There is a fascinating article in The Atlantic this month on the topic of failure. Specifically, it is arguing that children who are not allowed to fail never learn how to recover from setbacks. At some point, usually late adolescence, these over-protected children go to college, suffer a setback (perhaps so small as getting an A- in a class), and freak out. They have few if any coping skills; they don't realize that they will survive and that their lives are still worth living. I see these freak outs every semester (including what amount to threats of suicide), and their frequency is increasing exponentially. I often feel like my colleagues and I are being cast in the role of parent, trying to teach our students the basic coping skills required to manage and bounce back from a setback. All of it makes me very grateful to have grown up in an era when only the winning team (and maybe the 2nd place team) got trophies; when my parents and teachers didn't shield me from experiencing disappointment, frustration, and even failure. As an athlete, I learned at an early age that there were always winners and losers; and that, sometimes, I would lose no matter how hard I tried or how much I wanted to win. It was good preparation for the academic life.
Learning from setbacks (and outright, ugly failures) has been a recurrent theme of my professional life since September. I wasn't really prepared for it--generally, my students like me and rate my classes highly; this (often vocal) element of student dissatisfaction was hard to process. After all, I had worked so hard to design and prepare a course that I was really proud of and that would have been great if only the students had done what I had asked them to do. Yet, I had to admit, I should have anticipated that many of them would not behave like "ideal" students. I dug in my heels, quietly gave thanks that I was well-prepared to respond constructively to setbacks, and tried to learn as much as I could from my fall class. A lot of things were out of my control--problems with the communication between i>clicker and Bb when switching between Mac and PC; the time block and location of the class; the physical space of the classroom. I worked really hard to address the issues that *were* in my control. I observed how the students used the learning tools; and spent many hours thinking and talking to learning and tech specialists about my plans to tweak the design.
These tweaks were, in the end, pretty simple: addition of some in class lecture; weekly quizzes; written worksheets for the ethics cases; fewer ethics cases but more time spent on them; overhaul of the assessment structure; addition of a discussion board with threads that feed into the class lecture. So far, I am extremely pleased with how the spring class is going. I know better than to assume that I am home free. But, at this point in the semester, they've done every activity/exercise once. The extra time given over to allowing them get settled and orienting them to all the different tools in the course seems to have paid off in the form of a noticeably higher comfort level among the students. The discussion board has been an outstanding addition.
I've also come to appreciate that some lecture should always stay in the mix--it does far more than just communicate information. It lets the students get to know me, experience my quirky sense of humor, and feel a human connection to me. It also fulfills those expectations they have when they walk into a massive auditorium. By making the videos serve as supplements to rather than replacements for in class lecture, my current students seem to feel much more comfortable, much more oriented. In reality, my in class presentations aren't substantially different from what I did in the fall. But, with the frame of a lecture around the i>clicker and peer discussion and group discussion, it doesn't seem to them that I am doing anything particularly different than what happens in other lecture classes (even if I likely am).
I've also learned how to choreograph a class lecture. I've learned that I can't drone on for 20 minutes without letting the students do *something*. I've learned to give them short amounts of time for i>clicker and discussion questions. They can answer most i>clicker questions in 30 seconds; and after about 90 seconds of peer discussion, have accomplished a lot. I'd rather cut them off early than have them chatting about their weekend plans. I've learned to set clear boundaries and to reinforce them frequently. I've learned how to manage a teaching team (and am forcing myself to stop micromanaging them). I know from experience that this class will only work if I give the teaching team discrete tasks and then leave them alone to do their jobs. In the fall, I ended up doing a substantial amount of the grading in the final month, largely because I convinced myself that it was necessary to avoid a lot of student complaints. It wasn't necessary. It was a nightmare.
Over this past week, I have been reflecting a lot on the principle of learning from failure as I watched the Coursera Fundamentals of Online Education course implode and eventually be taken offline after one week. I was swamped with work and so my only real sense that there was trouble were the frequent emails from the instructor trying to address some or another issue (largely start of semester organizational issues). Midweek, I logged on and started exploring the site and reading the discussion board. It was certainly true that the course wasn't well organized and the instructor (as I did in the fall) seemed to design it with the assumption that tens of thousands of students would behave ideally and not require any instructions for tasks. Instead, it was total chaos and plagued by technical problems (which really seem to have been design problems, in that poor choices were made about how to organize groups and where to do so).
