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.