Of MOOCs and Typos and Broken Links

I realize I’m kicking a gift horse in the teeth (not to mention mixing metaphors in mid-stream), but would it be too much trouble to release online courses free of the typographical errors and other mistakes that professors wouldn’t tolerate coming from their students?

I appreciate that many MOOCs are put together quickly by teams that have volunteered their labor and need to fit their MOOC work between other responsibilities.  And I can only imagine the challenge of putting such courses together in English for professors and teams for whom English is not their first language.

But lack of carefulness sends messages that communicate lack of seriousness.  And for a new educational product and process struggling for recognition, sloppiness can imply low standards which is not the message MOOCs should be delivering at this point in their history.

Keep in mind that seemingly simple errors can have material consequences.  For instance, a recent final exam I took had a question with no correct answer.  Now it was a dumb question, one that asked how many bullets the protagonist put into someone in Camus’ book The Stranger (used to verify that the students read the story, I suppose).  The answer to this question was five (one in the head, and then four into the corpse after it hit the ground).  But five was not one of the available responses to the question.

Perhaps the item writer got the question text wrong (forgetting to qualify the stem to read something along the lines of “how many bullets did he put into the guy after he was dead”).  Or perhaps this was just a dumb mistake.  And given that a student would have to get 15 other correctly worded questions wrong to make this messed up question the tipping point between passing and failing, you can make the case that such mistakes really don’t matter (especially in free courses).

But if MOOCs are ever going to include grading schemes beyond Pass/Fail with relatively low cut off scores, there needs to be a mechanism to catch test errors like the one described above before they do impact students materially.

Test errors are an example of a situation where simply logging into your course management system and fixing typos Wikipedia-style doesn’t completely solve the problem.  For if students have already taken a test that includes an incorrectly written or programmed item, a fair testing process involves dropping the question and recalibrating everyone’s results (a non-trivial process for 50,000+ person classes).

Similarly, while you can correct spelling mistakes in a syllabus or reading list at fairly low cost, fixing errors on slides used in a video requires reshooting the video (or doing some the awkward things I’ve noticed lately, such as including a voiceover or notes telling students to ignore the slide they just saw).

Now critiques such as this one probably sounds a bit rich coming from a blogger (especially one who has let his share of mistakes slip into posts on this site and elsewhere).  And while I could get all huffy and claim that I at least get embarrassed when people point out my flubs and try to fix them as quickly as I can, the point in question is whether some of the world’s most prestigious colleges and universities want their MOOCs to be judged by standards they set for their students or standards those students set for Facebook entries.

Broken links in course materials, which I’ve also been encountering more frequently, present a problem that can’t be solved by simply spending a couple of hundred bucks on a proofreader.  For many of these links were probably perfectly valid when a course was first released, but later broke when something changed over at the source of the original URL.

This is a phenomenon called “Link Rot,” a problem with which most of us are familiar, even if we didn’t know it had a name.  And it presents a particular challenge to educators hoping the courses they create can run independently for years.

At a recent Berkman Center open house, I ran into two teams working on a technical solution to the Link Rot issue.  But until such options come online (and developers learn of their existence and start making use of them), the issue of broken links must be solved using the same techniques students have been asked to use on their schoolwork: (1) double checking before hitting the Submit button; and (2) going back to fix errors, then re-submitting for final judgment.

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