Saturday, April 6, 2013

So, That Online Course I'm Taking - Gender Through Comic Books

Just as an FYI - I intentionally wrote my piece on portrayals in women in comics earlier this week before getting into the reading for the course I'm taking.

The course is:  Gender Through Comics Books at and originating at Ball State.

Anyway, I work in higher education, currently in libraries, but from 1997-2006 I worked in Distance Education at large public research universities, UT Austin and Arizona State University.  From 2007-2008, I worked at a smaller eLearning company here in Austin that developed mostly corporate training materials with the occasional foray into creating materials for educators.

When I left university distance learning, it wasn't because I was tired of the field.  I thought eLearning was in its toddler-hood, but we were taking a leap to return from Arizona to Austin, and there weren't/ aren't that many positions out there for this, even with my sterling credentials.  Working in a media shop developing stuff for corporations was a great experience in many ways, and I learned a tremendous amount I doubt I would have gained at The Academy (as we like to say when we're wearing tweed and drinking hot tea from small cups).

Back in 1999 or so, I remember watching a clip from 60 Minutes on The Future of Education.  At the time, University of Phoenix was a rising star and talking heads were proclaiming that UofP had cracked the code.  In a few years we'd all be taking our courses through them, and there was no point in resisting progress.  They predicted (and were clearly relishing the term way, way too much) the concept of "rock star faculty", folks who would be THE faculty voice for a generation talking about America History 101, etc...  Nobody was sure how it would work, but they were certain it was just around the corner.  

It didn't happen.

I don't know why it didn't happen then, but I can say that as someone who was responsible for creating course content for 60-odd classes a semester, scheduling against academic programs, hiring and firing staff to work on the courses, wiring the systems, keeping Russians from hacking the control PCs, developing academic programs and whatever else I was asked to do in a day...  at the end of the day its actually pretty easy stuff to get someone on video and online.  We know this now (thanks, YouTube!), but we didn't know it in 1999.  What is hard is making sure people are getting a meaningful educational experience out of your course.

  • How do you assign homework and grade it?  
  • How do you test for assessment if you're talking about either essay work or nt just checking the answer to an equation, but the work that was done to get there?
  • How do you ensure that, if its a credit course, you can verify the identity of the student learner taking the test?  

Flash  forward to 2012, and now universities are talking Massive Open Online Courses.

Massive = thousands of students
Open = in university parlance means free and available to the general public

I'm in week 1 of my course, and from an educational perspective, I have my questions and doubts.


The learners I worked with at UT and Arizona State were masters candidates with a strong drive to both master the information and have that degree.  Most of them were guys in their 30's who had gotten a degree in Engineering and realized they'd hit a sort of career glass ceiling.  They were worker drones at Intel or some other massive company that had compensated them well as a 20-something with a BS, but who were pretty sure that they could do a lot better with some sort of advanced degree - either from the knowledge gained or because it was a signifier to the higher-ups that they were willing to work really hard to show their chops.  Most of these guys were working 70-80 hour weeks (I'm not exaggerating), and the only way out of the bit mines was to get that Masters and secure a sweet management gig and the pay that went with it.

That, people, is incentive.

Also, their companies were paying for the courses (which weren't cheap), but only if the student passed the course.  So there was no signing up for something and then just wandering away.  They finished every course.  We had extremely low attrition.

I bring all this up as "Open" means anyone can come.  There is no educational pre-requisite, there is no background you're asking for before someone can enter the class, and no real reason for most people to sign up except out of a sense of personal curiosity, and, by the way, the most you can give at the end of the course I registered for is a photocopied certificate which is about the equivalent of the "Hamburglar Buddies" certificate I used to have on my wall at ASU in lieu of a Masters Degree.

I didn't need to be told that in most of the MOOCs currently out there as experimental efforts are seeing just absolutely terrific attrition.  I'm hearing numbers well over 50%.  It's all anecdotal, but if the numbers were even 70% of learners finished an open course, it would be making headlines everywhere.

There's a pretty well known idea that people do not value things that are free.  If the course cost $20, you'd be far more likely to (a) weed out the lookey-loos, and (b) have people who were going to get their $20 worth.

Time for the Casual Learner

The thinking in many university courses is that you'll spend a 1:3 or 1:4 ratio of lecture:homework.  If you're in lecture 3 hours, you're spending 9-12 hours doing homework.  University courses are a drag unless it's your full-time gig.

I'm an unincentivized casual open learner.  Do I have 12-15 hours suddenly available in my evenings to take a course this way?  No.  I have to learn to make it.  After coming home from work, dealing with life, trying to get to the gym, etc... do I give up on my 1-2 hours of whatever is left for the course if there's no credit?

