Of all the massive open online courses out there, what are the odds that the one to devolve into a massive mess in its first week would be called "Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application"?
On January 28, the Coursera class went live, and instructor Fatimah Wirth of Georgia Tech kicked things off by inviting her 41,000 pupils — many of them educators themselves — to form themselves into groups via a shared spreadsheet in Google Drive. Two hours and a crashed Google server later, students were voicing their confusion and consternation in hundreds of threads on the class forum. The group situation was not their only concern; many had trouble understanding class requirements or getting videos to play. By February 2, Coursera had announced it was suspending the course.
It's a tribute to MOOCs that this is the first major story of a massive open course falling on its face. Many educators have praised Professor Wirth for her willingness to even tackle the subject, much less push the envelope of the world of online education. And even though it didn't come off as planned, the class managed to teach us all about an important aspect of online learning: the impact of student feedback.
Whether they're reaching out for help, expressing gratitude for a particularly exceptional lesson, complaining about a shortcoming, or just proving that they're out there and they're listening, both for- and not-for-credit online students maximize their learning experience when they give their professors feedback.
Courses For Credit
In general, online classes taken for credit are much closer to the traditional classroom experience. Because they're much smaller (and paid for), professors can be expected to respond to feedback in a timely manner. Of course, the reverse is also true: one student of 30 has much less room to hide than one student of 30,000.
Participation in for-credit classes is even more vital in an online environment than a traditional one because the teacher is not able to see confusion written on a student's face as he lectures to know he needs to go back and review. If the professor hears silence from the student quarter, he has to assume everyone is up to speed in their learning. This participation applies not only to how much a student is learning but how well a professor is communicating.
Debbie Morrison is an online curriculum developer for The Master's College, who has taken both for-credit classes and MOOCs. (She was one of the 41,000 students of "Fundamentals of Online Education" and wrote about her experience on her blog.) She said she always tries to incorporate student comments with the closed, for-credit courses she designs.
"I like to analyze student feedback at two points in a newly developed course: first, halfway through, which serves as formative feedback that allows the instructor to make any adjustments to the course before it ends by reviewing the student responses," she said. "The best method is an anonymous survey with three or four open-ended questions that students can freely expand.
"The other point, which I recommend for all online courses, is the end-of-course feedback survey. This provides summative feedback for the professor, course designer, and institution administrators. This feedback is helpful for identifying the course from several perspectives: the technical experience (problems with videos, logging on, etc.), the instruction, the course interface, etc."
Since online schools are on the forefront of educational technology, students have an important role to play in shaping what works and what doesn't. For example, student feedback has helped educators develop some good practices for instructional blogging. Most online schools continually seek out feedback through permanent web forms, while others, as Morrison mentioned, employ surveys either before or after a course begins.
Some of the tips for for-credit classes can also apply to open courses, but they're especially advisable when you're enrolled in an online school where you'll be taking more courses in the future.
Read the syllabus first.Teachers of online courses — for-credit and otherwise — are no different than those in traditional classrooms in that they don't much appreciate questions that are plainly answered in the syllabus, introductory video, in the first forum thread, or somewhere else on a course's web page. Before you add a question (or worse, negative feedback) to a forum or email the professor, make sure your criticism does not qualify you for one of online students' most annoying complaints.
Be tactful. That being said, legitimate suggestions for improving a course's user-friendliness can be effective, if delivered appropriately. After all, teachers are people like the rest of us, and they're apt to respond much better to a polite private email than a snarky forum post that the entire class can see.
To clear up what would be a legitimate criticism, Morrison said online students should be able to find information on the site about how to participate, a schedule of topics for the weeks, a place to access content, and resources for help (i.e. YouTube videos, Q& A page, etc.). This information should be easy to locate. If it isn't, you've got the ammunition for an email.
Keep up with the course. Many classes will make participation on discussion boards and forums a mandatory exercise, e.g., a certain number of posts and a certain number of replies. Know that professors can spot in a heartbeat the people that copy and pasting from elsewhere, just as they can spot the people writing just to write, with nothing real to add. You will be tempted to fall into one of those groups unless you're studying, keeping up with the material, and developing your own insights.
Go above and beyond. As an online student, it's more difficult to stand out and make your presence known to professors because you're not meeting in the same room. So you have to develop another way to show them you're absorbing what they're teaching. Strike up a conversation via email with them about a news item that's relevant to your coursework. Create a forum thread asking your classmates' thoughts on a book you read to help you in class that wasn't required. You could even write your prof a snail-mail letter once the class has concluded, thanking them for a good semester — you can bet they would remember that!
