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MOOCs and Bodies

Note:  I have many more ideas for writings about education than I actually ever complete or share, due to my inclination to make everything part of a bigger and bigger picture, as well as my perfectionism.  I am experimenting in the next three weeks with writing a post every weekday in less than an hour to force myself to put ideas out there, learn to write smaller things, and to see if I like this medium.   Friendly feedback (including disagreement) is welcome and appreciated.

This summer I signed up for two MOOCs – “Massive Open Online Courses.”  I signed up partly out of curiosity and partly out of fear: curious to see what this purported revolution in education was like up close and hopeful that I might get some ideas for using online resources in my own courses, but also afraid of a vision where one superstar “teaches” 100,000 students at once online, and a whole lot of other folks lose their jobs.

I picked two courses – a physics course from MIT out of edX and a programming course out of the University London and Coursera.  I chose the physics course because it aims to teach problem solving and was the closest one to my own teaching goals; it also was one of the only courses that was not primarily video based.  The programming course, “Creative Programming for Digital Media and Mobile Apps” was for my own interest and also to see what seemed to me to be a more “conventional” MOOC, if there is such a thing.

Initially I thought I might just take a peek and then drop out of the courses, but I found them far more compelling than anticipated.  I will write more in later posts about the specifics of what I found intriguing, but today I will focus on an under-discussed topic: the physicality of learning, both online and in person.

In May, before I decided to try the MOOCs, I wrote out some goals for the summer, many of which involved my own writing.  When I got sucked in to the MOOCs, I was determined to keep up my original writing goals, and hence was spending much more time on the computer than I do during the school year.  By the end of June, I had a lot of shoulder pain and my fingers were numb.

I have an injury from surgery than didn’t heal quite right and I cannot sit for long in a standard chair.  I’d worked out a system using a laptop stand and a recliner that seemed to work pretty well during the school year, but (as I now know) I ended up typing with my shoulders too high to sustain the load of so much repetition.

I am on the mend now, working with a physical therapist; at the moment I am standing, with my laptop on a stepstool and three textbooks to get it to eye level, and I have separate keyboard and mouse that are sitting on an old stereo speaker.   I’ll see how this configuration works, and the details are not that interesting, but I keep thinking about how hardly anyone enthusing about universal online education talks about the inevitable repetitive strain injuries.

Then I think about how crucial physicality is to my own teaching.  My students move around – they come to the board, they get manipulatives, they work in groups, look at each other’s work, rearrange themselves, etc.  I notice when they are limping or look sick or upset, and I sometimes send them to the health or counseling services.   I also notice when they are engaged, frustrated, or puzzled, and I make teaching decisions based on this, typically non-spoken, non-typed, information.

No one is suggesting (fortunately) MOOCs for preschool: that’s laughable.  Preschool teachers need to take kids to the bathroom, make sure they nap, help them develop gross and fine motor skills, and otherwise attend to the physicality of young children.   But somewhere along the line, as kids grow up, the mainstream discourse on education in math and other “heady” subjects becomes completely separate from the body; yet older kids and adults still need to rest, move, and go to the bathroom.

The kind of teaching I do — interactive, in-person, with only twenty students in the class – is not the norm for college classes, and certainly wasn’t the norm for my own undergraduate education at a large state university, where even as a senior I sat virtually immobilized with hundreds of other students in large lecture halls with uncomfortable chairs and desks that folded out from underneath.   It’s a fairly low bar to make an online course better than a large lecture, partly because of the physicality – you aren’t trapped, the videos can be shorter, you have control over when you watch what, and you can interact with others when you have a question or comment – but to me that low bar says more about how bad large lectures often are, rather than how good online courses are.

As someone with a chronic illness, I know that for sick people, being able to teach or learn online is often the difference between being able to work or go to school or not.   I think of my time on an online forum for people who had similar surgeries to mine as my first online course (self-directed, no teacher, no grades), and it has been highly effective; when I go to in-person support groups, every time I find myself teaching others things I learned in my ongoing “course.”

One of the most exhilarating things about the MOOCs I tried was that the other students are from all over the world.   I don’t have many opportunities to physically be in the same room with people from Rwanda, Brazil, India, Ghana, Pakistan, Thailand, and Argentina all at the same time;  MOOCs transcend the limitations of geography and bodies.

Some of these thoughts are not so specific to MOOCs or even to online education, but my health issues and crises of the last few years have led me to start with the body, even when thinking about math.  I think originally part of why I was drawn to math was because I liked being all in my head, but that is not really an option, for any of us.

