Adventures in MOOC-land

To hear Sebastian Thrun tell it, some folks like a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) even better than a real world lecture class. Thrun, the founder of Udacity, discovered that some of his Stanford University students liked the online version of his fall 2011 Artificial Intelligence course even better than the live lecture version.

But what about a MOOC in a non-technical subject? How does it stack up against a real world class?

I’m now into the third week of Coursera’s Fantasy and Science Fiction, a literature course taught by University of Michigan Professor Eric Rabkin, and I’m here to tell you that it’s definitely a rewarding experience. It has actually surpassed my expectations but it’s still not as good as a fine real-world seminar style literature class. Of course it helps that the Professor Rabkin is an enthusiastic teacher with lots of great insights to impart. Furthermore, the comments by fellow students on the class’s discussion boards are often interesting and thought-provoking. It’s also a bit mind blowing to look at the forum dedicated to “meet-ups” and see that students from all over the globe are looking for a chance to get together and discuss the course material.

The one disappointing aspect of the class concerns essay writing and evaluations. As many of you know, a real world literature class is usually as much about writing as it is about reading. Ideally, the student reads carefully, reflects and then writes a clear, well-reasoned essay about his or her experiences with the text. What comes next is then crucial. A teacher or a knowledgeable teaching assistant critiques the essay and offers suggestions for improvement. Without this kind of feedback, it is very difficult for a student to learn how to write better essays.

In the Fantasy and Science Fiction MOOC, the evaluation task has been outsourced to the members of the class. And, judging from my experience, the result is less than satisfactory.

I completed the first assignment, a 250 – 320 word essay on Children’s and Household Tales by the Grimm Brothers. Then I read and critiqued the work of 5 classmates. A couple of the essays were a pleasure to read, a couple were fairly pedestrian, and one was very tough slogging indeed, being almost incoherent. I tried to offer a few tactful suggestions to each student, but I admit that I went through the task quickly – it just wasn’t that interesting. Since I would have no ongoing relationship with these students, I had no way to see how my comments would be received or if improvement would follow. The comments I received on my own essay were curt and generally unhelpful.

So – bottom line – check out the fantasy and science fiction class for a fine professor and some interesting online discussions. But don’t expect much in the way of helpful coaching for your writing.

This entry was posted in Courses, Fantasy, Five-star professors, Literature, MOOC, Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Adventures in MOOC-land

  1. Thanks for your review. I am currently enrolled in the World Music offering – starting third of five weeks. My experience is identical. Interesting lectures – some great discussion board convo – the essay peer reviewing leaves a lot to be desired. I am seeing that some folks are posting their essays on the discussion boards with some good back and forth results. In sum, concept is great – I am really enjoying that there is a true international student body in this process. The assigned essay questions are actually quite good – the responses are quite uneven, and the peer grading even more so.

  2. cstevens says:

    I agree with all of the above. I’m in Coursera’s Internet History Technology and Security class and we just did our first peer review. “Since I would have no ongoing relationship with these students, I had no way to see how my comments would be received or if improvement would follow. ” That completely describes what I thought about the process of peer-grading. Perhaps to alleviate this problem, there could be the mini-essays (200-400 words) every couple of weeks, and in addition, a longer essay that each student refines each week, turning a polished version in at the end. Each person would have the same peer reviewer week-to-week, and that way the reviewer would would be able to see the changes and how the essay evolved. This would 1. make the peer review process important, necessary, more engaging, and actually relavent, and 2. make students do more polished writing (an actual essay connecting various topics in the class).

    [sorry, this post turned into a longer one than I expected it to]

  3. muft mal says:

    I am also enrolled in the Fantasy and Science Fiction,course and am disappointed that I am not getting any of my essays evaluated by a qualified teacher. Peer evaluation does nothing to improve my appreciation of the books I am reading.

    • Muft, I wonder if this is really the case or just a feeling because you think the people commenting are not qualified. I am a sometime literary critic (if not a really good one) and at least half of the comments I received were as good as anything I could give or have seen other “qualified” teachers give.

      Most writing courses are based around peer evaluation. It is part of the skill of a writer to learn from peer feedback (even from feedback of peers who are less skilled or not as “qualified” as the writer herself).

  4. I have to disagree. I took the first 2 weeks only (just to see how it goes) and I found the comments extremely helpful in aggregate – just as helpful as I could give as a teacher (somebody who’s taught literature). But I agree that it would be nice to see what sort of comments the reviewers received on their own essays and to be able to engage in a conversation with reviewers who would allow for that. Or to mark somewhere that I found this review helpful and would appreciate the reviewer to have a look at a future essay to see if I’ve improved.

    I would have also been perfectly happy to say, make my essays and the comments on them public. Again, some students would probably feel the same.

    I’ve seen lit classes of 50 students who would never get the sort of feedback on their work from their overworked and cynical teachers that this format potentially offers. Sure, there’s plenty of potential for bad feedback and miscommunication but that’s endemic in the higher education I know. We, as the teaching profession, need to get over ourselves in this respect, I think.

  5. atscatsc says:

    Thanks for this summary of issues around assessment in xMOOCs. It seems to be a common thread. How will they solve this? One of the major differences between university level study and well, “MOOCs”, is that assessment is either non existent – cMOOCs or poor xMOOCs (like this one). How can MOOCs be taken seriously with this issue present? In fact will they even survive if it is not a rewarding experience – no accredited certification, no formal assessment/grading. Is it a deal breaker in your opinion?

  6. Mark McGuire says:

    Hi Dara and others. Your comments (and the responses so far) are constructive and helpful. I have not yet registered for any of the Coursera courses, although I have my eye on a couple that are starting soon. I recently read a post about what the author describes as “The Great Unbundling”Unbundling ( and I wonder if some of these free lecture-based courses will become more useful for lurkers who are interested in the content but choose not to interact and become involved. There are plenty of good, free recorded short presentations available on Ted Talks (, YouTube University ( and elsewhere that are fine as stand-alone resources (I’m sure you would have found these and many others already). They could also be assembled (along with carefully elected related material) into a useful and enjoyable experience by someone other than Coursera, YouTube, and others (provided there are no licensing restrictions). However, meaningful interaction may not scale well, and may not be easy to facilitator in these large scale courses. As far as I can tell, Coursera, Udacity and similar platforms are developing business models that are based on the “Long Tail” (a small amount of money from a small percentage of a very large number of people is a reasonable “return”). They depend on a large number of participants. Substantial, meaningful discussion, along the lines of what you might get from a face-to-face book club, may require a smaller scale and very different model.

  7. rafa says:

    I’m taking machine learning at coursera and i’m very very happy with it. Of course, my work gets evaluated and graded by a computer (that’s what machine learning is all about after all, lol). Anyway, MOOCS are a lot better suited for learning skills that are not as hard to evaluate.

    p.s. dara: love your blog!

  8. Jebedaia Sprngfield says:

    I’m a TA at a university, and reading through all the essays I’ve gotten on coursera are really not that different from what I do with the analog papers. most people are shitty writers. even TA’s and teachers choose favorites in brick and mortars schools. also we have students peer review with each other, and very often the professor and us ta’s are too overworked to bother grading properly people’s work. grading 30 sometimes 80 papers is not fun. so many students idolize college teaching, but very often (especially in large classes) they are just a number.

  9. Gene says:

    I am in the class as well. Very interesting material and good professor, but I am not a fan of the format of putting most substantive lectures after the reading. I understand Professor Rabkin’s logic, but it does not work for me.

    Also, the reading pace of the class isn’t really for working parents with small kids. I lasted through 5 assignments and then went into auditing mode.

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