wow. look at that.

Yesterday, Coursera announced another steaming option, this time watching their contents on Apple TV.  This reminded me of the 1980s-1990s Annenberg-funded World of Chemistry. In high school, I loved World of Chemistry.

The video only plays the cold open for the show; to access the contents requires going to Annenberg Learner where you can watch and share but not embed; Annenberg has requested no embedding. C’mob Annenberg, let’s do better!

World of Chemistry has the feel of public-access or syndication TV from the 1980s, from the cheesy MOOG synth open to the 256 color palate of the media.  It suffered from most educational media materials of that time:  sound hiccups, video skips, flat camera angles.  But it understood how to use moving image, juxtaposition, sound and captivating humans in concert to create a worthwhile and reusable media resource.  Don Showalter’s unbridled enthusiasm for the subject matter certainly helped; whether instigating a chemical reaction or using a baseball team to show the movement of electrons in an atom, his energy was infectious, punctuated often by a “Wow!  Look at that!”  This, and the ubiquity of Annenberg media contents, helped make Showalter a bit of a K-12 Chemistry celebrity in the 1990s, and it seems the reach has gone beyond if parody Twitter accounts are any indication.  Yes, Showalter and World of Chemistry was not to be mistaken for Nova, but the material was well-produced and engaging, using the tropes of television to deliver the material.

When I took Mr. Long’s Chemistry class, I was enrolled in a course taught by a two-time district Teacher of the Year.  I remember often being a bored teenager during high school, but I also remember Mr. Long was one of the more engaging teachers and a good lecture.  Yet he utilized World of Chemistry on a weekly basis.  We watched to bolster our understanding of the topic, and it probably helped that the folks at Annenberg Media knew what they had in Don Showalter, turning him and his presence into a focal point of the show.  “Wow! Look at that!” They built the media contents so as to be driven through a synthesis of montage, voice-over narration, the experiment with Dr. Showalter, the analysis, and even a denouement.  It was evident Showalter was talent, but it was also evident that Dr. Roald Hoffmann and Showalter were instrumental in the development of the content and not just in the chemist theater on video.

This is why I am troubled by Barbara Oakley’s article for Nautilus, “Why Virtual Classes can be Better than Real Ones.”  Oakley, a Professor of Engineering at Oakland University, has co-produced the Coursera MOOC Learning How to Learn, and both the article and the MOOC seem to have been developed in earnest.  That is admirable, but it doesn’t mean the article is not problematic…there are places to pick from throughout, but the final paragraph summarizes her point and my problems:

Terry [Senjowski, her co-producer] and I made “Learning How to Learn” for less than $5,000, and largely in my basement. I had no previous film editing experience—in fact, I could barely click a camera shutter. Much of the moving imagery for the course was created using simple PowerPoint slides. So I would issue a challenge to MOOC critics. Make your own online course. Film the most interesting, most insightful lecture you’ve ever given in your life. If you don’t think your lecture is good enough, reshoot it until you’re happy. Make your video available for millions of students around the world, not just the privileged few in your classes. Come up with questions for a quiz on the mistakes you most commonly see in your classes. You will learn more than you know about the outreach and capabilities of MOOCs. More importantly, you will exemplify a wonderful openness for learning to students everywhere.

I cannot imagine how much time, effort, struggle, learning processes and dedication went into making the Learning How to Learn MOOC.  It is a testament to Drs. Oakley & Senjowski that their passion resulted in a Coursera course.   I have never put together anything of that magnitude.  So take my criticism with that in mind.

What is my criticism?  In the last two years, I have focused my energies on 10 MOOCs I wanted to take.  I was interested in the topic, I wanted to learn more for my own needs or the needs of my profession, I thought highly of the instructor.  As a white adult male with graduate degrees and a desire to learn the material, I was the data-defined ideal student for these 10 MOOCs.  Moreover, I have spent a considerable amount of my time as a researcher studying MOOCs.

In each of these 10 MOOCs, not once did I even get through a week.  I had put the time aside, I had developed strategies to move forward, I had a desire to fully engage in the material and in whatever groups were also taking the course.  Yet every time I could not go any further than the first week, usually stopping somewhere in the second video lecture.  It did not matter that I wanted to learn these subjects from these people.  It did not matter that in some cases the subject matter would directly lead to knowledge I feel should be beneficial for my career.  Each time, the same thing stopped me.

