Thursday, August 16, 2012

Coursera's Fantasy and Science Fiction Course

I've been sitting in on Dr. Rabkin's Fantasy and Science Fiction course offered via Coursera. There's a good article in the Chronicle of Higher Education today (August 16) about incidents of plagiarism. One thing that frustrated students doing the assessing - the course developers hadn't anticipated allowing for a zero grade for suspected plagiarism. Some students accused of plagiarism complained that they had NOT plagiarized. With no one in the instructor role, who mediates?

Laura Gibbs (faculty member at U of Oklahoma) who's quoted in the article has been blogging about the course and has plenty to say various problems that have arisen in these weeks of the course. (The course started July 23). I agree with a lot of her comments.

Example of one thing that's bugged me: When the course started, there was no course calendar with all the dates written out. If the essay on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is due on a certain date, list that. Don't just say that the essays are "due Tuesdays."

Another issue: Availability of the books for the course. Most of the books for the course are available via Project Gutenberg and other open access sites. There are only two books that are not available for free. Some students overseas were having some problems getting their hands on those two books (though perhaps by now those students have been able to order copies.) The two books not available for free: Ursula LeGuinn's The Left Hand of Darkness and Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. If you wanted to run an open course that concentrated on modern science fiction where fewer books are available open access... that would be a barrier for a world-wide audience - and students who might not be able to afford the books.

The units each week close with short videos where Dr.Rabkin discusses that week's book. Yes, you know what I'm talking about - those often maligned talking head videos. (But you know what? Dr. Rabkin has something to say! I'm happily watching the videos.) One of the glitches: The early videos have had subtitles in English and Spanish. This week's videos now have English subtitles. It seems that they are catching up with providing captions and transcripts. I presume that next time the course is offered, the videos would be re-used and all of that would be in place at the start of the course.

Another concern: The discussion forums. Originally there were no discussion forums for each unit. The course developers added those after we got started. If the developers took a careful look at how the discussions have developed, they could start out the course with more distinct forums.

Student support: Could Coursera provide a set of links to information on writing? Students in the course (including Dr. Gibbs) provided links and made suggestions about improving writing skills. Students also provided each other with resources about the readings. Should those be gathered up for next time? What about including an information literacy piece on Coursera? Perhaps they could offer some information on how to search for additional resources - or at least point to some information literacy materials. (That brings us to the "where are the librarians" question. Do librarians have a role to play in MOOCs?)

Note: We've got a few self-identified teens in the course. According to the terms of service, that's a no-no - but I hope that they didn't kick enterprising teens out of the class. I would have loved an opportunity to participate in a course like this when I was that age.

The Fantasy and Science Fiction course is just like a course. Dr.Rabkin pointed out in an announcement this week, this is the same course and schedule for readings that he uses in his face-to-face course at University of Michigan. Should the course be less traditional and more 21st century? Perhaps students could have been encouraged to start those Facebook groups and circle up on Google+. Perhaps students should have been encouraged to create videos or other projects like writing their own fairy tales instead of those short essays, but some students have thought of that on their own. Perhaps the traditional course is as good a place to start as any.

So...there are some issues - but there are plenty of messages in the discussion forums with thanks to Dr.Rabkin for offering the course.

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