Reactions to Really, Really, REALLY bad MOOCs

Life is like a coin. You can spend it any way you wish, but you only spend it once.
Lillian Dickson

I’m currently ‘participating’ for the third time in a really, really, REALLY bad MOOC. I have already written about what I consider as the main difference between a MOOC and an university course: In an informal learning situation like an MOOC students invest their private time and effort in order to learn something and they get cranky when they feel their time is wasted. They want to get something out of this course — they want to learn something. And in contrast to university courses, they have no inhibitions in vocalizing that anger.

Which is currently happening in a course that I will not name (note: it is not the creativity course, that one is actually still very interesting because they have a completely different approach).

Let’s just say that it’s about conversation and the lectures have a certain hostage-ransom-note style quality. The instructor was also compared to a robot, being under psychotropic drugs, or simply serving as an example of how not to do it.

Update: The latest comment said: “Delivery style isn’t everything. The information is accurate and for all we know the instructor may have some kind of neurological defect that prevents her from speaking in rapid fire speech with animated facial expression.” … OH-MY-GOD … I hope she has a thick skin … or that the comment is spot-on, whatever is less painful for her.

The vocal minority(?) in the courses is more or less eloquently criticizing the course, ranging from “This sucks. I’m going home.” to quite interesting suggestions to improvement (sticking to the subtitles files has a certain irony when the course is about talking). Considering the (lack of) quality of the videos, the comments are actually still above the belt.

What is also very interesting is the kind of reactions by other course participants who defend the course. In this — and other — courses I have identified three principal reactions to criticism of the course so far:

  1. Defense #1: This Course is Free
    This is usually the first counter-argument when a course is criticized: “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” You have paid nothing for the course, you have no right to complain about a lack of quality. While I might agree with “you get what you pay for”, I would also argue with TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch from “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” by Robert A. Heinlein). Like the quotation at the beginning of this posting says — you always pay, at the very least with your time and attention. There are also instructors who use MOOC to promote their books, their institution, or simply themselves. Doing a MOOC is not altruistic, instructors are getting something for it. And I think you can expect quality for the time you invest. And then there is the damage bad courses can do. The worst offense bad teachers can do is sucking the fun out of an otherwise interesting topic and burning it for the students. No wonder people don’t like ‘classics’ the way they are treated in school by bad teachers. MOOCs are no different — bad courses spoiled MOOCs for me (for a while).
  2. Defense #2: The Course is Not Mandatory — You can Un-enroll
    Frequently the second argument, which roughly translates to “shut up or quit” or “take it or leave it”. And yes, in an informal learning setting you are not forced to attend. On the other hand, “take it or leave it” is a false dichotomy. It’s frequently employed by conservatives who say that you can either accept things as they are or you can emigrate to another country. But it’s a false dichotomy because there are other options — for example, you can say: “Nope, I care about this, I stay and help to improve.” Things do not have to stay the same and if no-one speaks up, if no-one gives feedback, there is no chance of improvement. You can change things, whether it’s a course or a country. After all, feedback — as hard it might be to accept it — shows that the person can still improve, that people still care about it. It should be welcomed — examined for its merit (perhaps it’s only the problem of a tiny minority) and (if valid) used.
  3. Defense #3: We are the Course
    Then there is the attitude that the students make the course and that students have this unique opportunity to come together and do something together. Personally, I think that’s what discussion forums on the Internet are for — not MOOCs. In a MOOC, I expect an instructor who knows the topic and has thought about how to convey information, how to make a complex subject matter interesting and understandable. I see no use in forcing students to compensate for bad teaching materials. Yes, there are “pedagogical” concepts that rely on students working it out for themselves, but frankly, I think they are a cop-out in most cases. Unless you really have someone who can pull off a Socrates deliberately and supervises the activities and intervenes if necessary, it’s just an excuse for bad teaching.

Personally, I’m interested to see how the course develops, at least until mid-week two. I don’t think that they are deliberately this bad and I have the suspicion that they ‘have to do a MOOC’ — either because the university wants them to do it or because they have some external requirement to fulfill. But perhaps I’m wrong — we’ll see, either in the course (if they react to the negative comments which are not standard but appear only in bad MOOCs) or on (which has some nice reviews of MOOCs).

The sad thing is — why I am getting something out of it (the usual benefit of other people’s mistakes: they serve as bad examples) — the actual topic of the course would be more interesting.

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