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Benton Summer Project: Reflections, Part IV

By Peter Tschirhart on October 15, 2014

A small group of Benton Scholars took MOOCs during the summer of 2014. Participation was voluntary, and no Colgate course credit was granted. After finishing, we asked each student to write a response capturing their thoughts and reactions to this experience. Selected responses are reproduced below. Please note: the opinions expressed here are those of students–not the Benton Scholars program or Colgate University more generally.

Click here to find out more about the project behind these posts. Click here to learn more about the Online Education Symposium being sponsored by the Benton Scholars program.

Ishir Dutta ’17 (excerpts):

I have taken MIT’s “Introduction to Electricity and Magnetism” (EM), the Linux Foundation’s “Introduction to Linux” (Linux), and am currently in the middle of Harvard’s “Introduction to Computer Science” (CS50). I’ve also dabbled in solar energy, mechanics (both a student’s course and a teacher’s course), circuits and electronics, justice, linear algebra and oscillatory systems to varying degrees of intensity. Here, I’ll talk about the first three courses while also drawing on my limited experience with the others in the back of my mind.

Some Fundamental Issues

If we are to seriously consider testing an online platform, we need to take a closer look at its offline equivalent. Take the college transcript for instance. Yes, there are the classes you took and the grades you got with your name printed on it, but there is a great deal that a college transcript (or diploma, for that matter) conveys that isn’t printed anywhere. General classroom policies, grading policies, examinations, academic honesty – these are all aspects of a formal college education that we don’t ever really need to spell out because, besides the professors conducting weird classroom experiments or being particularly lenient, they’re fairly consistent all over the world.

One way to be intentional and mindful of all this information would be to offer different “tracks” – open or guided course material, closed or open book exams (harder to actually monitor, but in principle), languages to be made available – and essentially make the experience customizable so that we can reflect more accurately the KIND of course that’s been completed. I realize that this may require more work on the back end, but I don’t see it being a monumental task (may be completely wrong here. I don’t write the code for online courses, I just take them).

I’ve noticed (from a distance) that the use of fora to discuss course material is a massive plus for online course work. The CS50 group on Facebook has over 40,000 members, there are similar groups on reddit and twitter as well. This allows for almost instant feedback and help from community members. While I didn’t use these for my own questions, they had a massive impact on the way I viewed my own skills (or lack of them) within a larger classroom. I felt motivated to push through problem sets that I would have probably given up on because I kept bumping into a stupid mistake that refused to reveal itself to me. The occasional appearance of the instructors on these fora in CS as well as EM (Prof. Lewin, who taught EM, made it a point to answer every question directed at him – fantastic to be a part of) made the courses so much more engaging. These were people that actually existed beyond the recorded lectures and classrooms far, far away. The production of weekly/biweekly exclusive content for both these courses had a similar motivational effect.

Limitations (work in progress)

The biggest roadblock I kept hitting was that of bandwidth. Internet access is expensive, and taking a 4 month course meant trawling through tens of gigabytes of course material, sometimes repeatedly. Given that the ultimate goal (as I see it) of the online course is to provide a world class education to those who do not have access to it for any reason, this is a pretty major issue.

Laine Barrand ’17:

The online course I chose to take was “Competitive Strategy” offered by Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität-München via Coursera. The course was organized into 6 modules that were about an hour long each. The modules were comprised of video-lectures, and the professor alternated between speaking directly into the camera and using a graphic interface to illustrate various concepts directly on the screen. The modules consisted of sub-videos that were each around 10-15 minutes long. Between every other sub-video there was a quiz, consisting of 3-4 questions, to check comprehension. After each module, there was a larger quiz of 10 questions; and at the conclusion of the course, there was a cumulative final exam of 25 questions.

What I really liked about this course was its flexibility. Unlike other online courses I’ve taken, this one was entirely self-timed. This is a major advantage online education has over classroom learning, because it enables people who may not consistently have extra time to still take the course when it’s convenient. While I chose to watch the modules over the span of a couple of weeks, someone else could have chosen to complete the entire course in an afternoon.

However, while the information I learned is useful and has been applicable to my coursework at Colgate, I believe online education should be used to complement classroom learning and not to replace it. In one of the other courses I took this summer, the format included an open forum where students could “interact” with others by posting thoughts and questions and having other students respond. This cannot replace the spontaneous discussions that happen in a physical classroom, and I would argue that we learn more from in-class discussions than we do from posting in a forum. However, I think online education has a lot of potential as a complement to classroom learning.

