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.


#edcmooc Digital Artifact

This week, the MOOC is coming to an end and we’re finishing up our only “graded” (not really the best word; it’s more of a peer assessment) assignment of the semester. As part of this assignment, I’ve created a digital artifact that incorporates both text and image to convey my message, which is the idea of writing as a technology (a huge takeaway for me in both ENGL516 and the MOOC):


I used Adobe Photoshop CS2 (I’m old school and also too cheap to buy newer versions) to create the artifact. Specifically, I wrote out the text and then used a selector tool to choose groupings of letters at once. I then overlaid different images of some of the tools and things that come to mind when I think about writing technologies. In choosing these images, I wanted a good mix of the more “obvious” tools that we think of as writing technologies (for example, computer and phone keyboards) as well as tools that I have grown to appreciate as writing technologies (carvings, pencils, pens, etc–the less obvious ones).

All of these images, then, make up the overall message that “writing is technology.” And as much as we discussed and read about the various digital tools and inventions that are out there these days to make our lives easier (maybe?)–and to make writing easier (and multimodal)–I have come away from the “E-learning and Digital Cultures” with this overarching message in my mind. And as we continue to think about how new writing technologies may develop or how existing technologies may be adapted to teach, reflect, create, and connect, I think it’s important to come back to this message every so often.

Writing is not an inherent skill that any human is born with. We’re not hard-wired for it (though perhaps in a posthuman world we could be). For now, we learn it through modeling, practice, and more practice. And as technologies develop to make writing “easier,” this is something that needs to be kept in mind.


More MOOC Stuff (and Reflections on Transhumanism)

I feel like the MOOC is getting farther and farther away from what I was hoping it would be with each passing week. And it’s a bummer, because I started out pretty optimistic.

This week, we did more readings on humanism/transhumanism/posthumanism, and I’m having a hard time finding connections between these readings and online teaching (which is what I’d been hoping the class would have more of a focus on). The two concepts seem like they’re on totally different ends of the spectrum for me, though I did enjoy the Stacey Pigg article on student bodies that we read for 516 this week.

I guess I’m just feeling kind of tired of the MOOC at this point because of all the focus on this idea of humanism and transhumanism, which is something I just can’t get into (and believe me, I’ve tried). I do believe that there is something inherently different about being a human as opposed to an, say, an ape…but I don’t really see the point in advancing an idea of humanism. And as for transhumanism, I actually found Nick Bostrom’s “Transhumanist Values” articles to be a depressing read.

Specifically, I didn’t care for the negative way Bostrom in which portrayed the “normal” human life, such as his claim that “lasting joy remains elusive.” I get that there are some pretty awful things that happen in the world and that everybody has their trials and tribulations, but I guess I’ve just been lucky enough to always feel like I’ve got it pretty good regardless. To quote American Beauty (because I like to do this as often as humanly possible), “there’s plenty of joy in my life.” 🙂

Aside from that, Bostrom’s claims just seemed very generalized, not well-thought-out, and generally individualistic (a claim that I believe Katherine Hayles, in “Wrestling with Transhumanism” made about transhumanist notions as a whole). You can’t just list all of these ideal conditions that would be in place for the transhumanist vision to become a reality and then not explain how those conditions would ever actually come to be. Specifically, Bostrom mentions that there would have to be equal access of technologies to everybody. Okay…how? How is that going to be a possibility when not everybody in the world has even remotely equal access to things like health care? Or food? Or water?

On the bright side, Hayles article was refreshing because it exactly addressed the kinds of issues I have with the idea of transhumanism. I appreciated that she took some of the ideas of transhumanism and essentially said “even though I don’t agree with these, I still think they’re useful to think about. Let’s put them in another context: science fiction!” Now, I’m not a big scifi fan, but looking at it through that lens was refreshing. Not to mention, some of the literature she was discussing actually sounded pretty interesting.

Anyway, the MOOC will be wrapping up next week, so here’s to hoping that week 5 is a better one.

