So, I signed up for a Coursera MOOC, and almost immediately the experience turned into Lucy and the Chocolate Factory.

Lucy enrols in a MOOC

It’s a scene that suckers itself onto almost any stressful situation.  Lucy and Ethel take a job putting chocolates into wrappers.  It’s a conveyor belt scenario, and the task itself is simple; the challenge is to keep pace. Lucy’s enjoying herself, messing about.  But one stumble leads to a recovery problem, and before they know it Lucy is eating chocolates or stuffing them into her cleavage in an effort to keep up. Eventually she crashes in shame, covered in chocolate.

Minus the chocolate and cleavage elements, that’s my experience of a Coursera MOOC.

I chose the course because it was on a topic I wanted to know a bit more about, and I was curious about the professor, who has significant influence in the world of education technology. To those of us outside the US, there are few opportunities to see US edtech innovators in action. As their cultural assumptions about the nature of higher education and the student experience are rapidly becoming critical to us, I think it makes sense to try to figure them out.

But really, I signed up because I wanted to know how it might feel to be part of a course whose enrolment was larger than the population of the town where I grew up.

So I watched the first few videos, and despite being mildly irritated by the pop-up quizzes designed to check that I was really paying attention, I sat up a bit straighter, and I stopped checking my emails while listening. Game-based learning 1, multitasking 0.  I also spent time reading the forums when I signed up, and I could see the process of small learning communities pooling effectively.

But already the first chocolate had fallen off the conveyor belt, for work-related reasons.  I couldn’t justify taking the time to watch a longer video because I had other more urgent stuff to do. And things went quickly to pieces: the content kept coming down the chute, and within a week it was unimaginable that I could find double, then treble the time to catch up.

So as it turns out, I’m not only a college drop-out from way back, I’m now also a freshly minted Coursera drop-out. And so I’d like Dr. Chuck to know that it’s not him, it’s me, because I really do think that there’s an unacknowledged professional risk being taken here by the professors Coursera have recruited to help get this thing off the ground. A significant number of their first cohort students are their colleagues, dropping in like me to have a look around—this is a jury of their peers in a grand way. And it takes a certain amount of courage to load-test a new platform and pilot a new way of teaching, all in public.

So thanks to you, Dr. Chuck.

But the real value for me is that in watching myself fall behind so early and so catastrophically, I learned two things about how to design better online courses. First of all, I’ve figured out it’s time to let go of the pastiche of seat time that we affect by structuring online courses around weekly participation, just because face to face classes have weekly meetings. We make each individual week of an online class far too complicated—too much to prepare, too many tasks, too many new ideas and insufficient time simply to think about the material and perhaps chat about it with a few other people in the course—and this removes all prospect of rescue from people who miss a step along the way.

This isn’t learning, it’s Tetris.

Secondly, if students are depending on a grade, rather than just hanging out for a personally signed certificate from a celebrity academic, then we need to understand much more about the psychology of panic and its impact on how people communicate. Even the most badly prepared student who maintains an attendance record in a face to face class will be hearing something, thinking about something, each week, that might help make sense of the eventual assessment challenges.  The student who fails to connect online is missing out much more substantially, and is struggling alone with the burden of guilt. They’re avoiding communication, and after a while avoiding any environment that even reminds them of the course they’re failing to keep up with. Even the fanciest analytics or progress tracking plug-in that sprays out automated emails reminding students to call home isn’t going to work for someone who’s singing la-la-la, can’t hear you.

So communication in large classes needs to be authentic, multi-channel, persistent and friendly, and course design needs to back up the forgiving tone with practical options for recovery. In plain terms, we need to keep open opportunities for students who fall away to rejoin wherever they can, and to backfill later. This is the best way to tackle the tyranny of compounding time debt, but it’s confronting for us because we’re trained to think of learning as sequenced and cumulative—a virtuous progression of dependent ideas building to an assessable position of competence.

The good news is that our students are absolutely ready for a more intricate and flexible approach to course design. They’ve been learning since high school how to follow unpredictable and often circuitous routes through the realm of information and ideas, exactly as we do. So as the world’s most conservative institutions stampede towards MOOC partnerships, the rest of us have an opportunity to make a few practical and significant adjustments, right here at home.

This isn’t just about flipping the classroom: it’s about flipping the calendar, the curriculum and the whole conveyor belt approach to learning that has shackled content delivery to credentialising to this point. And this is where things will come unstuck, because no one currently running a higher education institution can responsibly hope that this shackle will snap. So even if institutions who fear missing out are currently prepared to loan some of their surplus resources to pro bono work in the MOOC economy, and even if many innovative and exciting teachers are involved, at the moment this is still just missionary outreach.

It’s not yet the real change we need.

