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How do online courses work?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 4, 2012 - Two offerings this summer from Coursera give a pretty good idea of how the online course world works.

One, on world music, is taught by Carol Muller of the University of Pennsylvania. Its first week session was divided into several video lectures, 10 minutes or so each, in which the topic introduced with an overview and a hint of what is to come.

The other, on fantasy and science fiction, is taught by Eric Rabkin of the University of Michigan. His opening videos were directed more to how students should approach the course -- how they should read the material, what their essays should be like and what they should get out of the course as a result.

In each case, after signing up for the course but before they can access the materials, students are ask to abide by an honor code:

“To ensure fairness, all students participating in any of our online classes must agree to abide by the following code of conduct.

1. I will register for only one account.

2. My answers to homework, quizzes and exams will be my own work (except for assignments that explicitly permit collaboration).

3. I will not make solutions to homework, quizzes or exams available to anyone else. This includes both solutions written by me, as well as any official solutions provided by the course staff.

4. I will not engage in any other activities that will dishonestly improve my results or dishonestly improve/hurt the results of others.”

The agreement is no more than a click of a button; there is no indication of how or whether any effort will be made to make sure that the code is honored or what sanctions there may be if it is violated.

And there is evidence the code isn't being followed. This month, Coursera said dozens of suspected plagiarism cases had been reported, prompting a review of the issue and the possibility of using plagiarism-detection software for student work.

On quizzes that come up during the world music lecture, if an answer is incorrect, sometimes the correct answer is given immediately; other times, a student is given the opportunity to try again.

When links are included -- such as to the cover of a 1993 recording of Gregorian chants, available on Amazon -- the video pauses to give the students the opportunity to visit the sites that are recommended.

After the lectures are finished, three teaching assistants appear in another video to discuss the musical samples. Students are encouraged to become involved with each other in forums on Facebook or on Skype, and almost immediately thousands of them signed up, from a variety of areas ranging from India to Brazil to Vietnam to Canada to Poland to Spain to Seattle.

Very quickly, they were sharing audio and video clips of various kinds of world music, asking others for help identifying where certain selections had come from and even bragging that they had already completed the first assignment.

But not everyone had the same sophistication when it came to academia. As one forum visitor wrote:

“I'm 14 years old and trying out this class to get ahead in school. I'm kind of confused on how all this works and as you might have figured I've never actually taken a college class before :p. If you could please post some advice I'd really appreciate it. Thanks :)”

A few days after the course began, those who had registered got an email concerning technical changes, deadline revisions and other updates, with this conclusion:

“Finally, remember Coursera is a brand new organization, you are not paying for this class and neither are you obligated to take it. While we have attempted to imagine ourselves into the class of almost 30,000 students (we are thrilled with the extraordinary response), there will be some issues that we have to address along the way, and materials we can improve. So remember to ask in a good spirited manner, and we are likely to listen carefully and respond in an equally good spirited way.

“This is a team project: no one person is responsible for all aspects. It is a very exciting venture and we trust you will enter into it with a pioneering spirit and an openness to new ways of engaging; to new ways of being assessed (even by anonymous peers); and simply to enjoy listening and learning from us at Penn/Coursera but also from all your peers from all around the world. It is quite simply an extraordinary moment.”

And midway through the course, students were given this reminder about online decorum:

”We live in an exciting age of growing capacity through new media and technology, and often with this comes some uncertainty about appropriate modes of engagement. For the most part this has not been a problem, though there was some inappropriate discussion about our graduate teaching fellows over the past few weeks. Please remember that all discussion has to be collegial, and civil. We encourage debate, difference of opinions, and we recognize there are different ways of engaging in public ways in different parts of the world. But we have to keep the discourse polite, respectful, and on topic.”

The course on fantasy gave more specific instructions on student papers: between 270 and 320 words, with a specific thesis, designed to enrich the reading of intelligent, attentive fellow students. After papers are turned in, they will be sent to four other students, anonymously, for comments on form and content and a grade ranging from 1 for not successful to 3 for outstanding.

Between 10 and 30 percent of grades should be 1’s, students were told, and no more than 20 percent should be 3’s.

Students can expect to read a book a week and write a paper a week, course instructions said. There will also have optional quizzes, and grading will be based on writing and participation. What are those grades likely to be? As Rabkin says in one of the videos:

“Basically, if you successfully complete all of the essays on time, you will have earned an A.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.