This course stated that it should take 3-5 hours per week.  I didn't do a lot of the readings as I'd already read the material, and I didn't spend much time on the discussion boards, but I spent at least 5 hours this week on the course.  A good chunk of that time was spent trying to figure out the UX, which, frankly, isn't as intuitive as it could be.  There's no real "start here" button, and until the instructor posted a "checkbox" page to show what you'd actually touched, I had no idea I'd missed a huge portion of the course material and had to go back and do it.

If the checkbox page linked to from the front page?  No. And its the most obvious navigation tool.  Just a not of criticism,

The Course Construction

The model for the course is basically what I was taught while pursuing my masters briefly circa 2005.

  • Written context taking the place of the instructor's lecture so you get their flavor
  • assigned readings
  • assigned discussion requirements
  • online office hours, usually in some off-the-shelf chat tool
  • bonus materials

It's sort of a classic problem in eLearning that the instructor, not having 3 hours to stand and lecture at the student, decides to just keep dumping readings on the class.  It always seemed to me to be very tied to the idea of just filling some imaginary jar's worth of information that equals X number of hours to the instructor.  The problem with this model is that if you're relatively new to the area, or not steeped in the area, you're reading article after article that  has maybe one or two points the instructor cares about.  And these are scholarly articles, which has its own issues with writing styles, agendas, intended audience, etc... for me, it's exhausting.  I'm a bit more of a white paper guy (especially a white paper with a good table of contents that tells me where to find the part I care about).

I'd kind of forgotten what a bummer it is to read academic journal articles (and I work in a library where I deal with them every day), as the writing is usually, frankly, awful.  Give me five of these to read in a week, and attrition doesn't look so shameful.  Especially dated articles or articles with arguments that give new importance to the word "specious".

If the academic articles are tedious, the discussion boards in an "anyone can come", 7000 person course on a highly subjective, highly debatable topic in the humanities like gender in comics, are asking for what is supposed to be academic discussion to devolve into the equivalent of the comment section at YouTube.

It's pretty awful.

Even the first question, a punt on whether comics were a good medium to base a discussion of gender, had me wanting to poke my eyes out by the time I'd reached the third comment.

The commentors run the gamut from the "Well, comics are a children's book, so maybe this is a bad idea" misinformed learner to the "I live in such a politically correct bubble that I choose to be offended by everything/ I'm-so-open-minded-that-I'm-actually-incredibly-close-minded-about-anything-that-doesn't-fit-my-worldview" student to the person who is just terribly misreading the entire discussion.

Basically, I'm clicking on the page so that I can say I've been there, but I'm not participating.

The discussion board idea is one you see in classes with couple dozen online students.  It's meant for the learners to engage one another, discuss the topic with peers, not shout into the ether.  Faculty are supposed to monitor and manage the conversation, and participation is values.

With 7000 people online, that's simply impossible.  Unless you employ a few hundred moderators.  Nobody is able to watch the store, and it feels very much like, as I said, the comment section of a site like YouTube where people are just flapping their metaphorical gums.  As a student, there's no way to engage any of your fellow students and not to stumble into the "someone is wrong on the internet" scenario.

When it came to assessment, in this class we were given a simple, 7 or 8 question quiz at the end of the unit that asked a simple question about the instructor's learning objectives.  That's fine, but it wasn't the most challenging way of demonstrating mastery of the objectives, and it didn't demonstrate any critical thinking.  Of course a writing assignment or short research paper would have done the trick, but with thousands of students, that's just not possible.  We got the equivalent of the time I took defensive driving in high school and was given a True/False quiz at the end wherein every answer was true (it still took a lot of people a while to finish.  I was horrified.  And I got hit on by a lady who was not even close to my age.).

In week one there were some nice short videos produced against a green screen with the instructor talking about the class itself, about the material, etc...  She also held a 50 minute live discussion with Terry Moore, artist and writer behind Strangers in Paradise, Rachel Rising, Echo and some contract work a few other places.  I don't know who else is slated, but it was great hearing from and seeing Moore

To be clear, the issues I have aren't issues with the instructor, it's the format and technology.  The prof, Christina Blanch of Ball State, is more than knowledgeable in comics (her picks for comics communicate a clear understanding of the industry), she clearly communicates her ideas regarding the complicated world of media portrayals and gender and why it's important to discuss.  She's engaging and personable in her class videos, and she's trying incredibly hard to make this work.  I wanted to be challenged by the material, and I think that's started, even when I want to disagree tremendously with a point or two.  She has been up front that this is an experiment, and she's learning how to do this as we're learning the material, so bare with her.  The commentary and material she's put up on the site are actually some of the best parts of the course.