26 Responses

  • I love the way you put this! I was LOL! I too am reflecting on the course. I am imagining multiple modes of progress through a MOOC – it makes my head hurt when I think about adding too many options – but learners *are* different and one size does not fit all.

  • Ah, you nailed it – this closely paralleled my experience – both in motivation for signing up and the chocolate factory experience that followed. Wonderfully described and insightful conclusions 🙂

  • Hello, welcome to both of you and thanks for the comments.

    I’m also trying to figure out how to support multiple pathways through the classes I teach online, which are much more rigidly monitored in terms of the march of calendar time. This summer I’m teaching a course in which I’m experimenting a bit with a two fixed points — if you like, an entry and exit point — and then a midway of options between the two that enable students to explore at will, and move towards the exit when they’re done.

    This is a very complicated time for innovative education as the enabling potential of new open platforms clashes with the constraining effect of national frameworks for standardisation of college learning outcomes. These two aren’t talking to each other at all, which is a headache for educators.

    So at the moment, I think standardisation is winning, and we’ve substituted brand differentiation for real diversity. I’m just not sure this is going to be an effective long-term strategy for higher education.

  • Yes, best so far, but that could also because the town I live in has a population of under 1000. Up to now, I’d have to go with Audrey (too obvious) and Steven Krause, Michael Caulfired is good too, I dare say that Coursera reviews are on their way to being a blogging sub-genre. Hopefully Dr Chuck is not the only one following them. I’d have qualify my presence as lurking late comer. Maybe next time. Not all are the same and Dr C seems to have a better handle on dynamics than some.

    I’ve been thinking about flipping but differently and then stalled. Just as long as it’s not StraigterLine figuring out how to do it with cadres of the desperate.

    Since I just finished Left Hand of Darkness and writing about it, I know better than to expect answers when we don’t even have good questions yet ~ and bearing in mind that even the right question might be useless

    • You know, I think someone needs to compile all the “I Failed A Coursera MOOC” blogs. There could be a t-shirt opportunity.

      I certainly feel that I’m not sure what the question is yet, but I do think that we haven’t yet joined this up to what’s happening with adjunct labor. And there’s something. But what?

    • I have been thinking about flipping differently as well. I wil be honest (shhh.) – until the last few weeks, For the past several years, I have been looking at all statements by “trendy blogger edtech experts who have never taught a real class” to “flip the classroom” as pretty vacuous arguments. My Coursera experience has caused me to look at flipping all my on-campus classes at the University of Michigan starting in January. Coursera in its current form is not sufficient for what I am designing but I have learned important lessons and techniques from it. So for the first time, I have some really concrete ideas abut how to flip a classroom and make it *really work* – I may have to build some entirely new software to do it – but that has never stopped me…. The journey continues….

  • You took a MOOC with a man who doesn’t know how to use an apostrophe in his blog title? 🙂 But seriously, I’d like to know why you think US cultural assumptions are becoming critical to us in Higher Ed in Australia. Maybe you could write a post about that?

  • Yes, I do think this is part of a bigger thing that I’m really trying to sort out in my own mind, especially because the last thing the world needs is any more aggrieved Australian nationalism (and certainly not from a faux Australian like me).

    I was hearing from a colleague yesterday about the problem with a setting in a learning-related system from a US company widely used in Australian universities, that couldn’t be changed from US date formats. What makes this trivial thing non-trivial is the attitude to non-US markets that it betrays: that we need to find the workarounds and fixes, because the effort of coding options for us doesn’t seem to make business sense. (Well, either that or they didn’t notice we were here, which doesn’t bear thinking about.)

    Slightly less tiny example: the way in which media coverage of Coursera’s growth describes non-US enrolments and participating institutions as “foreign”. If this is a genuine global participation, a real effort to rethink the way in which institutional and educational power is distributed globally, what does domestic and foreign have to do with it? Is it foreign when the user and the university provider are in the same non-US context? If I take a University of Melbourne Coursera MOOC, am I foreign, or local? In other words, this language reveals something about the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t cultural location of US edtech, and I think we don’t yet fully understand what this upsourcing of core cultural activities like education means for Australia.

  • “This isn’t learning, it’s Tetris.” YES! (And now I feel like matching other aspects of working in higher ed with games: “This isn’t a workload model, it’s Donkey Kong” ‘This isn’t online teaching, it’s Angry Birds”). On a serious note, I was curious to hear about Coursera’s use of ‘foreign’ in lieu of ‘global’ – some interesting stuff there about the US as the Centre (or should that be center? WordPress spell check says yes) Of The Edtech World, despite the talk about ‘global’ access, reach and participation.

  • MfD:

    Perhaps it’s not you, nor him. It might just be MOOCs in general, or maybe just for-profit MOOCs in general.