Open courses, especially MOOCs, can be a different ballgame from for-credit courses because of their potential size and the fact that instructors are volunteers. However, as we've already shown, students in these online classes can have as much or more sway on how they're developed and implemented by sharing their thoughts with their professors, the vast majority of who welcome such discussions.
John Owens is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, Davis. His first experience with MOOCs, Udacity's "Introduction to Parallel Programming," is available now.
"I feel like the time I spend answering questions and discussing topics with students is one of the most gratifying teaching experiences I've ever had, and my understanding is it adds an enormous amount to the experience of the students as well," Owens said. "I think the ability for students to give feedback and ask questions during the class is critical to the success of the MOOC in terms of clearing up particular parts of lectures, extending what they learn into more advanced areas, bringing the external experience of students into discussions between students and staff, and keeping them excited about the material and how it might be useful to them."
Owens added that because his course makes use of pre-recorded videos (as the vast majority of MOOCs currently do), it's not possible to make changes once the course has started ("unless something has gone horribly wrong"). However, open courseware (OCW) professors can and do take student feedback into consideration after a course has ended and factor it into the updates they make. Follow these pointers for using feedback to its maximum efficacy.
Use the forum. Hands down, the heart of open course student feedback is the forum. It's here that students discuss anything and everything with their teachers and with each other. It was forum posts, not blogs or articles, that spurred Coursera to action on "Fundamentals of Online Education." Feedback posted here has the added benefit of helping anyone else taking the course who might have the same question.
Needless to say, different sites handle their forums in different ways. Udacity's Discussions page for a course lumps all threads together, though they can be sorted by activity status, newest, "hottest," most voted, and unanswered. Students can see how many views and answers a question has, and students may posts up or down based on their level of helpfulness. Udacity also has a full-fledged Feedback Program that seeks out input from current, former, and prospective students.
Coursera's class discussion boards are a bit better thought out. Forums are divided into sub-forums that, in addition to course-specific threads, usually include areas for questions and comments about the lectures themselves, clarification for assignments, general discussion, course material feedback, and technical feedback that Coursera staff members monitor. As with Udacity, students can see a post's views, votes, and replies at a glance, but unlike Udacity staff replies are clearly delineated with a gray icon saying so.
Bear in mind that most OCW professors are volunteers. Speaking of staff replies, teacher response times in a MOOC will vary widely from minutes to days to weeks, depending on the amount of students, the individual teacher's schedule, and other factors. But as a presumably self-directed learner, the MOOC student's expectations of a professor should be low; very low, according to Morrison.
"Quite honestly, I don't expect the professor to answer student questions," Morrison said. "A MOOC is completely different than a closed, for-credit online course, with 30 or 40 students maximum. A MOOC has thousands. I would not expect feedback, and it is unrealistic to think that the instructor reads every discussion board and can answer every question."
Depending on the size of the class, a professor may have one or more assistants who handle questions and comments for him or her. Of course, all that isn't to say MOOC professors simply post their videos and check back in three months. Many spend hours of their own time responding to forum posts. Morrison said that a Coursera course she's currently taking on e-learning and digital cultures has offered two Google Hangouts with the instructors where they shared some of the student feedback and posts from the previous week. In her Introduction to Sociology course, Professor Mitchell Duneier reads letters and specific forum posts students have sent and left.
Take it outside. Because access to class forums is usually restricted to enrolled students, prospective students have no way of viewing them to learn about the course. For general reviews of open courses and their instructors, Coursetalk is an excellent tool. Courses offered by eight MOOC open courseware providers — including lesser-knowns like Venture Lab and Canvas Network — can be sorted by rating, subject, or university. Former students give their thoughts on how interesting the material was, how entertaining the professor, how helpful the tools were, and more. Knollop is a similar MOOC review site that includes offerings from MIT's OpenCourseWare, Harvard OLI, and Open Yale Courses.
Just days before this writing, another Coursera MOOC made news in the education world for its professor quitting the course, requiring the course's suspension. Though the details are still murky, the professor had apparently spent time arguing with students over the course workload, insisting he "will not give in on standards." In other words, he seems to have gotten fed up with all the negative feedback and thrown in the towel.
The moral of the story is that feedback can be powerful stuff. "Fundamentals of Online Education" proved that not once, but twice: thanks to feedback from students who wanted the course to continue, Coursera lifted its suspension the next day.