March 19th, 2013, by Adrienne Young Comments Off
On a personal note, I’ve noticed that a medical event is not as devastating to progress in a semester when the class is online as it might be in a regular classroom. I may be behind, but I’m not missing the lectures. This is a real boon for students who have chronic or recurring illnesses, and a true benefit of a MOOC (massive open online course).
But I’m also behind in my MOOC diary which I started several weeks ago, and I hope the reader will forgive me for that. Now, onward.
A friend pointed me to this quote:
“And, finally, the organization of popular education will pass into the hands of Radio. The Supreme Soviet of Sciences will broadcast lessons and lectures to all schools of the country—higher institutions as well as lower.
“The teacher will become merely a monitor while these lectures are in progress. The daily transmission of lessons and textbooks through the sky into country schools of the nation, the unification of its consciousness into a single will.
“Thus will Radio forge continuous links in the universal soul and mold mankind into a single entity.”
(Velimir Khlebnikov, “Radio of the Future” , trans. Paul Schmidt)
Seems to me that every new version of mass media has attempted to find a way to spread education to the masses, since the advent of the printing press. I remember old language records from childhood. Radio was seen as a potential pedagogical tool, and TV too, of course. NPR and PBS have maintained some success in this, of course, but pity all the cable channels that had their eyes on edification and now rely almost entirely on reality shows about child beauty pageants and weapons freaks.
There have certainly been some success in educational software. Rosetta Stone, for example, has taught me more French than I’d have gathered in the classroom, with less self-consciousness about learning to speak with a vaguely reasonable accent.
So it’s not surprising there are multiple outlets online for cobbling together an education online. The first real hit out of the ballpark was probably Khan Academy (khanacademy.org), which is a phenomenon of its own. But online learning is nothing new. A lot of schools had been partnering their classroom experiences with online content. My nephew in medical school tells me that there are many classes that people need not attend in person, because it’s pretty much all online.
So what makes a MOOC so different?
In my short experience — and with just the one MOOC course to go by — the significant difference for me has been the rather high production-value style of one-on-one professor-to-student experience in the presentation of the course material. However, some students in the forums have said that they wish the course at least occasionally showed us the classroom experience, as students take the course in the standard way, with the professor in the lecture hall, which is apparently going on concurrently at the University of Virginia (UVa). This, as one student said, would allow the online participants to have a sense of the classroom discussion. The desire to be in a classroom, debating controversial topics, stems from what appears to have become a rather intense conversation about Western vs. non-Western views of world history, and whether our professor is complicit in exacerbating a Eurocentric perspective that is too keenly felt, especially by the non-Western students, of which there are perhaps thousands in this MOOC.
The topic of the Eurocentric version of history is, of course, massive in itself. What I’m interested in at the moment, though, is that certain students believe that experiencing the physical classroom via video will provide them more insight than a large and diverse collection of discussion fora online.
I have pondered this for awhile. As you know, a large introductory lecture class is not usually the best site for deep discussion of controversial topics. And, in my experience as a TA, neither is a discussion section. There may be sections in which the occasional TA is able to elicit an exciting debate, but I can only imagine what disappointment the home scholar would feel as the camera pans the room, waiting for some student to tentatively let a comment fly. The presence of the camera might add an additional level of daunt to the proceedings, in fact.
Furthermore, this led me to recall my initial idea of the graduate seminar as an arena in which educated minds could meet and work out Big Ideas in a collegial yet challenging environment. Ah, the romance of the fledgling graduate student, prior to the realization that the seminar is made up of people who are competing for the attention of the professor and those who are trying to make it through a few hours without letting it slip that they hadn’t read the book.
Are we better off in the classroom than in the MOOC, where forum discussions are rampant and only somewhat moderated? In a discussion section, TAs can hope that their students will have learned their names by the end of the term. In the MOOC, the TAs may be completely invisible. Either way, many students will never meet their professor. With a MOOC, you’re welcome to join other locals at a Meet-Up — if there are other locals. Forums often lead to rather unexpurgated, sometimes crass interactions, of course, and we may miss the interactions with our in-person peers. But I continue to think that the college classroom and the MOOC are, and are likely to continue to be, two very different audiences. The presence of the MOOC does not signal the end of traditional college learning, at least not in the near future, from what I can see now.
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!