MOOCs and Reading

Since I ended yesterday’s piece on MOOCs and textbooks on the subject of value, I’d like to look at what the general reading experience has been like for the MOOC classes I’ve taken so far to see what value texts in general bring to this flavor of education.

As of now, I’ve finished ten courses started since this Degree of Freedom project began in January, and am currently enrolled in five of the remaining ones needed to finish my freshman and sophomore years.

Of these fifteen classes, only four of them included required reading which varied from 10-15 pages to a full-length book each week.

Now some of these classes (such as Yale’s Philosophy of Death) were lecture-only courses from places like iTunes, so if I wanted to replicate the reading experience of students who took the class originally I could have done so by working off this original syllabus.  Similarly, lecture-only literature courses I’ve taken on George Orwell and Mark Twain had obvious reading associated with them (the books of Orwell and Twain).

But even in courses that assigned specific texts each week, there was a bit of a do-it-yourself element to acquiring the material needed to keep up with the class.  A couple of courses have made an effort to integrate all required reading into their courseware, but most simply provided a set of links to sources, with some links going to full-texts while others pointed you to Google Books or Amazon, leaving you to figure out what to do next.

What this meant for at least this real-life student was that I read some material off a web page, some from downloaded PDFs (read on iBooks and Kindle software) and some from books I had to scout out at the library.  I know some fellow students paid for books, but keeping with the spirit of this project I wanted to see how far I could get doing everything (including the required reading) for free.

The result was that with a little patience and some resourcefulness, you can get pretty far.  But the result is a somewhat fragmentary and largely online reading experience.  For instance, if I had to locate something I had read previously (finding quotes while working on an essay assignment, for example) this usually required a search through different systems for the original material I read. (Did I download it as a Kindle or iBooks document? See it on the web? Read it on a now-returned library book?)  Only after I found what I was looking for could actual research begin.

That covers the fragmentary part of the experience.  But I’d also like to highlight what it’s been like transitioning from being a primarily hard-copy reader to an online reader with this project.  Annie Murphy Paul highlights scientific research regarding the difference between reading from paper (which she describes as making her feel “rooted, grounded [and] conscious” vs. reading a digital text that makes her feel “lost [and] floating in a void.”

This is an experience I shared as I read my Marx, Einstein and Aristotle from the screen (and fought the Pavlovian urge to switch over to e-mail whenever that familiar mail-arrival chime struck).  And while it might just be that folks like Annie and I are wired differently than younger “digital natives,” I suspect the difficulty contemporary students have keeping up with reading assignments (or internalizing what they’ve read) means they are suffering the same rootlessness and distraction she and I experienced, but have accepted it as a fact of life.

Now it may just be that all classes will end up assigning this article here and that book chapter there, doing away with textbooks entirely (despite the advantage they have in gathering the bulk of required reading together in one place).

But if MOOCs are pointing towards what such a digital educational future might look like, the fragmentary nature of every aspect of reading (tracking it down on the web, reading it in different software systems, interacting with different formats, students reading different editions or translations of the same work, etc.) straddles a dangerous line between reading simply being non-standardized (which we might be able to live with) and reading being considered optional (which would be a disaster).

I was hoping to not get into a whole series on this subject, but having outlined some problems I suppose I’m obliged to talk about potential solutions.  Which I plan to do tomorrow.

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One Response to MOOCs and Reading

  1. Pam May 16, 2013 at 12:21 am #

    I just finished The Ancient Greeks on coursera – a fabulous course. The readings for each lecture were available on line, complete with links on the syllabus, so they were easy to find and we were all (or at least mostly) using the same translations.

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