Week 1 in Duke’s “English 1” MOOC

Every time I turn around, there are more good/interesting MOOC articles to post about/write about, but since I am already behind in getting this post up and running, those new articles will have to wait until I post again later this week. But before I get to some thoughts on week one of “English Composition 1: Achieving Expertise,” which is a Coursera MOOC by Duke’s Denise Comer (and a cast of others in various support roles), a bit of a link round-up in MOOC news that I thought was interesting:

  • A whole different/similar thing is happening “down under” with an Australian MOOC Platform.
  • “Who Owns a MOOC?” From Inside Higher Ed, this is about how these Coursera courses might figure into collective bargaining issues and issues of who owns the content of courses. What this article says and what I’ve heard before is the faculty doing these courses are essentially giving away their content and time: that is, Coursera has contracts with universities and not professors, and so the extent to which faculty are beging compensated for this work depends entirely on the institution, and from what I can tell from what I’ve read, most faculty are doing this MOOC thing as an overload because vanity? ego? they want to participate in a new and interesting experiment, or, in the case of Comer’s MOOC, research (see below).

California is a complicated place when it comes to MOOCs since we’re seeing them roll out there as experiments, which obviously has a lot of people nervous. But as I understand it, one of the more unique situations in California is you’ve got thousands and thousands of students out there who can’t even get into the community college system because the classes are full and the waiting lists are long. In other words, MOOCs aren’t the immediate threat that they would be if EMU started taking that credit. At least I don’t think so.

  • Along these lines regarding California and MOOCs:  “A Massively Bad Idea” by Rob Jenkins in CHE, which points out clearly and calmly the simple facts that MOOCs (and online classes, for that matter) are not a good idea for “remedial” classes and/or “underprepared” students.
  • “SXSWedu: A MOOC Love Fest,” which reports on a keynote panel that featured Andrew Ng, edX’s Anant Agarwal, and some of the other usual MOOC suspects. A lot of self-congratulations here, basically.
  • “The Professors Who Make the MOOCs” by Steve Kolowich at CHE. It’s the results of a survey of some of the faculty who have taught MOOCs, and as is typical of surveys like this, the results seem contradictory.  On the one hand, in response to the question “Do you believe MOOCs could eventually reduce the cost of attaining a college degree in general?” 45% said “yes, significantly” and 41% said “yes, marginally.” On the other hand, 72% of those surveyed did not think the course deserved “formal credit” at their institutions and 66% didn’t think their institutions would be granting credit for MOOCs either. So how does a course that doesn’t lead to credit help lower the costs of higher education?
  • But it would appear that a lot of the mainstream media is (slowly but surly) starting to raise some questions about MOOCs as being the solution to everything.  For example, there’s “Open web courses are massively overhyped” by Michael Skapinker from the UK’s Financial Times (with an annoying login process).  The basic three reasons he says MOOCs are overhyped:
    • “What students learn is less important than where they learnt (or didn’t learn) it.” That’s spot-on, IMO, which is why the pecking order in higher education is still alive and well.
    • “It is difficult to concentrate on a video lecture.” Maybe. It’s difficult to concentrate on a badly produced/delivered lecture, especially if that lecture is nothing more than a talking head.
    • “The number of people who attend lectures in person is growing.” And here he’s talking about speakers at festivals and such. I don’t exactly see the connection to MOOCs or regular teaching, but whatever.
  • I’m not sure how I came across this, but from Quartz comes “The dirty little secret of online learning: Students are bored and dropping out” by Todd Tauber. It more or less covers a lot of familiar territory but it’s worth taking a look at even if you’ve been down this MOOC road already because he has a boatload of good links in this piece.
  • Finally I stumbled across it via Stephen Downes: as far as I can tell, Laura Gibbs is already offering some pretty solid feedback and critiques of Duke’s English 1 course, here so far. There’s a Google+ community for the class that I just joined, too; though since I don’t do a whole lot with Google +, I don’t know how active I am likely to be in said community.

Okay, on to Duke’s English Composition 1:

I feel a little awkward blogging about “English Composition 1: Achieving Expertise,” at least compared to blogging about “Listening to World Music” or “E-Learning and Digital Cultures,” because this course is in my specialization and the people involved in it are in my field.  I don’t know Denise Comer personally, but I know I know people who do know her well, and academia– particularly within disciplines– is a small world.  So I hesitate in being too critical and I apologize up front if I’m too negative, and Denise, if you’re reading this, let’s introduce ourselves to each other at some conference or something and I’ll buy you a beer regardless of how you feel about my commentary.

