This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on February 27, 2014.
Last week, in the first post of a series chronicling my experiences in the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign’s MOOC “Introduction to Sustainability,” I noted the Darwinian structure of the course. Now more than half-way through the class, I tweak that statement slightly. Survival of the fittest isn’t the right metaphor to describe the winnowing of MOOC students. It’s more like survival of the most determined.
The MOOC isn’t hard. Each week, I watch approximately 45 minutes of video lectures broken into 5- or 10- (sometimes 15-) minute segments, each beginning with the reintroduction of Prof. Jonathan Tomkin and ending with an ad for the UI’s digital media program. The lecture would flow much better in intact segments, but the short lengths are intended to appeal to those with short attention spans or crunched schedules. I’ve found that I spend about 1.5 minutes for every 1 minute of footage, adding extra time to pause and take notes—a task that’s harder when the lectures are scripted to make every word count.
From there I read 1-3 assignments, ranging from Economist articles to UN population studies to chapters from Sustainability: A Comprehensive Foundation, the open online textbook that Tomkin helped compile and write. (I admit that I’m biased against the textbook: It cites charts from Wikipedia pages.) This takes about 3-5 hours, depending on the texts. Initially I completed the reading before watching the lectures, expecting the lectures to expound upon the texts and challenge me to consider them in a new light. Two weeks’ confusion corrected that mistake. For the most part, the lectures introduce the readings, summarizing what Professor Tomkin deems most important and hinting at what he intends to quiz everyone on. If I want to analyze the texts, or the lecture, for that matter, I must do it myself, or head to the discussion boards.
The online discussions vary. Sometimes they’re lively, but I haven’t had great luck getting any conversations started. Luck seems to be a relevant factor: much depends on who else happens to be perusing the discussions and whether they were already wondering the question you’ve asked and are inclined to give your comment a thumbs-up. The most “liked” comments get the most attention. (More on the topic of communication and student interaction next week.)
At the end of each week’s content, I take two quizzes. Knowing there’s no way to enforce a ban on notes, Prof. Tomkin often asks minutely specific questions and directs students to return to the text and look up the answers. Often, he assigns another 1-3 readings within quiz questions taken from these extra texts. This makes the quizzes surprisingly (and painfully) long—often taking double the time of the lectures.
The toughest part is being diligent when there are no classmates present, the professor is out of contact, and the grades don’t count.