A few miscellaneous comments on online teaching, what I learned about eCollege (again), and MOOCs

I’ve been pretty crazy-busy this semester because I took on too much and because there were things I could not refuse. So the blog has been pretty neglected lately, mostly because I’ve been thinking and writing about online stuff and MOOCs. (And now I’m coming back to this blog to procrastinate a bit in getting it done with the crazy-busy semester).

In no super-specific order:

  • I have been working on (and I think it’s done) my contribution to a “symposium” on MOOCs that will be in College Composition and Communication, I think in January. It’s about my experiences specifically with the writing assignments in “Listening to World Music” and the ways that they failed in spectacular ways.  If you are someone who has read my entries about MOOCs as of late, you probably have a sense of what’s going to be in that relatively short piece.  In any event, I really appreciate the opportunity to participate and it just goes to show you that sometimes blogging about stuff can pay off.
  • I was in a meeting just the other day where the topic of online teaching came up, and some of the folks complaining about it– literature colleagues (I know that’s shocking!)– said online classes were obviously not as good as face to face classes.  ”So, are you saying that the classes I teach online aren’t any good?” I asked. No-no-no, we don’t mean you, they quickly said, but yes, that is what they meant. What I find continually most annoying about this critique is that it inevitably comes from people who have had no experience with online teaching. I mean none, and it also usually comes from people who don’t have a whole lot of experience or connection to this whole new-fangled Internets thing.  So part of what I said in this meeting was “Look, before you argue that online teaching can’t be as good as face to face teaching, go out and take an online class. Before that, your pronouncements about what online classes are like is a little like me telling you what Antartica is like even though I’ve never been there. I mean, I know it’s cold, but so what?”
  • MOOCs are pretty much the same way, which is why I spent the time I did in “Listening to World Music.” I wanted to see first-hand what these things were like, and since I am unlikely to teach one anytime soon, I experienced one as a student and wrote lots and lots about it. A lot of what I’ve been reading lately about MOOCs though (frankly, including some of what I am linking to/talking about in this post) seem to be coming from folks making educated guesses or knee-jerk reactions.
  • MOOCs have had the advantage of raising the profile of online teaching as a “real” environment for learning. But even though the likes of Daphne Koller and Peter Norvig think they “invented” online education with their MOOCs, the fact of the matter is students have been taking classes online at real universities– particularly regional ones like EMU– for over a decade now. Something like a third of all college students in the U.S. have taken at least one online class. We know a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Which brings me to my next point….
  • I don’t think the discussion should be about online classes being as “good” as face-to-face classes or even whether or not online classes “work.” (See “Do Online Classes Suck?” by Alex Halavais on this point). We’ve all seen bad teaching in the best of cozy face-to-face classroom settings, so the idea that that format for teaching is inherently “better” than online teaching seems a little dubious to me. Rather, I think the issue is of what are the trade-offs of these different formats, how do teachers adjust their pedagogy to best fit the situation, and what do we know about the best fit for the subject being taught. One of the trade-offs for teaching classes in a large lecture format is there is not a lot of opportunity for discussion or for student assessment in a format other than an easily graded test. One of the trade-offs for teaching first year writing in small discussion sections is it is prohibitively expensive to staff all of those sections with equally great and experienced professors (let alone great and experienced non-tenure-track faculty), so there can be pretty significant differences between different sections of the same course– thus the point of writing program administration.
  • One of the differences between how my writing colleagues think about online teaching and how my literature colleagues think about it is at what level it is most appropriate. Folks in literature have been somewhat okay with online versions of gen-ed classes but not for classes in the major or at the graduate level. We have the opposite take: we have come to believe that online (and hybrid) format classes need to be a part of the mix for our undergraduate and graduate programs, but we want our students in first year writing to take the class in person and on campus. That might change– I can especially imagine a scenario where we offer sections of first year writing in a hybrid format– but it isn’t going to be changing soon, largely because of the nature of those classes.  Students in first year writing typically need to learn some of the habits that will help them succeed in college: showing up, meeting schedules, learning how to become more self-disciplined, etc. Which leads me to my next rambling point:
  • Who thinks that MOOCs will work in “remedial” college courses? I personally find the term “remedial” both problematic and offensive, not unlike a well-intentioned and ill-informed person referring to someone of Chinese descent as “Oriental,” but I don’t want to go into that for now. The Gates foundation has given out a bunch of grants for creating “developmental” MOOCs– including courses in first year writing being developed by folks at Duke, Georgia Tech, Mt. San Jacinto College, and Ohio State. Each of these are using Coursera as a delivery platform. I’ll be very curious to see how this works out, but based on what I know about online teaching, MOOCs, and first year writing, I think this is doomed.
  • In the 24 or so years I’ve been teaching first year writing, I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of students I’ve had in that class did not want to take it, and some of my students really really didn’t want to take it. Students take first year writing because it is a universal requirement (insert arguments ala Crowley et al as to why that is a bad idea here if you feel so inclined), and this is quite a bit different than the “Edu-tainment” appeal of MOOCs so far. We have decades of evidence on how to best help students who are struggling with subjects like writing, and all of that evidence suggests that these students need a lot personal attention of the sort not afforded in a class of thousands powered by freeze-dried/pre-recorded videos presented in a “stand and deliver” lecture format. The drop-out rate for Coursera MOOCs is already 90%; how much worse will they be in these courses?
  • Frankly, I think the folks working on MOOCs might have it backwards. Maybe they shouldn’t be replacing introductory or developmental college courses, the kinds of classes populated by young, inexperienced, and not particularly motivated students. Maybe MOOCs should replace upper-level undergraduate or graduate courses, the kinds of classes populated by older, experienced, savvy, and highly motivated students.
  • And once again, I discovered this semester in my own teaching that the content/learning management system matters. I have a chapter called “Blogs as an Alternative to Course Management Systems:  Public, Interactive Teaching with a Round Peg in a Square Hole” that is in a book (that’s supposed to be coming out any day now) called Designing Web-Based Applications for 21st Century Writing ClassroomsThe basic point of my chapter is to explain the hows/whys/pros/cons of using WordPress as an alternative to institutional CMSs. Despite the fact that I wrote this piece and despite the fact that I’ve used my own installations of WordPress as my primary platform for teaching online for years, I decided for some reason to give EMU’s CMS (eCollege) another try to host the entire class. Not a great idea. The short version is that eCollege works fine to host the grade book and to host content in a series of units where content is delivered, discussed, and tested. It doesn’t work well when a course is an on-going discussion or when it is something that exists in relation with the rest of the world– e.g., not behind a firewall.  So what I found most frustrating was there was no narrative to the class, no place where it was easy to post an update to something I just came across that I thought would be useful to share with everyone. Long story short, I’m going back to some kind of blog space for English 516 this winter term, which is also going to be online.
  • Clay Shirky wrote an interesting blog entry, “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy,” and  Jeff Rice had an interesting response (and he also pointed to this good Inside Higher Ed rebuttal). Of course, “unbundling” the college degree is not something that is new, though it might appear to be new to Shirky who went to Yale and who teaches (once in a while, at least) at places like NYU. I have lots and LOTS of students at EMU who credits from two or three different other institutions on their transcript, and there are lots of EMU students who are simultaneously enrolled at Washtenaw Community College or another school in the area.
  • One place where I agree with Shirky is that if the point of comparison for what works (or doesn’t) in higher ed should not be Harvard or Yale; that said, one of the major concerns I have about MOOCs (and actually online education in general) is that it simply rarifies the already existing (albeit largely unspoken) hierarchy.  I think this is basically what Nigel Thrift in The Chronicle of Higher Education and what Ian Bogost is saying here. The analogy in those last two pieces is to restaurants, but no need to make that analogy when we can make an actual comparison. There are thousands of colleges and universities on this continent that award bachelor degrees in some kind of humanities– English, let’s say. As an initial qualification for some kind of want ad– “bachelors degree required’– these thousands of different institutions are all the same. But we all know that a degree from Harvard is worth more in the marketplace than a degree from the University of Michigan, which is worth more than one from Michigan State, which is worth more than one from EMU, which is worth more than one from the University of Phoenix. It’s been that way for a long long time. What I think MOOCs will do is simply add another lower rung to that ladder.
  • In any event, I’m probably going to be signing up for “E-Learning and Digital Cultures,” as are (apparently) a lot of people in tech-rhet and the wpa-l mailing list. I’m thinking about making my grad students in English 516: Computers and Writing, Theory and Practice take this course as part of my course. These people seem pretty sharp: I like this manifesto, and I like this article quite a bit. If nothing else, we’ll be reading/thinking a lot more about MOOCs and online teaching while in an online class, which ought to be meta-meta.
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