Learning From One Another

WASHINGTON, D.C. — “A little bit loopy and elliptical, but interesting.”

That is how J.R. Reddig, a 61-year-old program director for a Virginia-based defense software contractor, described his classmates’ essays in Internet History, Technology and Security, a massive open online course (MOOC) the University of Michigan is offering through Coursera.

The course, which largely focuses on the history of cyber-infrastructure, is one of the first humanities courses run by Coursera, the largest MOOC provider. That means it is an early proving ground for Coursera’s peer-grading system — the company’s answer to the challenge of running a course with tens of thousands of students and only one professor. For every essay they submit, students in the course have to read and evaluate four others written by their classmates.

“Did you learn from them?” asked Charles Severance, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, who is teaching the course. Severance is sitting with Reddig and eight other students in the basement of a modish downtown coffee shop here, where he has arranged an “office hours” meet-up — one of several he has held in cities around the country. A miniature fountain babbled nearby. Ambient jazz trickled out of unseen speakers.

Reddig shook his head: “Umm, no… no.” Not about the essay topics, anyway. Mainly, Reddig said, he learned how to read past the spelling and grammar hiccups of non-English speakers and try to grade them based on their ideas. “I said, Well, O.K., you can’t apply an empiric standard to them,” said Reddig. “These people attempted to follow a thought, and so give them a 10.”

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