me from dropping the course.  He agreed that the evaluation had not addressed the questions outlined in the rubric and trusted that the other peer reviews I received would be more helpful.

They were. 

Also helpful to the overall peer review experience was the absence of a point system.  Unlike the SF&F course where the peer reviewers were expected to not only write a response but also give a numeric assessment.  But without a clear rubric, the number scale evaluations were all over the place.  In fact, some students thought that 1 a higher grade than a 3 and great essays were given the lowest score possible as a result.  Because the ModPo professor took the time to not only provide a rubric but was not reductive enough to try to apply numbers to a highly subjective matter as an essay, he allowed the peer review process to be a more positive experience than it would have been otherwise.

But wait, there’s more!

The essays we submitted were not as anonymous as I would have liked.  Here is how the process went in both courses:

  • Essays submitted anonymously.
  • A day or two later, essays distributed to other students for peer evaluations.
  • The peer evaluation is submitted.
  • A day or two later, the essay writer receives the peer reviews.
All of this was done anonymously and the students never knew who wrote nor read the essays nor who wrote the peer reviews unless they chose to reveal themselves. 

Now, in the ModPo course there was a slight difference.  When the essays were submitted, they would “go live” on the forums as well.  And on the forums the essays were not anonymous.  So anyone who wanted to know who wrote the essay they were about to peer review could find out who the essayist was. 

While this sort of blew away the whole promise of anonymity, the peer reviews remained anonymous.  When submitted, the peer reviews would manifest on the forums with the essay they were evaluating.  I’m glad that they managed to keep some of the anonymity.   And this brings me to the next point.

Public Peer Review Responses
While remaining anonymous, I believe there was some value in having them available on the forums not only for the essayist receiving them.  For those so inclined, one could conceivably go to see what others said about the essay you yourself had evaluated.  You could compare your response to those given by others and, presumably (even hopefully) adjust your efforts accordingly. 

This could explain why there were so few complaints about the peer reviews after the first essay.  I only found the one and, as I mentioned above, the professor was on top of it.  That we could see how others were responding to the essays and not simply our own, we could be more objective about our own work.  Truth is, it’s hard to objectively evaluate feedback given on something you yourself wrote.  But when reading how you assessed someone else’s writing and then comparing what you wrote to what someone else wrote is less likely to create a knee-jerk defensiveness. 

These are some of the reasons I think that the Modern Poetry course offered on Coursera is superior to the Science Fiction and Fantasy course.  Mark your calendars because the Modern Poetry course will be offered again in September 2013.  

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Time to Go With the Flow and Vogue

No matter how unexpected
my week may be, any week I get
to Bibisit is a good one!

I distinctly recalled saying that things should settle down into normalcy in February but it hasn’t.  It really hasn’t. 

The week began with my being interviewed by a reporter from Wall Street Journal. There will be an article online any day now and, if I remember to look for it, I’ll link to it here in my blog but let’s be honest . . . things have to settle down if there’s any real hope of my remembering anything.

Can I blame all of the medical billing and coding stuff for consuming every last jot and tittle of my memory capabilities or is that too big a stretch? 

Bibi drew a self-portrait using
dry erase markets (hence, the glare).
Truth is, I’m dreading that something I said will be taken out of context.  But I can’t control that and the article is about one of the courses I took with Coursera.  The reporter found my blog posts about the Science Fiction & Fantasy course and asked to speak with me.  Because I was talking about the one course, I was reminded of the other, the Modern Poetry course, and I’ll be sharing my thoughts about that course over the next few days. 

On Tuesday I was Bibisitting which is always a fun thing and on Friday I was getting ready for my son to come by for an overnight visit.  Yep, my son flew all the way down from Chicago to spend the night so he could then drive his car back with him. 

Marc talking while packing.
Didn’t I tell you that things have been a little strange?  I mean, how often does a national publication call me up for an interview?  How often do I get to see Marc?  (Okay, lately it seems like every six weeks or so but before then it was months and months!)  And what about the photographer?  Oh, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Marc’s car had been left in the hands of Joe & Co to use while Marc was looking for a “real job” by which we mean he was trying to get something other than a food service job.  Now that he’s working for a major company with offices in several countries, he can afford to have a car in Chicago so he came here to retrieve it.  While here, we went through his boxes and sorted out the books and such he wanted to take with him above and beyond the rest.  We filled his car with his boxes and his keyboard and clothes and even his coffee maker. 

Darn.  I was planning on using it if he insisted on leaving it behind again.  Oh well.  I still have my French press. 

I like this although the
composition is off.
So Saturday morning after picking up and packing up his car, we sent Marc on his merry way and I sort of wandered around the house feeling bereft.  He came all that way and only here for one night.  *sniffle*

Actually, the sniffle is more likely due to my fighting something, which I still think I am but since I haven’t officially come down with anything . . .

Which brings me to this morning and meeting with a photographer from the Wall Street Journal who was here to take my photo for this interview I did earlier this week.  He was a very nice man and made me feel as comfortable as he could, given my utter distaste for having my picture taken.  An hour later, we were done and sometime this week somewhere out there will be an article with my face in it.  He took pictures of me in profile and facing the camera.  I’ll bet you now that the one picked is a profile shot because I give good profile and terrible face. 

I am no Greta Garbo, although I do like to be alone.

And so another crazy week has come and gone and by crazy I just mean that in December, when I was thinking about the things that would happen, I didn’t think I would be interviewed by a newspaper or that I’d see my son mere weeks after saying goodbye to him after Christmas.  Maybe this week we will finally settle down into some normalcy although I am not going to count on it.  There’s a lot of ebb and flow around here and I’ve a feeling that the rest of the year has some surprises.  And since you can’t prepare for a surprise, the best you can do is go with the flow.