Massively open online classes (MOOCs) are promising but no panacea
MASSIVELY open online classes, or MOOCs, are all the rage in education today.
Some are proclaiming they are the panacea for a multitude of educational woes: overcrowded classrooms, huge spikes in tuition fees, lack of funds, not enough classes to accommodate all who want them.
The solution: Put the lessons on the web!
Larry Gordon’s Column One article in the Los Angeles Times of April 19, “Taking notes in pajamas,” (the online version has a different headline) was spot on in many ways.
Online classes have potential but there are pitfalls.
Don’t you just hate when this happens?
Through its web portal Titanium, I am currently enrolled for credit in Communications 407 at CSU Fullerton under the tutelage of Prof. Genelle Belmas.
It is a class in First Amendment law.While our semester is not yet over I’m doing reasonably well … we have had three quizzes and a mid-term. Unlike Gordon, I scored 100 percent on Quiz 1, 96 percent on number 2 and 90 percent on the third quiz. I scored 89 percent on the midterm.
You might be tempted to think I’m cheating, but this relates to one of the most important points Gordon makes: that the student has to be interested in the topic.
That makes learning about it more a pleasure than a chore.
As a former journalist and current professor of journalism, I am fascinated by the topic of communications law. I teach some if it every day to my students, and follow it assiduously in the paper and online.
It also helps to have a terrific, committed and inspiring instructor.
PROF. BELMAS spikes her online lectures with wit and wisdom.
She doesn’t actually appear on screen like Gordon’s teacher (potentially evoking the ‘celebrity’ effect he describes) but she uses PowerPoints and accompanies them with her melodic voice speaking to me plainly and in almost broadcast quality.
She takes complex legal cases and uses examples from her own personal and professional experience to illustrate them effectively.
Fortunately, unlike Gordon, my instructor and I have a long acquaintance and professional connection through the Journalism Association of Community Colleges. Belmas presents the communications law update to the annual faculty conference held in Morro Bay each year in January.
I have never met face-to-face with any of the other students in the class but I did have the good fortune to meet the teacher over lunch about a month ago. We barely discussed the class; our conversation was about my special project, an in-depth research project on the two gay marriage cases currently on the docket of the U.S. Supreme Court.
ANOTHER essential ingredient for success, it seems, is that the instructor be intimately familiar with – if not renown for – her subject matter. Belmas is both. She and colleague Wayne Overbeck, also from CSUF, coauthored the class textbook, “Major Principles of Media Law” (Wadsworth, Cengage Learning) now in its 2013 Edition. (Because of new court decisions, it needs to be updated annually.)
A slight difference between Comm 407 online and Gordon’s UCI MOOC is the peer assessment. We are not, strictly, graded by our peers. However, through the mutual exchange on the discussion forums (where we are graded on our contributions) we get immediate feedback from our classmates.
Each student must make 10 posts per week to get full marks. The posts must be on topic, thoughtful, grammatically correct and more than mono-syllabic to get any points at all. No “OMG” or “WTF” allowed.
If all the above conditions are met, the stage is set for students to succeed.
The rest, as always, is up to them.
YES, it may be fabulous to attend class in one’s pajamas, but what about when the dog barks hysterically at the mailman? What about the neighbor who plays loud rock music all day … and all night?
Then there are connectivity problems. Has anyone not been affected by the recent spate of massive global computer network failures? American Airlines? Google? Network Solutions (which hosts 7 million domains around the world)?
Since I was forced to reset my portal password on April 12, I have effectively been locked out of my CSUF email account and the library database, including Lexis-Nexis.
AFTER struggling to regain access for days, a call to Tech Support on April 16 resulted in: “We’ll look into it and get back to you.” I have now been unable to fully participate in the class for over a week.
The dog ate my homework, Prof. Belmas, I swear!
Unlike Gordon’s, my class was not free or even inexpensive: how could anyone not have noticed how tuition at CSU campuses has soared over the last decade? Nor is it massive – maximum enrollment was a bit over 40.
For my money, it has been a wonderful learning experience – not only about communications law, but also about online teaching and learning.
Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned is that it takes commitment on both sides. The teacher must love and have a deep understanding of her topic, while the student must persevere to overcome the numerous potential pitfalls – lack of personal engagement being the primary one – that could make the difference between success and failure.