I’m lightly participating in Hybrid Pedagogy’s moocMOOC today, so this is in part about that but mostly about the familiar MOOC conversation about the scalability of writing instruction. As a WPA with 80+ instructors and 2500 students per semester, I think we are already engaged in a massive instructional project that scales quite well. It just relies on the human labor of a qualified instructor to offer individual feedback to student writers.
So let’s bracket the question of feedback for a moment and discuss the other elements of “how” before getting to “why.”
To me this is “simple” enough, drawing upon applications and social media processes that are already out there. I’m just going to work off of the 2500 students I have, but I think what I’ll say here could work as easily for more. Also, I’m working on the premise of paying students in search of college credit. I.e. the same folks I already have. Free, public courses would have to work differently.
- As others have observed, the xMOOC is partly like a textbook. But they may or may not be well-designed textbook. While a course may take a specific path through the material, as a textbook, the material has to be easily accessible from other directions. Students need to be able to search, bookmark, highlight, comment, share, etc. We have a newly adopted common textbook for our writing program. It’s a common practice for institutions like mine. Doing this on a MOOC doesn’t seem that different.
- The next step is community. In a composition classroom community is built primarily around writing activities: discussing topics and ideas, sharing drafts, getting help with different writing struggles that arise. As we know from xMOOCs, the problem is getting lost in a deluge of feedback on an impersonal forum. I think the other problem is that most students don’t know how to operate in an online discussion environment in a way that would make it productive for themselves and others. That is, online behaviors are learned. A brief survey, perhaps combined with an initial writing sample, might help to drive a recommendation engine that would assist students in finding peers who have similar interests. The idea is to build affinity groups within the larger community. In a way, a MOOC tries to quick-bake an online community. Most online communities start small and grow over time. As more people come to the community there are already structures there that help them find their people. (Think how many times now you go onto a new community site and they want to use your Facebook or Google friend lists to help you connect with a community.) This could happen on my UB FYC MOOC too, where students could link with friends. Of course we want them to work with new people too, but linking with friends would probably help to drive participation and retention.
- Connecting with the social web. First, students should have control over access to their compositions from private to public web access. And then they should be able to share, at their discretion, through social media. The point is to link their class writing activity with their existing communication practices, to build out their writing behaviors. They should be able to send out a status update like “I just wrote 500 words today” (as I have on this post).
- Real time conversation. With 2500 students or more, at any given time there should be others online. You should be able to control your visibility but it should be possible to see who is there with you and to engage in a conversation. We could schedule things. This was one of the good things about Second Life, and it wasn’t limited to tiny numbers like Google Hangouts. A 100 people could watch a lecture together and move back and forth between different sized group conversations.
- Asynch conversations can then become more goal-oriented. They’re not just chats about “what I think.” They are people working together to solve specific problems over a sustained period of time. Blogs can also work that way, as parallel talking. We are all interested in writing and MOOCs. We write about them on our blogs; we read each others blogs. And they intertwine here and there. Again, this starts with finding an affinity group: an audience.
- Formal assignments. Topic formation, purpose, audience and genre out to arise fairly organically from the communities. The “textbook” ought to help by providing ideas and examples, leading students through this process, but the specific choices should come from the writers. I probably would create a mechanism for ensuring students tried several kinds of writing. Students can provide editorial feedback and perhaps create publishing collectives to push writing out to the larger web.
Of course it is with formal assignments that I must return to the issue of instructor feedback. It is only with the assumption that MOOCs are about cutting costs that one assumes there can’t still be the same number of instructors in the community as I currently have. Indeed, these 2500 MOOC participants could still be part of regular courses or in some hybrid format meeting once per week with 20 of so of their peers and an instructor. Could I mix in writing center-style, trained peer tutors and perhaps reduce the number of instructors and thus save some money? I don’t know. Maybe. But as I said, I’m not thinking about this as cost-cutting. Instructional costs in FYC are CHEAP!!! (Too cheap, if you ask me.) They’re less than 15% of the tuition dollars in a given class at UB (and we are quite inexpensive in terms of tuition).
In short, you could still have instructor feedback, even individual conferences (FTF or video chat).
So why do it then? Why not stick with what you have? Well, for one thing, what we have (and by “we” I don’t mean just UB but everywhere this type of instruction is done) doesn’t work that well. We struggle with student motivation. We struggle with digital literacy. And we struggle with having a durable impact on student writing practices. One of the classic problems of first-year composition is the lack of an audience and purpose anyone cares about besides the instructor who grades. Maybe, just maybe, a MOOC like this would be an answer to that problem. A real audience and within that massive audience perhaps a chance to find readers who share your interests and purposes. Maybe this helps with motivation. Certainly the MOOC becomes a place for really addressing digital literacy as students learn how to communicate in this environment. As for the durability of the course, maybe the connection with existing social media habits helps to reinforce the practices we are learning. And, an even crazier idea, what if this community keeps going as we move into other classes. We just shift affinity groups… Everyone in World Civ. Everyone majoring in Electrical Engineering. But the larger group, the shared activity of learners at a university is there. Maybe there’s another view too. A SUNYwide view, for example. Now I see everyone studying in SUNY taking a Shakespeare class this fall. Or whichever schools want to join together.
And, even weirder, could you imagine professors acting like that? Going online to find other scholars who share their interests and trying to learn with them, collaborate with them to produce something meaningful for a wider group of readers? I’ve always said that composition is a carnival mirror image of humanities scholarship, but maybe this time the flow could go in the other direction.