I failed a MOOC

At least I thought I did. Here’s what happened.

My first MOOC experience was positive enough that I decided to take another one. The decision itself was expedited when the University of Michigan announced the creation of specialties in Python and HTML, with the latter being an new course offering. I want to learn more about both these languages, so I signed up for the first course in the HTML sequence. A lot of what I liked about the first course held true in this one, but, right away, it didn’t go as well as Python, and I was frustrated by everything from each week having multiple videos that went by quickly and had embedded questions, to some awkwardly phrased questions in the weekly quizzes, to the Coursera site redesign that I found confusing. But perhaps the most bothersome part for me is that I know some HTML–not a lot and I did learn things, but I knew enough that most of what I needed to advance my skills wasn’t being taught in this section of the course. [What I really need to learn how to do is use CSS, which this was not.]

I kept up with the course well enough for the first two weeks, but, in the third, life came up. I had work to do, people came in from out of town, and I had a bit of a freakout, so I missed the first deadline. The course was set up with an extended deadline to complete the materials, but for the next week I couldn’t work up the motivation to go back to the lectures, so I just kept working on things that count toward my degree and watched as the final deadline passed. Failure through incompletion, which I’ve witnessed all too often as an instructor but never actually experienced from this end.

Then I received another email announcing that I didn’t fail the course and the deadlines in Coursera are only meant for timely progression with the idea that small groups of students can keep up together–the answers will just be pushed to the next batch of students. I’ve never interacted with other students taking the course and don’t much like discussion boards as a substitute for class discussion, but I can understand this motivation for the dates. Yet, while it is nice to know I can’t fail the course (I guess) and nice that I can go back to the videos, the notion that failure is not an option is also disconcerting.

In a way, this seems to be a feature of the commodification of the MOOC experience. If more and more people are paying for the course and the course is fundamentally auto-graded, then there is an impetus to treat this more like a purchased training module than an actual course. Once it is purchased, it is something that may be returned to as needed until the skills are acquired. This works well for a course like this one where there are clearly-defined, measurable skills, but not for humanities. This feature of Coursera is also nice in that it reinforces the “learn on your own time” setup of MOOCs so that it can only be eternally deferred, never missed. In contrast, the experience of an actual college education (which I once heard as designed to condition students into taking accountability for their time before getting a job) is harsh. There, falling behind carries with it the very real chance of failure–and failure doesn’t come with a refund or a free re-do. At the same time, though, the immediacy of the physical school carries with it more urgency and structured time to complete the work.