MOOCs and Webinars

I was the respondent the other day at a MOOC webinar that was sponsored by Michigan State’s Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures. Eventually, I think they’re going to post the whole audio recording of the event on their site. It was a good event, although it was a little weird too. This is the first time I had done a webinar like this and it’s a sort of strange speaking experience in that I know there were about 100 or so people logged into it and listening, but my speaking part (which was true with everyone else, of course) was just me sitting in my office and talking at my computer with no visual cues from anyone else. So it’s hard for me to tell if others heard me and were nodding in agreement, frowning angrily, or looking at me like what I was saying was gibberish.

It was probably a combination of all of the above.

Anyway, a brief run-down of how I thought it went (based on my notes and memories):

  • First up was Rebecca Burnett at Georgia Tech.  The course they’re developing will emphasize a multimodal approach to writing, it isn’t going to replace the face-to-face course, and they’re hoping to attract students who are “self-starters, self-motivated,” creative, risk takers, etc. She raised some concerns though about Coursera and the like– and actually, a colleague of Burnett’s wrote about those concerns a few days before this in this piece from The Chronicle.
  • Next was Denise Comer at Duke. It sounds like they are also thinking of an ESL “angle” to the class, but what I thought was interesting in her talk was what I guess I would describe as some of the worries and concerns she has about all of this at this point. She talked about how the experience seems a sort of “unflipping” of the classroom because of the focus on recording videos. And she also talked about how the process of recording these videos for Coursera made her and her colleagues unusually self-conscious about how they appeared to their students. She mentioned one colleague who brought a bunch of ties to the recording because he didn’t want to appear to be wearing the same outfit for the whole class.
  • Then Scott DeWitt and Kay Halasek from Ohio State. They discussed the OSU being a very collaborative effort involving tons of folks there, and they pointed out it’s important to be involved in these things early because if we aren’t at the table, then who else will be? (Which, btw, is an excellent point: even folks who think this MOOC thing is a completely bullshit folly best pay attention to it.) They again talked about self-motivation and an opportunity for researching student writers, and they also talked a lot about what they hope to see and study regarding peer review.
  • Then Julie Lindquist from MSU talked. She covered similar ground at this point, but she too emphasized the experimental/investigatory nature of this project, the emphasis on learning (I have in my notes “shifting the gaze to learning,” which I like) and again an interest in MOOCs as a research site.
  • Then I came in and looking over the twitter feed on it, I guess I was fine, but I had a bit of a feeling of being a little too much of a “Debbie Downer” on the whole thing. I mean, here are these folks who have spent a lot of time and effort developing these projects and they’re obviously optimistic and hopeful about the chances of success, and I come in there and ask a lot of pointed and difficult questions. Anyway, I first pointed out this isn’t really new (think “classes by mail” in the late 19th century not to mention online classes for the last 20 or so years) and a lot of the questions that David Noble asked in his Digital Diploma Mills book are still relevant here: who is making money off of this, how will this benefit students and how do we know it will, and how does this impact academic labor? I asked about the dropout rate because if the Coursera dropout rate as it is right now is 90%, how are these courses going to reconcile that? And I also asked about how folks are going to address the problem of scaling because content scales much better than teaching?

And then it kind of went from there.  Jeff Grabill, the moderator and organizer of this, asked questions of the first five based on what folks had said and what was coming in via the Twitter feed. He didn’t come back to me, which makes sense I guess since I was the respondent and not the one “brining it” as it were with an actual MOOC project. There were a couple of other things I would have liked to have asked along the way though.

For one thing, there seemed to be some question among this group about the claim/argument that teaching doesn’t scale well– I am not sure who, but I think someone said something along the lines of “how do we know that?”  

Well, I think the assumption that teaching scales poorly (or at least it doesn’t scale for all teaching and it certainly doesn’t scale as easily as content) is based on hundreds of years of practice. Just look at how we teach at universities now: there are some classes (notably ones where success is assessed by machine graded tests) we hold in lecture halls, and others (like first year writing, but also like speech, fine art, music, laboratory experiment classes, etc.) we hold in smaller groups. Introductory writing is not taught in lecture halls, and when those experiments have been tried before, they’ve failed.

Furthermore, there is a limit for even large lecture hall classes: I think you’d be hard pressed to find a lecture class at any university in this country that has over 1,000 students, but this is not for a lack of space to hold those lectures. Most big universities have at least one auditorium or sports facility or something that could accomodate that many people in a class a couple times a week. I think universities don’t have lecture hall classes above about 500 (and more typically they are around 200) because we’ve known for a long time now that even in a class where it’s all about a “sage on a stage” professor spitting out content for students to feed on so they can later regurgitate that processed content on to a scantron sheet, even in that setting there are logistical limits.

Another question I wish someone had asked: where’s the “remedial” or developmental piece to these courses? Because I thought that the whole point of this Gates Foundation grant was to develop those kinds of courses, and the kinds of courses that these folks were all sketching out didn’t quite seem like that to me. Instead, it seemed like everyone was talking about developing learning experiences for self-motivated students– which is great, but that isn’t the profile of your typical student in a developmental writing class.

And while we probably wouldn’t have had time to talk about it anyway, it would have been nice to have heard a little more specifics about the curriculum. Perhaps that’s premature– all of these folks are talking about courses going online in a few months not now– but I would have liked to have heard more about what sort of innovations being considered for fostering peer review and self-assessment. Software like Eli might be one piece to the puzzle, but I would have liked to have heard some more specifics on that.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next in all this.

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