My Brain on Coursera

I can’t get enough of Coursera.

I’m a lifelong learner.  I have to be – my profession (librarianship) has been in a constant process of reinventing itself for my entire professional career.

Almost every week I have a panic attack — OMG, I don’t know enough about X. This past week, X was “linked data.”  Often, my panic attack is about job marketability — OMG, if I don’t get a second masters in Y, I won’t have a job in n years.  Y ranges across learning science topics,  educational technology, instructional design and IT management. And depending on my state of mind, n can vary from 2 to 10 years.

So, how do I cope with my panic attacks?

Relentlessly, I sign up for workshops and seminars, take semester-long classes for credit, slog through online credit courses, attend conferences, participate in webinars, organize “lunch and learn” sessions, and read, read, read.  Over the years, my employers have paid thousands of dollars for “professional development” in my field.  I pay too, including hundreds of dollars every year to a company that captures course lectures of premier American college professors and sells them on DVD’s, thought not as credit-bearing courses leading to any credential.

I have enjoyed these various forms of learning, and have found them more or less useful, but the online course packaged the way Coursera has worked it out is winning my allegiance in a big way.

I signed up for way too many courses:  Kevin Werbach’s Gamification, Michael Kearns’ Networked Life, Scott Page’s Model Thinking (which I found late), Christian Terwiesch’s Introduction to Operations Management (not yet started),  and Fatima Wirth’s Fundamentals of Online Education (also not started).

My first taste of Coursera was Gamification, and it was a good choice because it got me thinking a lot about fun and about motivation on many levels.

On one level, I can use the course content in my work — helping students learn information skills.  Information literacy instruction has been kind of siloed as a separate activity for students and I’ve come to believe that instead it should be embedded in all the interfaces of the library, from reference services to discovery tools.

On another level, the Gamification lectures make me think about how I am learning through Coursera, what is working, why it feels fun, what kinds of motivations are involved.

Lectures have gotten kind of a bad rap lately.  I really love lectures, but I love them online much more than in person.  Why?  Because I can stop the lecture at any point when I want to think about what is being said.  You cannot do that with F2F lectures, obviously, and it made me realize that way back in college, I learned NOT to think during lectures because it would cause me to miss out on the next couple points and sometimes even lose the thread of the lecture.  You were, presumably, supposed to furiously take notes and then think about the lecture afterwards.  Frankly, it’s just way more fun to treat an online lecture like half of a conversation with a really intelligent person.  Some lectures, I “talk” almost as much as the professor does!

When I stop the lecture, I might be doing any of these things (none of which I would do in a F2F class):

  • Thinking about a point and how it applies to something in my work
  • Looking at anything online related to the lecture, to help me really understand and remember
  • Vocalizing a point out loud to help myself remember it, to try out how I would say it, especially if I intend to use it
  • Looking up the wikipedia entry or some other basic information about a term I have heard but not sure I know what it is (“game theory” for example)
  • Emailing a note to a colleague (or to myself) about something mentioned in the lecture
  • Reviewing something that went by pretty fast (or because my mind wandered)
  • Writing down several questions I might have – and not be missing the next several points

OK, so Professor Werbach is not answering when I stop the lecture to mentally make a “comment” but that is not such a big deal.  It’s not very often in a F2F class that a student gets to ask multiple questions or follow a train of thought with the professor — you share so much air time with the other students that in-class discussion often feels like a fragmented press conference rather than the kind of in-depth conversations you imagine you should be having in academia. And anyway, I know that when I amplify the lecture in my own mindcreating my own examples to apply what I am learningit’s not going to be that interesting to just anyone.  But being able to stop the lecture means I can think through the ideas that are sparked in my mind and guess what I remember the lecture without having to take notes.  It becomes part of what I “know” without memorizing or cramming. That’s how I learn in real life, after all.

How obvious – that anything is more interesting if you can think about it! I have autonomy! I’m not denying that collective learning can also be powerful, and that I (currently) have less of that by taking my online courses as a solitary student for the most part.  But I have sat through plenty of class discussions that did nothing for my learning and were not even approaching what I would call fun.  Group discussion is not automatically collective learning any more than “hands-on time” is automatically active learning.  If the tradeoff is losing the classroom group discussions (which were often  a waste of time) in order to get the benefits of online learning, my choice is clear.

Which brings me to make a point about the discussion forums online.  I looked at the discussion in Gamification once or maybe twice, and posted only one comment.  Being in a mosh pit with tens of thousands of other students in a completely undifferentiated way is not appealing to me at all.  Fortunately, it should not be hard to use technology, personally drafted profiles, and other basic preferences and structures to enable the formation of smaller groups that will benefit more from open discussion.  Using optional tools, I could have potentially found other people I know in the course — completely by chance in F2F conversation I found out that a colleague in my own department was taking the course.  What would be perhaps even more interesting (and this was a feature of Sakai OAE) would be to connect with other like-minded individuals who share the same “problem-space” that I do but who are taking different classes!  You always meet at least some interesting people in a face-to-face class, and Coursera would be even more useful to me if it could help me build networks with real utility for my professional work.

