Archives November 2013

MOOC Review – Two Courses on Writing

I have previously reviewed some MOOC courses on Coursera and voiced my general opinion about MOOCs (massive open online courses). Below I’d like to review two more courses I have recently completed, both on the topic of writing: Crafting an Effective Writer: Tools of the Trade on Coursera and SciWrite Writing in the Sciences on the Stanford OpenEdX platform. I believe that both will be offered again in the future.

Crafting an Effective Writer: Tools of the Trade

This course is offered on the tried and tested Coursera platform by Lorrie Ross, Lawrence (Larry) Barkley, and Ted Blake of Mt. San Jacinto College. The course info describes this course as suited for high school and college students as well as for people whose native language is not English, i.e. as more of an entry-level course. I have found this course to be indeed quite basic, and I would say that it definitely is below college-level. Nevertheless, I followed the course until the end, since the time commitment was fairly minimal compared to other MOOCs I have taken.

Overall, the course is well structured and the workload just right for taking the course on the side to one’s regular schoolwork or occupation. However, in my opinion, the content focuses too much on theoretical grammatical constructs. I don’t think the flow of my writing will improve if I know that a clause is a nonrestrictive subordinate clause and that a particular sentence is of the type compound-complex. The actual writing assignments were few and far in between. However, the peer assessment and grading process was smooth and fair. The course mainly discussed the grammatical structure of sentences and attempted to put these structures into a broader context in the (too) short writing assignments. The grade was calculated from a number of fairly easy multiple-choice quizzes and the peer writing assignments.

In summary, this course is probably helpful for people whose native language is not English, who are still learning the basics of grammar, or for high school students with a grammar-obsessed teacher. But I don’t think it does much to improve one’s writing style because the course focuses too much on theoretical constructs instead of practical application.

SciWrite Writing in the Sciences

This course is offered by Prof. Kristin Sainani on Stanford’s OpenEdX platform which still seems to have a few technical bugs that need to be ironed out, at least compared to Coursera. This course is much more advanced than the course above and geared towards academics at the graduate level. Although the examples are mostly taken from Dr. Sainani’s field of expertise, medicine, the course is suited for writers and editors (and translators) in all scientific fields. I found the course extremely useful and thorough and was looking forward to the videos each week. A minor drawback was Dr. Sainani’s often very quick speech pattern which could pose a problem in terms of understanding for non-native speakers.

The course thoroughly covered everything from good writing style over proper editing and writing procedure and the structure of publications to the publication submission process and plagiarism. The videos contained a lot of examples. If anything, there were too many editing examples, which one can however skip over. There were 3 essay assignments on practical topics, which were graded by peers. The 3 essays comprised 50% of the final grade, the remainder of the grade was calculated from multiple-choice quizzes, free-form online homework assignments, and a fairly easy multiple-choice final exam.

My main criticism is the peer grading process, which a) still suffered from technical issues of the OpenEdX platform and b) did not provide enough incentive for peers to grade fairly and thoroughly. Since the purpose of the entire course is to improve one’s writing, this peer feedback is quite important. However, more often than not I received seemingly random grades by my peers on all my essays. The marks were all over the place, and no additional comment or reason was given. Since the essays could be resubmitted twice, that feedback would have been essential for me to improve the first attempt. But because the feedback was missing and the marks in the various categories often varied from 0 to the maximum number of points, it was hard for me to determine the specific problems with my writing. I think that an additional mandatory comment field like that on the Coursera platform would greatly help here.

Another minor issue is the layout of the discussion forums. The main topics are not clearly separated, and technical issues are mixed with topical posts or even editing exercises. This is however an issue of the platform, not of the course structure.

Overall, I found this course extremely useful, although the usefulness could be even more improved if the structure of the peer review process could somehow force peers to give more feedback. In any case, I wish that some of the people whose papers I had to read and/or review during my scientific career had taken this course before they started writing their first sentence.