Bad Pedagogy is Bad

I wanted to comment on this post from the Chronicle which is a “progress” report from a professor teaching a MOOC in college composition at Georgia Tech. It’s somewhat infuriating to me.

Part of the difficulty in adapting to new teaching platforms seems to be that instructors don’t realize that the main difference is, in fact, the platform. The pedagogy remains the same. Something that’s a bad idea face to face (F2F) is usually a bad idea in the online platform, as well. Now, I’m clearly no fan of MOOCs, and I’d like to highlight a few quotes from the article to explain what I mean.

Our more ambitious students have developed study guides.
The professor is referring to the “communities” of students which have formed in her class of over 17,000. Just a few weeks into the course, which is a composition (ie, writing, not testing) course, and students are forming their own study guides. While forward thinking, this doesn’t seem like effective pedagogy. Students in an introductory writing course are there to learn to write; I would venture that such students are not really capable of producing accurate or helpful study guides. It’s also possible that some of these students are either instructors themselves (as the author notes some of them in fact are) or have taken a writing course previously. So they are pouring information into the course that they didn’t have to learn or work for.

We also underestimated the misunderstandings that can arise from idiomatic and discipline-specific language. We began the course by asking students to complete a Personal Benchmark Statement, only to discover that we needed to provide a definition of “benchmark.”
The author seems to be linking this “misunderstanding” to the enormous number of students and the varied backgrounds they have, being located all over the world. But, again, explaining your assignments clearly and specifically should be par for the course in instruction. The word “benchmark” seems to me to be particularly opaque; I can’t imagine that the average class of first year composition students on a given campus would all know what that meant. This example highlights the rarified nature often ascribed to online learning (whether MOOC or a more traditional online format): it’s so different! Problems must be the result of the medium! There certainly are problems that arise related to the medium (discussed below, in fact), but some things are not related to the technology or vast student population of the MOOC.

Finally, perhaps the most frustrating thing about this article is the author’s own frustration at the limitations of her course platform, Coursera. She is annoyed that Coursera is slow to fix glitches; she complains that she can’t grade the way she wants to due to limitations imposed by the software; she can’t use the rubrics she thinks would be most effective for peer grading because they are too complex for Coursera. SO WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS? Oh, right, you’re “supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.” I can’t understand why it’s a good investment of time or money to conduct a course that will ultimately see much less than probably 2/3 participation by the end of it. I can’t understand why it’s a good investment to conduct a course through a platorm that notoriously had to shut down its “Fundamentals of Online Education” course due to technical problems. The platform should have been thoroughly vetted to ensure compliance with the instructor’s preferred pedagogy, or a new platform selected. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I think this last problem is at the heart of the MOOC problem, which is speed over understanding; the new hotness over substance. Sure, we could just let Coursera do all the work, but we would never teach a course in a box in an F2F environment–why should the online environment be so different?

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