Monday, December 09, 2013

The MOOC experience

I've completed my first massive open online course (MOOC). It was weird at the start, but it didn't take long to get my bearings.

Here's how it worked.

I enrolled in Soren Kierkegaard: Subjectivity, Irony, and the Crisis of Modernity. So did 23,000 other people.

Every week new course material was released: 3 or 4 videos, each on average about 20 minutes long; a list of required reading (PDFs were supplied); a discussion question; a quiz.

So over the last 2 months, I have watched several hours of professional documentary-quality video, and read a couple hundred pages of Kierkegaard, with some Plato and Hegel thrown in.

The quality of the video lectures really surprised me; this was not merely a recording of some fuddy-duddy lecturing in front of a classroom. This professor was a great speaker; he was filmed in various locations around Copenhagen. There were also several interviews with other Kierkegaard scholars. Each video ended with a quiz question, which was not graded but was meant simply to reinforce your understanding of the video material.

The weekly quiz consisted of 10 multiple-choice questions. These did count toward the final grade. They weren't hard, but they weren't easy. I learned early to take my time and refer to my notes, which meant taking better notes during the lectures. Before you submit each quiz, you must check the box indicating that you will abide by the honor code, which states something to the effect of your work being your own (but there's nothing to preclude me from using my notes).

In the first days, the discussion forum exploded with 23,000 people sharing their enthusiasm and trying to get to know each other. That was a bit overwhelming. But I eventually learned to identify which discussions I wanted to follow and know that I couldn't stay on top of them all in any meaningful way even if I devoted all my waking hours to the task. I learned to tune out the white noise.

The course information indicated that the material would require 3-5 hours a week. I'd say it's a bit more. And that estimate doesn't include the potential timesink of the forums.

Some people complained about the deadline for the final essay. I was amazed, and disappointed, that the deadline was adjusted to accommodate the whiners. The schedule had been made clear at the outset of the course, and I expected everyone to stick to it; in fact, pushing back the deadlines by a week very nearly jeopardized my ability to complete the final stage (peer review) because I had organized my life around the original dates. It worked out though, but this shouldn't happen. An extra week for the final essay should've been built in from the start — working on an essay while keeping up with the regular weekly assignments is tough.

It's difficult to grade the humanities in the best of circumstances, and a MOOC is not the best of circumstances. The grade breakdown for this course was 70% from quiz scores (best 7 of 8) and 30% from an averaging of your peers' assessments of your essay. My feeling is that the quizzes were too easy to be given that weight. Essay marks, however, are hard to control — less quantifiable, more open to dispute.

Is it a perfect setup? No. But can you teach the humanities via MOOCs? Absolutely.

According to this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education and the survey they conducted, the median for MOOC registrations is about 33,000 students (so my Kierkegaard course is a bit on the low side).
  • The rate of completion in MOOCs is believed to be around 10 percent.
  • For students who so much as submit the first assignment, the completion rate leaps to 45 percent.
  • And it goes up again if students pay for the course.

So I'm proud to have finished.

And I've already registered for more.

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