Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A defense of MOOC

I felt that I had to respond to this negative comment on online learning:

Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can. It doesn’t matter who is sitting out there on the Internet watching; the course is what it is.

Not long ago I watched a pre-filmed online course from Yale about the New Testament. It was a very good course. The instructor was hyper-intelligent, learned and splendidly articulate. But the course wasn’t great and could never have been. There were Yale students on hand for the filming, but the class seemed addressed to no one in particular. It had an anonymous quality. In fact there was nothing you could get from that course that you couldn’t get from a good book on the subject.        

Goodness knows, I’ve thrashed Coursera enough but this have to keep reminding myself that it is still experimental. Professors have had almost a hundred years to teach yet the number of times I have encountered a memorable professor or a memorable lecture - is, well - one or two out of maybe eight years of college and grad school. After all, aren’t most professors like … anyone, anyone?

But in 6 months of Coursera, I have already had one extremely memorable course - a course I had no previous knowledge in and yet found to be extremely challenging and the end of the course left me with a short void. In particular, this farewell email excerpt from Prof. Ronen Plesser’s Astronomy course is the most heartfelt and rewarding experience I have ever had as a student [emphasis below mine]:

You are also deserving of my deepest thanks for sticking with me through what has been a challenging course. I set some high expectations for all of us when designing the class, in terms of the level at which I wanted to present material and ask you to - as someone put it on the forums - "think around" with the concepts. To the extent that this has succeeded it is largely a result of the effort you put into it, individually as well as collectively.

This was my first experience with online education, and I have to admit I was quite surprised by the effectiveness of the discussion forums. A great deal of teaching and learning happened on these, the great majority of it involving students and not staff. All of you who contributed to this by asking great questions, sharing your insights, adding extra bits of information, or participating in the common struggle to master tough material have played a huge part in making this class a pleasure to teach and, I hope, a positive experience for students. For this, too, I thank you.

As you probably gathered, the lecture videos were produced more-or-less "live" during the class. This flies in the face of accepted wisdom on best practices in the medium, which suggests that all class materials be prepared well before launch. This had a cost to all of us - the occasional (or more than occasional) errata, the mis-statements or errors on slides or in autograder settings, even the omission of entire segments either because I forgot them or because I ran out of time. But in hindsight I think it was a wise decision. As the course developed, I found myself, somewhat to my surprise, developing an attachment to the class and the students despite never having met any of you. I think this is largely due to a real class spirit that developed through the discussion forums. This meant that while technically I was lecturing to a laptop, in my mind I could envision actual people, my class, listening. To me, this makes a huge difference. In suffering the imperfections, you allowed me to learn how to use the medium more effectively while giving me the sense of a human connection that is, I think, so vital to teaching. I had not expected this to happen in an online class, but it made it possible for me to teach with the kind of focus that only such a connection can sustain. If you compare the first weeks of the class to the last ones, I think you will see this happening.

I also have to address the following item that the author (a UVA professor) pointed out:

A few weeks ago our president, Teresa A. Sullivan, was summarily dismissed and then summarily reinstated by the university’s board of visitors. One reason for her dismissal was the perception that she was not moving forward fast enough on Internet learning. Stanford was doing it, Harvard, Yale and M.I.T. too. But Virginia, it seemed, was lagging. Just this week, in fact, it was announced that Virginia, along with a number of other universities, signed on with a company called Coursera to develop and offer online classes.

It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the author feels threatened and is dissing online education because he cannot get a handle on how to best use the technology. Agreed that online is not always the best medium and humanities is probably one (of numerous) areas where there is a great deal of work to be done. I would point him to Coursera’s History course taught none other by UVA’s Philip Zelikow. This is another course that I am enjoying having not taken History at all. The multiple choice format of the quizzes leaves me wanting more. But what’s interesting here is that Prof. Zelikow seems to be using the Coursera platform to supplement his UVA course. And that is a course I would like be in. (Also UVA's Louis Bloomfield's Coursera course on How Things Work is plenty fun so far!)

And that should be what every professor should aim to do - make online and face-to-face teaching enjoyable for both - the student and the teacher. For the most part I would say that most of my "live" learning experiences have been enjoyable for neither.

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