Skip to main content

MOOCs by Discipline: Are there Differences?

I have been contemplating if online learning differs by discipline, especially after reading a few studies on the topic. One of the studies (Xu & Jaggars, 2013), found:
The subject areas in which the negative coefficients for online learning were weaker than average in terms of both course persistence and course grades (indicating that students were relatively better able to adapt to online learning in these subjects) were computer science, the applied professions, and natural science.
Are the STEM fields that different, in terms of pedagogy and goals, from the humanities? Of course, we could certainly argue that the sciences are often taught divorced from ethics and humanistic concerns, but the teaching methods, objects, and outcomes assessments are my primary concern when reading such studies.

Do Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) work better in the STEM fields than in the humanities?

The coding course I'm currently working through is offered by a Russian institution. The blog and notes are in both Russian and English (http://wikistan.ru/blog/macosdev/) and the podcast/iTunes U content is in English. So, this is not an example of a U.S. corporation or university — there are computer courses from universities in China, India, South Africa, and a really great course series from Brazil.

Recently, I've been discussing writing instruction versus other topics with colleagues. I find they view the STEM fields, and some other topics, as simple matters of rote memorization. Assessment, they imagine, can be performed adequately with multiple choice exercises or simple fill-in-the-blank tests.

When I talk to colleagues, some of them mistakenly state that there is "one right answer" when programming, but that is not the case. There are "best practices" and "standards" but you can solve one problem in countless ways — some better than others. Consider a most simple assignment: average two numbers. I could write an absurd amount of code with variables, pointers, and custom functions, or I could write one line of code with the values and format embedded (roughly, printf("'%.1f'",(5+9)/2); ).

To me, this is much like academic writing. Some students meander and struggle with organization. They over-think, trying too hard. We have to help them understand the norms of the genre, while helping them think about problems more systematically. Teaching programming, you have to guide students towards clarity and proper exception handling. A multiple choice test cannot help judge how effectively a student solves a programming problem, a higher-level skill than memorizing keywords (nouns and verbs) or syntax (grammar) of coding.

My question, then, is what are the differences I am overlooking?

STEM courses are not taught effectively, based on some of the comments of my writing colleagues. Typically, half of engineering, programming, and science second-year students do not complete their degrees. That means half "drop out" of their majors. These students often leave the STEM fields entirely, not merely switching speciality or interest area within the STEM umbrella.

STEM courses are notorious for large lectures, intense labs, and lots of competition. The professors brag about high failure rates and low exam scores — those are points of pride.

Personally, I prefer the MOOC and online course models because they lack the intensity of STEM lecture halls. I don't feel like I am going to be insulted for the half-dozen failed attempts at a programming problem. Then, once I solve the problem, a lab leader (a grad student) isn't going to berate me for using the "wrong" approach to a problem. Online, I'm finding people politely write that I should reconsider my solution and think about why a pointer might be better than a passed variable. There are discussions, the same feeling I used to have when using the USENET to seek help with programming issues.

If programming courses are better online than on-campus, either the STEM fields are approaching online education more effectively… or their traditional courses are particularly horrible. Twice a month, a join local "Cocoaheads" (http://cocoaheads.org) to discuss software development. A few weeks ago, members were discussing how mediocre their university programming courses had been — there seemed to be a consensus that professors didn't understand "real world" programming. The MOOCs, it was suggested, seem to be addressing the problems developers encounter as practitioners. When I asked about other courses, the programmers talked about the joys of traditional courses in music, history, and literature. They preferred online coding courses and face-to-face humanities courses.

Maybe writing instructors do embrace more effective pedagogies than STEM fields. We certainly serve more students (every student, at many campuses) and we must do so without failing half our classes — or we would be considered failures, too.

For STEM fields, the "distance" offered by virtual settings seems to help students. In writing courses, that same distance is a detriment to our dominant pedagogies. Are current STEM pedagogies simply that bad?

Again, I am merely brainstorming on these issues because I still prefer teaching writing in a classroom, while I prefer learning new programming content online. There must be an explanation, especially since I am not alone in these biases. And I do teach online and hybrid writing courses… but they seem less engaging than face-to-face writing courses, no matter how many extras I enable — forums, chats, video, podcasts, and so forth.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Slowly Rebooting in 286 Mode

The lumbar radiculopathy, which sounds too much like "ridiculously" for me, hasn't faded completely. My left leg still cramps, tingles, and hurts with sharp pains. My mind remains cloudy, too, even as I stop taking painkillers for the back pain and a recent surgery.

Efforts to reboot and get back on track intellectually, physically, and emotionally are off to a slow, grinding start. It reminds me of an old 80286 PC, the infamously confused Intel CPU that wasn't sure what it was meant to be. And this was before the "SX" fiascos, which wedded 32-bit CPU cores with 16-bit connections. The 80286 was supposed to be able to multitask, but design flaws resulted in a first-generation that was useless to operating system vendors.

My back, my knees, my ankles are each making noises like those old computers.

If I haven't already lost you as a reader, the basic problem is that my mind cannot focus on one task for long without exhaustion and multitasking seems…

MarsEdit and Blogging

MarsEdit (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Mailing posts to blogs, a practice I adopted in 2005, allows a blogger like me to store copies of draft posts within email. If Blogger, WordPress, or the blogging platform of the moment crashes or for some other reason eats my posts, at least I have the original drafts of most entries. I find having such a nicely organized archive convenient — much easier than remembering to archive posts from Blogger or WordPress to my computer.

With this post, I am testing MarsEdit from Red Sweater Software based on recent reviews, including an overview on 9to5Mac.

Composing posts an email offers a fast way to prepare draft blogs, but the email does not always work well if you want to include basic formatting, images, and links to online resources. Submitting to Blogger via Apple Mail often produced complex HTML with unnecessary font and paragraph formatting styles. Problems with rich text led me to convert blog entries to plaintext in Apple Mail and then format th…

Screenwriting Applications

Screenplay sample, showing dialogue and action descriptions. "O.S."=off screen. Written in Final Draft. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) A lot of students and aspiring writers ask me if you "must" use Final Draft or Screenwriter to write a screenplay. No. Absolutely not, unless you are working on a production. In which case, they own or your earn enough for Final Draft or Screenwriter and whatever budget/scheduling apps the production team uses.

I have to say, after trying WriterDuet I would use it in a heartbeat for a small production company and definitely for any non-profit, educational projects. No question. The only reason not to use it is that you must have the exclusive rights to a script... and I don't have those in my work.

WriterDuet is probably best free or low-cost option I have tested. It is very interesting. Blows away Celtx. The Pro version with off-line editing is cheaper than Final Draft or Screenwriter.

The Pro edition is a standalone, offline versio…