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Thoughts on Peer Review

April 2, 2013

I just started a Coursera course on Gamification, and stumbled across an interesting discussion forum thread on the topic of peer review in MOOCS.  From the thread, I gleaned that the idea of peer review has some participants concerned about privacy, fairness, and their own “qualifications” (or lack thereof) to judge others’ work.  Out of respect for the bounded nature of the course community, I won’t reproduce any of that thread here.  I did, however, post my own two cents to the discussion forum, which I wanted to throw up here as my own perspective on peer review in MOOCs (and beyond):

“For me, peer review in this course is a very specific learning opportunity, and I would encourage others not to miss out!  I had a really meaningful experience with the peer review process in another Coursera course (Data Analysis by Jeff Leek) and found myself learning more than I typically do when I get a paper back that has been graded by a professor.  I reviewed the work of 4 other classmates anonymously, and was asked to assign point values from a rubric.  With that format, peer review turned into a really useful metacognitive process for me.  It forced me to elevate myself outside of my own work and mindset, and have a look at four other people’s creative work.  It forced me to get a better grasp of the fundamental conventions and expectations of the field in order to grade my peers fairly.  In essence, the peer review forced me to “think like a professor”, which is never a bad exercise.

It helps to think of the purpose of peer review lying in the process rather than the result.  The point of peer review is not for us to get a grade.  (Especially since grades in Coursera ultimately just boil down to getting a PDF certificate whose meaning is still pretty ambiguous.)  The point of peer review is to give us some exposure to others’ creative ideas, and to expand our own metacognition about the course topic in the process.

Also remember: Coursera courses attract a bizarrely vast range of participants, so it’s not impossible that your work could be “peer reviewed” by professors, CEOs, homemakers, politicians, undergraduates, high school students, civil servants, retirees, etc.  Couldn’t ask for a more diverse and relevant audience than that for a course on gamification!

Yes, peer review also happens to fill a practical need, as we all know it would be impossible for a single instructor (even with a cadre of teaching assistants) to look at each of our work individually.  But I encourage you to think of peer review as more than that, or you will likely miss out on the kind of learning experience it can be.”

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