Lowell Monke’s “The Human Touch”

In this article, Monke essentially makes the claim that we have too much faith in technology and rely on it too heavily without even thinking about it, especially when it comes to our implementation of it in K-12 classrooms. Furthermore, he argues that computer availability, contrary to popular belief, does not lead to test score and school performance improvement and that, in using computers in the classroom, specific kinds of learning are left out. Finally, Monke makes the case for concentrating computers and other “high tech” technologies in the higher grades of K-12 education and “honor the natural developmental stages of childhood.”

While this article was written almost a decade ago now, I’m still surprised that it was written as recently as 2004. With the kinds of claims Monke makes against the use of computers in schools, I probably would have guessed that this article was even older (maybe 1994 rather than 2004).

In general, I disagree with Monke’s sentiments about technology and computer use in the classroom. And personally, I was a bit offended by his comment that it was “students who had curtailed their time climbing the trees, rolling the dough, and conversing with friends and adults in order to become computer ‘wizards’ who typically had the most trouble finding creative things to do with the computer.” Here, it seems like he’s trying to make the point that it’s impossible to know how to use a computer and to have a social life at the same time–an argument that is idiotic.

I also had some issues with Monke’s argument against 2 dimensional, abstract learning. He explains that children don’t learn well through abstractions and that’s all computers have to offer. But what about children who learn through flashcards? These are pretty common educational tools, especially in a child’s early schooling years, that are effective in using abstractions (two dimensional drawings of real objects) to teach.

One good point that Monke did bring up that I have never thought about is that “Clinging to the belief that computers have no effect on us allows us to turn a blind eye to the sacrifices that schools have made to accommodate them.” He explains the amount of funding that goes into introducing a computer lab to a school, maintaining it, and protecting it. In the meantime, this often leads to budget cuts for other areas of the school. I think this is a legitimate and current concern, and I wish he would have spent more time discussing this point in the article instead of the many others that (for me, at least) fell flat.

ENGL516: Connections Between Online Teaching & Online Tutoring

In signing up for ENGL516 this semester, one of the things I was hoping to get out of the class was a way to make connections between ways of online teaching and online tutoring. I’ve worked in the University Writing Center for almost two years now, and since I got into the world of tutoring by taking ENGL479 (Peer Tutoring) during my last year of undergrad, I’ve been curious about online writing centers. Specifically, I have wondered how (or if) it is possible to recreate the f2f experience a student receives in a traditional, on-campus tutoring session online.

Yesterday, I read an article by Lisa M. Lane entitled “Insidious Pedagogy: How Course Management Systems Impact Teaching.” In this article, Lane makes the argument that most faculty teaching online classes these days are simply not familiar wit how to get the most out of Course Management Systems (CMS). Furthermore, she argues that CMS setups shape teaching pedagogy through their design and function.

The downside of this, she claims, is that the design of many CMS focus on “presentation and assessment” in the form of lectures, discussions, and tests. This reflects the “traditional” view of classroom teaching, where teachers spew out information and students write it down and are expected to memorize it for the test. This is contrary to the pedagogy that many teachers claim to have these days. We know these “traditional” notions of teaching are not what’s best for students, so why are CMS setup to perpetuate them?

At the end of her article, Lane calls for more “opt-in systems” that allow teachers to essentially build the course, as opposed to “opt-out systems” that are basically pre-made and lead to teachers feeling overwhelmed. She also maintains that teachers need to focus on considering their pedagogy first and then thinking about how a CMS can help them teach according to it. But is this really something that can be learned through training? Why not just train teachers how to actually use the programs?

Anyway, this article got me thinking about online writing centers and how the software/systems in place to handle online writing consultations can also impact tutoring pedagogy. I began thinking specifically about the current setup of EMU’s University Writing Center Online and the nature of the consultations. Students submit a paper through the website, along with a description of the assignment and a list of the writer’s concerns. From there, a tutor responds to the paper via e-mail with comments and suggestions within 48-72 hours.

