Coursera: So far…

Earlier this summer I registered to take a poetry class through Coursera, a “company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free.”

“Hot diggity,” I responded, as I Facebooked and Tweeted my findings. “I’mma get in on this sweet, sweet learning action lickety split!”

The first class I signed up for, Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo) is taught by Al Filreis through the University of Pennsylvania, and the course description sounded right up my alley:

This course is a fast-paced introduction to modern and contemporary U.S. poetry, from Dickinson and Whitman to the present. Participants (who need no prior experience with poetry) will learn how to read poems that are supposedly “difficult.”

Fast-paced? Poetry? No experience necessary? Wahoo! All that would be required to complete the course would be submitting four short essays, commenting on other students’ submissions, passing weekly quizzes, and participating in the discussion forums. Easy peasy, and fun to boot! If, you know, you enjoy writing essays, commenting on things, taking quizzes, and participating in discussions.

Which I totally do.

As do thousands of folks who are still learning English, and a bunch’a weirdos intent on dumbing down the Facebook end of the experience…

Things I Have Learned From Joining ModPo’s Facebook Group

1. There Are Not Enough OTE Mods/Admins

For about one hora gloriosa the other semana, I played make-believe as a Spanish-speaking T.A. for a handful of Facebook group members who are using ModPo in part as an opportunity to work on their English. It’s an admirable goal with the unfortunate side-affect of making me feel like a useless layabout for never having attempted any such thing in an effort to work on my Spanish.


It was fun getting to know a few of my ESL classmates a little better through that experience, and I enjoyed it on both a social and an educational level. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder how the lack of Other Than English mods/admins throughout the Coursera universe might be impacting the experience of those students hoping to use Coursera as an English exercise.

Mostly I’m picturing hands being thrown in the air “I give up!” style across the globe, Google Translate tabs slamming closed in browsers worldwide.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say Coursera “should” or “must” provide OTE support, particularly since Coursera doesn’t market itself as a “work on your English” resource, so it’s not like it’s failing to supply something it promised in not having live translators on hand for real-time assistance. Plus I have no idea how it is being funded or how much money it is actually making, and real-time human translation services are notoriously expensive. I think it’s perfectly legitimate to offer a website and services entirely in English, or Dutch, or Guarani… I’m just wondering if such an effort- providing OTE mods- would be possible for some of the classes with higher numbers of students, and if expending that effort might pay off in the long run for Coursera and similar sites.

2. Even Poetry Attracts Trolls

Trolls: Making ModPo Poets Less Great since 2012

Hoping to engage in a thoughtful discussion about a question someone raised about the poem everyone is currently reading? Too bad!

but I inform: if, I will see in essays in context something about : word-killer, precious stone and poem, diamond and poem or else, what I have written, I will shame you for all over the world.

That’s right. If during the course of the discussion any of the participants should draw similar conclusions from reading the same poem, and if any of those shared conclusions should appear in any of the participants’ future comments or essays, there is no other possible recourse for this particular troll but to shame the alleged offender on a global scale for stealing their ideas.

Or if you are participating in a thread and would like to point out that you think Classmate A and Classmate B “are very inspirational locutors“? Be prepared to be informed that you are wrong because, frankly, “they are absolutely standart thinking people -it’s complitely boring.

Say that in a meatspace classroom. Please. I dare you.

And don’t bother asking these self-righteous poetry trolls to stay on subject, to keep non-productive and exclusionary comments to themselves, or to behave like adults. Your requests will only be met by such gems as “this idea everywhere is in internet…about innovation. may be your own ideas?” Or the dare to “block me. any perssonmay just block.” Or perhaps it’s time for the “how many Universities have you graduated from ?” challenge.

Wheaton’s Law: It also applies in poetry forums, ass, and you are breaking it with fantastic regularity.

Things I Have Learned From Reading ModPo’s Official Forums

1. Whatever you wanted to say in the forums? Yeah, it’s already been said. About 10,000 times.

I’m having trouble tracking down the exact figures, but the last estimate I saw for the number of registered ModPo students was hovering somewhere around 30,000. That’s right: 30,000 people from all over the world participating in discussions on the course’s forum page, submitting essays, and taking quizzes.

On the one hand: This is awesome and encouraging and crazy and inspiring and gives the international poetry community an approachable and familiar feel and I love love love it and am so glad things like Coursera exist and that people like Filreis are so excited about blazing new trails in online learning and I can’t wait to see how this model develops in the coming years.