Taylor Mooney ’17:

Since I knew very little about online education to begin with, I felt it would be appropriate for me to take a class called “Emerging Trends & Technologies in the Virtual K-12 Classroom” from UC Irvine. In this course, Professor Melissa Loble discussed the various facets of online instruction, including what options are available and how to implement them. This course was taught in 5 modules, with a quiz at the end of each module, and one peer-reviewed assignment. It was asynchronous, but there were synchronous activities (like Twitter chats and forum discussions) that were optional, but highly encouraged.

The biggest concern I had stemmed from peer-reviewed assignments. This course was a MOOC, so there were hundreds of students taking it, and obviously our professor couldn’t grade individual assignments, so the peer review assignment was instituted. The opportunities to practice effective peer reviewing are obviously very important; but out of three people who critiqued my paper, I felt only one gave me thought-out feedback. I assume that the people taking the course knew just as much as I did about using technologies in the classroom–so how effective can peer review be?

I tried to figure out a way to make this aspect of MOOCs more effective. However, I found that the issue is not so much the assignment–it’s how big the class is. Colgate can use MOOCs more for advertising or branding purposes, since it can reach out to a huge population at once, but I don’t feel they are the right route to take if we’re looking for intellectual growth. I would certainly prefer a more intimate online classroom of around 10-15 people, where I could get more one-on-one attention from a professor and also create more of a community with other students. This kind of online class would be more conducive to my learning style. Not only this, but it is also easier for the professor to manage, allowing more time to focus on the actual material and not the technical issues that arise from having thousands of students to take care of at once.

Sharon Nicol ’17:

When I first started my MOOC venture, I was taking a course called “Programming for Everybody” from the University of Michigan. Technical difficulties kept me from completing the programming course, and ultimately this was a blessing, because the issues I found with the course that I completed would have been magnified in a subject area in which I have difficulty, such as computer science.

I completed a course called “The Camera Never Lies,” provided by Royal Holloway, University of London, through Coursera. The course was the perfect synthesis of courses I had taken in the spring [at Colgate], including “Intro to Film and Media Studies,” “Challenges of Modernity,” and “Intro to Peace and Conflict Studies,” because it focused on the role of images as historical evidence and brought up issues of authenticity, manipulation, and how images are used in the development of popular opinion. My motivations for pursuing a course within the social sciences was to gain an understanding of the role massive open courses can play in the unique needs of social scientists; the necessity for human engagement, interaction, and observation.

As a student who chose to attend Colgate because faculty make themselves available outside of class, I found it difficult to have no contact with my MOOC professor. I suppose I could have easily gone to the Royal Holloway website and found his contact information; however, the fact that it was not advertised made it seem as though this was not encouraged. Ultimately, the course felt as though there was no human in charge of it. If I had a difficulty, whether technological or intellectual, there was no point person. My only option was the forums. Although this is one of the few online courses I have experienced, it gave me the impression that MOOCs lack structure, which may be ok when all is running smoothly, but becomes troubling when problems arise.

In search of guidance, I entered the forums. The major problem with the forums is best described as the relation between quantity and quality. There are thousands of people taking MOOCs; and because these people have opinions, problems, or are looking for guidance, there are a lot of forum threads. These threads are of varying topics and relevancies, and the problem became how to sort through the hundreds of forum posts to find helpful information.

Another issue I had with the forums was that they stifled free-flowing thought. I believe that many statements of intellectual wealth come out of stream of consciousness and being able to share free thoughts with other people. However, within the forums, because the responses are typed, there is a barrier to some aspects of thought. Because of this, a dichotomy arose. On one hand, there were people who chose to say things with no intellectual basis and made the forums inappropriate rants; on the other hand, there were people who had highly thought-out positions, but who made themselves incomprehensible and seemed closed to differing opinions. There was little middle ground.

Ultimately, my experience with MOOCs does not say that they are impossible to learn from, simply that they are not well suited to all learning styles. A person who can comprehend material with little need for outside aid would be very successful with MOOCs. And as a social scientist who values structure and the intellect of my peers, MOOCs, in their current incarnation, do not fulfill my needs.

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