Stalking Distance Ed

I’ve long been skeptical about distance learning.  As a teacher, I value the relationships I develop with my students and nothing will convince me that device mediated learning will truly replace me and the value of face-to-face interactions in the classroom.  At the same time, I recognize that not all classrooms are inspiring and some professors are not great teachers.

Being a clear-eyed realist,  I recognize that distance education is the hot new trend and although I’m not convinced it will save us, that is, make learning more affordable and accessible, I do like new challenges.

So earlier this year I enrolled in a Coursera literature course.  I read about the Coursera initiative in the Chronicle of Higher Education and I was intrigued.  The developers aim to address my biggest concern about the distance model: how do you keep students engaged with one another through interactive learning.

On Monday I began my course on Fantasy and Science Fiction, taught by Eric Rabkin, much as I would any other.  I read the syllabus and course expectations: students are expected to read approximately 10 novel-length works (or a combination that would approximate the length of a novel) and write brief (270-320 word) essays, and read and respond to 4 student essays per week.

There were also three brief (12-15 minute) introductory lectures by Prof. Rabkin where he provides an overview of the topic, how to read and write for the course (along with fine examples of good writing), and how the course is structured.

These are my impressions:  

Course content and presentation

Prof. Rabkin has a nice stage presence.  He looks in the camera and provides a seamless commentary for students.  I don’t know if I could pull off a similar performance–he is truly a natural in front of the camera.

It’s obvious that Michigan has a well equipped video studio to record faculty lectures.  I have to wonder how much the university invested in support staff for the course, but the quality is quite good especially with some of the videos posted on iTunesU.  This is one of the hidden expenses of a on-line course.  Certainly, with a webcam and video editing software, any professor could learn to do this.  It would no doubt cause some resentment, but it could be done.

Professor feedback on student work

From what I see here, there is none.  In fact, most of the labor of the course is not invested in a professor evaluating your work and giving you suggestions on how to improve.  This task is left to weekly peer review.  Students are given specific instructions on how to do this, that they cannot give more than 30% of the papers they evaluate “outstanding.”  The professorial effort here goes into the class preparation and the university invests in the delivery method (assuming here that Prof. Rabkin is not editing his videos).  There are also optional forums for discussion and content quizzes that are graded as you go–you see if your answer is correct immediately.

I see the lack of professorial feedback as a problem.  It’s one of the aspects of studying at a university that one expects.  In this model, the professor is the vehicle of information and insight–students certainly benefit from his extensive background and knowledge in the field, but that’s it.


From what I see here, if you do the work as assigned, you get an A.  That bothers me because all of the evaluation depends on the student graders.  I’ll be grading essays, but my work will also be evaluated by random undergraduates.  While I appreciate the randomization (no student grades the same pool of essays, which are distributed weekly to different readers), it doesn’t seem right that undergraduates are completely in control of the process.

Moving Forward

I’m looking forward to course and observing how things unfold during the course term. I’ll be blogging periodically on my impressions and what I’m learning about distance ed.

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