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