Higher Education mooc Teaching

on writing massively for #moocmooc

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.visibility=”hidden”;document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.display=”none”;

7 replies on “on writing massively for #moocmooc”

That’s nice, and maybe the missing piece that I’ve been trying to locate in our discussions of MOOCs for the last month. Maybe it’s that the students NEED the Internet (and its communities) in their classrooms. Maybe they still need their classrooms, but their classrooms need to extend. We are already, indeed, partially MOOCified but on the small scale (I am, you are, many of us are at least). The “massive” part does not need to be our course; it can be the “massive” (or to whatever scale is reasonable) hyperextension of our course out into the Internet communities.


I agree with a lot of this and I think there’s a way that MOOCs could be a part of a large first year writing program. But I have two quibbles or points of debate or something:

* As the WPA, you don’t have 2500 students so much as you have 80 or so instructors (or however many folks teaching the sections you have to cover). Granted, you are probably the first stop of complaint if one of those 2500 students has a significant problem with their instructor and I completely see your point about how these students have a common experience. That is very MOOC-like for sure. But the fact that it is divided up into groups of 25 or so students per instructor represents a significant difference over what happens in MOOC discussions and peer evaluations.

* I’m not convinced the affinity group approach would work a whole lot better to motivate students than what we do now by creating artificial affinity groups, aka groups of about 25 or so students all meeting at the same time. Most of us need some kind of external motivation to succeed and most students take fycomp because they have to. So what is motivating students to a great extent in fycomp is the requirement and the grade. We of course try to minimize that in the name of making the experience “real,” but if these motivations weren’t present, a lot of students just wouldn’t do it– and we see this in spades in MOOCs where the dropout rate is 90%.

It seems to me that many college freshmen are trying to find something to identify with in the first place. In other words, I think if you asked students in setting to find their affinity group, a lot of these students would say “I don’t have one.” So if anything, the smaller group interaction of 25 people thrown together based on scheduling is a good place to start.


Steve, I’m sure these matters are always somewhat local. Part of my situation is that of those 80+ instructors, more than 70 are also students (phd students), so they are also learning. If instead of having 60 TAs teaching 1-1 and another dozen post-TA grads teaching 2-2, I had 20 full-time, experienced instructors, the structure would seem very different I’m sure.

I think I will disagree with you though that the small writing class is a good place to start. I don’t think that “kids today” are more apathetic than we were. I do think that the students I see are more dutiful and more scared of failure, but I will follow on Latour here and say that we are “made to do.” Students are made to be apathetic by the college classroom, by the structures of university life. They follow upon a public education that devalues being interested and rewards being dutiful, that rewards coloring inside the lines and nearly criminalizes risk-taking. The classroom is not a place where our students will easily perform being interested or taking risks. On the other hand, our students are publicly proclaiming interests all the time in status updates. They take all kinds of risks with the networked documentation of their lives, risks that are worth taking because they reinforce their social bonds (which is the same reason we took risks at their age).

I don’t want to romanticize the MOOC. And I certainly don’t think the way xMOOCs are operating is particularly useful. But I also refuse to romanticize the legacy writing classroom. I reject the glorification of teacher feedback that goes on in the defense of FYC. FYC has failed to deliver on digital literacy, and I don’t believe it will ever succeed with its current curricular structure. Furthermore FYC is an exploitative employment structure not only for adjuncts but by enabling the inappropriate size of doctoral programs in English. Both need to stop.


Oh, I’m not suggesting that kids today are more apathetic; I’m suggesting that it is in the DNA of most 18 year olds to not really know what they want to do with themselves/their lives/their educations. And I don’t think FYC per se is “the solution” to all of this, and there are of course lots of things wrong with FYC– grad student and other labor issues, etc.

However, I also know this:

* A lot of the public interests our students have via Facebook etc. do not synch well at all with the interests of academia. That’s not a knock against the kids today– the kids were flirting with the flute girls and drinking too much wine 2500 years ago, says Isocrates. But it is why education is structured to get students to think (at least a little) about things more intellectual and valuable than sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll and/or the schlock of pop culture in the advanced capitalist state. I guess what I’m getting at is a lot of the affinities students have– particularly young students– don’t match up with the affinities we want to value in higher education, which is why teachers guide students in the first place. It’s not just an opportunity to learn; it’s also an opportunity to be taught.

* Teaching works best in relatively small groups, and we all know this based on the practices we’ve had for thousands of years. There’s a reason why the “better” schools– K through whatever grade you want– tend to emphasize small class size. Your mileage will vary in terms of teacher feedback on student writing, but there is no way anyone is going to convince me that “the better solution” is to a) put students into larger groups like a MOOC, or b) forgo teacher feedback altogether.

* Following along with the “made to do” notion, it seems to me that a lot of this depends on what exactly students are “made to do” in classrooms. I like to think of my classes as places where I make students take risks in a relatively safe environment, where they can practice creating writing and get feedback from peers and an expert before they try it out in a much more anonymous environment. To me, writing in MOOCs (I need to finish blogging about that Duke Comp MOOC) feels a lot more anonymous and a lot less safe.


In theory I agree with you about small classes, in practice not so much. The mileage varies to the point where the small k12 classes with their teacher feedback generally produce students who dislike writing. Maybe writing is so cognitively difficult that it is impossible to get a significant portion of humans to view it as a rewarding or at least benign activity. Overall, I’d say the FYC experience does little to change this; it is mostly more of the same.

I like the Isocrates line, but I suppose I don’t share his values. For myself, it was rock ‘n roll that fueled my passion for composing and technology, as opposed to school and college, which was pedantic and authoritarian. It’s personally weird to me to imagine school as the mechanism one would rely on for learning. I always did my learning in spaces that didn’t count (and still do, like this blog). Learning is all about wine and flute girls, just like academic conferences are about conversations over beer not stilted papers read in windowless rooms.


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