Tuesday, November 12, 2013

On Technical vs. Qualitative Courses

Over the past year, I have participated to some degree in four MOOCs, with a wide range of success and challenges. The first MOOC that I joined was a programming course for beginning Python, and it was very enjoyable and effective. I stayed with it to the end, and have continued to use and develop my beginner Python skills.  Beginning last Spring, I participated in three MOOCs on more Humanities-related topics to see if that good experience would translate into more qualitative subjects. The results have been less encouraging.

The MOOC that I joined last Spring was The Modern and the Postmodern, (https://www.coursera.org/course/modernpostmodern), which is a skillfully designed and executed MOOC on a fascinating topic. It is perfect for anyone looking to learn some things about modern philosophical discussion, with a engaging and talented guide in Professor Roth.  My conclusion in going through this course was that a Humanities MOOC is good for individuals who would like to learn more about a topic, but is not an adequate substitute for an actual college course.

In my work at a small liberal-arts university, the most important aspect of my teaching is the written feedback loop: students write reflections and papers, and I provide feedback and direction along the way, and evaluation when they finish. In a MOOC, the only feedback that one gets is through "peer review." A participant submits a short paper and then provides "peer review" for three other students, which then qualifies the submitted paper for "review" by other "peers." In the rare instance that any qualitative feedback was given (in addition to the numerical rubric scores), the comments were cursory and shallow.

Like many professors teaching college writing these days, I make extensive use of peer review in my composition courses. This primarily takes the form of "writing workshops" during class in which students provide written feedback (following a rubric) for each other.  So why is a MOOC not as good as this?

There are two primary differences in the written peer review that students perform and receive in my composition course. 1) I am present in the room and interacting with them before, during, and after the process. The peer workshop is designed not only to benefit the paper authors, but also those who are giving the feedback. By critically examining another paper, students learn better how to think critically about their own writing, and I actively instruct them in this process. 2) Therefore, the peer review process in my course is learning-focused rather than performance-focused. The rubric check-boxes in my MOOC were purely performance-based, asking "Did this person complete the assignment?"  In contrast, true peer-review contributes to the learning process of both the reviewer as well as the one being reviewed.

On learning vs. performance goals, see the article, "Feedback and Self-Regulated Learning: A Theoretical Synthesis" by Deborah Butler and Philip Winne in Review of Educational Research 65 (1995) [PDF: http://www.konferenslund.se/pp/TV_Butler.pdf]. On pages 255-56, they say:

"Students who adopt learning goals seek expertise in the task's subject matter domain. In contrast, students who adopt performance goals strive to enhance their own and others' perceptions of their competence in the task. The relative emphasis a student assigns to learning goals versus performance goals is related to several prior beliefs, illustrating again the role of knowledge in shaping self-regulation. For example, choosing learning goals is positively correlated with positive beliefs about (a) agency, (b) the need to apply effort in learning, and (c) whether ability is a malleable (incremental) aptitude. In general, students who emphasize learning goals over performance goals study more strategically (Meece, Blumenfeld, & Hoyle, 1988; Pintrich & De Groot, 1990)."

Learning requires interaction and feedback. However, no expert feedback is possible in such an asynchronous and hierarchical course structure. In my view, this makes the learning process in the MOOC a pleasant diversion, but not a serious replacement for the classroom experience.