    • Hi Jonathan

      I’m not sure that we’re yet seeing for-profit MOOCs, although for-reputation MOOCs obviously can’t be detached from incentive. But the companies proposing to provide monetized services in the vicinity of MOOCs are focused on testing and transcripts. MOOCs themselves don’t have the usual relation to profit; they’re missionary work, but not straightforward recruiting. It’s all very odd. I get the sense that no one has a clear sense of the future of all this, which is why I think Audrey’s spot on that fear of missing out is the driving force for early institutional adopters.

      But actual jobs are being created, even if not many, so that’s another cost factor. And real resources are being diverted.

      So these babies are all cost at the moment — how those costs are weighed depends on what they grow up to be.

  • Lynne Thomson

    Any reading of tech history shows that new technologies always start off replicating existing activities, but rapidly evolve new uses and business models unimagined by their developers. Who could have imagined that voice calls would become an increasingly trivial part of modern cell phones.

    There’s no reason to think that the model of higher ed developed to handle the flood of returning US GIs will transfer to online in a recognizable form. Online is a pale copy of a great live class but it has other advantages: self pacing, remote access, multimedia, etc.

    Itheal de Solo Pool’s history of the telephone shows that despite intense public and elite interest in the beginning of the last century no one accurately predicted the profound impact of remote real time communication. However technically-oriented people were more prescient than business leaders. So it’s important for technical people to experiment with new teaching and learning models. We don’t know what will emerge but we can bet it will surprise us..and likely delight us as well.

    • Hi Lynne, welcome to the deckchairs. I’m a media historian and I think you’re absolutely right — the tech emerging now will change the fundamentals of our assumptions and management of education systems, and we really don’t know yet what that means. I take this also to be Vanessa’s point about not yet being able to form the questions.

      There’s a whole whirlwind of hasty judgments around us, and I’m increasingly concerned that too much of it is being driven by PR from stakeholders who are building their (short-term) business models, or protecting their (long-term) turf interests. So whenever a new round of Coursera sign-ups is announced, there’s a blaring of the promotional trumpet from both Coursera and their elite partners, and in this period where we have relatively little data on student satisfaction or longer term outcomes, the sheer scale of initial curiosity (40,000 “enrolled”!) becomes a proxy measure for overall success of the enterprise.

      I’m strongly in favour of experimentation and I’d be really delighted if it changed the way higher education works, even if it takes several attempts. The other lesson from history is novelty cinema formats: in the 1950s, while trying to see off competitor media, 3D innovators promised through the press that the cinema experience was on the verge of changing forever, and they reached back to the history of sound technology (which no one really expected to take off in the way that it did) to prove that 3D would follow the same trajectory of inevitability.

      In the 1950s, it didn’t. But it’s back. We really don’t know what the future holds.

      • Lynne Thomson

        While we can agree that no one knows where online learning will net out in 10 or 20 years I believe we can make better guesses by looking at the different things people seek in education, even just post-secondary education. Theories of disruptive innovation suggest that new technologies will first serve those unserved by the existing market before growing in capabilities to meet the underserved or lightly served, long before attacking the top of the market, sophisticated buyers with high demands for quality. Based on this expect the elite on-campus undergraduate experience to be the last to be changed by on-line education, but there’s plenty of opportunity to serve those not served and those lightly or poorly served today.
        Those poorly served today include students pursuing a credential and those who are pursuing enrichment, satisfying only a desire to learn. In addition corporations need to train managers and factory workers. Governments mandate classes to teach people to drive and a host of other things. These groups of lightly and poorly served students – and potential students – are the immediate opportunity for on-line education. They have very different needs that should dictate very different courses.
        I enrolled in the History of the Internet out of curiosity about MOOC and the history of the Internet. I dropped out because it was both too much and too little. I found myself too time starved for the videos and quizzes, while at the same time unsatisfied by the thin technical explanations. As a visual learner lacking a technical background I yearned for a text with diagrams to explain a bit more about how the technologies actually work. I think that tells us that even for continuing ed type students video should be one form of learning, but only one. Digital texts offer the chance to click through to further explanations. However, at least in the US the time-starved continuing ed student may be most available to learn while commuting, making podcasts a better format than streaming video for some content.
        One company “The Great Courses” has survived for years selling audio versions of great university lectures. When I had a longer commute I was a good customer. On-line Ed could take that content and create a better experience that is neither all audio nor all streaming video. All of this would meet the needs of the enrichment learner.
        The adult learner seeking a credential is both similar and different. Commuting may be the perfect time to passively absorb material, but their participation in discussion and creation of original work should be much more robust, otherwise there will be no mastery. On-line learning has the ability to bring together small groups of learners with narrow shared interest to create a community and an immersive learning experience arguably superior to full time on campus. Friends who have pursued specialized on-line masters programs have described a learning experience at least as good as a typical MBA program. The best configuration of online education for these students is likely very different from what works for the continuing ed learner, such as myself. I would caution remaking established courses to meet one groups needs which are likely very different from the students enrolling in that class.