Other Challenges - Cost and Merit

I have no idea what the cost-model is for this course.

When I was at Arizona State, we charged a fee approximately three times that of tuition.  Of that pie, 1/3rd went to the faculty so they'd participate, 1/3rd went to the college as a revenue generator and 1/3rd went to our office so we'd have money to do our jobs.  I have no idea if that's still their model, but it demonstrates that cost was being covered and for the staff, hardware, software, extra desks and chairs and Ozarka machine, we were covering ourselves.

That didn't necessarily really cover all real expenses.  The university networking infrastructure got tapped, janitors, HR, etc... all got taxed by our existence and the fact that profs weren't just delivering a lecture to a room full of people.

This course is free, which is neat, but I don't get it.  Who is paying Professor Blanch?  Who covered the cost of the production of the videos at each section?  Who is covering server and network I/O cost?  How does this help the university except in a "first one's free" model?

She IS using Open Access articles (articles available for free online) in the course, which helps, but the comics themselves cost money to the student.  I was lucky enough to already own/ know/ and have read half the readings, but I did spend about $35 at Comixology on comics I hadn't read (finally going to try the new Captain Marvel series, it seems).  A big challenge to many open courses will be availability of materials, access to materials licensed only to students at a specific university, lab materials, etc... Faculty won't be able to have the same rules of Fair Use in place with Open Courses that maybe they would have had on campus or in a closed course.

There's a swirl of things going on out in the world:

  • Public universities are seeing their funding cut on a routine basis
  • Tuition and fees continue to rise for registered students
  • MOOCs are being seen as a way for some universities to accept credit from other schools and eliminate the cost of delivery for some courses

I'm not sure how all of these things are going to help or hurt one another.  There is a sort of established database of courses out there to figure out how to transfer credit, but it's not like there's a central location for every student on the planet to register and start ticking off their credits.  Unless Canvas, EdEx or Coursera are planning to be universities themselves.

I have to think that there's going to be some backlash from students paying tens of thousands per semester to the idea that their university is giving away classes that are putting them in dire financial straits, not to mention faculty running departments who have overseen their own world of what constitutes a degree from their university, not put that in the hands of some people aggregating content like a course HuffPo.

If the evaluation of the learning is all easy quizzes and a badge for completion, that's not really a university education.  And, before you ask, the University of Phoenix has a rugged, project-based curriculum that's actually fairly challenging to complete.

With attrition rates as high as they are, I've seen some chatter about "meritocracy" of those who can finish, and a degree should be handed out to anyone who took the initiative to complete a degree by taking a whole bunch of open courses, and maybe there's something to that.  I tend to think that isn't as easy as that, and I can guarantee you, most of the academic credentialing bodies out there aren't going to think that's okay.

But at the end of the day, someone has to pay for that free course.  We're not Scandinavia or England.  We haven't got our University system worked out so it's free or cheap to take courses.  I am simply missing some part of the puzzle that states who is covering the cost.  And I know this is all experimental right now, but... who is going to cover this eventually?  Because I work at a university, and, man, we're pretty uptight with our dough.

In conclusion:

It's Week 1.  I have so, so many questions about how this MOOCs business works, and they aren't really getting resolved, but I am excited to take part in one of the classes and am thrilled to have a dedicated, energetic instructor.

If anyone else is interested, I'm happy to post on this more if anyone is interested.


Fantomenos said...

I'm interested. This is some interesting stuff, to me anyway.
Honestly, reading your take on an online course is probably more educational than, you know, taking the course...

picky said...

Definitely more.

I actually worked on a project quite similar to what you discuss you worked on. Interesting. I've created an online course as well, which is so much work and not worth the paltry sum I was paid. Once. I don't get paid any more money regardless of how many times the course runs.

These MOOCs are really popping up quite a lot, but they seem problematic for all the reasons you mention.

But I'm also a huge proponent of classroom learning (though my courses are largely blended). The engagement I've seen online and in the classroom just don't compare to one another.

Still, I like the idea of being able to participate in an MOOC.

Paul Toohey said...

My college class:home work ratio was close to 1:<.25

I guess I did it wrong?

The League said...

I was always amazed at how different people needed different ratios of worktime outside the classroom, and, of course, different courses required different work. There was so much reading in my history classes that it was probably above average, and in RTF production classes, it was usually all clumped in projects, so it was impossible to tell. But I had a roommate who got by with great grades who rarely took notes, barely studied and did much better than me.