On the other hand: Anything you think of to say in a discussion thread? It’s been said. Any question you want to ask? It’s been asked. Any idea you find yourself puzzling through? Spoiler alert! It’s been unpuzzled, and if you are participating as directed you will come across myriad possible conclusions, including your own. Any thought you were developing has already been written out- short form and long form- by literally hundreds, even thousands, of your classmates. So that “participate in the forums” part of passing the class? Maybe you’ve got something new to add, Genius, but me? Yeah, ain’t nothing I can add that’s not already in there a hundred times over, and more clearly and eloquently expressed than anything you’d ever wring out of me.

Presenting an idea or question first isn’t necessarily an ideal solution either, however, as whatever you have to ask or add will be met by the same trollish horseshit (please pardon my French, Christie) addressed above.

For example (using actual quotes from discussions in the Facebook forum) (I know I know the Facebook forum is not the official forum):

Classmate A: (Fascinating, thought-provoking musings, questions, and insight into today’s assigned reading.)

Classmate B: (Thoughtful reply offering up gratitude, further exploration, and new questions.)

Troll: poor Emily [Dickinson], she couldn’t even imagine that her brilliant poetry will be dissected into small bones and this brilliant monolithic poem will be broken into separate words…God..poor Emily. dig, dig dig with dissection her poetry, losing it’s spirit…dig to nowhere..good luck :) Could you be so kind and tell the meaning of this popem using two sentences ?

Classmate A: (Two sentence reply offering a well-constructed summary of the piece.)

Troll: I have asked to depict , to show your idea using two senteces.Sorry, I will not even read this. good luck. how to say the truth in a soft way , in rush way : you are daun and stupid. How it will be on your opinion with YOUR interpretation of E.D. how to tell truth to people ? LOL, know what wanted Emily Dickinson? have you been on spiritualistic seance with E.D. ? I have asked you a very concrete question and wait your answer on it

Classmate B: I am going to assume that you are not meaning to be rude, since English is not your first language. However, your previous comments are coming across as extremely rude and insulting.

Troll: I have already blocked about 5 idiots, who are really mentally retarded))..I am just enjoying of stupiiidity, reading all this ))) what are you doing with E.D. brillian poetry I am FRANK and complitely DIRECT

See, now that’s your problem right there: You’re a mentally retarded idiot whose replies are stupiiid and you are unable to deal with fellow classmates who are simply being frank and direct with you.

I’m sorry, but who wants to participate in a discussion when trolls are interrupting conversations, derailing threads, mocking fellow participants, and decrying attempts to dissect poems even though THAT IS THE POINT OF THE CLASS?

I don’t mean to say the environment is always this hostile. While there is certainly a sad abundance of awkwardly inappropriate participants (here’s lookin’ at you, Facebook trolls), there is also a tremendous number of people in this course who present such brilliant ideas and feedback it’s a wonder they’re not teaching their own poetry classes.

I do mean to say I think a classroom- whether IRL or online- is not the place for this sort of behavior and my personal opinion is that participants like this, whether in official forums or officially sanctioned forums like the one on Facebook, should be given the ol’ heave-ho so they can stop wasting everyone’s time and making our “classroom” ugly every time they sit down at their keyboards.

And by “everyone,” I of course mean THIRTY-THOUSAND PEOPLE required to offer individual insight after reading thousands of others say what they were thinking.


2. Words, Words, Words

We recently received the question for our first essay writing assignment, and  have been advised that we are expected to write at least a 500 word response. 500 words? Awesome. Short, sweet, to the point. A totally reasonable expectation.

For the students, that is.

‘Cause that’s 500 words (minimum) x 30,000 students for a potential total of at least 15,000,000 words being turned in for this assignment. Assuming an average reading speed of 250 words per minute, it would take 60,000 minutes, or 1,000 hours just to read all the essays if every student participates as directed, let alone the time required to weigh in on them. For comparison’s sake, there are 168 hours in a week, during which time the professor and the TAs are also expected to participate in the forums; prepare, administer, and grade quizzes; record, edit, and upload videos of themselves discussing the assigned readings; and teach and attend other classes.


If Coursera has developed a way to make this work, that’s great. And probably also magical. But I can’t help feeling like this is a an implausible load to lay on any professor, regardless of the subject matter. Regardless, even, of the fact that this isn’t an actual college class offering college credit. I almost feel like I need to offer my condolences with each essay I turn in, along with links to stress relief tips and pictures of the candles I’ve lit for the TAs.

One alternative is that there is no actual expectation that the profs and TAs will read all the essays, but in that case I find myself scratching my head about the point of requiring the assignments in the first place. Sure it gets students thinking about the subject matter, and who doesn’t benefit from a directed writing exercise? Lord knows I do! But why bother developing the infrastructure of tracking assignments when most of them will, of necessity, go completely by the wayside? I wouldn’t call it an exercise in futility, necessarily, but perhaps a warm-up…

Another alternative is that they’re counting on most of the students to not fully participate. But that sure seems like a shaky bet around which to plan a semester in a system that is still being developed. And I’d rather believe they’re not banking on most of us slacking off, even though, ya’ know, we probably are. I mean– I know I am.