  • Charles Severance

    I think Lynn is making the perfect point. Perfect. Once we finally understand/digest/mainstream, the “new” it is usually years later and while the “new” it is often surprisingly like the “old” in many ways more importantly the “new” is often quite divergent from the “old” on the whole. I find it interesting that less than 12 months into the “Stanford-style” MOOC movement, experts are going on record with “final” conclusions that it is a “terrible idea”. It is easy to be a “naysayer expert” and search for some small fault in the current prototype and then declare victory. The future will be written by those who are willing to give things a try and then be part of the fixing and evolving of the weak areas. In 10 years the children of the “naysayer experts” will be learning using some new educational pattern that will have been greatly influenced by today’s experiments. They will never realize that they were “wrong” in saying that “MOOCs were all wrong and have no potential” because they will be off and finding fault with some other emergent unformed idea 10 years hence. When people are open, involved, enthusiastic, optimistic, and honest and things usually work out given enough time. MOOCs in their current form may not yet be the perfect future – but the experience we are gaining from participating in them have brought us closer to that future.

  • This is really just a stub for a longer comment/blog post that I’d like to write elaborating on what you broach here: In Lawrence Veysey’s classic book The Emergence of the American University he argues that the practices of the old time college, that had been focused on the development of “discipline and piety” through in loco parentis education, were eclipsed by the practices we are more familiar with today: research and utilitarian education (as exemplified in the land grant colleges). But the fact that there is so much attrition in MOOCs (I too didn’t completely finish Chuck’s course) suggests that the traditional university in some ways is still effectively playing the in loco parentis function of the old time college and that maybe it’s a practice worth highlighting as we sort out what the worth of more traditional HE teaching practices are in the face of MOOCs. I’d really like to snythesize the I Love Lucy stuff you use above with some of Veysey’s narrative. It could make for a historically rich piece that would still have relevance to people less focused on the history of higher ed.

    • Lynne Thomson

      Suggest you look at clayton Christiansen’s work on innovation and disruption. New technologies start off by competing with non-consumptions and over time move up to competing with established technologies for established users and only after they have refined and improved do they compete with the best of the old technology. In this case I think MOOCs will offer opportunities for people who aren’t in any school, then those who might have done adult education options long before they challenge the top of the pyramid, undergraduate on campus education. Online may do that one day but has a long way to go first – but can do a lot of good offering options to those who aren’t in school and can not do it full time.

      • What interests me, Lynne, about the “underserved populations” rationale that we’re hearing a lot, both about domestic markets of students who are falling through the cracks of the college system, and the enticement of some untapped international markets, is that MOOCs are so poorly set up to support the kinds of students whom college is already failing. We now know in universities how much support we need to offer students for whom college is a stretch, and a lot of this is very personal and close. I have seen online environments create this careful engagement with others, but not scalably. This needs some imaginative thinking.

    • This is a really interesting point, Luke, as I think it’s one on which America and Australia may differ, and that’s partly because the college experience sits slightly differently in relation to the literal family role here. Only a minority of Australian students have the full residential, away-from-family experience, in company of other students, enjoying college residential life in a kind of bubble that’s not quite home and not quite the future. So colleges education itself is less frequently positioned philosophically in that role, whereas online education has some traditional precursors in Australia’s strong tradition of distance and remote learning. This might be why criticism of MOOCs has been more puzzled here, because we’re not quite so sure how to use the bricks and mortar campus experience rhetorically.

      I hope you write the longer post. I don’t know Veysey and I’d like to read it.

  • I stumbled across this post just now, and wanted to leave brief note of thanks. I work in an academic library and like a lot of my colleagues am extremely apprehensive about online / blended teaching. The reminder that less can be more is very helpful!

  1. World History MOOC Report 4: In which I waste my time. « More or Less Bunk  October 1, 2012

    […] posts I’ve been reading lately, everyone who has trouble keeping up blames their day jobs. Here’s Kate, for example: But already the first chocolate had fallen off the conveyor belt, for […]

  2. Things we’ve been reading about | Education works  October 3, 2012

    […] of online course discussion boards which are not structured or mediated by an instructor; and Kate Bowles questions the highly structured way in which learning material is delivered. As both these posts […]

  3. The view from here | Music for Deckchairs  October 13, 2012

    […] come around just as I’ve been forced to admit that there are only so many chocolates you can eat or stuff down your cleavage before it all falls […]

  4. Biting off more than we can chew. | Academe Blog  January 28, 2013

    […] are signed up for more MOOCs than they can ever hope to start, let alone complete. My friend Kate compares the results to Lucy and Ethel in that chocolate factory at her blog, “Music for […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.