It was clear last year, and is clear again just two days into the course, that many students go directly to the exercises without watching any instructional video or reading the text. They might, perhaps, read a worked example or two, but often not even that. Others teaching MOOCs have had the same observation.
So every time an exercise refers to something in the lectures, there are people who don't know what it's about or where to find the necessary tools, and some of them get very upset.
I've been musing on the differences between this approach and what happens on campus.
Students in my Berkeley classes come to lecture; here is an excellent summary of what motivates students to come to class. Quite simply, they find lecture an efficient way to learn what they need. And when students gather for lecture, the campus class develops a sense of community that is reinforced several times a week.
There's no such physical community in a MOOC where the lone student clicks away at a personal screen. When students are by themselves, it takes considerable discipline to focus on lectures about something as detailed as the material in 2X. It's all too tempting to go directly to what they feel is the immediate practical goal: solving the exercises.
That's understandable. It's also predictable that they'll have trouble with some of the work, which they would quite likely not have had if they had taken the recommended route of studying first.
What's interesting is what they choose to do at that point. Last year, I had assumed that a student who got stuck on an exercise would go to the lectures for a refresher – there's a lecture-by-lecture guide for reading and practice. Many do, I'm sure, and of course I tend not to hear from them. But many simply post unhappily to the forum and wait for someone to answer.
I'm no longer surprised by it. In an effort to point out that the materials are designed with a sequence in mind – go through the lectures, try the practice, then do the exercises – this year I added a Suggested Path through the course, and am beginning every Reading and Practice guide with, "This guide assumes that you have watched Section xx .."
Will it help? Only a little, probably. There's self-selection involved, after all – students who make a bee line for the exercises aren't likely to read another document or even the top of the Reading and Practice page.
It's a curious puzzle for a teacher. How do you teach a student group whose defining property is that it's hoping to skip the actual teaching?
More visible, though, are those who are highly engaged with the details of course content. "You know, that wasn't the best example," says someone; and you know, he's right (at least I think he's a he; you never know from user IDs). "You said such-and-such in Lecture n.m, professor; can I extend that this way?" You can indeed; nice observation. "Typo at time x:y of Lec n.m." So there is, and it's a good thing you came along because nobody else spotted it for a year. "I don't get this. I've tried such-and-such and it didn't work. Can someone help?" Well it's because ... together with the other students, we find a new way to explain.
These, also, are lone students clicking away at a personal screen. But their attention is as lively as that of any of my students on campus, and their contribution to the atmosphere of the MOOC is enormous. In a week when I'm getting ready to show the class that one or two people are unlikely to have a noticeable effect on the average of a large group, I have evidence once again of how just a few active, thoughtful students can enhance the experience of thousands of others.
Thank you Lukan27, McCloud77, RobParker, Sarahfaye, and others whom I will try to name as the weeks pass.