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Tough Love

How we learn in an ideal realisation of constant growth expressed as riding a thermal

The Learning Thermal

Every day, as a Coursera Mentor, I receive notification from them in the form of an email indicating which student queries in the common forum require a response; every day I respond to one or two and in due course I get feedback. It is always a pleasure that my reassurance, prompt or suggestion is welcome. Having done this for 7 months I recognise a pattern: students (as I did) worry about assignments, which are of two types: peer reviews of submitted work and graded quizzes (typically around 12-16 carefully crafted questions). Both are tightly controlled: as a student you must review three pieces of work submitted by others (selected or offered from a rolling list as your cohort moves through the course) and to pass the course in its entirety, the quiz grade required, individually and collectively is high, certainly over 60%. 

Having done four courses, each with several increasingly demanding parts, I know how much anxiety these can cause, more so where I have paid a fee to be part of the assessed cohort so that I get the most learning out of it and gain a certificate too. We don’t like being judged or criticised, so peer reviews need to be done with sensitivity and completely fairly. The instructions  for assignments are specific: whether an essay, proposal or project write up, or another piece of submitted work such as a photograph, the factors that will result in marks being awarded and carefully spelled out. The student must then trust his or her work to a fellow student. Being a global and open platform Coursera attracts everybody who has access to the Internet: young, old, English a second or third language, at High School or a post-grad (even doctoral research students boosting their ego or doing a refresher). Some people take the peer review more seriously than others: you’d be unlucky if more than one student gave no more than a cursory review and worse, if they marked your work down on a trivial technicality (or plainly get their review wrong). On the better courses, and all I have experienced on five different Coursera courses (each having between One and Five substantial parts) the multiple-choice quizzes are well written and thought through; what is more, when you redo the quiz if your score is too low you will at least find the questions are in a different order, and nay find some questions are even different – you can’t ‘game it’ by repeating the test over and over trying different combinations of responses. Students new to this kind of learning experience and to opening their minds (and to some their soul) to strangers, get agitated: they panic, they fret, they even become inpatient and angry. The educators who ‘wrote’ the course or the platform itself can come in for a lot of Schtick. 
Standing back from it all, were I advising a group of educators about to embark on the creation of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), I’d advise ‘tough love’ – some educators, through experience, and by their nature, might be like this anyhow. It does no one any favours to produce a course where any component may be deemed at best ‘edutainment’ and at w0rst ‘amateurish’ or plain wrong.

‘Tough love’ gets results and in the longer term is what the student and educator wants. In a different field, coaching swimmers, something that grew out of helping out at a club where my kids were learning to swim competively, it has taken me a while (over ten years) through training and experience, to deliver ‘tough love’ whether the swimmer is 8 or 18. Unlike in an online course, in these live situations I can respond to strengths and weaknesses, spot failings and go back. Crucially where something isn’t getting the results I need I can call upon a collection of approaches. They cannot progress until they can do a thing correctly. Likewise, online, the smarter courses, blocking the way to advancing, will send a student back to review a part of the programme that ought to help them with an answer they are failing to get right. Better still the student is offered a different way of seeing the problem; the better courses providing more than just a reading list – they link to a specific paper, or book, or video. 

A few times, taking a series of courses on ‘Search Engine Optimisation’ I became stuck and had to go back over two weeks of material and find a different person giving a different explanation before the ‘penny would drop’ – it really was a moment of enlightenment, and getting the quiz score from something like 4/16 to 11/16 gave me such a great sense of achievement that I persevered until I settled for 15/16. I have to trust the designers and writers of the course than 16/16 is possible : students can get online and blame the course, not themselves, for being unable to ‘meet the grade’. Shame on the educators if they have made a mistake. Best practice is, in any case, to use information on any sticking point and go and fix it. It was one of the earliest findings shared by Daphne Keller in her TED lecture on the first course offered on Coursera that with tens of thousands of students the data would identify spots where the educators weren’t teaching something very well – too many students were making the same error to blame them so they went in and fixed it.

 I like the idea of building a course as best you can and then using the learning stats and student experience to go back and fix problems and make improvements: you build an obstacle course for the brain, but it is no good if too many people fail where they shouldn’t. Nor is it of any value to make it so easy to render the course worthless. I know Courses, entire platforms, that are educationally valueless ‘edutainment’, PR for the educational institution –  a taster of a campus based course. learning is not viewing: a timeline that indicates that you have clicked through 50% of the material is not worthy of a pass. Being flippant with a formative quiz is not funny; I’ve seen ‘educational’ quizzes where, like in a TV gambit aimed to get tens of thousands of punters wasting £1 on a punt the right answer is blindingly obvious from a choice of three. And paying to study at postgraduate level where 40% is the pass rate is so indulgent as to be diminishing of the institution.

The ‘toughest love’ is the examination hall; the ‘toughest test’ the real world. Would you want to be seen by a doctor whose course work in training repeatedly only scrapped above a 40% grade? And if the ‘learning’ was so easy did much go in and stick? 

At school, and since, the educators I have most admired were always the toughest: their demands and expectations were high. However ignorant you were, if you stuck at it and showed willing they got you over the bar, they’d never lower it. 

Watching TV you sit back and let it wash over you; you may even fall asleep. Learning on an interactive platform, as you should do in a lecture or tutorial, and certainly when writing an essay or sitting an exam, you ‘lean forward’ – you engage the brain – the harder you are made to think, the greater the struggle, the more likely you have learnt something lasting and of value on which you can build.


1 Comment

  1. @GordonDudman says:

    You’ll see that your thoughts on ‘tough love’ made it to Australia:

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