The top of the annual performance review form at my university has a blank space for us to list any additional education we obtained during the previous year. I’ve never filled that space in before, but that will change in my review for 2012 because I spent part of my sabbatical last fall as a student in a massive open online course (or MOOC).
I'm an American historian by training, but ever since I left graduate school a global perspective has become increasingly important for historians of all kinds. That’s why I decided to get some free professional development in world history, courtesy of Coursera. I learned a lot of interesting and useful specific factual information from the MOOC instructor (or superprofessor, as the lingo goes) that has already helped me become a better teacher and scholar.
But I didn’t just listen to the lectures. Like any other student (since that’s what I was), I also wrote out all the assignments and helped grade papers written by my peers in class. This peer grading process differs from peer evaluation (which I use in class all the time) since students not only read each other’s work, they assign grades that the course professor never sees. Professors in the trenches tend to hold their monopoly on evaluating their students’ work dearly, since it helps them control the classroom better by reinforcing their power and expertise. On the other hand, superprofessors (and the MOOC providers that teach for them) have begun to experiment with having students grade other students out of necessity since no single instructor could ever hope to grade assignments from tens of thousands of students by him or herself.
With MOOCs in their infancy, few precedents exist for designing online peer grading arrangements for humanities courses. For this reason, I don’t intend to criticize my superprofessor’s choices here. However, I do have to describe some of the peer grading process from my class in order for my critique of peer grading in general to make sense. All students in the MOOC were supposed to write six essays between the start of the course and its end. For each assignment, we could choose one of three single-sentence questions to answer in 750 to 1,000 words. The week after we submitted those essays, we were supposed to grade the essays of five of our peers with respect to their argument, evidence and exposition, and leave comments. If you didn’t grade the essays your peers wrote, you didn’t get to see the grade you earned.
With respect to the grades I earned, I think my peers graded my essays just right. The grading scale in our MOOC went from zero to three. When I already knew a fair bit about the topic of the question that I answered or I tried very hard to write the best essay I could, I earned mostly threes from my peers. When I didn’t try very hard, I tended to get twos. While I listened to all my superprofessor’s lectures fairly closely, I never read the recommended textbook, which also undoubtedly hurt my scores.
For me at least, the primary problem with peer grading lay in the comments. While I received five comments on my first essay, for every subsequent essay I received number grades with no comments from a minimum of two peers and as many as four. In one case, I got no peer grades whatsoever. That meant that the only student who evaluated my essay was me. Every time I did get a comment, no peer ever wrote more than three sentences. And why should they? Comments were anonymous so the hardest part of the evaluative obligation lacked adequate incentive and accountability.
I read in The New York Times  a few weeks ago that a study had begun to examine whether peer grades would match the grades assigned by professors and teaching assistants in one sociology MOOC. While that would prove an impressive feat if true, it would in no way validate the process of peer grading. Learning, as any humanities professor knows, comes not through the process of grades but through the process of students reading comments about why they got the grades they got. That’s how students find out how to do better next time.
To be fair, the course included a good set of instructions about how to grade a history essay linked from the course homepage. Unfortunately, there was no way for the superprofessor to force students to read those instructions, and due to the inevitable pressure to cover as much world history as possible, he never discussed how to grade in any of the class lectures. How could he? Good grading technique is difficult enough for graduate students to learn. Because of the size of the course I think I can safely assume that many of my fellow MOOC students inevitably had no history background at all, yet the peer grading structure forced them to evaluate whether other students were actually doing history right.
The implicit assumption of any peer grading arrangement is that students with minimal direction can do what humanities professors get paid to do and I think that’s the fatal flaw of these arrangements. This assumption not only undermines the authority of professors everywhere; it suggests that the only important part of college instruction is the content that professors transmit to their students. How many of the books you read in college can you even name, let alone describe? It’s the skills you learn in college that matter, not the specific details in any particular class, particularly those outside the major.
Over the course of my career, I have increasingly begun to spend much more time in class teaching skills than I do content. Some of this has been a reaction to encountering students who do not seem as prepared for reading or writing college-level material as the students I had back when I started teaching. However, I have also come to believe that teaching these skills is much more important than teaching any particular historical fact. After all, it really is possible to Google nearly anything these days.
Certainly good students can do a good job grading peer essays and I got a few short but insightful comments on the papers I wrote for my MOOC. Even if all of my comments had been less than helpful, I didn’t come into the MOOC process seeking to improve my writing skills. I wanted to learn new information, and many other students who engaged the material the same way that I did probably felt the same way.
Students like me won’t be the ones who’ll suffer because of peer grading. Its victims will be the future students who take MOOCs to earn college credit at increasingly cash-strapped universities. Who will teach them how to write well? Who will monitor their progress through the peer grading assignments? Who will help them understand that history is as much about argument as it is about facts or that literature can be appreciated on multiple levels? While other students can certainly teach other students some things, they can never teach students everything that a living breathing professor can.
Education startups like Coursera are experimenting with peer grading not because it is the best way for students to learn history or English, but because it is the only way that the MOOC machine can ever run itself in a humanities course. If MOOCs incurred high labor costs the same way that colleges do, those startups would never be able to extract a profit from those classes. While that’s a legitimate concern for Coursera’s venture capital investors, everyone else in academia – even the superprofessors – should give more weight to purely educational concerns.
Jonathan Rees is professor of history at Colorado State University – Pueblo. He writes about both ed tech and historical matters at his blog, More or Less Bunk.  He is the author of Industrialization and the Transformation of American Life: A Brief Introduction  (M.E. Sharpe, 2012).