Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Homeschooling Using MOOCs

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) can be a great addition to a homeschool programme for a highschool, or potentially even a middle school, student. Over the past year we've enrolled in six MOOCs  – four though Coursera and two via Future Learn. Mostly we've just watched the videos and enjoyed learning on our own terms in a fairly relaxed way, either to supplement an existing course of study or purely for interest. Recently through, Miss 13 enrolled in Animal Behaviour, a Coursera course from the University of Melbourne.  This dovetailed nicely with her passion for birding, so she decided to complete all the assessments and assignments in the hopes of earning a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction, which required a minimum grade of 80%. What follows is based on that particular course, although there is much similarity in the format of all the Coursera courses we've completed.

What You Get
The main component of the course – the guts of it if you like – was a series of videos. These were nothing flashy – just the lecturer talking to the camera , with some simple graphics included – graphs, illustrations, and some written text. However, the lecturers are experts in their field and we found the videos to be well organised and engaging. Many of the studies covered in the lectures related to birds, which was bonus as far as Miss 13 was concerned!  Rather than one long lecture per week, there were several (five to seven) shorter segments of between 7 and 22 minutes each. Once or twice during each video there was a multiple choice question for the student to answer to check their understanding. Multiple attempts were allowed and an explanation was provided. The questions weren't graded and you could simply skip them, but they were a good way to check the material presented was being understood.

We found the video lecture format to be simple yet engaging and effective.

The site featured a variety of  features to help students learn, understand and apply the concepts.
* A glossary – very helpful for checking those tricky technical terms.
* Discussion forums – One for each weeks' lectures, one for the assignments plus others on more general topics. This was a great chance to discuss things with other students, ask questions etc. Teaching Assistants are on the discussion forums to provide guidance as well.We never came across any discourteous comments or behaviour on the forums.  
* Weekly Study Guides – These laid out the key concepts for each week, provided suggestions for how much time each task would take, and provided links to recommended resources.
* List of extension readings – These weren't required for any of the assessments but were really helpful for in depth exploration of those topics we found especially interesting.
* Researcher Meets – Three discussions with active animal behaviour researchers. These were conducted via Google Hangouts so only a limited number of students could directly participate. But it was possible to submit questions beforehand and the chats were on YouTube for later viewing.

The site is easy to navigate. Links to everything you need - lectures, discussion forums, assignment instructions - are on the side bar on the left.

For those who wished there was a 10 question multiple choice quiz most weeks. The first one was a practice quiz and didn't count towards the final grade. The other six were worth 10% of the final grade. A student was allowed three attempts at each quiz and the highest score was the one that counted. I've been really impressed by the quizzes and the way they not only assessed knowledge but also helped in the learning process. Once the quiz was completed it was automatically graded and the student could see what they got right and wrong, along with a brief explanation. The really clever part came if a student decided to resit the quiz. While the topic of each question stayed the same sometimes the question itself varied a little and the possible answers often changed. In other words each quiz was slightly different. To score better on the second and third attempts you really needed to have understood the explanation provided after the first attempt, possibly reviewed your notes and the videos, and been able to apply the concept. You couldn't just memorise the correct answers.

I'm not normally a fan of the multiple choice format but I thought these questions were well designed. Students had to understand and be able to apply the concepts to do well. 

In addition there were two assignments, each worth 20% each. The first involved writing an article of less than 1000 words for a general audience, describing and critiquing discoveries about animal behaviour from a published scientific paper. The second involved observing a wild animal,  and keeping field notes of the observations. Based on those field notes students then has to come up with a question on animal behaviour, formulate a hypothesis, and design (but not actually conduct) an experiment to test the hypothesis. The assignments were peer reviewed. After submitting the assignment each student had to grade (guided by a rubric) the work of three of their course mates. Each rubric had several components and a students final grade was the total of the median grade they received for each individual component.

An extract from Miss 13's field notes assignment.

