Sometime back in April I noticed an advert for a group called Coursera who were offering entry to University courses for free. Unlike those that can be accessed via I-Tunes U, these were real time courses that you followed week by week through video links and which, most intriguing of all, delivered a grade at the end. This wasn’t the first time I’d come across this company, there was much publicity the previous year when they had linked with Stanford University to offer courses in IT. What was different this time round was that their portfolio had expanded to include subjects from the Humanities.
Now, as anyone who has worked in the Humanities at this level (or any other level for that matter) will tell you, once you’ve done the research for the course what really takes the time is not the teaching, it is the marking. At this time of year University lecturers across the world are pulling their hair out as they try to meet exam board deadlines. And that is with perhaps thirty or forty students taking a module. I believe the Stanford IT module attracted in excess of 40,000. As my American friends might say, “Do the math’! Even if there hadn’t been anything that attracted my academic interest I would have signed up for something just to see how they were planning on dealing with this. As it is they have a module entitled Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World in which I am very interested, so I signed up for that. It starts on Monday.
The primary reading list is quite extensive, although all but two of the books can be accessed without payment on line, and there is no secondary reading suggested so far. Whether that will come in the videos remains to be seen. Over the ten weeks we are going to study:
- Grimm — Children’s and Household Tales
- Carroll — Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass
- Stoker — Dracula
- Shelley — Frankenstein
- Hawthorne & Poe — Stories and Poems
- Wells — The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, “The Country of the Blind,” “The Star”
- Burroughs & Gilman — A Princess of Mars & Herland
- Bradbury — The Martian Chronicles
- LeGuin — The Left Hand of Darkness
- Doctorow — Little Brother
I’ve only read the first two of these so I have a lot of catching up to do, but then that’s the idea behind doing the course. Currently, I am renewing my acquaintance with the Grimms’ tales which I haven’t read since childhood. I find that at the moment I am giving most consideration to the way in which they are structured because that is my area of expertise, but suspect that come next week’s lecture my attention will be directed into other more psychological pathways as that seems to be the focus of the module.
And what about the question of assessment? Ah, well that is where I start to have doubts. If I want a grade I have to submit an ‘essay’ for at least seven of the ten weeks of the course. Now I don’t know what an ‘essay’ means to you but to Coursera it means a piece of writing between 270 and 320 words.
This post is already over 500.
Of course, brevity is the soul of wit and I’m not one to encourage rambling, but what am I supposed to say of any real value in 300 words? That essay will then be submitted to four other students for grading by peer assessment and I will grade four myself. At the end of module my grades will be averaged out with account taken for my participation in the on-line forum. I assume that will have to be calculated purely numerically by the number of times I log on.
I’m not actually against peer assessment, I think it sharpens the minds of those doing the assessing almost as much as their having to write their own piece, but I do think it needs careful monitoring and I can’t see how that is going to be possible in this instance. I would be very interested to see the quality feedback on this module when it is over.
For myself I haven’t decided whether or not I shall submit essays for grading. I have courses of my own to plan for the Autumn as well as the Summer School coming up in four weeks time, and I’m still back and forth to hospital with no indication when that will be over. On the other hand, I shall definitely be writing about what I’m reading because that’s the way I sort out in my own mind what I’m thinking. I’ll wait until after the first video session, I think, before I make up my mind.
I wonder, have any of you experience of courses like this? Given the way in which the costs of a University education are rising in England, I can see that anyone who could crack the assessment aspect in a manner that proved satisfactory to employers would open up a very active market and I’m not surprised that companies are already experimenting in the field. This is clearly in the early stages of development but it’s something traditional Universities are going to have to watch especially as numbers of applications are already falling rapidly and, with the decline in students staying on to do A levels, are likely to fall further over the next few years.