The other aspects of the course design I like are the way the lectures are broken up in smaller segments.  The technology doesn’t work very well for replaying segments, so it’s just easier sometimes to replay short lectures from the beginning.   I suspect in the future, we’ll all be able to click on a powerpoint slide and get right “into” the lecture at that point.  That kind of repeatability in small bites will be great.

I also like it when I can see even before I click the link how long a lecture is.  It seems like a small thing, but it’s a highly relevant planning tool. Online learning is a very time-conscious, shooting-for-maximum-efficiency kind of enterprise for me, so anything that helps me on that road is a valuable feature.

I like the very easy “mid-lecture” quiz questions, and I think a lot more could be done with those.  I miss not having more online reinforcement of what I’m learning — perhaps more short non-credit quizzes, or a worksheet for me to fill out, or a glossary exercise of some kind, or even just more “what we just learned” review lectures.  I’m not really going to take notes (how laborious, and a boring way to get reinforcement).  I don’t think I should have to do that in order to robustly learn the material, but I need some other fun and fast form of reinforcement and consolidation.  What I’ve tended to do to create reinforcement is take the homework quiz right after watching all the lectures–the quiz becomes the reinforcement.

One note – in Page’s course, the mid-lecture online quizzes are a lot harder than in Werbach’s Gamification course.  I appreciate the “pat on the back” feeling I get from succeeding at the easy mid-lecture quiz questions (don’t take them away!).  At the same time,  it would be nice to have some intermediate step between the easy mid-lecture quiz questions and the actual homework quizzes that count.  I don’t have a good way to test that I know the material before I get into the summative assessment tool.

I note also that I really like seeing the professor talking on my screen, and I can’t say why.  The courses where I see the professor seem a lot more engaging than just hearing a voice and seeing slides.

Overall, on most of the courses, the main thing I don’t like is the presentation of what you have to do each week to stay within course deadlines.  A syllabus seems like a dumb thing to me — it’s become this kind of catchall for rules and obligations, explanation of learning goals, course overview and schedule.  Most of that is reference material I will read once and then keep in the background somewhere – a syllabus is a yucky way to see the schedule.  I want a simple place to know what I have to do each week (watch these lectures, take this quiz, etc) and I don’t want it expressed as “Week 1” or “Week 4.”  I don’t keep track of my progress in any course by week number, it’s a calendar label that isn’t used anywhere else in my life.  I know that’s easier for the teacher, but piecing together which lectures go with which quizzes and which deadlines correspond with which weeks is unnecessary cognitive load from the student point of view, and gets really difficult when you have more than one class with different starting weeks.  I can think of many navigational ways to make this better in courses, and surely several of those ways would not place too much burden on the professor trying to recreate the class in the future.

Parenthetically, I’ve heard it said that students don’t want a lot of different interfaces, they just want to use one courseware system on campus.  I don’t agree with that.  Students use a huge number of interfaces everyday on their phone apps alone.  I think what they (we) don’t like is how confusing it is to figure out what you are supposed to do.  One way to handle that is to standardize all courses so they look exactly the same – students figure it out for one course, and then follow that pattern for all other courses.  A better way, in my opinion,  is to use good design for course navigation and schedules, and allow students to have an integrated calendar so they can see all their deadlines at once.

Some of the courses I signed up for, Networked Life and Model Thinking, have some (sigh) math.  In almost every instance, the professor goes too fast for me — I’m sure they would feel awkward and stupid to talk through a math example as slowly as would enable me to grasp it the first time, but I could really suggest that they re-film these segments and offer us the choice of watching some bits at a slower pace.

Sadly, I’m likely to drop out of these courses as the math becomes more important to the lectures because in their current instantiation, there aren’t enough examples and ancillary materials to help me efficiently grasp the mathematical concepts.  I can hear the professors thinking “well, you have to expect to do some work to master these math concepts” but I’m convinced that I could master these concepts without (inefficiently) struggling if the pedagogy was more robust.    What I want is a lot of ancillary and optional video clips explaining the concepts using lots of different examples, so I can fly through all of them until I find the one that clicks with me, or use the variations to enrich my understanding.  I am not going to sit with pencil and paper, replaying the same lecture segment over and over, and struggling to understand the concept that the professor handles so expertly and elegantly.  I know from experience that struggling on my own with problem sets is a) unnecessarily time consuming and that b) I could potentially simply fail to ever grasp the concept fully.  I don’t believe that there has to be pain and suffering for learning to happen, any more than  I think it’s better to have lost ten pounds eating only food that you hate.

