Curb director’s Coursera course launched September 9th

Professor Jay Clayton got 40,000 new students this week, and for a moment, the thirty-year writer and lecturer is at a loss for words.

“It’s been … dizzying!” he finally laughs.

Fifteen minutes after “Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative” launched last Monday afternoon, more than 1000 people had watched a video, and the tech team had discovered (and corrected) two errors we had made in setting up the site. “It’s frantic and exciting at the same time,” Clayton says. “It’s an intense experience of media saturation, of all these multiple channels coming at us at once. “ He pauses then begins to laugh. “And it’s close to overwhelming!”

Of the 40,000 registered, around 5000 are also interacting on Facebook, another group is on Twitter, and then there’s the actual course’s forums—one on J.R.R. Tolkien, the author; another on the game Lord of the Rings Online; another on games in general; and still another for each week’s material—already hold over almost 3000 posts.  Additionally, there’s conversation on the Coursera channel inside the online game, where only people in this course come to chat. “Hang on, I promised I’d say something to them,” Clayton says as he turns back to his laptop where, as Vainamoinen (named for the Finnish minstrel who inspired Tolkien’s Gandalf), Clayton pops in to say hello.

With 40,000 learners logging in from all over the world, I’m struggling to understand how any real communication happens at all when Clayton reveals one of the characteristics of a successful Coursera professor. “We’ve got a great team,” he explains. Two Ph.D. students, Don Rodrigues (English) and Blaine Smith (teaching & learning), along with undergraduate Caleb Richard (computer science), assist Clayton both in the course and via social media. “We’re really partners,” Clayton explains.  “I let them do the work largely autonomously, and each has a kind of area that he or she takes care of.” It’s a good thing. With thousands of people accessing the course and talking with one another 24-hours a day, opportunity for glitches seems high. Is that a concern? “You want to jump right on top of any kind of error in the course right away,” Clayton confirms. “If there’s an error in the site and people are confused and bewildered, then it takes a lot of explaining on social media to say, ‘We fixed the problem, I know you saw it but it’s different now!’”yton has at least eighteen characters at the moment—one on each of the course’s English language servers around the world; (the course has additional servers in German, French, Spanish, and Russian, so one wonders when Clayton will reveal characters for them). In addition to interacting with students via Facebook, Twitter (@Cheeryble2), and the course’s forums, Clayton “visits” each server’s channel in character to engage with students.

Those hiccups are rare, though. The technical experts responsible for the Coursera platform advise the Vanderbilt team on maximizing its use. And while they’re available for technical consults, “They have nothing to do with the content,” Clayton explains. Instead, “They’ve given professors complete freedom to develop their own course in accordance with their own pedagogical standards.” And while the system has very carefully thought-through grading standards that professors can use to evaluate students, Clayton thinks the real goal is simply to learn for the sake of learning.

“You know what’s the most exciting thing?” Clayton asks. I prepare myself to witness a character from San Paolo team up with one from Los Angeles to take down some bad guy, but I’m wrong. Clayton clicks to the forum page inside the course, and I see dozens of individual threads created not by Clayton or his team, but by the online learners themselves. “I posted a discussion question for the week,” he tells me—an optional one, not for credit or a grade—“and there’re 82 posts in this! And many of these posts are entire essays written by grownups, adults, deeply engaging with the subject matter of the course, discussing it, bringing out ramifications that were not covered in the videos. And these are very theoretical issues.”

“I’m not talking about ‘How do you kill an orc in combat?’” he continues. “I’m talking about the definition of remediation. The different roles between progression and emergence in the structure of a narrative. People are engaging with ideas and learning is occurring. There is a hunger out there to think about and discuss the kinds of questions the course raises.”

He’s right. I scroll the page and see active, learner-initiated discussion posts with titles like “Gender Politics of Cavafy’s Ithica & Comfort-Seeking Hobbits” and “Does World of Warcraft flip the way remediation occurs?” Seventy percent of Clayton’s online students already hold a BA degrees or higher, but all of them have brought their A-games.

“They are doing this because they want to keep learning,” Clayton emphasizes. This sort of online course has created the kind of low-risk, high-reward experience where adult learners can test, explore, and expand. In addition to assigned readings (including not only Tolkien but also Spenser, Keats, Tennyson, and Browning), students watch videos of Clayton delivering image-rich mini-lectures on course concepts and view actual discussions among Clayton and Vanderbilt University students—most of whom had never done anything with gaming before taking the class themselves, a fact that thrills Clayton. “So many people taking the course [online] are inexperienced gamers—it’s not just for veteran gamers although many of them are—but many, many people are taking the course who had never played a game before,” he explains.

Clayton scoops up his laptop and two texts, LOTR and Bolter & Grusin’s Remediation: Understanding New Media.  His team is waiting for him down the hall. “There’s plenty of work to be done on week two,” he laughs, “and the fact is, I gotta go!”