I’ve been pretty swamped lately but I did have at least some time to tool around the site during this first week and I think I finished the first assignment (see below), but I am looking forward to spending more time with it in the next week or so.  A few general first impressions that are generally favorable:

  • This is the first Coursera course I’ve seen which features “signature track,” so I guess there is at least some intention on Coursera’s part on this being available for credit. Maybe? Though that represents a bit of a disconnect I think between Comer et al’s intentions for the course in that she has made pretty clear on the WPA-L mailing list that she’s not assuming this to be a “college credit” course.
  • Speaking of Comer’s intentions as conveyed on the WPA-L mailing list: she sees this course as a research opportunity for her, which just makes sense. You don’t usually get a couple thousand students worth of writing as data to study in one way or the other.
  • I’ve only had a chance to look at the discussion forums a bit on the class so far.  On the down-side, it’s still mostly white noise because there’s so many posts that are so non-responsive to each other.  On the up-side, Comer et al have done a somewhat better job of structuring the space for discussion.  It’s still too much and a little confusing for me, but there are some subforums to help guide where comments go based on what topic. I’ve noticed in these forums a lot of non-native English speakers enrolled in the course, and for the first time in my Coursera experiences, I’m noticing a number of young people, like 15 year-olds.
  • There are some great people associated with this class, including Ed White and Paul Kei Matsuda who are listed in the the “about” section as consultants.
  • I like that on the schedule the first assignment “I am a Writer” (and its discussion forum) is also linked to the Digital Archives of Literacy Narratives project, which again speaks to the research component of this particular MOOC.

The downside? Well, as far as I can tell, the content and interaction of the course up to this point is Comer’s talking head lectures are a textbook and that’s about it. Here’s a link to the video index for the course.  For the first week, there are over 50 minutes of Comer lecturing and another 45 minutes or so of others giving “Writing Across the Curriculum” kinds of talks.

Now, I think the content of these lectures is solid, albeit a very “middle of the road” and traditional approach to first year writing. Anyone with a passing familiarity with teaching “comp and rhet” will recognize everything that Comer is saying here. But I’ve got three closely related problems with this approach:

  • First, the “production values” are limited: basically, it’s Comer doing talking head lectures in her office, recorded on a webcam with some powerpoint slides and a little “Khan Academy-like” drawing on a whiteboard sort of look. That’s it. And if I want to get really picky: every presentation has a different slide layout, I guess in an effort to keep it interesting, but I found the inconsistency between presentations distracting.
  • Second– and I don’t know how to put this any more gently– these videos are boring. Because what you’ve got here is Comer talking about stuff that would be in a pretty traditional fycomp textbook, and as someone who has written a textbook (albeit a somewhat failed one), textbooks are pretty boring. I am a bit reminded of a few lecture hall classes I had as an undergraduate where all the professor did was read out of the textbook and add a few observations of his own along the way. Those are lectures I eventually started to skip because I knew how to read the textbook.  Which leads to my third point:
  • The only way these kinds of things are potentially interesting in a section of first year writing is if there is some kind of “give and take” discussion between the teacher and the students, ideally about a piece of reading that could include a textbook.  That is flat-out not possible in this format of tens of thousands of students, and it might also be the downside of the video format. To the extent that comp/rhet textbooks are useful (and that really is debatable), I think they are useful as something to talk about and as points of reference: that is, if students want to know more about how to “incorporate evidence” into an essay (or whatever), it’s a heck of a lot easier for a student to look that up in a words in a row text or book or textbook than it is in a video.

Case in point: the first assignment asked students to write a brief essay (300 words, which in my view isn’t an essay, but that’s not worth quibbling over) “in which you introduce yourself as a writer to your classmates and instructor. How would you describe yourself as a writer? What are some of your most memorable experiences with writing?” Nothing wrong with that assignment– though nothing particularly innovative about that assignment either. I wrote about my experience failing handwriting in the fourth grade (that’s my go-to story for such narratives), and I posted it to the discussion forum like we were supposed to. I received one comment from someone commenting on their bad handwriting too, and that was that.

So again, MOOCs exemplify the problem of scalability of teaching (versus content), and content does not equal teaching. If all it took was content for students to learn something and/or if teaching– actual small group interaction with a teacher and a group of students– wasn’t necessary for students to succeed or for learning to be assessed, then “Education” wouldn’t exist.  Instead, we would just have some kind of system that makes content available to students (online or in books, for free or for some kind of cost) so they can read that content and complete the exercises. Then students could finish the assignments and send them in (probably for some kind of fee) to have them evaluated for credit. Simple as that.

Except that doesn’t turn out to work.

So why is it that anyone thinks that delivering that content via a video with a few more prompts and the possibility of a discussion space would work any better?