I felt increasing empathy for the instructor, Dr. Fatima Wirth. It was obvious that she was completely blindsided by the organizational difficulties and not was becoming increasingly harried. Given the absence of clear instructions for the first week's assignments and the apparent expectation that 41K students would intuitively know how to enroll themselves in a group, arrange discussions on vague topics, and navigate the course site with ease, it seemed apparent that the course preparation was rushed to meet a deadline and that the organizational issues that cropped up were the result of a rushed preparation process. It also seemed more like a course for a small group of American students with fast and easy broadband access. I was a little surprised that Coursera (apparently) didn't do more to advise the instructor; and that the course wasn't beta-tested ahead of time. I've taken several Coursera courses as an auditor with no substantive issues. In the case of Fundamentals of Online Education, it seemed that Dr. Wirth was utterly unaware of who her audience was; or the multiplicity of ways that Coursera students take classes. The design relied heavily on group discussion and assumed that every registered student would want the same (highly invested) experience. Never mind that a substantial number of the students are faculty who are mid-semester and may not have the flexibility to spend 7-10 hours/week outside of work.
I was also disappointed that the decision was made to yank the class rather than to figure out how to solve the problems and keep it running. I suspect that much would have been learned, by Dr. Wirth and by the Coursera people, in the process. The users of this course were a particularly good audience for soliciting feedback about how to improve the experience since many teach blended or online classes and are well-versed in the topic. I can understand that Coursera doesn't want bad press; and I am sure that Dr. Wirth was in shock. Still, I can't help but think that things would have turned around and that, in the process, a much better design for future students could have been created. To my mind, a great opportunity for learning was squandered (though, admittedly, I don't know the whole story and perhaps Dr. Wirth and her team simply did not have the time or energy to invest in a total overhaul while the course was in session).
I spent some time this morning reading through tweets at #foemooc. It was very informative, but perhaps the most interesting thing to me was seeing a group of students working cooperatively to resume the class on their own. This is perhaps the most important lesson from this #moocmeltdown: any design has to be driven by an informed understanding of the audience and their range of behaviors. It must assume that users/students will sometimes behave in unpredictable ways and have room for that. At the same time, it must provide enough orientation (objectives, assignment directions, rationales for tasks) that students are herded towards the gates that will lead to a positive learning experience. They will never "use" a course precisely as it was intended--just as readers will never read a novel and recapture the exact intention of the author. As instructors, all we can do is know our audience well enough to create a design that takes account of a range of behaviors; put in place incentives to encourage students to use the learning tools largely as we intended; and not be afraid to spend a lot of time early in the semester on orientation as well as setting and enforcing boundaries.
The other thing we instructors have to do, though, is to be able to tolerate failure. It sucks, to be sure, but it's also an opportunity to learn and do something better. My recent experience with flipping my large enrollment Intro to Rome class has brought back memories of all the time I spent at pitching practice with my dad (my catcher). There were days when things just weren't going my way and I wanted to throw in the towel. One of the most important life lessons my dad taught me was the importance of tenacity, of finishing what I started. It is a lesson that has stuck with me for 40 years, sometimes for the worse but very often for the better. It was when I was struggling in practice that I worked the hardest; it was when I was getting hit hard in a game that I learned how to dig in, gut it out, and find a way to get out of the inning.
When challenges came up during my fall class, I was taken aback and found it hard to deal with the powerful force of student resistance. I didn't like feeling like I was the enemy to some of my students. It was a struggle to keep my game face on and finish the semester. Yet, in doing so, I learned so many of the lessons--and learned them in a way that will stick with me!--that led to the design improvements for my spring class. If everything had gone swimmingly well and the students had all been satisfied with my first effort at a flipped class, I wouldn't have been motivated to think hard about the mechanics of the learning process; and to figure out how to make the class work better for future students.