Monday, July 30, 2012

Coursera: Week 1 - The first casualties

Another One Bites The Dust 
The lower completion rates of students in online courses, in comparison to traditional f2f courses, has been a long-time concern. Online courses are said to work best for students who are motivated, organized, and self-directed. Students in this Coursera class are now starting to post "Gotta drop out," "Considering leaving," and so on. Below are some factors which may (and, in one case I know personally, did) prompt a student to drop the course.

1. Not reading (or not doing so carefully)
The course materials (Syllabus, videos, and webpages) are very clear and concise. Based on questions on the discussion board posts, students are not reading or listening carefully --- "What do we read?, What do I write?, When is it due?, How do I submit?" Or worse yet, they are reading too much into it and/or developing their own unnecessary directions/expansions (in terms of the assignment). The instructor specifically said use only evidence in the story to discuss the story, but students are researching German history, oral vs written traditions, and so on. Expansions and "going beyond" is great for the optional discussion board activity, but the essay assignments (while still requiring reading and contemplation) are (or at least should be) short and sweet.

2. Workload and Stamina
The course has students read either collections of short stories/tales (such as the Grimm Brothers) or complete novels (such as Dracula or Martian Chronicles) each week. In my experience as an online course designer, it is not uncommon for 8 or 10-week online course to be developed/adapted from the original 16-week face-to-face, campus-based model of the same course. Given that, the workload in this course is appropriate. Also, a weekly 320-word essay (or as my 16 year-old son said as he rolled his eyes at me --- "It's not an essay... It's just a 'writing assignment'") is not overly demanding. There are no quizzes, exams, or projects. Discussion forums are optional. Still, while course requirements are comparatively low when compared to credit courses, a student still needs commitment and devoted focus to "stay with it" for 10 weeks. And, for some, this is proving too much...

3. Peer-review of weekly 320-essays and (informally) discussion posts 
I personally know one student (a recent high school graduate) who withdrew from the course a few days ago. She expressed that some of the other students had degrees in either English or a related subject area. This is certainly true. She said she was worried about posting on the (optional) discussion boards and submitting her essay (the only requirement of the course) for review by other students. Feeling great anxiety that the other students would "tear her up," she ejected from the course. Personally, I have only witnessed open sharing, courtesy, and academic professionalism on the discussion forums. I assume the same will be true of the peer-reviews which begin this Tuesday.

The Shrinking Classroom (numerically and personally)
Students dropping the course is making the class numerically "smaller." I am also attempting to make the course "smaller" for myself as I reach out to specific students and groups in the course. By engaging on discussion boards with a student from Africa, a woman from Urbana, IL (my current location), or looking into joining student-driven study groups (through Facebook and Skype), I am trying to make valuable (and hopefully lasting) connections with other class members.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Coursera: Week 1 - Day 1 - 11:22 PM CT

Welcome to Week 1
Coursera has partnered with about a dozen universities to offer free online courses. I enrolled in one of those courses that began this morning and will run for 8 weeks. As an online course designer for large Illinois-based university, I am interesting in analyzing the course mechanics and flow. As a long-time reader of folk tales, fantasy, and science fiction, I am thankful for this learning opportunity. Below are my three initial observations on the first day of class.

1. Scale (Numerical, Geographical, and Generational)
While I do not know the exact number, based on a "read-count" tally and replies associated with the discussion board posts (one with 5400 hits and 241 responses), there are many (perhaps thousands) active students in the course. Also, based on student introductions on the discussion boards, the student body is globally dispersed. Ages range from individuals in their first years of high school to seasoned (and who I believe will prove to be very insightful) retirees.

2. Engagement
The video-based introductory materials (as well as the text-based webpage content) are clear and engaging. The instructor is intriguing, emits a sense of wonder, and cultivates an exploratory disposition. He outlines the course readings (in this case science fiction novels and short story) and activities (the writing and peer-reviewing of weekly essays) in an exiting and motivating way. Most importantly, the instructor seeks (requires actually) diveristy of supportable insight. The sharing of multiple interpretations of a collection of Brothers Grimm stories (our first week's task) and ending with the Martian Chronicles (in week 8) will be exciting to see play out. While the instructor (clearly an experienced expert on the subject) will provide weekly video lectures, he does not appear to want the "final word." However, he has said that he will likely post summary videos at the end of each week to encapsulate our findings and provide some commentary of his own.

3. Community
Whether it is other students answering questions about the course requirements/deadlines, providing advice about handling the workload, and sharing insights about the first reading assignment (even before the first essay has been assigned), students are collaborating with other students and a "community of learners" is already forming online. Further, in Paris, St. Louis, India, and Russia, students are arranging to meet face-to-face to discuss the course readings in coffeehouses and pubs. While the website officially opened today for virtual orientation, Week 1 does not officially begin until Thursday. This has been amazing to watch and personally develop.

Not Everyone Is Excited As I Am
Reactions to this current frenzy and online education in general are mixed.  Some faculty see trouble in online education. Many higher education institutions, even those with a long history in online education, are not jumping into this current wave with Coursera.

Some Questions To Consider
So this begs the question... Is online education a quality learning experience because I (the student) declare that it will be and act in ways that support my desire? And perhaps because the instructor believes so as well? How much is dependent on attitude (both individual and communal) rather than format?

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