Grading MOOC: one writer’s journey

April 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

MOOC — massive online open courses — are becoming more popular. They are generally free, and they are taught by some of the best professors in the world. I cannot speak for all of the courses, but most of them seem to be lectures that professors put online. Lots of universities are now doing this, including institutions like Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and Notre Dame.

Coursera, Udacity, and edX are three well known MOOC providers. A.J. Jacobs, a writer for Esquire, signed up for 11 online courses, most of them through Coursera. Today’s New York Times features his essay summarizing his experience. He grades the courses on the following categories: (1) the professors; (2) convenience; (3) teacher-to-student interaction; (4) student-to-student interaction; (5) assignments; and (6) overall experience.

He grades the overall experience as a “B,” and says:

Am I glad I spent a semester attending MOOCs? Yes. Granted, my retention rate was low, and I can’t think of any huge practical applications for my newfound knowledge (the closest came when I included Erich Fromm’s notion of freedom in a piece for my day job at Esquire — before deleting it). Though one fellow “Introduction to Finance” student, an information technology consultant, told me he’s planning to include the course on his résumé, I probably won’t go that far.

But MOOCs provided me with the thrill of relatively painless self-improvement and an easy introduction to heady topics. And just as important, they gave me relief from the guilt of watching “Swamp People.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of the MOOC phenomenon is that it represents both something new and also very traditional. World-famous scholars can now reach anyone throughout the world who is hungry to learn, and the courses are asking us to rethink the value of being on a campus. However, the instructional method is ancient: it is lecture. In fact, it’s not only ancient, but criticized. The emphasis among education theorists today is collaboration, group work, team building. I haven’t read anyone who says, “We need more people lecturing.” Lecturing seems to equate to disempowerment, to an old model that treats students as too docile, too individualistic.

I think the popularity of MOOC, not to mention the TED talks, demonstrates that there remains a place for lecture, for the chance to listen to a mind unwind a topic at length. I believe this especially because of my own encounters. Over the last year or so I’ve tried to speak less and assign more in-class work that relies upon group interaction. But I’m not sure they’ve been better classes. Even well-designed group  work cannot captivate everyone, and students easily drift into unrelated chatter. Moreover, some of the best feedback I’ve received as a teacher has come from times when I lectured and led discussion, when I asked and asked a bunch of questions that had no clear “yes” or “no” answers but which sparked student inquiry.

Ultimately, I think teachers have to find a balance. They must be open to growth and professional development, tweaking where necessary and learning from the constructive criticism of colleagues and even their own students. But they must also teach, as Parker Palmer urges, according to their strengths. Some teachers are gifted orators, some are gifted at creating games that make the class interactive and lively, and some are gifted in a hybrid way. Ultimately, students need variety. Every kind of teacher can inspire and foreshadow some kind of professional or real-world experience.

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