An Evaluation of Coursera as Public Outreach
I have posted several times lately about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) such as offered through coursera.org. In those posts I stuck to a general discussion of MOOCs, holding off on evaluative statements until I completed a course. So, yesterday I took the final exam for my first coursera.org MOOC: Listening to World Music taught by Professor Carol Muller at the University of Pennsylvania. Here are some thoughts:
The academic level for the course was on a junior/senior undergraduate level. I spent 4 – 8 hours per week watching video lectures, YouTube clips, searching for internet resources, writing essays, and taking quizzes. Based on the grading scheme, I will end up with a B+ or so, a reasonable grade for the effort I expended. I could have earned an A except I blew off the 100 question multiple guess final exam by not reviewing any of my notes to refresh my memory on what is a hocket, who employs them, whether an event happened in 1996 or 1998 etc.
- Overall, the lecture content was quite good. I learned a lot. As an anthropologist, I was disappointed by what I perceived as some rather convoluted statements on cultural development, notions of authenticity, and so forth. But I know ethnomusicologists are equally disappointed in my inability to distinguish between polyphonic and heterophonic textures.
- But . . . my disappointment is precisely where the class discussion forums provided an outstanding opportunity to engage. For example, on the concept of authenticity, I had excellent discussions with students and “staff” for the course. I was particularly impressed with the diversity of responses as the majority of students were from outside the United States. Although data were not published for the Listening to World Music class, for another coursera offering on Gamification, U.S. participation was one-third of the student body. As a general statement, the level and quality of engagement in the discussion forums was in line with first year graduate level seminars. I was quite pleased with this aspect of the course.
- Each week participants chose one of four questions/topics and submitted a 700 – 1000 word essay on same. The essays required synthesizing lecture content, built sequentially throughout the 7-week course, and drew on personal experiences. In this regard, the student diversity was particularly insightful.
- Based on my Listening to World Music experience and reviewing the requirements of other offerings, I dropped a couple of courses for which I had previously registered. Simply the quality and effort required for these MOOC courses is considerably more than I originally imagined. I note that the course descriptions at coursera.org now include an estimated time commitment per week. I really cannot manage taking more than one course at a time. Fortunately, the schedule of courses and breadth of offerings is such that at the present rate, I will be kept busy for quite a while before I run through all the courses that interest me or will be helpful in my career.
Here is what I found did not work in the Listening to World Music course:
- The peer review of the weekly essays was perhaps the weakest part of the experience. This finding is consistent with other MOOC reviews I have read. The evaluations ranged from the silly (requirement of 2 -3 paragraphs of up to 1000 words, but having points deducted when the evaluator counted a block quote as a separate paragraph making the total 4 even though word count was under 800) to the unhelpful (“very good but I would like to have seen more”). Ultimately, I followed the solution of other folks who posted portions of their essays in the discussion forums to meaningfully engage.
- Anonymity on two levels was problematic. First, for essay evaluations peer review anonymity is problematic simply because there is not an opportunity for further discussion with the writer one is evaluating. There were several essays I evaluated where I would have liked following up with the writer on some of their insightful comments. Second, in the discussion forums, students can post anonymously. Consistently, folks who posted inflammatory or troll-like responses did so anonymously. In the instances where posters were questioned on their anonymity, they explained anonymity as their right, blah, blah, blah. Signing as Anonymous relegates comments to the great “they said” of discussions and seems completely out of place. I hope coursera.org will deal with this issue.
- The professors and graduate assistants taking the leap into teaching these courses are to be congratulated for their pioneering efforts. I expect that technical issues will improve, such as Prof Muller’s problems with pointing out locations on digital maps. The graduate assistant discussions needed work as they sometimes mumbled through important course information, looking down at their notes/iPads while speaking, greatly reducing the effectiveness of delivery. Perhaps coursera should offer a coursera course on how to deliver a coursera course presentation?
So what has any of this got to do with public outreach for archaeology or museums:
- The demographic data of the Gamification course offering are quite interesting. Sixty percent of the participants took the course because of “interest in the subject matter, without a particular educational/business rationale” Only 15% took the course because “it relates to my educational program.” MOOCs also offer opportunities for those yet to find a place at the higher education table. This MOOC reality is contrary to the “sky is falling” concerns expressed by some in higher education. I am hopeful that coursera will make public such data as they start rolling in from completed courses.
- Although the MOOC concept will inevitably, and rightly so, find its place within the formal structure of higher education, as the coursera founders note, taking over all of the 30 seat lecture classes is not there intent. I don’t really see a hidden agenda here. Peter Norvig, a pioneer in MOOCs argues that coursera is about the democratization of knowledge and addressing the needs of lifelong learners.
- In this capacity, think of the opportunities for a MOOC offering on the Introduction to Archaeology as a resource for those with an “interest in the subject matter, without a particular educational/business rationale.” Or we can abstain from such mass opportunities and leave it to the American Digger. The same is true for a MOOC offering on the Introduction to Museum Practices. Would the American Alliance of Museums (until two weeks ago the 100-year-old American Association of Museums) be well served in its decade old campaign of Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums to consider such a form of outreach?
How do you envision that MOOC-like opportunities can be effectively used in your public outreach efforts?