MOOC Debriefing: A Reflection on the “E-Learning and Digital Cultures” Experience

Up until the start of ENGL516 this semester, I had never heard the term “MOOC” in my life, though I was vaguely familiar with the Coursera website; a friend of mine had told me about a free class that she was taking out of curiosity. I was fascinated and intrigued by the idea of free online classes, especially having never personally experienced anything other than the traditional on-campus, face-to-face class. As our ENGL516 readings and discussions on MOOCs and our participation in the “E-learning and Digital Cultures” MOOC progressed over the last couple of months, however, my optimism took a turn towards skepticism. Overall, I would argue that MOOCs are a viable learning outlet for people who are genuinely interested and motivated in a particular subject, but that they are no substitution (not even close) to the traditional classroom experience or even a small online class like ENGL516.

The main issue that I think prevents MOOCs from being effective, at least in my experience with the “E-learning and Digital Cultures” Coursera class, is its sheer size. I don’t know what the exact enrollment in our MOOC was, but with many of these classes reaching enrollment in the tens of thousands or more, the ability to form a sense of community in the classroom simply is not there. This was particularly evident in the discussion forums on the MOOC, where any given thread could have hundreds of posts but not much actual discussion. Instead, the forums turned into a place for students in the class to dump their thoughts or summarize an article; very rarely did I see any real back-and-forth conversation happening. And sifting through the dozens of repetitive posts to find anything worthwhile to respond to was a true exercise in patience.

One suggestion that I have (and that I think I have mentioned before) is to break large MOOCs up into smaller groups for the discussion forums. Personally, I am a part of a few different websites with discussion forums where there are hundreds or even thousands of members, yet there remains a sense of community and the forum posts turn into meaningful discussions and debates. Perhaps breaking a larger MOOC’s forums down so that there are only a few thousand (or less, depending on the size of the class overall) students posting in each one could make for better conversation, though I’m not sure.

Another aspect that I felt was lacking in the MOOC experience was that of any interaction with and feedback from the instructors of the course itself. While they did set up a couple of Google Hangouts to allow students to get to know them better, I was unable to attend. I think it would have helped the class feel less impersonal if they had taken the time to post on the discussion forums more often; I believe that, just as in a traditional face-to-face classroom, instructors can play a huge role in guiding or mediating discussion. This mediation was missing altogether in the MOOC, though I believe this all goes back to the problem of the sheer size of the class.

This is not to say that I do not believe that the only way to foster interaction and give legitimate feedback is in the face-to-face classroom. I agree with authors like Steve Kolowich that the lack of “human element” can be solved in an online class. Specifically, Kolowich maintains that by introducing more audio and video components and taking advantage of programs such as Moodle and Skype, instructors can foster a more personal connection to their students. As a 2009 study confirmed and as Kolowich summarizes in his article “The Human Element,” students feel more invested in a class and trusting of an instructor when they see his or her face. He refers to this as the “illusion of non-mediation,” though an overwhelming majority of our interactions with the instructors in the MOOC was text-based.

Finally, the evaluation process was of the MOOC was (simply put) a nightmare. Our success in the course was based on one assignment that was completed at the end of the class. And while the assignment itself, I think, was fitting (it required us to use different mediums such as text, audio, and visual elements to demonstrate our knowledge of various topics of the course itself), I was not impressed with the peer evaluation process. While I do believe that peer assessment can be useful and often coincide quite accurately with instructors’ evaluations, this was not the case in our MOOC.

