Sunday, January 6, 2013

It's not about the lecturer, stupid!

Up until yesterday I was in the course "Think Again: How to Reason and Argue" on coursera. I decided to drop the course (more on this in a subsequent post), but my decision to drop the course was partly based on my free time to devote to this course, and the assessment factors currently available for math and science (and logic is a Math course for me ;-)  ). I was conversing with one of my colleagues the other day, about this very topic, after a workshop, and it dawned on me that I probably haven't written about it yet :-)

One of the things that one hears, often, from the xMOOC crowd (especially from those xMOOCs in elite universities) is about the opportunity to learn from "the best." What they mean is "the best physicist, chemist, programmer..." and so on.  For them, the best would be someone like Albert Einstein for example (at least that's what I get from what they are saying in their presentations".  Don't get me wrong, Albert may have been one of the best at producing, but maybe not the best in helping others learn.  These two concepts (best physicist and best physics professor) are not mutually inclusive.  I think this is something that is left out of the discussion when discussing "learning from the best," and that is teaching.

Let me take a stand here and state that for me lecturing is not teaching. Lecturing may certainly be a part of teaching, but it is not everything that is entailed in teaching.  Teaching is, in large part, scaffolding learners to reach places where they haven't been before.  Your lectures, no matter how brilliant (even for those people who fall into the best professor category, not just the best-insert profession category) don't mean that the material will click for the learner in that appropriate way.

A personal example would be this Logic course that I decided to drop: I really liked both lecturers :-) I found their lectures interesting and engaging, and they both had an interesting personality which made me want to watch more of their lectures.  The exercises I passed, but when it came time for quizzes though...I didn't get a score that was in the same range as the exercises. It was a bit perplexing, watched the lectures again, went over the exercises again, took the quiz again (different questions in he same category), and I did slightly better. But still, not where I wanted to be grade-wise anyway (I was under the threshold for a statement of accomplishment if that gives you an idea, even though I had a passing grade).

For me good teaching is about mentorship. I understand that this may (well, definitely is) hard in a massive environment, but if someone is going to invest time in a course (time is money, as they say ;-)  ) wouldn't it make sense to have someone explain what you may be missing?  I think with appropriate feedback on assessments this may be minimized, however if in your assessments you get something wrong, and the prompt says "this is wrong..."with no indication of what was the right answer and why (especially when you can't take the same assessment again), then there is something missing :-)

Speaking of assessments, well designed assessments (i.e. showing that you know your stuff, not showing you know how to take a test) is important in any learning context, but especially important in massive environments where the instructor does not have access to correct things on the fly. Here are two examples of assessment that made me have a double take

In the first one, the answer was probably None of the Above, since all the options were the same :-)  The second one, if you got wrong,  you got wrong in 2 questions because both those questions are the same. So from a scoring perspective, even if everything else was flawless in your assessment, you still got a 93%.

So, looking at learning and teaching in MOOCs, it's not about the lecturer, stupid! Like any other type of course (online, blended, on-campus lectures, seminars, laboratories and so on) it's about  the confluence of sound instructional design, sound assessments sound feedback, sound material and so on. The lecture is only one small part of what goes into teaching an learning.

PS: Please note that I am not calling anyone stupid here, but rather making reference to the popular expression "It's the _______, Stupid!"
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