Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Student Goggles

I'll introduce myself, since I think my role and perspective are a little different from most of the faculty on this blog. I'm a member of the library faculty at Furman University. I've been here almost 20 years. I did my undergraduate work at Occidental College in L.A. -- like Furman but smaller and far more liberal. So I'm heavily steeped in the liberal arts. I don't teach regular catalog courses but I do visit classes across the curriculum to teach research skills and theory. I also teach an occasional 2-credit May Experience course.

Last Spring, I took a MOOC entitled “The Social Context of Mental Health and Illness.” It was taught by professor Charmaine Williams, an engaging lecturer from the University of Toronto.  There were about 27,000 students from more than 90 countries enrolled. It lasted 6 weeks, with about 2 hours of lecture and 15 pages of reading per week. Course completion was contingent on 3 essay assignments and one objective quiz. 

When the course began, I tried to imagine myself as an undergraduate or Master's-level student taking the course, comparing it to both my undergraduate experiences at Occidental and the graduate work I did largely via distance education from the University of South Carolina. The first thing that struck me was an extraordinary sense of distance between myself and Dr. Williams. It wasn’t the physical distance, and it wasn’t the screen. I was used to both of those from my M.L.I.S. work, and I had gotten to know almost all of those professors well despite these factors. It was the overwhelming number of other students enrolled in the course, among which I felt that any possibility of my voice being heard by Dr. Williams was extinguished. Douglas Adams fans might recognize my referring to the incident as being something like the torture of the Total Perspective Vortex. Many of the very best of my prior educational encounters had centered around one-on-one or small group conversations with my professors – extending the classroom discussion and digressing in fascinating and provocative ways. It was instantly clear that there was no such possibility here. As I lost myself in the nostalgia, I also briefly lost interest in the course.

But I roused myself and my interest again and decided to explore the discussion boards, in hopes of recreating feelings of connection and stimulation through interactions with my classmates. This had rather the opposite effect. At the point in the course at which I counted, there were 4,270 threads with about 32,000 posts. Searching for keywords related to course topics of interest yielded a hall-of-mirrors of unimaginative posts. I'm sure there were fascinating ones out there. I just couldn't find them. Reading the “top threads” was no more effective. And perhaps the most frustrating (albeit at times fascinating in a gawkish way) were the countless confessional posts relating to the participants’ own mental illness experiences. I should clarify here: I LIKE confessionalism. I LIKE for people to connect the content of their lives outside the university with the content of their courses. So for me to say this was TOO confessional is a really extreme statement. This wasn’t expanding or more deeply exploring the course content. This was wallowing and discussion-board therapy. I’m sure it was useful to the students who received feedback on their personal situations, but it wasn’t what I was looking for in the course. I would imagine that much less of this sort of thing goes on in courses unrelated to psychology and social work, but even the Leo in me is amazed at some of the narcissism and need for attention displayed in these boards.

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