A Small-Business Owner Goes Back to School the MOOC Way: Part 2, or How I Got My First F

February 22, 2013 — 4 Comments

This is the second post about my experience taking a MOOC (massive open online course). In part 1, I discussed the basics of the class and shared my early thoughts about the Coursera experience.

As I write today, we are about 4 weeks into the 15-week course “Introduction to Finance.” The class is structured in 3-week increments: 2 weeks of video lectures and 1 week of assignments. The first 2 weeks of video lectures proceeded smoothly. The lectures were simple to the point of simplistic. Guatam Kaul, our professor, is an appealing and engaging lecturer, and he explained the various concepts quite well. In most of the lectures, the explanations and minor exercises he asked us to perform were very easy, even to someone like me whose grounding in mathematics and accounting is quite shaky.

A Giant Exercise in Frustration

The assignments, however, were another story. There were 2 assignments to be completed in week 3, each tied to the concepts in one of the first 2 weeks. Each assignment had 10 questions and no time limit, and students were allowed 2 attempts to pass the assignment.

For the week 1 assignment, I sailed through the first 8 questions in about 5 minutes. The final 2 questions took me more than 2 hours, and I was able to answer them only by seeking help in the class’s discussion forum. Here, students are allowed to ask and answer general questions about the assignments as long as no exact answers are given. Even then, I answered one of those final questions incorrectly. But in the end,  I managed a score of 95 out of 100.

In the week 2 assignment, it got worse. I could answer the first handful of questions pretty easily, but the last several again proved impossible for me to answer without resorting to the discussion forum. To make matters worse, this time the aid provided by the discussion forum was less helpful than for the first assignment. Nearly 3 hours in, exasperated beyond measure, I called it quits and submitted my answers. My score: 55. Also known as an “F,” my first such grade in four decades of schooling. I did make another attempt, but a further 1.5 hours in, still struggling with the questions and the concepts that seemed so simple when described by Guatam, I gave up.

Why the disconnect between the lectures and the assignments? First, clearly, I have had difficulty grasping concepts presented thus far, even though that difficulty didn’t reveal itself until assignment time. Also, even though Guatam described the (free) online textbook as entirely optional, a resource that mainly covers the same ground as his lectures, I made little use of it. So I probably have only myself to blame. Still, I have to cast some blame on the design of the assignments, in which many of the questions seem to have been written as obtusely as possible in a clear attempt to make them more challenging. This is a common practice, as everyone will recognize from their own days in school. Without such manipulation, the questions would no doubt be too easy for too many students. But as for me, I had trouble figuring out what information some questions were asking for. In some cases, even when I got the right answer, I wasn’t sure why my answer was correct.

I Need Help from My Professor

I, however, am not one of the brightest and the best when it comes to the material covered in this class. As I was banging my head against the wall trying to make my way through the assignments, and as it became clear that the explanations of my fellow students in the discussion forum were not helping, it dawned on me: I needed access to the professor, the one person who has spent decades honing his ability to describe and explain these concepts to struggling students. That, along with his years of schooling as evidenced by his PhD, is in part why he is on the faculty of a prestigious business school like Michigan.

However, in the MOOC environment, such access is not possible. Instead, I was stuck with my fellow students—nice and smart people, no doubt, but not able to help me grasp the issues. What’s worse is that after failing my second assignment, I still don’t know why I failed. Students are not allowed to receive the assignment answers even after the quiz is over, lest they post them online for others to see.

A Daunting Task Ahead

Where does that leave me heading into week 4? It seems likely that my chances of receiving a certificate for successful completion of the course—given to those who pass most of the assignments and score a 70 on the final exam—are very low. After all, if I couldn’t even pass the 2nd assignment, and I don’t know why I couldn’t pass it, how am I going to keep up as the concepts (and assignments) grow more difficult?

Now, since I’m taking this class for my own edification and amusement, the certificate hardly matters to me. Still, my struggles aside, I consider myself far more prepared to succeed in an online environment than the vast majority of college students. It would seem that most students need more face-to-face time with professors and smaller class sizes. But universities around the world are rushing headlong in the opposite direction with this MOOC mania, which would seem to argue that better serving their students is perhaps not their chief goal.

For now, however, I will leave aside the thorny issues of MOOC efficacy, purpose, and suitability for courses in the humanities and social sciences. Instead, I will continue on with the video lectures and will see what value I can extract from the course, even if I end up failing it.

Neil Schlager


4 responses to A Small-Business Owner Goes Back to School the MOOC Way: Part 2, or How I Got My First F

  1. Hi Neil,
    I have also taken the “Introduction to Finance Course’ which I did in 2012. You are absolutely correct, there is a huge difference in the skills taught within the video and what the assignments demand. I didn’t fail until the final exam but I had found a few supportive students to help me get to the end of the course. By week 7 of the 10 week course, he’d lost me and I really struggled from then on. I too would spend hours doing the homework. I talked to my son about it because I felt like I was the one at fault. He explained to me that while Gautum Paul is an engaging lecturer, he is not necessarily a good teacher, if he has not taught the skills required to do the assignment. Now as an educator I know that is true, but I somehow felt that I was at fault. Moral of the story? You need rock solid math skills to be successful in this course. So while I enjoyed the lecturers, and did learn a lot, I also have a more realistic expectation of what I will and will not get from an xmooc.

  2. Karen, I’m glad to know I’m not alone in struggling with this! You make a critical point about finding a “few supportive students” to help you. I know that in many online course environments, colleges/instructors set up such small groups at the outset so that students have a built-in support network. The small groups have to contain a wide variety of skill levels so that there are advanced students able to help the struggling ones. One fault of Gautam’s class–and many MOOCs, I’m assuming–is that there is no such built-in system. They leave it to struggling students to find this help via the masses on the discussion forum, which is far from ideal. I hope Coursera and Guatam can improve on this aspect of the course for the future. –Neil

  3. Neil,what do they say, misery loves company? I am taking course with you and agree there is a big disconnect between the lectures and the assignments. Sailed through first two assignments. I am lost in assnment 3. I’m taking course just for the heck of it because I know nothing about finance. I’m heading towards that Big “F” too
    if I don’t find better support and explanations of the lectures Good luck

  4. Neil Schlager March 4, 2013 at 8:32 am

    Chris, I feel your pain. I do think many of these issues could be resolved for future students with better design of the assignments. But I also think you hit upon a key issue in general: “support.” Perhaps they need additional TAs to be active and engaged with current students? I doubt they will take that step until they are charging money for the course and offering credit for it, not just a certificate, but that day may well be coming.

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