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All the lonely MOOCers. Where do they all come from?

So about that math MOOC I took earlier this year. It can be easy to focus on the technology aspects of online instruction, since so much  hinges on adequate access to and support for hardware, Internet connections, software, operating systems, and even peripherals, q.v. the widespread chuckling last year over the meltdown of the Coursera class on online learning. Despite careful piloting and design,  the MOOC I was enrolled in had a tough first week, caused by four days of service interruptions for their learning management system, on top of problems related to the course webinar product they were using, which relies on Java. Due to upcropping security issues, Apple blocked Java, later providing an update to the iOS operating system… it was a hot mess.

I largely missed this episode because I was at a conference for most of this ordeal. I don’t know whether this techno-crisis had any impact on student retention, because for the most part, as was true throughout the class, student engagement was almost nonexistent.

Though I sense that enrollment was in the hundreds (based on a math problem posed in an early video), there were fewer than 20 students in the one synchronous online session I attended. Most of the posts to the discussion board were from the initial “introduce yourself” phase. The “Math Assistance” section of the discussion board had 13 posts, the last one, from mid-March, asking, “Any body around?” (There was no response.) Questions from students went unanswered. For most of the class, I was as solitary as when I crammed for the GRE last fall — 7 weeks of manic cramming for the GRE, a period filled with flash cards and study guides and endless exercises. In other words, it was self-study, with videos.

Course Design

The math MOOC I was in offered weekly synchronous sessions through Collaborate and open drop-in hours. The weekly sessions, which were recorded, repeated the concepts offered through a series of smaller videos, homework, and quizzes.

The short videos were competent walk-throughs in which questions were posed and answered. A typical session included a problem, a “Chalk Talk” video where an instructor walks students through the solution, a brief “more info” slide, and a slide with two or three  additional practice equations (though the answers were presented right on the same screen, forcing me to put a hand up while I scribbled the problems on a piece of paper).

Often the Khan Academy video on the topic was included on a separate tab, I assume as a form of alternate reinforcement, although I find that Khan often talks too fast and scribbles too much; I preferred the slower pace of the MOOC instructors and I also found it easier to follow their handwriting.

The homework was similar to the material I used for GRE self-study — stolid, reasonable math problems.However, the 10-question quizzes used to determine eligibility to move to the next math section were sheer frustration. We were given scores, but not results. To quote another student, “It is immensely frustrating and annoying that we are not told which questions we got wrong at the end of each quiz.”

I know this issue has had some press, and in response some have bandied about the idea of peer review or that students don’t need grading or whatnot. Certainly that may work in some settings.  But in a math class, students need clear answers, preferably with some underpinning of what went wrong. One plus one is never going to be “you decide.”

When I wrote the program to express my concern, I was told, “we want you to continue working on the material until you feel you have mastered it.  If we provided that feedback, participants could just guess their way through a quiz.”So in other words, rather than develop a testing structure that enabled students to get real feedback, use the limitations of the system to excuse poor pedagogy.  If I don’t know where I am having problems, how can I work on those areas?

In contrast, the excellent quality of the one real-time online class I intended was instructive. The instructor knew her stuff, both the subject and how to teach it, and when the class ended and I was staring at a problem, pondering its ineffable algebraic logic, the instructor intuited I was not done and asked if I had questions, then spent another 10 minutes clarifying a concept I had struggled with not only in class but in my self-study last year.

But those online classes weren’t built for success. As I found out after I had enrolled, the classes were mostly offered during the day, staggered around the week, and with meetings and such, I was not able to attend another session. I tried watching a session I hadn’t attended, but it was hard to stay tuned to an hour-long recording of a class I hadn’t participated in.

The MOOC offered generous drop-in hours for online tutoring, but no similar drop-in technical assistance. The one time I dropped in, I had a question about submitting the homework, but the tutor knew math, not the MOOC environment, and wasn’t familiar with the course I was in per se, so no luck there.

So after investing dozens of weekend hours to complete 5 modules, what do I think?

First, if we’re going to offer (let alone require) online classes to college students, their technical preparedness needs to be a priority so every student begins the class on an even playing field. Despite all the blather about “digital natives,” what I see every day where I work are students with a wide range of technical abilities and network operating environments. The for-profit MOOCs are looking at higher education and licking their chops. These students should not be at their sacrificial alter.

If you look at successful online programs such as SJSU SLIS or UIUC LEEP, they make no assumptions about the skill levels or equipment capacity of the typical graduate student–well, actually there is an assumption: as a LEEP  page says, “The Instructional Technology and Design Office (ITD) is here to help bridge the gap between the learner and technology in the classroom setting.”