Next Post: Summer MOOCs 2: Physics ReView –>

4 Responses

  1. Marjorie Hall
    | Reply

    Here’s from another Wheelock faculty member who signed up for a MOOC. I took a rather short course (7 weeks) with no required readings, just lectures and quizzes for each week, because I did this in the middle of the semester and didn’t want to overwhelm myself and just drop out. The course was Introduction to Philosophy, offered by the University of Edinburgh through Coursera.

    The lectures, on seven different core philosophical topics, were given by seven different members of the Philosophy department at Edinburgh, and were with one exception interesting in terms of both content and delivery. Of course they were very basic – normally the total time each week for lecture was about 1 hour. They were divided into smaller segments, of 5 – 15 minutes, which gave a good bit of flexibility in how to listen. I enjoyed the time I spend listening to these smart people, and learned something about areas of philosophy that I was not very familiar with (I’m an art historian, and teach Aesthetics, but have otherwise not studied philosophy formally).

    I thought that there were two problems with the course I took. One has to do with the limited nature of this particular course: without any readings, one’s learning was confined to ideas contained in seven hour-long lectures, not much no matter how good they were. There was recommended reading, and I did read one volume in the philosophy of mind segment that made the experience feel more legitimate, but there was no requirement to do anything with any readings. There was also an optional peer-evaluated paper, but in the end my own grading took precedence…. I’m not sure of the value we can ascribe to peer-only evaluation.

    The other problem was the size of the MOOC. There were over 10,000 people registered, and I found the online forum impossible to use. It was for the most part not moderated, so the quality of postings varied widely – from really good responses to complaints about Scottish accents — and it was impossible to follow any thread that showed promise amid the thousands of daily posts. Given the nature of philosophy, the lack of meaningful discussion among students and between students and instructor(s)seems an unacceptable compromise, and I don’t know whether that lack could be addressed within the economic and technical constraints of the MOOC.

    I would be interested in trying something a bit meatier, but haven’t had the time this summer. I think that courses such as the one I took could be very worthwhile for interested people who are looking for enrichment. Certainly the hours I spent watching those lectures were more productive and rewarding than some activities one could engage in for leisure time. But as an equivalent of a university course I don’t see how even a meatier MOOC, with real assignments, could provide an equally valid experience as an in-person class, certainly not in fields like philosophy that require exploration and dialogue. Debbie’s comments about the activity in her classes ring true to me. It’s quite clear that MOOCs don’t offer a substitute for that human, interactive classroom.

  2. Michele Gibbons-Carr
    | Reply

    Thank you both for sharing your experiences. I share some of your questions and concerns about the future and found your experiences thought provoking.

  3. Charles Wibiralske
    | Reply

    Hello, Charlie Wibiralske here, another Wheelock faculty member. I am currently taking two on-line classes. The first is called How To Teach Math. It was just recommended to me by a middle school math teacher who is enrolled and so happy about her experience that she’s letting other math teachers know about it. It is offered by Stanford University and is a free, non-credit class. It began two weeks ago and runs through September. Latecomers like me are encouraged to join. I plan to start the class later today and will report more about my experience in a future post.

    The second class is for a Youth Soccer Coach level “E” license. it is a blended online and in class course. It costs $90.00 and when I complete the class I will hold an youth soccer E license.

    I enjoy coaching my daughter’s girls under age 12 team from the Jamaica Plain neighborhood in Boston. The team competes in Boston Area Youth Soccer league and the Massachusetts Futsal league. I have completed the G and F licenses.

    I enjoy working with the girls and find it makes me much more effective in the college classroom. The most important lesson is that when coaching soccer, the coach has keep the girls working with the ball. If you talk too much, you completely lose the player’s attention. Also for a player to learn something they have to do it – practice it over and over. In practice we do this in small groups with and with partners. My metric is a player has to touch the ball 200 times over the course of the 75 minute practice. I often think about what the equivalent to 200 ball touches is for a college math class.

    I have enrolled in the E license class and taken the first online unit on concussions. It was well done and I learned much from the videos. I think I will be a better coach as a result. The program quizzed me frequently and that kept my attention and reinforced what I was learning. I have to complete the online portion before I attend the in-class sessions on August 10 & 11. More on this one too as I progress.

  4. dborkovitz
    | Reply

    Thanks for your comments everyone!

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