Sunday, July 31, 2011

Free Online Course Critique

My assignment this week was to look at a free online course and critique it. So, while perusing which has so great links to all kinds of free things, I noticed that some of the courses that were offered were from Harvard. I quickly skimmed down to math and selected a math course that was offered at Harvard, MATH E-222 Abstract Algebra. I know what you are thinking, “she must be so smart!” You would be correct in that assumption, but just not as smart as the kid with the lowest grade in this class (at least when it comes to abstract algebra, a topic I know next to nothing about).

Now I understand this is a FREE course, so I know there was not an instructional designer slaving away turning an advanced math class into something palatable for the online student. but this is Harvard we are talking about and I guess I had foolishly high standards for the ivy league school. Let me start by saying aside from the fact that I could get videos of the lectures online, along with a laundry list of PDF files with hand scribbled notes on them and another PDF list titled problems sets that simply listed the page in the textbook to turn to and which problems to work on, were the only offerings that in any way shape or form resembled an online course.

This Harvard math class is guilty of doing one of the worst distance learning practices of “dumping” face to face course offerings onto the web (Simonson, 2009). This course was simply filmed and put on line. The film was not edited at all. When he was standing in the way of the problem or had written something illegibly there was no graphic added or a later image shot and edited into the film so the distance learner can see what the professor was actually talking about. In fact, the camera lagged behind the work, and would go back to the problem when it was in view but far after the steps had been given.  There were also no activities designed for the distance learner at all. If they didn’t have the textbook they could not even do the problem sets that were assigned to the face to face class. The design of this class would make it almost impossible to be successful while learning at a distance.

Another issue was the lack of an actual course management system (CMS) at all. A CMS is a virtual learning environment that has “become the de facto standard by which the vast majority of asynchronous distance education courses are delivered” (Simonson, 2009). Unless, you consider a webpage with links to all of the above stated elements and a very skimpy syllabus a CMS. There is no form of communications, project space or assessments for the distance learner. From the looks of things what was being offered as a free extension class was really just a compilation of the class artifacts placed on line for the face to face attendees to use as needed. In one of the lectures that I watched Professor Gross did announce that when speaking about the extension course he should look into the camera. But that appeared to be the only concession made for the distance learners.
There were some positives I would like to highlight, but I must honestly say they really do not compensate for the poor and almost nonexistent design of the online version of this class. I did really like that each lecture was offered in 3 different forms for downloading; Quicktime, Flash and as an MP3. This ensures an ease of use for the technology, and even allowed people with slow bandwidth to download MP3s so they could still participate. Professor Gross kept a very conversational tone throughout his lectures and seemed to really enjoy teaching the subject matter. He also acknowledged that he used too much jargon and asked that students stop and get clarification from him. All of the materials are available at all times, aside from the textbook which is probably due to copyright issues.  The final positive is that the course is asynchronous, so students can work at their own pace to fully grasp the intricate math problems.

All in all I would rate this course as a complete flop. Though, I highly doubt anyone at Harvard is worried about what I have to say, or what the nonpaying distance learners are not receiving from their ever so generous (please note the sarcasm) free classes. But, honestly, in this day and age everything that goes onto the internet with your name on it should be worth having the label. It would have taking an ID student less than a month to retool the class and actually make it worth taking. It is a reflection of the old school belief system that many highly esteemed schools still carry. My warning for them is that if they start looking towards future technologies their schools will be a thing of the past.

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