So, in addition to more idealistic posts about student projects and creativity, I also feel obliged to comment on the practical nitty-gritty of the course. The communication problems at this course are getting worse, not better; I am really disappointed to see Coursera not doing a good job here with something that is so easy to do well, and which can make a big difference to the experience of students in the class. (This is a follow-up to a previous post on communication here.)
As soon as the Week 2 essays were made available on Tuesday for evaluation, people started reporting serious problems with plagiarism. Apparently there had been some plagiarism in Week 1 (I had not heard about that, and I did not see it in the essays I read), but there seems to be a really significant amount of plagiarism this week - there are lengthy discussions at the discussion boards, for example, with many people remarking that they had clearly plagiarized material. I encountered plagiarism on the eighth essay that I was reading and evaluating. Aside from the fact that it is so incredibly depressing that people would plagiarize in a course like this, there is the practical problem: what are we supposed to do about this? There is no way to flag an essay as "inappropriate" for the Coursera staff to review, and we cannot even give an essay a score of zero. Instead, we are forced to give the essay a 1-1 score and it just goes back into the pot with all the other essays. In addition to the plagiarized essays that are inappropriate, other kinds of inappropriate assignments have also turned up: some students apparently turned in Grimm essays this week out of sheer confusion, along with some blank essays probably because of a technical problem - and one person let me know that he got SPAM in an essay, which I thought was both sad and hilarious (someone was promoting a novel, pasting a book review into the essay and including a link to the online bookstore where the book could be purchased!). We have no way to handle that within our current peer feedback system, and it is a source of real frustration to people who are putting a lot of good will and effort into the peer feedback system - good will and effort that Coursera really cannot afford to squander, in my opinion.
But has there been any communication about this from the Coursera staff? Even just something to let us know they hear us and are trying to figure out what to do? Nothing. By contrast, in the Internet History course, where apparently the same plagiarism problem came up this week also, a detailed email went out promptly to the students, identifying the problem, providing guidelines for how to respond, etc. A friend of mine in that class shared the email with me, and I was impressed. I expected we would get a similar email in this class, but so far we have not gotten anything.
Instead, we continue to have only an incorrect and outdated message on the homepage for the class which everyone sees when they log on to the course. The message says: "You may now submit your second assignment for the course. We appreciate your patience." (see below). Well, that is not correct at all - they put that message up when they were late releasing the new assignment last Thursday, but the deadline for that assignment was on Tuesday; we cannot submit our second assignment now, and the deadline for submitting peer feedback on the assignment is fast approaching. At a minimum, we should see an announcement that pertains to the current assignment on the homepage. More importantly, we should see an announcement about a pressing problem that is roiling the discussion boards: what are we supposed to do if we are given an inappropriate essay to grade?
There are other serious issues, too. For example, the Week 2 videos do not have the transcripts/captions needed by deaf and hard-of-hearing students, and which are also very useful to other students too (ESL students, people in a hurry who prefer to read rather than watch, etc.). One of the videos was released last Thursday and we were supposed to watch it before reading the Lewis Carroll books. The students started asking for the transcript of that video on Thursday (one week ago); no response from Coursera. The assignment deadline came and went and they were still not able to access the video. Then the second batch of videos went up on Tuesday, with yet more students asking for the transcripts (via the discussion boards, sending email to the Coursera Support Center, sending email to a special email address for accessibility issues) ... but to no avail. I don't mind that for some reason Coursera is slow with the transcripts/captions (although that is not good). The problem is that nowhere has Coursera acknowledged that they are working on this important problem to get us a solution soon.
The homepage prominently features an "announcements" area for Coursera to use in keeping us informed. I cannot for the life of me figure out why Coursera is not taking advantage of this channel for communication. Not good.