Perhaps a lot of this had to do with the fact that assessing multimodal composition is a flat out challenge, even for experienced instructors. This is a concern that authors like Katz & Odell address in “Making the Implicit Explicit in Assessing Multimodal Composition” and one that Cheryl Ball has done a lot of work on. All of these authors make the claim that assessment of multimodal texts must, in large part, involve negotiation and construction of an assignment’s criteria because one instructor’s definition of a “well organized” paper may be completely different from another’s. (Ball 2)

So if defining these evaluative terms is hard enough for instructors when it comes to assessing multimodal assignments, how can we expect our fellow peers to be any more successful? While I do think having several different peer evaluators give feedback on each assignment in the MOOC was helpful, I still found the assessment criteria to include some evaluative terms that were never defined by the instructors. For example, part of the assessment involves determining whether or not “the choice of media is appropriate for the message.” How do we define “appropriateness”?

And personally (I’m not yet sure of my other classmates’ experience with the peer assessment process), I found that only one of my four peer reviewers even addressed all five assessment criteria in their evaluations of my work. The rest of the peers who evaluated my digital artifact assignment seemed to not have much interest in the process at all, based on their brief comments. For example, my fourth peer reviewer wrote a total of 11 words to evaluate all five criteria (we were asked to keep it closer to 250 words). In fact, looking at the evaluation I received, it seems like only one of my reviewers actually put much thought or time into assessing my work and writing out feedback for me. While this one reviewer was very helpful and gave me some useful insight, I cannot say the same about the other three because they simply did not have much to say.

I realize that, with the “E-learning and Digital Cultures” MOOC being a humanities-based class, the large size of the class (again, going back to size being a main issue) makes it difficult for instructors to give direct feedback and assessment of our work. Because of this, it makes sense to me that they would opt for peer review, but to me, it just was not effective and I honestly do not feel like I got much out of the assignment because of the assessment process. In a way, I feel as though a math class or a class that could frequently give and accurately score multiple choice quizzes or exams might be better suited for a MOOC over a humanities class. This is especially true because I do not think we’re quite at the point of having the technology to effectively machine-grade writing assignments; I agree with authors like Vojak, Kline, Cope, McCarthey, and Kalantzis that views of writing need to expand beyond mechanics and generic form if we want to come up with better writing assessment software.

Even still, it seems risky to argue that a math or science-based course would be a good fit for a MOOC if we look at it in terms of interdisciplinary writing. I think that we’re finally getting somewhere when it comes to having writing incorporated into classes in every discipline and wonder if MOOCs could be a threat to this progress.

While I did enjoy a good portion of the MOOC course material (especially the weekly videos), my overall experience with the class has led me to become very skeptical of MOOCs as an alternative to the physical classroom experience or even the experience of a smaller online class conducted directly through a college or university. For me, it all boils down to the size of the class; in order to be effective, I’m convinced that class sizes would need to be a lot smaller. However, this then leads to more difficult questions. How can MOOC sizes be cut down? Charging money to enroll might be one way to go about it, but then this defeats the idea of accessibility to education for all that Coursera claims to exist for in the first place.

All in all, MOOCs can be a good place to explore interests and learn if one is genuinely interested in the subject matter and perhaps the entire experience will improve over time, but in the meantime I simply do not think they even remotely resemble a college classroom experience. As Aaron Bady declares, “MOOCs are only better than nothing and speculation that this will someday change is worth pursuing, but for now, remains just that, speculation.” So I will remain skeptical. Very, very skeptical.

2 thoughts on “MOOC Debriefing: A Reflection on the “E-Learning and Digital Cultures” Experience

  1. Jackie K. says:

    Danielle, I enjoyed reading through your essay, and I was nodding as I went along, because I made many of the same points myself (sometimes almost in the same order!). I was really interested in your paragraph about interdisciplinary writing. I hadn’t really considered MOOCs as a potential threat (for lack of a better term) to writing studies across the disciplines, but thinking about it, they certainly could be. It’s a lot easier, assessment-wise, to see if a student has come up with the correct number or formula than to read a written evaluation of something.

    • daniellenewby says:

      Jackie, the possibility of MOOCs being a threat to interdisciplinary writing was something that just sort of popped into my head as I was wrapping up my paper, but I decided to include it to see what others might think . I’m glad that it made sense to you, too.

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