MOOCs and educational development: Part 4
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This is the fourth in a series of blog posts on MOOCs (massive open online courses).

My previous posts focused on the content of a 12-week MOOC in biostatistics, which I completed this January. In this post I’ll discuss the interaction in the course.

Every week, students in the MOOC were given a series of video lectures to watch (see my part 2 post for more details). Each lecture video was on a web page by itself, and under the video was a discussion forum. Students could make posts here. Then the problem set for that week had to be completed, usually a mix of fill-in-the-blanks and multiple-choice questions. The problem set occupied a few web pages, again with a discussion forum in each page.

The course content was on the whole brilliant, but how could the instructors take and respond to questions on so many forums from the 37,000+ students? The course was staffed well, with 2 Harvard professors and 4 teaching assistants, but still the teacher-student ratio seems abysmally low! This ratio, a common favourite in reporting education quality, is clearly irrelevant when it comes to MOOCs.

The Moodle organization, which develops Moodle (a popular online learning environment), promotes the concept of separate and connected ways of knowing. A “separate” learner prefers to rely on authoritative sources of information, whereas a “connected” learner likes to learn from discussions with others.

I think I was mostly a “separate” learner during the MOOC. Watching sometimes re-watching – the video lectures usually helped me learn enough to answer the questions. I think I didn’t have any doubts at all in the first few weeks of the course, but I did take a look at the discussions forums now and then. And that was troubling.

There were dozens of questions and doubts – many badly written and unclear – in the discussion forums, especially the forums in the pages with the problem sets. Some posts received helpful replies from other participants and sometimes one of the course teaching assistants (and rarely, the course professors). But it seemed like most of the posts had been quickly swamped by other posts and as a result orphaned. Posts could be “voted” so that they became more prominent: posts with votes from many people moved to the top of the discussion forum. Still, it was a bit disturbing to see the clamour, even chaos, on the forums.

I got the feeling that it was all about survival of the fittest. If a student is flummoxed by a problem set, they can’t be sure there will be help. That’s not to say that there was no help at all, but it was not of the sort that makes for a supportive, pleasant learning experience.

Early in the course, a student was appointed as the “community teaching assistant” because she gave a lot of helpful replies to other students’ posts. I believe the concept of a community teaching assistant is common in MOOCs. These people are students like others and they are not paid. The community teaching assistant in my MOOC did an incredible job of responding to questions during the course. She must have spent a lot of time wading through the discussion forums. Remember: 37,000 students! Students appreciated the help she gave but not her language, which was sometimes inconsiderate or just rude. She was certainly a smart and quick student but not a teacher.

Thus the course went on, and I knew that with every passing week hundreds or thousands of students must be dropping out (see this study on MOOC completion rates, usually around 10%). It sometimes felt like I was fighting my way through every problem set!

In the final, 12th week of the course, students had to take the exam. This was to be taken in 3 hours on honour code. There would be no exam proctor, and the online exam was not built with a timer. Timers are common in online assessments, so the lack of a timer on this exam wasn’t because of technical complexity. It was probably because the professors wanted to set an exam similar to take-home exams that are common in some universities and programs in the US (other countries too perhaps?). Students can refer to texts to complete the exam, but they are bound by an honour code regarding what they can do and what they must not do. This system generally works (or is seen that way), but a recent scandal at Harvard University involving take-home exams has raised concerns.

I was very anxious about the final exam because it was to make up 60% of the course grade. I had done well enough in the problem sets over 12 weeks, but what I did for 3 hours on a single day would determine whether or not I pass the course. I’m not a big fan of this kind of assessment, but well, I didn’t have a choice.

There were 3 sets of problems in the exam. I found the first few questions almost impossible to understand but soon realized that I was simply stressed. After calming down I completed this set in about an hour and saw that I’d done well: the magic of objective questions where you get immediate feedback! I then became more confident and completed the other two sets in well under two hours. My overall score in the course was 95%, and the passing score was given as 85%. So it seemed like I had passed!

But then followed more anxiety and an arduous wait. More about this in the next post…

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About Ravi Murugesan

I live in India and I’m an INASP Associate. I work for the AuthorAID project, mostly as a trainer, and I spend a lot of time on INASP’s online learning platform.

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