A Few More MOOC Thoughts


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By SocProf.

So, here we are again. MOOCs are very much still the talk of the academic town. And I am still working my way through a few of them. I actually just completed edX’s Statistics 2.1x – Descriptive Statistics out of BerkeleyX. The course itself, I thought, was very good and very well done. It was a 5-week long course, with strict deadlines, weekly graded assignments, a mid-term and a final. The courseware itself consisted of videos of about 15 minutes (except for the last week where one of the videos was 39 minutes long… Yikes). The main instructor was Berkeley’s Ani Adhikari and she was an excellent teacher. Overall, the again, the videos were well done (mostly powerpoint-style presentations with voice-over, both – video and pdf files – downloadable), the content was perfectly appropriate, the teaching sound, the exams quite rigorous but quite doable if you paid attention to the lectures (and you needed to pay very close attention). This was not a casual course. So, that is for the positive aspect.

The main negative thing, for me, was the discussion board. In MOOCs, discussion boards can be used for peer review grading or simply for discussion and for students to get some help if they get stuck. By definition, a MOOC will not offer access to professors the same way that credit-bearing course will, no office hours. So, a message board can be a valuable tool. Except, in this case, the board was terrible. Very clearly, in this course, with about 47,000 students, message boards can get crazy. In this case, the population for the course was obviously very diverse, with a lot of non-English speakers, people with different levels of education, age, occupations, and Internet access. Let us not forget that MOOCs do nothing to alleviate the digital divide. In this sense, they are not as open as one might think. They are open to those with time, access to hardware, software and skills.

So, after the very first few days, the message boards were inundated with a lot of overlapping posts, protesting the tight deadlines, a few typos and errors in Week 1 assignments, the video streaming speed, the number of possible submissions for graded exercises (“Coursera allows 3, Udacity, as many as you need, why are getting only one or two?”) and pretty much everything that could possibly be protested (including a quite funny argument regarding the meaning of GMT that Ani Adhikari herself blogged about… and yes, she has a blog specifically for her MOOC experience). There were initially breaches of the code of conduct where students posted answers to the graded exercises (or asked directly for such answers). Now, obviously, with so many students, even if a minority never participates in the message boards, only 5 to 10% participation can create a gigantic mess.

The nasty part was when what seemed to be a tight groups of students who had already taken edX courses (and therefore knew the format) took it upon themselves to police the message boards. They started berating the other students, sometimes being downright insulting. Then they would pat each other on the back for their wit and smarts, and how everybody else was stupid. Overall, they behaved like a pack of bullying juniors and seniors in high school going after hapless freshmen. This was very unpleasant, and, in many ways, inappropriate. I don’t know if these students were tasked by edX to manage the boards. If not, then they had an enormous amount of time to devote to the task anyway as they were omnipresent, always at the ready to slam down other students. And from the comments they made, I gathered that at least one of them had behaved the same way in a previous course. At one point, she commented that boards need order, and, apparently, she decided it was her job.

I know message boards are supposed to be self-managed and it would take a lot of resources for MOOC providers to have full-time moderators but it is simply not acceptable to have one group of people bully everyone else who dares show up on the board without what these students considered to be appropriate behavior (I did struggle as to whether I should step in and push back a bit, ultimately, I decided to stay away from the boards… cowardly, I know). And if a few students fought back against the bullies, then, the immediate retort was that they should not complain because the course was free so they should be happy with what they were given. No teacher would let such dynamics develop in-class or online.

In the end, I would be curious to know what percentage of the initial 47,000 completed the course. As we know, completion rates tend to be abysmal in MOOCs, as demonstrated by this rather not-very-nice interactive graphic (thanks to Siva Vaidhyanathan to the left (Alberto Cairo might have a heart attack). It is interactive, so, click on it to go play.

Overall, it shows that the MOOC with the highest completion rate got about 20%. Everything else, is very low. Auto-graded-only courses seem to have slightly higher completion rates. Those are usually math or computer science courses. Peer-graded-only courses seem to be at the bottom, and that includes an introduction to sociology (:-().

Maybe courses that require more reading, writing and discussions have higher drop / non-completion rates than courses, like statistics, where the completion of problems and exercises is straightforward. If that were the case, this would be rather indicting for the format especially for those who think that freshmen survey courses should be offered as MOOCs as cost-saving. As we already know, MOOCs will not save money. And at this point, there is actually no business model for MOOCs.

I am currently enrolled in other MOOCS (statistics again, but this time, at Coursera) and I plan on taking Stats 2.2 with edX again. That is the thing about MOOCs, though, they don’t seem to be full of students. They seem to be full of people like me: with jobs, middle age or around that, mostly there for knowledge and professional development, or refreshers on the topics.

For those of you who read French, check out this report from Remy Besson from Culture Visuelle, after is MOOC experience at Coursera, taking E-Learning and Digital Culture.

Also check out Sister Edith blog post on why we should not be so hung up about the poor retention / completion rates in MOOCs (the sister is, like me, an alumna of Alberto Cairo’s first MOOC on infographics and data visualization).

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  1. #1 by jax on December 16, 2013 - 7:26 am

    “(I did struggle as to whether I should step in and push back a bit, ultimately, I decided to stay away from the boards… cowardly, I know”

    “And if a few students fought back against the bullies, then, the immediate retort was that they should not complain because the course was free so they should be happy with what they were given.”

    I just completed a MOOC for edX and found these quotes resonated with me! The “bullies” have so much time on their hands and are sometimes taking the course on their second or third iteration.

    I am a bit disappointed in MIT for allowing this kind of thing on their courses. Many of the people being mocked were simply using English improperly (and often not to a large degree!) or had made simple, very human, mistakes.

    I have taken a MOOC on Coursera in a different subject and the environment was very different, probably due to more Instructor, real-life course TAs, participation and generally a better discussion forum layout.

  2. #2 by jax on December 16, 2013 - 7:34 am

    I also wanted to say I found your explanation on the openness of MOOCs to people with low education backgrounds very thoughtful.

    My own experience would bear out that people with exceptional: digital access, resources in time, money, education, or talent, are in a position to create something like a “super tier” of users and move the course away from the egalitarianism supposedly inherit in MOOCS, if that makes sense.

    These people are afforded opportunity after opportunity in MOOCs to be snobs or even bullies…

    One reason, is probably because of a design assumption of MOOCs that the “high-knowledge” users will act something like TAs would in a physical course.

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