Monday, March 25, 2013

Smoke, Not Light


Let me start by saying that I was really looking forward to this MOOC experience.  Somehow I never got the memo, the one that said that MOOCs were evil, that they heralded the end of education as we know it, that they represented the last flicker of the flame of learning, just before it turned into a wispy ghostlike memory of a time when thinking was an action to be done well or poorly, not an inner replay of a History Channel documentary.  I also didn't get the memo about how MOOCs meant the end of all of our jobs.  I was totally looking forward to it. 

And this is what the internet (video-recording, television, film, radio, langauge) was supposed to be for, right?  This was always the big promise.

Well, I reckon I'm over it.  My MOOC is called "Writing History," and it is run from UCF through the Canvas system.   As near as I can tell, the point of the course was to explore "how and why history is written the way it is."  Or maybe another way to put it:  it's a historiography class.   Or it's not...it's a class about the socio-economic and political forces that shape the writing of history.  Or it's not.  Yes, I'm a little unclear on the concept.  Weeks in, I'm still a little unclear on the concept.  But let me come back to that.

Things started out fine, but right after that, they were not fine.  The course is divided into content modules, one per week.  And a module consists of some very short videos by the instructor, some links to outside reading materials, podcasts, and videos, and a kind of quiz mechanism that is supposed to be like a game but is really like a quiz.  A multiple choice quiz.  Thus endeth each module.

The intro video explained that the instructor, a historian, was not an expert in all of the things we'd be covering.  In fact, he knew very little about some of the things we'd be covering, and so there would be lots of links to outside things.  Sometimes, he said, he'd be assigning reading from books that were not online.  We'd have to get these from our local library or a bookstore.   OK...that could happen.  Not so very "MO" in the "MOOC" formula, but maybe I had the wrong idea.

So I started moving through weekly modules.  Well, I tried to.  The Canvas interface is very simple--click on the link to watch the video.  You can adjust the volume, but that's it.  The instructor is a slow-talker, and I really wish that I could speed things along, but whatever--I'm watching videos.  Well...I'm trying to watch videos.  The links are often broken.  Sometimes they lead to nothing.  Sometimes they lead to videos, but not the ones they're supposed to lead to.  The online conversation threads are full of sad cries for help:  I can't get to the next module because the links in last week's module are broken!  Dozens of these messages.  I wrote some myself.  Sometimes, after days of this, the instructor would chime in on the threads:  Videos are fixed, enjoy.  But in at least two cases, they were not fixed.  And there was no other mechanism that I could find for reporting this kind of thing.  Well, that's just technology, right?  So I decided to roll with it, keep up as I can, even though this is a steady problem. 

So I'm watching videos sometimes.  Now I've got nothing against the instructor.  He appears to be interested in the stuff.  But he really doesn't seem to know about it.  Maybe it's a chance for him to learn, too--I can relate.  But he is clearly reading a script in these vids, and he clearly did not write it.  My reason for thinking that is that a) he can't pronounce the names of the people he's talking about, and b) he stops midway through sentences, very frequently, as if he does not know that the sentence continues.  And very slowly--did I mention that?  I would be extremely surprised to finds out that he had even read these ahead of time, much less written them.

Luckily, his videos are very short.  The real content comes from the links.  And most of the links are to BBC podcasts.  I love the BBC, really, hearts.  But I'm surprised to see that a very significant part of this course relies on the BBC.   Oh, and sometimes, for example, a link to "all of the works of Tacitus"--so you can brush up on that a bit, too, to help you with the BBC PODCASTS.

So...as far as I can tell, we've got a less-than-ideally-invested instructor, a swarm of technical troubles, and a heavy reliance on educational programs that someone else produced.  And almost no student/instructor interaction.

Yeah, what about student/instructor interaction?  Well, every now and then, the instructor makes a short, very concise comment in the discussion threads.  (There are only threads, no live or real-time interaction.)  He did warn us that he wouldn't show up much.  Something about not having time, and something about only wanting to chime in when he had something significant to say.  He doesn't want to stomp on our conversation.  His respect in this regard has been excessive.  Most of the threaded discussions are about things like this: "I am writing the history of my great grandfather's experiences in WWI, and that BBC podcast really made me realize that writing history is fun, not scary."  Response:  "Oh, I totally know what you mean.  I love thinking about ancient times.  I am so glad I am taking this course."  As someone who cares deeply about conversation, I harbor only pious feelings about any and all comments.  We all start from where we are, and that is a sacred thing.  But there is no instructor presence here, really, and so any chance of "capitalizing" on these starts, in a guided way, is lost. 

(And here's where the unclarity of the concept comes back in.  Many of the participants are, for personal or professional reasons, prospective writers of history.  That is, they saw the title, Writing History, and signed up for it, thinking that it would help them figure out how to do their own writing.  But that is really not at all what the course was supposed to be about.  As near as I can tell, it was supposed to be meta-historical--a look into the conditions which shape the writing of, and study of, history.  That's a difficult idea, and only tangentially related to practical aims.  Now, given the fact that the readings and videos are not really about that idea, maybe it doesn't matter.  But if there was a way to counteract the misunderstanding that many of the students had when they signed up...and still have...it would be regular and robust guidance from the instructor.  His insufficiently focused course, unsupported by the assigned materials, and uncorrected by his interaction, creates much more smoke than light.)

All in all, I am not impressed.  Again, I was excited by the MOOC idea, not worried about it or suspicious of it.  And I can imagine a course with none of these problems--it could be a real thing.  It would obviously require a lot more work on behalf of the instructor.  I do think that at least some students are enjoying it, and that's great.  Some of them are clearly not in a position to take a course in other ways.   And I'd say that a lot of the commenters are people who are taking the course completely out of personal interest, and that's great, too.  I am a little worried that they might not realize that what they take to be a real college level course, millions of Brits take to be after-tea entertainment.   I'm also a little worried about abstract things like:  Is it going to be the case that British taxpayers are on the hook for the great MOOC revolution?  Has anyone told them? 

I'm going to stick with it.  Maybe all of these wrinkles will be ironed out.  Maybe our instructor will soon get to material that he is more comfortable with.  Maybe he'll interact more.  Maybe he'll post the transcripts of his script-based videos, so that we can read them even when the videos won't work.  Maybe the students will start to understand better what it's all about.  It's a lot of Maybes.