Third alternative: Peer evaluation? I just hope it’s the thoughtful students and not the trolls doing the evaluating…


Ah… but I still love poetry. I still love the idea of online learning. And I still want this class to work- for Coursera, for Filreis, and for me. So I’ll keep trying. I’ll return to the forums, dive into the boards (ignoring the fact that accusations of plagiarism have already garnered us an official memo on the subject), submit my essays to the (potential) void, and enjoy the fact that at the very least I tried something new and saw it to completion.

And I’m a big girl! I can flag the trolls and move on. I can enjoy essay writing for its own sake. I can even ignore the perpetual TMIers. (Hi! I’m Linda from Seattle and I’m deaf because of injuries I sustained when a co-worker pushed me in front of a car, which I forgave him for because my therapist says I’m trying to compensate for my uncontrollable flatulence and psychosomatic allergies to all animals, which just kills me because I have dedicated my life to rescuing animals and cannot imagine parting with my eight dogs, four cats, six rabbits, twelve birds, or my goat. Also I love poetry.) (That was neither a direct quote, nor an exaggeration.)

But for now I think probably the most realistic description of how I’ll use this course is as a passenger-seat test-drive of how this whole “online learning” thing works. I’ve got a busy weekend ahead of me, so the likelihood I’ll finish the essay on time is low, and as much as I enjoy being on the internet I have never gotten into forums or message boards, so the likelihood I’ll engage in that fashion is even lower. But for the price of Free? I’m up for a test drive.

Vroom vroom, Coursera…

ETA: A ModPo member just posted this link to a very positive, pro-Coursera write-up on edcetera. If you’re considering signing up for a class through Coursera, I’d strongly encourage you to check out this link. It discusses a lot of the strongest points of the Coursera format and will be sure to get you excited about your upcoming studies!



  1. Great comments. And, thanks to you, I’m taking Network World and having a somewhat similar experience although discussion isn’t as much of an issue on the Forums as is helping one another understand. This has been an eye opening and time consuming experience but so far well worth it.

    1. Just kidding!! I mean, you’re right: in theory this Coursera thing looks pretty awesome. Far more awesome (in terms of potential interacting-with-other-humans) than the podcast-type online learning I’ve tried out before. But I’m shocked they have 30,000 (30K!!!) students enrolled in this one class. That’s a mind boggling number. I had a hard time participating in classes that had 80 people sitting in the same room together.

      I hope you’re able to glean some good stuff out of the course materials though. Uncle Walt is one of my favorites. And what IS with Emily’s Alfred E. Newman ‘do??

      1. Whatever, dude; it’s absolutely tl;dr. I would sink so fast as a journalist. Mercy!

        As great as the idea of this whole thing seems to me, and as exciting as it is for my own personal reasons to see so many people interested in taking a class like this, the ENORMITY of the student body for this one, single class makes it feel less like a “real thing I’m doing and in which I must participate” and more like a miniature search engine that only returns results on poetry. I’m finding that I want to use it more as a guide on what to read and in what order, and as a source for lecture videos that correspond directly with the suggested readings.

        I guess what I’m really looking for is an interactive documentary. One that doesn’t assign essays that no one will read…

  2. We have become quite the consumers on this free online course stuff. (I SO wanted to use your French instead of “stuff” but I am only that cool in theory, not in reality.) So our lack of furlough this year = lack of tenth grade curricula, which = a mad search for free stuff online. Enter coursera, which supplied the need for elective number 3… Intro to Psychology.

    So far we love it. But thanks to your timely expose, Miss Tenth Grader will not be joining the forums, although I feel sure that folks like Linda from Seattle would surely have lots to add to discussions about psychoses, not to mention the fodder for family making-fun-of-dumb-people hour.

    And for the record, I ADORE it when you speak French. I tuck those memories away for the times of self-loathing that attack me when I hear my girls using “crap” as every other word, and 1.) feel better that it’s crap that I accidentally taught them, and 2.) have hope that I have not ruined them, because if R. A. can use words like horse-caca and still be so darn cool and mega-intelligent, then hope is still alive for my offspring, too.

    In the end, I have to question the validity of what my gal will learn from any of these courses, because, well, the computer is so small, and how can we expect her to learn if she can’t even fit inside the building!!!

    1. It really is a pretty neat idea, and there are courses in a VERY wide range of subjects. I’d say it’s definitely worth checking out if you should click the Coursera link above and stumble across something you fancy. :) Just bewaaaare the trooooollllls… (Could you tell that was in my spooky voice? I can try again. :P)

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