Anyway, I will press on. I am behind on the reading assignment and also on the writing assignment for this coming week, and one thing that looks interesting with Comer’s class is the extent to which she is trying to foster the peer evaluation process.  I don’t know if it will be successful or not, but I have tremendous confidence it will be interesting, even if it is a failure.

11 thoughts on “Week 1 in Duke’s “English 1” MOOC”

  1. thanks for this Steve. I’m not taking this course, but I’m interested in hearing how it goes. It’s an interesting point you raise about the scalability of teaching. Is teacher-guided small-group interaction necessary for learning? Clearly not, as people learn in many contexts. But if we define learning as acquiring specific, measurable knowledge or skills, then we narrow the conditions. Though perhaps an xMOOC will be able to replicate the success of large lecture classes. That is, if you had 40,000 students in your World Music course, who were already college students and taking the course to get required gen ed credit, (i.e. if we replicated some of the conditions of the typical large lecture course), we might get outcomes similar to those large lecture courses. Probably not the first few times through, but eventually both the students and the teachers would get familiar with the medium.
    As I see with FYC, though, we have defined the outcomes of the course in terms of what one can do with small-group interaction and even more individualized student-teacher mentoring. The central premise is that the most important activity in FYC is receiving feedback on one’s writing, especially the expert feedback of the teacher. FYC classes are small because an instructor can only respond to so much writing. If an FYC MOOC was to work, it would need to abandon that value, and it would need to argue for valid outcomes and measures that didn’t rely upon instructor feedback. I guess when I think about my own experience learning to write, instructor feedback was not important. As far as that goes, I don’t even recall getting noteworthy feedback when writing my dissertation. I would be more convinced of the importance of having an audience and purpose for writing–two things notably absent in the typical FYC course–than I am of the importance of feedback. A well-designed MOOC might eventually offer those qualities.

  2. Thanks for writing this, Steve. I look forward to reading more about your experiences, in large part because I share your concerns about the “scalability” of the sort of work teachers and students do together in a writing course.

    Indeed, I’m intrigued by the comment from DigitalDigs, who says that he doesn’t feel he’s ever learned much from responses to his writing. My experience has been almost completely the reverse: Almost of the moments I’ve felt I’ve really learned something about writing have stemmed from an informed and careful reader taking time to respond to my work in progress. In fact, I’ve just published a brief piece on precisely this point. I’d be eager to hear your thoughts: http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2013/03/11/teaching-by-hand-in-a-digital-age/

  3. Since posting initial impressions, Forum and the peer assessment worked its usual magic on Laura. I’m not as enthusiastic as I was either and about to drift too. Your determination and reasons encourage me though.

    Forum is not working. Has it ever really? I too am a writing instructor (or was in a former life) and write a lot. Informal writing in forum – and a lot of it – should be great practice. But I have doubts about that in this model too.

    So-so writers with no teaching experience giving incompetent advice to emerging and L2 writers, no matter how well motivated, is not a formula for writing success. Is this beginning to sound like a potentially toxic writers group? Similar dynamics but ‘roided up to boot… This is even before getting to peer reviewing. This course does offer more explanation / training for peer grading than previous courses (not saying much) but probably still not enough to be grading yet, even with a formula (even in the absence of a sufficient sampling) that drops scores too far off the mean.

    Teaching / tutoring / coaching (whatever one’s school of pedagogy wants to call it) writing is not indefinitely scalable. Still, I keep thinking about how to make it less toxic for writers who don’t have the luxury of more personal and labor intensive options.

  4. Thanks as always for the MOOC reporting, Steve!!! I was really going to give this a good try but after frustrations with the first week (I felt esp. bad for all the hundreds – thousands? – of people who got no comments at all on that first writing item to be posted at the discussion board), I was feeling hesitant… and then the first formal writing assignment struck me as so tedious that I could not go on with it (thousands of people writing on the exactly same book chapter? my mind boggles at the repetitiveness of it), so I’m not going to do the class after all. But I hope to hear more about it from participants who stick with it – the need is huge, and the intentions are good, but I continue to question the basic software/pedagogy on which Coursera is relying. Meanwhile, just on a side note of serendipity, I was THRILLED to learn about an ed tech start-up that I think will be of interest to writing teachers – details here: https://plus.google.com/111474406259561102151/posts/aHnQQ5RQHqp – so it looks like that will be a great project with a potentially massive impact where I can make a contribution… even though if it is not a MOOC. If they can make their product work, they will have something of real value to the many English-language-learners (thousands of them in that course!) who are not so much interested in footnotes as in help with some English writing mechanics. :-)

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