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An amateur anthropologist walks into a MOOC

My Facebook Network
My Facebook Network

The first week of this MOOC I’m taking has been fascinating. I’m in a class of about 1,000 people from all over the world and (it seems) all levels of experience with Social Networking Analysis, with computers, and with standard English. We watch short video lectures, complete homework assignments (graded by computer programs), and talk to each other on the class forum (where there are also “Community TAs” — I’m not sure how one becomes a Community TA).

Nothing about this format or topic is anything like previous college or graduate school experiences for me. I’ve never done online courses before, I’ve never done computer science or social sciences, I’ve never taken a class with more than 30 people in it, and I’ve never been in a situation where I couldn’t just ask my professor for clarification or help. As it turns out, all of these put together mean that I spent a good portion of the week feeling pretty lost. The lectures and homework were fine. I’ve done those two things before. But really, if I weren’t very used to self-directed learning (I was home schooled until college) and very used to the way college courses work, I’d be really at sea. And, indeed, it looks like several people in the forums are very much at sea.

It seems like this course, at least, requires some pretty firm previous knowledge about how to navigate a course. Knowing to look at the syllabus (and find useful things like the existence of homework, for example…), knowing to pay close attention not just to the blurb instructions of the assignment but to read the entire full assignment, reading about how the assignment was going to be graded, etc.

It also seems to assume quite a bit of technical knowledge, most of it pretty basic, but not all of it. Knowing that it’s possible to change file extensions, or that the “#” sign at a beginning of machine-readable text means that the machine isn’t reading those lines, knowing that if you don’t know how to change config files Google will probably be able to tell you, etc. As great as the Community TAs are, they haven’t been very attuned so far to the differing levels of the people asking them questions.

And finally, it turns out that I answer questions for a living, and that I can’t seem to turn that off. If someone’s lost and gets “you’ll need to update the config file to fix that bug”* and the person is still lost, I swing into full librarian mode and write out all the steps in layman’s terms. If they’re still confused, I make a little Jing video. It’s pathological, I know, a hazard of the trade.

*All of us Mac users are having real problems running the software that does the network analysis. We’ve labeled it the Grey Screen of Death, and I spent a couple of hours today trying to figure out what causes it so that we can stop having it happen.

Published inRandom Thoughts