MOOC Roundtable #4C14

Sadly illness precluded my attendance. Not to bore you with the details, but this semester has been quite taxing with the work of general education and such. In any case, here is what I would have said. It’s taken in part from my chapter in Invasion of the MOOCs, so I invite you to go there for more.


In the year of so since Steve proposed this roundtable MOOCs have moved fairly swiftly along the hype-adoption curve off the “peak of inflated expectations” and we’re well into the “trough of disillusionment.” We have come to the surprisingly realization that some videos, a discussion forum, peer evaluations, and a few online quizzes will not simply replace higher education. At the same time, we’ve encountered a proliferation of MOOC-like online learning environments. It’s not all Coursera, Udacity, and EdX out there. That MOOCs failed to live up to their promises is a dog bites man story. Unfortunately for the purposes of entertainment, my overall position on MOOCs isn’t that provocative. As with any emerging educational technology, I think we need to experiment and research, and if we find a technology to be valuable then we need to develop appropriate policies regarding its use. What is more interesting and revealing are the institutional and disciplinary responses to moocs. There are many stories there, but in the next five minutes my interest is with one of the central objections to MOOCs within our discipline, specifically that MOOC composition courses are problematic because of the impossibility of providing good feedback to student writers, and part of the subtext of that argument is our option to machine-scoring of essays.

While I share our discipline’s general concerns with machine reading, the argument in favor of individual feedback is less convincing and, in my view, is a default position reflecting traditional anthropocentric and humanistic views of communication. In the modern era, most writing was for very small audiences, often a single individual: a friend or lover, an employer or customer, a professor. The tutorial model of instructor feedback reflects this information and media ecology. Needless to say, writing activities today are very different from those of a century ago. We may still write for audiences of one on occasion, but we also write for far larger audiences. In addition, we write for machines. Reaching an online audience means composing a text that is findable and accessible. Attracting an audience via Twitter requires mastering the rhetoric of 140 characters. Learning to write in a MOOC immerses students in this rhetorical situation. It requires students to develop a facility with networked rhetoric that simply cannot be learned in the one-to-one writing environment of the traditional classroom. As has been evidenced by current MOOCs, students struggle with this. Faculty struggle with this, which is all the more evidence that even a highly-developed print literacy does not prepare one very well for the challenges of networked communication. And it is, I would argue, networked communication that our students will most need to practice moving forward.

The real value of traditional feedback in a composition classroom is that it reflects the writing situations students conventionally enter later in their academic career. If students can learn how to seek and use good feedback in the composition classroom, then they are better-positioned to do so again in the future, especially in other college courses. On the other hand such tutorial models do little to prepare writers for understanding the feedback provided through networked environments. In a conventional classroom one knows one is writing for a tiny audience (perhaps an audience of one) and thus individualized feedback, especially from that specific audience, is crucial.  However in a MOOC and elsewhere online, one is writing for hundreds or thousands, and the responses of a small number of individuals are perhaps less useful. What is the function of feedbac in this environment? It is not so unfamiliar to those with blogs or YouTube channels or large numbers of Twitter followers. As a blogger, the comment offered by a single reader is welcome and helpful, but the evidence of pageviews and reTweets might tell one more about the reception of a post than the single comment. However, interpreting the latter kind of feedback is not straightforward.

This is how one builds a blog readership or Twitter following, by interpreting and responding to network feedback. Not surprisingly, one might discover that the features that make writing valuable in a classroom or in a journal article for that matter are quite different from those that are valued in a MOOC or elsewhere online. This might be an argument in defense of the claim that we shouldn’t use MOOCs as a substitute for composition courses that are designed to prepared students for academic writing. Conversely, it might also be an argument that MOOCs, or some hybrid of the current composition course with the MOOC, are better situated to prepare students for writing in digital media networks. When I think of some future MOOC-like environment, I begin by envisioning the 2500 students who currently take a composition course each semester on my campus. How many of the tens of thousands taking composition in the SUNY system right now are cordoned off in some 25-person online Blackboard environment? More than half I would wager. If we opened those virtual doors, what affinity spaces might develop? What kinds of communities might be built? It is in that direction that I believe we have something to learn from MOOC experiments.