Pros and Cons
Overall this was a great experience for Miss 13. Initially she felt a little intimidated by the course. Not only was she one of the younger students but many others were far more qualified and experienced. Comments on the forums revealed for instance that one student was about to begin a Masters degree in Zoology and another was working in Africa on a well-funded project and had planes following herds of animals that she could use as the basis of the field work assignment! Definitely in a different league! But her confidence grew as she scored well in all the tests. Grading the assignments of others further proved she was not out of her depth, and this was confirmed by the good grades and positive comments she received on her assignments. The final results have yet to be confirmed but she should easily have achieved her goal of  a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction. The material was challenging at times, but to be able to master it and do well was immensely satisfying and a great confidence boost.

If you were just doing the course for interest there would be a huge amount of flexibility since you could download the videos and watch them whenever you wanted, even after the course itself is over. You could also do as much or as little as you personally wanted. The quizzes had a small amount of flexibility since each student had two late days that they could use to submit a quiz late without incurring a penalty. After that there was a 10% penalty for each day the quiz was late and after the hard deadline (a week after the due date) the quiz grade could not be submitted for credit at all. With the assignments there was no flexibility at all. The sheer numbers of students in the class and the logistics of the peer review process made this impossible. Unlike regular university where you can always make an individual appeal to a lecturer in case of illness or the like. Since we only discovered the course a week after it had started  and Miss 13 was quite unwell for two of the eight weeks we weren't entirely sure she'd be able to complete the assignments to a satisfactory level to submit. She did manage it, but time spent on assignments was time that couldn't be spent on other things such as additional readings and researcher meets. However, even though the course is officially over we have downloaded all that we need to follow up these areas and continue our learning as time permits.

The peer review grading process can also be problematic. Even with a grading rubric Miss 13 sometimes struggled to know whether she was giving a fair grade and also struggled with the extent to which she should follow the rubric. Was it a guideline or a set of hard and fast rules? From the forums it was clear some students used it one way and some another. Some students also felt that had been marked unfairly and there was no appeal process and no way of discussing your grade with the markers (who are all anonymous) to find out exactly what led them to their marking decisions.  In both assignments Miss 13's grades were within the range she felt she deserved (in one case slightly higher but she is fairly tough on herself) but we saw how it could easily have been different. In one assignment she submitted a link to a PDF as allowed. However, one of her markers either didn't realise it was a link or couldn't open it. He or she commented that the assignment was empty and had no content. Therefore the grades from that marker were presumably all zeroes. Since the final mark received was a median of the three markers' grades this didn't unduly affect her overall mark. However, if one of the other two markers made the same mistake she could have ended up with a 0 for the entire assignment, effectively ending her goal of earning a distinction. Some way of flagging or appealing blatantly unfair or incorrect marks would be nice but, given the size of the course (over 20,000 enrolled although I do not know how many actually submitted assignments)  and the fact that the lecturers are not being paid to run these courses, this is probably unrealistic.

Overall, I've found MOOCs - Coursera's especially  -  to be a great addition to our homeschooling programme. They offer a wide range of higher level, high quality content,  best suited to independent learners in my opinion. Coursera courses are entirely free. Although you can pay for a verified certificate, the course content is available to anybody at no cost.  My main caveat would be that there is potential for the grading process to go wrong. If your student is robust enough to deal with this, great. If not just enjoy the learning process but don't necessarily worry about submitting assignments and trying to earn a statement. 

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review and explanation of how Coursera works. My son took a course this spring and I had tried to find reviews of how it all worked before we started, but none were as detailed as your explanation.

    I agree with your comment on somehow being able to follow up on the peer assessment. Even though the graders are anonymous, there should be a way to reply to their assessment to clarify the grade they gave, especially as in your daughter's case, where they completely missed the attachment.

    I watched the videos the first week or two, but after that my son continued on his own. He kept track of the various deadlines (which I found a little confusing) and did the peer assessments himself. He would sometimes ask what I thought he should do if he was on the fence with a grade, but generally he took care of it.

    Overall, my son's experience with Coursera was good. He took a course on global warming that I thought would work with our earth science studies. It ended up being far more technical than I was expecting (I thought it would be more discussion of the issues and it really was more formulas). Next time, I think I will have him try to find something that really appeals to him, like the course your daughter took that meshed with her interest in birding (anyone have one on super cars?)

    I think your detailed review is going to be useful to a lot of people.