Doin’ MOOC Time – Assignments

In addition to the time needed to attend class, college also consists of the wide variety of assignments (including reading, homework and assessments) that are implemented in different ways within a MOOC environment.

One of the ways I find online learning to be superior to traditional brick-and-mortar is that there is less of a tendency to skip class in the former vs. the latter (given that if you sleep late or have a scheduling conflict, you can just watch or listen to a lecture at a different time).  But this just means that the way one “blows off” a MOOC lecture (presuming you don’t just bag the whole course before the end) is to not give it the time and dedicated attention it deserves.

Like lectures, reading, writing and homework requirements within most of the online classes I’ve taken to date seem to be lighter than what I remember from my original college experience.  And while these lighter demands contribute to making this One Year BA project possible, they also point to another time factor that all MOOC students should consider: how much time should you dedicate to material that is not essential to passing the course?

In a previous job, I often debated with colleagues over whether students would do any work (reading, class-work, writing, etc.) that did not directly contribute to their grade.  And while this continues to be an argument worth having, it really shouldn’t apply to students participating in the type of free courses I’ve been covering on this blog since (at least for now) the only real reward for engaging in such classes is the learning you receive.

This dynamic could change in the future if MOOC certificates (or their equivalent) start to pick up monetary value in and of themselves (as widely accepted replacements for credits towards a degree, for example, or components of a portfolio or resume as respected by employers as a traditional diploma).  But, at least for now, anyone skipping lectures, blowing off reading or other assignments, or cheating on tests within a MOOC is engaged in the most preposterous time-wasting exercise imaginable: pouring hours into a learning project while taking deliberate steps to not learn anything.

So if self-motivated learners are going to carefully listen to every lecture (take notes, replay until understanding has been achieved, not play Minecraft while the lecture plays in the background, etc.), what type of quality time commitment is needed for other components of a course?

Well first off, you need to make the commitment to not just do all of the assigned reading, but actually do the reading (i.e., not just read the short essays but skim over the longer treatises or books).  Personally, I think there is room to expand on existing reading lists (especially for courses where assigned reading is light or non-existent).   But since I’m not currently practicing that bit of preaching, the time strategy I’ve adopted is pretty much the same one I used back in my original college days of setting aside enough time before class to ensure all of the assigned reading has been done (and done well).

This happens to be one of my bigger time challenges with this project since I’m a fairly slow reader.  But I’m also a fast writer, which creates a different issue regarding how much time to commit to writing assignments.

As of now, there’s only one class I’m taking that assigns written papers: Coursera’s The Modern and the Post Modern, which will ultimately require submitting eight 800-word peer-graded essays (the scores from the top six contributing to passing or failing the course).

I’ll have more to say about peer grading next week (a week that will be dedicated to how learning can be assessed), but for now I can point out that any fast and experienced writer can probably knock off an essay that would be guaranteed to get a high grade for this class in under an hour.

But to write something that’s thoughtful, well researched (i.e., does not just involve grabbing quotes from Internet searches), and original requires more time and effort than this bare minimum.  So, in this case, the challenge is to avoid taking the easy way out and to instead put whatever time is needed into writing something you’d be proud to hand to the professor to grade him- or herself.  (In my case, this has averaged around 2.5-3 hours per essay).

Similarly, the time you dedicate to homework assignments or quizzes (presuming meaningful ones are included in your course, which is not always the case) should be enough to ensure understanding has been internalized.

For example, in the logic course I took, I accidentally discovered that if I did the homework (which consisted of 15-25 relatively challenging multiple-choice questions) immediately after finishing a lesson, I would usually get a good score.  But if I waited a day before doing the same exercise, my score was generally much lower unless I studied my notes from the previous day in preparation for answering the homework questions.

Now it might seem tempting to just get homework out of the way quickly (especially if this sequence takes less time to get to the same high grade).  But if that high score just reflects a form of “Recency Effect” (the ability to reflect back info you might have just temporarily absorbed), then it’s worth taking the extra time to do the assignment later to ensure the material being assessed has actually been internalized.

There are other tips and observations that I’ll be springing on you over the course of the year.  But, in terms of time, they all tend to come down to the same issue of putting the appropriate amount of time into a class to ensure you get the most out of it.

Next – Making time to catch up


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