Friday, November 15, 2013

MOOCing it Up

I recently finished my first MOOC. Not teaching a MOOC mind you, but I decided to take a couple of MOOCs. I enrolled in two and thought I would share some of my experiences and thoughts with you, particularly on the role of MOOCs in teaching Environmental Law. I enrolled in two different MOOCs for two very different reasons. I am going to talk about the first class today and chat more about my second experience next week.

I took a Climate Change course being offered by the University of Melbourne through Coursera. I chose this course for several reasons. Like many of my students, my choice was driven partly by schedule and professor. It was being offered August – October and taught by a slew of faculty including Jon Barnett, whose work I have read often and have cited periodically. My goal in taking the MOOC was to learn how MOOCs work and get a feel for what it might be like to put together a MOOC. So I chose a course on environmental issues (frankly, I was also just curious to see what would be included in an undergraduate course on climate change).

I learned a lot with this course. First, I learned more about climate change that I had known before. The two weeks on physics was fun and new and the detailed examples of the South Pacific Islands were quite helpful. I think I probably ended up as a typical MOOC student in that I listened to most of the lectures, did some of the readings, and never turned in my final assignment. I loved being able to watch lectures anywhere on a variety of devices (including my laptop, ipad, and smart phone). It was great to be able to schedule my own work and to multi-task without guilt (I got lots of knitting done). While the schedule was flexible with this course, there were periodic deadlines and you did need to roughly keep up with the materials as they became available. I also enjoyed seeing the different ways of presenting the lectures visually (lots of power point and video) and found a website with links and videos to be helpful. I found myself often jotting down ideas for my own non-MOOC environmental classes. It was also very cool to have classmates from around the world. I don’t think I even interacted with any other Americans in my online conversations or peer review processes.

What didn’t work for me? Well the flexibility in some ways means that it was really easy to put off assignments or skip weeks. (I’ll confess, I was motivated to take the course but not actually to put a lot of time into when well, you know, I am supposed to be writing and stuff.) I hated not being able to ask questions. I got confused in one of the physics lecture and didn’t quite understand a diagram. In class, this could be asked quickly. In a MOOC, you can ask a question in an online forum (or perhaps on twitter or facebook) but it can take a while for the TAs to get around to answering everyone. The online discussions did not work for me. I couldn’t figure out how many were enrolled in this class but it was oodles and felt like gazillons. The pace of the online discussion was fast, and keeping up with it would have been 5 times the work of the rest of the course. The conversation was all over the place politically with a lot of vicious statements that I just don’t see as much in a class where people can see each other face to face. The peer editing was a mixed bag too. With these big classes, the faculty and even the TAs can’t grade the work. This is why everything is done by either peer review or multiple choice questions. This has its obvious limits. One that I didn’t think of until I got my peer reviews back though was that many of my peers struggle with English. I literally couldn’t understand the sentences in one of my peer reviews – made me think someone had typed something into google translate and put too much trust in the result (hey at least they gave me full marks).

Any Lessons for Environmental Law? I am always making my students do annoying stuff try new things. Over the past few years, my natural resources students have had blogs, wikis, and websites. I am thinking of making them tweet next semester (I know that is so 2010 – maybe we’ll do snapchat instead). So it is maybe not surprising that I was intrigued by the idea of doing a MOOC. I quickly concluded though that it is not a good approach for teaching environmental law – at least not the way I want to teach it. There is a strength in moving lectures online and letting students do some self-pacing, but I would not feel comfortable losing the group discussions and exercises that we do in my classes. While some of my colleagues are talented at writing good multiple choice questions that really challenge students and require application of knowledge and skills, I am not one of that ilk. It is important to me that my students work on written and oral advocacy. I want them to work in groups and I am crazy unwilling to hand off reviewing their work to someone else – yes I am that controlling. As of right now, you won’t see me offering a MOOC until I can figure out a way to incorporate those elements (perhaps the answer is making the MOOC and OOC to start with). For those of you not yet aware, there is an environmental law MOOC out there already up and running. It is a 6-week course and does not profess to be a substitute for a law school or even an undergrad course on the topic. Not sure when it will next be offered, but could be fun see what is covered. Anyone wanna be in my study group?

- Jessie Owley

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