why composition (and general education) should be free (as in beer): the MOOC

The MOOC is the massively open online course and there are a number of these now, like Coursera, which delivers courses from Princeton, Penn, Michigan, and Stanford. Then there are also stories like this one about Pearson delivering composition and other courses as part of a self-paced online curriculum. The concept is simple. If you have 10,000 students (or more) taking a course, even if the course is asynchronous, there will always be real-time peers to collaborate with. 

When I think of things like Coursera, I immediately think of the History Channel, PBS, the Science channel and so on. While they are different genres and different audiences, I think one could create a World Civilization course, for example, with the equivalent of one TV season of programming, that had the same production values and entertainment quality as a cable tv show and also covered the material of the course. I think you could do the same thing for a composition course where you could have content on the history of writing and rhetoric, interviews with writers, writing technologies, the cognitive dimensions of writing and so on. That is, I think you could pull off something mildly entertaining that would meet some of the goals of the course. 

The predictable objection here is that composition isn't a "content" course, that is a course about practicing writing. I disagree with that facile distinction. In my view, FYC is a course with content that introduces students to practical rhetorical methods and our understanding of how writing/communication works. For example, students should be introduced to how audience works in rhetoric and how different compositional technologies shape our communcication practices. These, and many other things, are matters of content. 

The bottleneck in teaching composition as a MOOC is responding to student writing. Even at the ratio of 20:1, instructor response, while certainly feasible, is, in my view, problematic. And I don't mean this as a criticism of instructors! The rhetorical situation of "feedback" is the problem here and yet it remains the sacred cow of composition. As instructors you can honestly judge for yourself the efficacy of feedback; as students you can do the same thing. Personally I can't recall ever getting useful "feedback" from a professor. As I mentioned in my last post, some folks are going to great lengths to automate teacher feedback and evaluation, and for the life of me I'm not sure why. 

It seems to me that becoming better at writing (and as we know one doesn't become better at writing in generaly but rather better at writing in certain ways/genres) requires two things:

1. That one spends time writing.

2. That one cares enough about writing (or about what one can achieve through writing) to try to get better at it.

Feedback might be helpful if it encourages you to do #1 and it might be helpful if it provides insight that support #2. But it's hardly necessary. As a writer, I really appreciate readers who comment and engage with what I'm saying, but I don't really want or need someone to tell me that I need to work on the transition between paragraphs 3 and 4 or that my claim in paragraph 5 would be stronger if I included a quote. Now perhaps you would respond by saying "But Alex, you have a phd and you've been writing for a long time." True, but I'm hardly a "great writer," and I could certainly improve. Who couldn't? But I'm not going to become a better writer through this kind of feedback, am I?

So what happens if we forego feedback and the logistical limits it places on writing pedagogy? What happens when 1000s of students electively take a course on Writing and (fill-in-the-topic) where they learn about rhetoric and engage in writing about a topic that interests them (e.g. video games, sports, the environment, bioethics, adverstising, whatever)? I'm not sure. But I'm guessing that they spend time writing about something that interests them. And I'm hoping that they become invested in the conversations they have. And maybe that investment in the conversation becomes an investment in being able to have a stronger impact by developing as a writer. 

The idea of the completely solo student writing only to a robot grader is horrifying and sad, mostly because it magnifies the worst aspects of the pedagogy we already have. On the other hand, students participating in a community of 1000s writing on topics they care about sounds like it has potential. Maybe you build in 100s of instructors/tutors to offer feedback (but that would be hard to do for free); maybe you add tutoring as a fee-based add-on for those who request it. Or maybe students just write.