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Getting to Know Coursera: VIDL and Vital Questions

Posted by on Wednesday, October 2, 2013 in Commentary.

by Kathryn McEwen, (former) CFT Graduate Assistant

The new school year is underway, bringing with it some big changes for online learning at Vanderbilt.  At the end of May, the new Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning debuted.  Led by Douglas Fisher, associate professor of computer science and computer engineering, VIDL will not only manage Vanderbilt’s partnership with Coursera, but support research into digital learning more generally.

We’ve learned a lot since partnering with Coursera last September.  And, as the creation of VIDL suggests, we still have plenty of questions to answer.  Certainly, many of these are technological or pedagogical in nature.  But as this first year has taught us, those of us working in massive open online courses (MOOCs) cannot ignore the complex questions raised by culture—and cultural clashes—online.

To take just one example: the demographics survey.  This is a staple of educational research in the United States.  In fact, for those of us in the U. S., the role played by race in education—including issues of access, completion, and quality—is a familiar (and familiarly fraught) issue.  That is, in the U. S. context, race operates as a meaningful metric for research and evaluation.  This, however, might not be the case in other cultural contexts.

So how can we communicate our culturally specific perspective to a global audience of students, many of whom will have a very different understanding of race, its significance, and its definition(s)?

The same could be asked of gender and gender roles.  How do we negotiate the very different expectations of students around appropriate gender roles, especially with female instructors?  How are we to react when students complain that, from their cultural perspective, a female instructor’s skirt is too short, as happened this last year in a Vanderbilt course?

Although these questions may seem trivial, they point to the difficult discussions opened by a global MOOC audience.  Discussions that are surely only be just beginning, as Coursera expands its international partners and continues to add courses from a diversifying faculty.

I would suggest that Coursera cannot afford to ignore issues of race and gender across the global community, or in the MOOC classroom.  It seems that VIDL is ideally situated to begin exploring some of these vital questions as Vanderbilt expands its digital presence.

Director’s Note: Just over a year ago, the Provost’s Office generously provided funds for a graduate assistant position at the Center for Teaching to support Vanderbilt’s digital learning efforts, particularly its then-new partnership with Coursera. Katie McEwen, a doctoral student in German and a graduate of our Teaching Certificate program, took the position and worked closely with me and with Vanderbilt’s Coursera teaching staff over the next twelve months.

Katie’s first assignment was to sign up for all of Coursera’s offerings and report back on common and uncommon educational practices in this new world of MOOCs. Within a few weeks, Katie had prepared a 45-page resource guide for our Coursera faculty, a resource that’s been used both here at Vanderbilt and at other institutions. Katie shared many of her observations of MOOC pedagogy here on the CFT blog, assisted with a qualitative study of a Vanderbilt course “wrapped” around a MOOC, and handled logistics for several meet-ups and virtual office hours for Vanderbilt’s MOOCs. Among all this MOOC work, Katie managed to complete and defend her dissertation, as well!

Katie was an incredibly valuable member of the team here at the CFT last year. I’m not sure how I would have survived the very, very busy year without her! We wish her well in her new faculty position at Michigan State University.

Image: “Globe,” John Tornow, Flickr (CC)

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