Biting off more than we can chew



As Aaron has noted, he and a group of other professors will be taking and writing about Coursera’s “E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC.” I will not be one of them – not because I wouldn’t find it interesting, but because I’ve already been down the road, having taken a World History Course last semester (and blogged about it here – scroll down a bit to get to the posts from when the course was still going).

That doesn’t mean I’m not tempted to join them. I’m also tempted by the other World History Course that I’m signed up for now, the Science of Gastronomy (whenever that comes around again), English Composition (because I have no idea how that could even work) or anything by Udacity just so that I can see how their MOOCs work.

Unfortunately, I have classes of my own to teach. The only reason I managed to finish that MOOC I took last semester was that I was on sabbatical. Like other students with day jobs, I have only so much time in a day. While Tom Friedman might be convinced that MOOC completion rates will skyrocket over the next five years, the structural problem of the part-time student will inevitably persist.

Perhaps the most motivated learners in the whole world are professors. Many professors, it seems, love the idea of MOOCs because so many of us are interested in learning a little about practically everything. Nevertheless, I know countless colleagues who are signed up for more MOOCs than they can ever hope to start, let alone complete. My friend Kate compares the results to Lucy and Ethel in that chocolate factory at her blog, “Music for Deckchairs”:

So I watched the first few videos, and despite being mildly irritated by the pop-up quizzes designed to check that I was really paying attention, I sat up a bit straighter, and I stopped checking my emails while listening. Game-based learning 1, multitasking 0. I also spent time reading the forums when I signed up, and I could see the process of small learning communities pooling effectively.

But already the first chocolate had fallen off the conveyor belt, for work-related reasons. I couldn’t justify taking the time to watch a longer video because I had other more urgent stuff to do. And things went quickly to pieces: the content kept coming down the chute, and within a week it was unimaginable that I could find double, then treble the time to catch up.

Best of luck wrapping chocolates to the new faculty/Coursera students who’ll be entering the factory soon. When you get there and start considering whether or not you want this to be the future of our industry, try to imagine what it’s like for people who don’t want to wrap chocolates for a living.