On Coursera – free online university courses

For the last ten weeks, I have been participating in what has come to be known as a MOOC: a Massively Open Online Course. Provided free by the University of Michigan, the course — Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World — was taught by their professor of English Language and Literature, Eric Rabkin, and consisted of ten weekly units. Each unit required the students to read a book or series of short stories, write a short essay designed to “enrich the reading of a fellow student,” and then grade the essays of four other anonymous peers. The syllabus ranged from children’s stories (Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Alice in Wonderland), through classics such as Dracula and Frankenstein, to 20th century science fiction by authors like Ray Bradbury and Ursula LeGuin.

Overall the course was a great experience; it’s been such a long time since I had to study for and then complete work to a set ‘homework’ schedule. I enjoyed the opportunity to exercise my brain and imagination in ways not usually relevant to my usual  day-to-day work, and the video lectures by the professor coupled with the extremely lively discussion forums expanded my appreciation and understanding of literature beyond what I had expected from the course.

Surprisingly for a free online course that awarded no credits or reward other than a PDF certificate, there was not an insignificant amount of plagiarism discovered in the submitted essays. I guess it’s hard for some people to fail at something, even if there is no real negative consequence. The professor expressed his surprise at the plagiarism too; hopefully it is an issue that the online provider, Coursera, will tackle as they continue to develop and refine their online study platform.

The anonymous peer review system also came in for a lot of criticism. With anonymity comes the freedom to do or say whatever you want without reprisal; many disappointed students reported blank or nonsense feedback, and inevitably there were also instances of insulting or mocking comments being submitted. Many also seemed to find it hard to accept honest feedback, choosing instead to vent in the discussion forums about how their reviewers were ‘obviously’ too dumb to understand what it was their essay was saying. Another aspect of fear of failure, perhaps, is the unwillingness to accept advice and correction.

Anyway, my marks were never below average; with a potential 6 points (3 for form and 3 for content) for each essay, I never scored below 4, and even managed two perfect sixes for my essays on HG Wells’s The Invisible Man and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Some students were posting their essays online as they progressed through the course; I wonder what effect that will have on future iterations of this course, with so many highly relevant and easily copied sources of inspiration available?

I’ve now signed up for two further classes in 2013; The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound, and Color starts in February, and Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative is in July. It will be interesting to see how other courses in the system handle student participation and assessment, and whether the anonymous model can ever work at the scale at which these courses operate.

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