I think most writing center tutors would agree with me that having a f2f writing consultation–or at the very least, a real-time one–is ideal. As a peer tutor, I was taught the importance of body language, eye contact, and personal space in a consultation. I was also taught to value having a real dialogue about a student’s work, rather than just spewing out feedback and making corrections to the writer’s paper myself. And like I said, I don’t think I’m alone here in thinking this way.

But with asynchronous online writing consultations such as the current system that EMU’s UWC has in place, it is pretty clear that our basic pedagogy is not well supported. An e-mail consultation does not allow for the dialogue that is needed to hold a productive consultation. I’m not trying to bash our current system–especially because I know first-hand the effort that goes into these online consultations by the consultants to make the experience as useful for the writer as possible–but I do hope that we can someday have more synchronous online consultations in the future. Schools like U of M and others already offer live video chat consultations in their writing centers, so hopefully this is something that will not be too far off in the future for EMU.

In fact, me and some other UWC consultants put together a student survey at the end of last semester as a way of gauging the overall awareness of our current online program, as well as the demand for more synchronous methods of online tutoring. With any luck, EPEO will have this survey out soon and it will be a catalyst for some changes in the way the UWCO functions.

Reflections on the Coursera MOOC Experience #edcMOOC

This week, I began an “E-Learning and Digital Cultures” MOOC through Coursera as a part of my ENGL516: Computers and Writing, Theory and Practice class. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept of a MOOC…it stands for “Massive Online Open Course.” These are essentially classes that are offered online to everybody; you don’t need to be admitted to a college or university to join, and there are classes available in a wide variety of subject matter. Coursera is just one of many websites that offer MOOCs. All of them are free of cost and many are taught by professors from major universities across the globe. And while students who complete a MOOC do not directly receive college credit, many of the courses do offer a certificate for students who pass the course.

While a good friend of mine had told me about Coursea a few months back (I think she was enrolled in a class on psychology at the time), I was not very familiar with the concept of a MOOC until I began my class this week.

The first thing I noticed was that there’s really no understating the “Massive” part of the acronym. I tried to do a little bit of searching around the course page to see if there’s actually a number of enrolled students listed somewhere, but I wasn’t able to find anything. Still, to give an idea as to the size of the class…in one thread in our discussion forum for this week alone, there are close to 400 posts and 8,600 views. And in an article titled “All About MOOCs” by Rosanna Tamburri, it’s suggested that MOOC class sizes of 40,000 students or more are not unheard of.

On our 516 class blog, the latest discussion thread has 16 posts…

While participating in the discussion forums in the MOOC is not required by the teachers, it is recommended to prepare us for the final assessment (which is actually the only thing we’ll be officially graded on). I have to say, I’m having a hard time feeling like I’m getting anything out of the discussion forum. It’s enough of a challenge to skim through hundreds of posts, let alone to make a contribution that isn’t repetitive. I tried bringing up some new points and asking a couple of questions here and there in my posts to generate more of a discussion. I think a couple of people responded, but the “discussion” (if you can even call it that) derailed soon after, as people began posting their own interpretations of the videos or readings–basically saying the same things that had already been said dozens of times.

To me, the discussion forums in the MOOC don’t seem like discussions at all; they seem to function as more of a space to “dump” one’s thoughts without really trying to engage in conversations with the rest of the (huge) class. I wonder why this is. Is it the class size that’s making it so difficult (we don’t seem to have these issues in our 516 discussions)? Do people just like to spew their own opinions and ignore everybody else’s input (my answer to this is yes regardless)?

This isn’t to say I’m not enjoying the MOOC experience. Personally, I loved the short videos that we watched for this week and I really like having the option to kind of pick and choose the readings we want to do based on our own interests. I also have a feeling that the forum discussions will improve as people drop stop participating in the class (hate to say it), which, according to Tamburri, is essentially inevitable. In “All About MOOCs,” she explains that “dropout rates for MOOCs are exceptionally high. Dr. Siemens estimates that about 10 percent of registrants in his MOOCs (albeit smaller versions of the high-profile U.S. type) complete the course.”