The production quality of these MOOCs was awful.

If Coursera (every MOOC was on the Coursera platform) is going to tout themselves as “access to the world’s best courses,” the production quality cannot slightly be above the world’s worst.  That is a harsh assessment.  It is also true.  Poor lighting, poor sound, a reliance on clip art, the feeling that an editor discovered the wipe edit, constant breaking of the rule of thirds, tired introductory tropes, flat framing of the subject, PowerPoint 2004…these are elements covered in a middle school media production class.  Many MOOCs are designed by well-intentioned professors who are experts in their field yet woefully unprepared to transition that expertise to audiovisual materials.  Just like adding technology does not magically transform a lecture into something pedagogical, an ability to record and upload does not magically turn professors into Martin Scorcese.  Yet Coursera continues to push their contents as media-savvy, putting them in spaces for broadcast and syndicated programming involving even the most cursory understanding of broadcast media.

On Friday, Coursera blasted out an interview with co-founder Daphne Koller, where it is said that 87% of learners benefitted from their Coursera course.  I took issue with the statistic, and Audrey Watters noted that the survey results came were from a study of people who completed a Coursera MOOC.  Here, Coursera is celebrating the notion of ‘learner’ (we have been told to pay no attention to completion rates) but the definition of learner they use is someone who completes.  If you tell me 87% of learners get something out of a MOOC, that’s impressive.  If you tell me 87% of people who finish the free thing they started got something out of it, well, I sure would hope so.

I am not one of the people in that study because I cannot bring myself to finish a Coursera MOOC.  And yes, that is my own fault…but I have a doctoral degree in learning technologies and have built a considerable part of my scholarship on MOOCs.  I have every incentive to finish these things.  Yet I start watching and the same thing happens…a poorly filmed and poorly edited video with an uncoached instructor ends up wasting my time through a bad resource, sometimes followed by a click the button quiz before the next video.  Letting me watch on an airplane or on my Apple TV does not change a thing about how poorly these contents are conceptualized for broadcast media, a calamity of instructional design we seem to be willing to accept as a growing pain when there is ample history of broadcast theory to show these mistakes are unfathomable.  For those subjects I am interested in but have not moved past Week 1, I would rather buy a textbook or engage some other text-heavy resource, because while MOOC developers might see the production space as a cost-free benefit, poor application is a greater detriment than nothing at all.

There are some great Coursera MOOCs materials out there, and I hope for Coursera’s sake they are the ones at the forefront of the broadcast ventures.  The work coming out of the Museum of Modern Art truly understands how to use A/V to convey an argument and information.  And while one could argue MoMA is better positioned to do A/V than a university, the world’s best universities often have the world’s best resources for the world’s best film departments and film studios.  Moreover, a MOOC such as #edcmooc (eLearning and Digital Cultures) might not have the same resources or artifact archive as MoMA but through some very basic movement and juxtaposition (not to mention decent lights and sound) they convey the message in a way befitting their university and the idea of quality education.  It can be done.  It is not easy, but it can be done.  And it should be done.

Distance educators are frustrated that the MOOC has been presented as an ahistorical happening brought down from on high, and now the world is forced to watch a reinvention of the wheel in terms of theory and pedagogy.  Remember that there is also a world of audiovisual theory and practice being reinvented in the name of disruptive innovation.  So, to Barbara Oakley and every other professor who is thinking about spending $5000 to film lectures in a basement and edit them together with ingenuity and chroma key compositing, I would challenge you to hold back on that urge.  Find a partner at your university who specializes in audiovisual production.  Track down some MFA students or even intrepid undergrads with a penchant for the world of filmmaking (there’s a whole history of USC’s film school birthing the first generation of Encyclopedia Brittanica education materials directors).  Hit up the local high schools and challenge a broadcast media teacher to use your opportunity for a senior project.  Or challenge Coursera to put their money where the hype is and provide some A/V know-how and expertise in creating these contents. If Don Showalter was able to generate an Internet following some 25 years after first saying “Wow! Look at that!” I truly believe Dr. Famous deserves higher production values than chroma key and a can-do attitude.