As that sentence explicitly acknowledges,  this gap is real, not theoretical. This gap can be an issue for even reasonably competent students, as I learned from an online LIS graduate (not LEEP) who told me he didn’t participate in class discussions for his last year in school because the audio on his laptop had become misconfigured and he didn’t know how to fix it.

The tech gap was real for everyone my first week of class, and persisted for a while for those of us on Apple platforms, and persisted for me when I had a technical issue that couldn’t be answered when I sought help, and cropped up repeatedly whenever I had technical issues at home or when I traveled. I spent a few hours configuring my mother’s guest wifi network, including time on the phone with her Internet provider, just so I would not miss my homework that weekend–and that presumed a level of expertise and equipment not everyone has. (My mother wasn’t aware she HAD wifi.)

Online engagement takes effort, especially among strangers who have nothing in common other than they are taking a free online math class. Yes, I had a reasonable reasons to drop out of my math MOOC; I had learned pretty much what I needed to know, and I needed to divert time to getting other tasks out of the way before I started school. But beyond sending one email when I took more than a week to return to my studies, there wasn’t a strong effort to keep students going. Sure, it’s self-study, and it’s a massive class, etc… and yet. If this is the future of education, then education has effectively ended.

The instructors at one point commented on the discussion board, in response to student complaints about course design, that this MOOC was designed largely for research purposes, a strange thing to tell students who are supposedly there to learn math, but revealing all the same. When these educators produce their research, as they inevitably will, I hope they conclude that, for example, simply providing a discussion board does not actually create discussion.

It’s not the online-ness of MOOCs that concerns me. I took three online writing courses several years ago through Stanford Continuing Education, and in these small, discussion-focused classes, participation and retention were quite strong. But these were courses led by instructors who understood that there was more to instruction than providing a discussion board and leading a weekly class session, and that they–or their delegates–needed to be an active presence for the duration of these classes. It helped that the subject, writing, is a low bar, technically, and that writers tend to be good at communicating.

It’s not even the “massive” part. I co-managed a very large discussion list for close to two decades, and it’s actually possible to have substantive conversations among 10,000 people, given the right people and effort. It’s also possible to have bad instruction in a much smaller class.

My concerns are that as the MOOC bandwagon has rolled into town, its wheels have kicked up huge clouds of dust that obscure reasonable questions about what constitutes good course design, with an emphasis on student performance and success. It is one thing for a well-educated librarian to sample parts of a math class and conclude she is ready to move on. It is quite another to assume the same environment will work for at-risk and/or digitally tenuous students.

I have struggled for months to pinpoint the crux of the problem, and as is usually the case, I have concluded it has little or nothing to do with technology. Bad online instruction  has the same problem as bad traditional instruction: a serious lack of attention to molecular engagement with the student learner.

In the MOOC I took, had I been a student struggling with technology, I would have been gone the first week. Had I been an at-risk student for other reasons, I would have been easily spun off the course by the combined centrifugal force of the Potemkin village that was the “discussion board,” with its unanswered pleas for assistance; the classes held during daytime hours, when presumably I would be working or, if unemployed, pursuing work; the “tutors” who could not offer technical assistance and were only marginally familiar with the course itself; and the assessment design, which gave me no serious feedback about progress or the lack of it. And of course, no advisers, peer mentors, or other champions for my success. In the end, I was not a student with real needs, struggling to learn; I was somebody’s “research.”

And I am deeply bothered that these students will become even more invisible and even more underserved in the online environment, and that as their faces disappear behind the digital curtain, their needs will take a back seat to everything else — greed, political expediency, the privileging of “research” over education — even as their advocates are pooh-poohed as old-fart Luddites for expressing even the tiniest soupcon of concern on their behalf.

I have tried to wrap up this post for over two months now, but have been in the undertow of my first semester “back to school.” (I have to thank Andy Woodworth for goosing me into wrapping this up.) One of the comparison points I can now offer is that in a five-person cohort, I have been kept busy, engaged, and on track for nearly two months — exactly the experience I didn’t have in my MOOC. Students deserve a real education. Education matters. If it’s not happening, no bells or whistles can make up for its absence.

Posted on this day, other years:

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One Comment

  1. Lisa Hinchliffe wrote:

    Really appreciate this reflection Karen. I’m a MOOC drop-out myself but the experience gave me great insight into what I could do in order to improve the experience in the non-MOOC online courses I teach. I love this concept: “attention to molecular engagement with the student learner”…

    Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

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