Why am I in favor of ancillary materials to watch — wouldn’t that also be time consuming? Yes, but I can be doing my laundry or washing dishes at the same time, whereas in my pencil and paper example, the cognitive load is so heavy I can’t do anything else.

Does that shock you?

Learning has been conflated with suffering so long that I think people get uncomfortable with the idea that you can learn instantly from just the right examples.  We use simulations for that reason, and they are way less time consuming in making their point than pen and pencil problem sets.  So, you see, I believe that fast learning is every bit as character-building as slow, inefficient learning! Both Networked Life and Model Thinking make excellent use of simulations.

So, how could all these supplemental video clips with many different examples be created?  One possible way is to have students make them, and the best ones could become featured though a combination of student peer review and voting.  I am in favor of student-created content because I think I am more likely to get an explanation that clicks with me from someone who has only recently risen above my level of confusion — experts sometimes are just too advanced to see the best ways to get things across to novices. But really, there are a million different ways to handle this kind of “teaching for understanding”:

  • an FAQ based on common student misunderstandings
  • a guided tutorial
  • excerpts from other written material
  • simulations
  • even watching a very slow step-by-step repetition of the example used.

Maybe some students would “pass” an exam question on a concept, and become eligible to host a chat session in which they tried to help other students.  Seeing the course more as a learning community with many potential teachers would allow for leveraging the varying abilities of students in the course–you just need some mechanism for identifying people for various roles.  I might, for example, be willing to help a student with proper writing if they could help me with math.

I like the peer grading that we do in Professor Werbach’s class for the written assignments.  It was useful to see how other people approached the question posed and reminded me of concepts I overlooked in applying the lecture to the assignment.  The feedback I got on my own assignments were kind of the same as what you get on the job — some criticism you take to heart, and other criticism seems not really relevant or sometimes even just wrong.

I think as these Coursera courses become more mature, a lot more can be done with peer interaction, including some group projects.  Matching people in groups algorithmically (based on self-descriptions, perhaps) when you are drawing from a  pool of thousands seems likely to me to work better than getting assigned to a group in a classroom with 30 students.

I haven’t really liked the writing assignments themselves, though, in Gamification.  They are not “in my field” so to speak, where I am eager to apply the concepts I am learning.  I’m not interested in gamifying to sell more breakfast pastries, but I am interested in gamifying to help students learn information skills.  With tens of thousands of students, it seems that in the future it would be possible to offer some choices in the assignment so that students would peer grade on written assignments more aligned with their native interests. [Note: The final writing assignment about e-books was really relevant to my area of interest.]

I adore the short time frame of these classes, because sometimes when I want to know about a new subject, I don’t want a whole semester on it – I just want to understand the area better than I do.  So, I much prefer the amount of content that can be delivered in a 4-8 week course, with chances to further my knowledge in other short bursts.  It’s the way I read books.  Sometimes I’ll read 2 or 3 books on a topic, but very often, I will read one book on a topic and move on to something else, circling back to the first topic later.

Another reason for shorter classes has to do with convenience.  I can fairly accurately predict whether or not I have the “space” for something additional in my life 6 to 8 weeks in advance.  Longer stretches, and it gets iffy.

That said, the pace is a bit relentless, and I’m not sure why these courses have such tight time frames.  Having caught a cold, I really struggled to keep up with even one course, let alone more than one.  I have heard a lot about students not staying motivated in online courses and that you have to structure in a lot of discipline, and perhaps the thinking is that if you give people enough scheduling leeway, they’ll just give up on the course.  I wonder about the option of letting me choose at the outset of a course if I want to cover the material in 8 weeks or 10, and letting a computer compute my deadlines and match me up with other students on my same schedule.

And finally … I have a funny ambivalence about getting the certificate.  I am determined to get at least one.  I feel that I could put this on my resume, but that I could not put a course on my resume if I didn’t get the certificate.  For example, if I stick with Page’s course on Model Thinking but take all the quizzes so late I don’t qualify for the certificate (which is likely to happen), I feel I can’t claim to have taken the course because it’s not quite verifiable.

A completely gossipy aside – I first came across Scott Page via the Teaching Company and his lecture series on complexity theory.  And last year, I met in person a professor whose lectures on ancient Greece had been a Teaching Company favorite of mine.  These guys are my celebrities — I couldn’t probably identify any movie star of recent date, but I’m kind of jazzed to think of these very smart people as my, well, virtual friends.

–Karrie Peterson


About Karrie Peterson

Head, Liaison, Instruction & Reference Services
This entry was posted in Disruptive Technologies, Learning, Shifting Education Paradigms and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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