Inside MOOCs: A First Hand Account, Part 1

January 28th, 2013, by § 1 Comment

As MOOCs are all the rage these days, I thought I should take one for a spin to see what the experience was like, from the standpoint of a student. I find the pedagogical implications of MOOCs, or “massive open online courses” to be intriguing, and I am always interested in furthering my education. I’m drawn to the ethnographic possibilities in any situation, so when Patricia Lange suggested that I might do an ethno diary of my MOOCing experience, I jumped at the chance. This is the first of the diary entries, with initial impressions of the first week of class. I intend to add additional entries during the semester.

I haven’t seen the inside of a classroom, either as a student or teacher, for some years, having had to concede my part-time lecturing to the pressing need for health insurance. Currently I work on behalf of others’ research in a field not my own, but it’s steady work and I can now afford to see a doctor. The struggle to find a teaching position for an MA/ABD scholar in anthropology is particularly difficult, as anyone who has a PhD and a resume on the move might well appreciate. But this has not dampened my enthusiasm for education, and so I’m always up for immersion in new forms.

I signed up for an undergraduate-level course on the history of the modern world, taught by a University of Virginia prof with an impressive CV. While I can lay claim to an expensive graduate education, I was missing a good overview of world history, and I was especially interested in getting a good chronology of the birth and growth of modernism, so this seemed an ideal course.  After signing up, I received a few emails reminding me when the course would start, with some hints as to what to expect, and with the startling information that approximately 40,000 people had also signed up for the same course. (I’ve since learned that upwards of 100,000 people for a course is not unheard of.) After that, I received no new information until the first day of “class.”

Some initial impressions and take-aways:

When there are 40,000 people in your class, you should order your books as early as possible. In this course, in fact, there is an online textbook that one can “rent” for about $25 for the semester. There is also a recommended reading list, with at least one book that shows up in the syllabus frequently, that one can backorder online. Presumably my copy will show up during the semester. None of these readings, by the way, are required for the course, but are recommended if you want to go beyond the PowerPoint. I assume that a great many people are purchasing or leasing a license to read the textbook. (Non-American students apparently are having trouble accessing the textbook.)

The forums for the course are active. If you’ve spent a modicum of time in social networks, this is comfortable territory, and the first forum established is the standard “Who are you people and where are you from?” query. So far, about 800 people have responded to the question, and from a brief look at the replies, I see that the majority of students are not logging in from the US; there seem to be a substantial number from China, Ukraine, Brazil, Australia, Canada, the UK, Spain, and the Philippines. There is at least one student from Mozambique, and many other countries as far-flung as one can imagine from UVA.

Issues of scale are, of course, immediately evident. Early numbers seem to indicate that one can expect a course to end with 7 to 9 percent of its original student body. That’s still an impressive number of people. And, of course, I’m the student body; it’s just me at my desk. Me and my professor, who seems quite charming.

The professor, of course, is talking to me on my computer, in much the same way that the host of a PBS program is talking to me on my TV. It’s a comfortable space to be in; it’s recognizably cozy. I can fix my gaze and memorize expressions and gestures, without embarrassment. And then I can go to the forum, where the fans are gathering to discuss which catch phrases and expressions are generating buzz. “Make yourself comfortable,” the professor tells us at the beginning of each video session (and there are several of these each week), except when he doesn’t say it. “He didn’t tell me to make myself comfortable at the start of section 2.4! I had to make myself comfortable without being reminded.” A joke, but telling of the significance of a repeated phrase of welcome. An active forum describes how delightful his smile is when he tells us that he’ll see us next time. Charming and witty! People are loving our professor.

There are people working behind the scenes; they are the MOOC team. I presume that these are TAs and RAs. I want to find out more about this team, but so far they seem to be working on glitches with grading and swiftly rewriting quiz questions into a multiple-choice format, as the forums are alight with disgruntled quiz-takers, especially those for whom English is not the first language.

And who are the students? Are we assuming an audience that is of undergraduate age, more or less, people who are not well-served by or without access to the current American undergraduate system? A cursory look at the forum replies about why people are taking the class shows that — at least among those who are self-selecting to answer the question — many of the students are retired and want to exercise their intellects; others are Americans living overseas, or are new mothers who need some stimulation. Many are people who already have college educations but want to add something to their educational resumes.

It’s early days with MOOCs, of course, and with my personal experience, but I’m seeing some intriguing patterns that may not fit with the expectations of those who are eyeing the platform with pedagogical suspicion or with hope for a radical disruption of the current model for college education.

Comments regarding my MOOC diary entries are most enthusiastically welcome!

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I’m seeing some intriguing patterns that may not fit with the expectations of those who are eyeing the platform with pedagogical suspicion or with hope for a radical disruption of the current model for college education.

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