Week 5 of English Composition 1

Before news about Composition I, some MOOC reading round-up:

  • As Nick Carbone pointed out on the WPA-L mailing list, it seems like journalists taking and reporting on MOOCs has become all the rage as of late. Just goes to show you that contemporary journalism gets everything interesting from blogs like this one. From the Larry Gordon of the LA Times comes “Hitting the MOOCs instead of the books” about his experience in a “Principles of Public Health” course from UC Irvine, and in the New York Times A.J. Jacobs’ “Two Cheers for Web U.!”  I think I like the NYTimes piece a bit better because of its humor and snark (favorite line: “The professor is, in most cases, out of students’ reach, only slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon.”), but both pieces are ultimately pretty fluffy written by good writers who haven’t thought a whole about education since they were in college.
  • “MOOC Mania: Debunking the hype around massive open online courses” by Audrey Watters on The Digital Shift blog is a solid essay about MOOC stuff, though I have to say it sounds like something I’ve read already.
  • “They mean to win Wimbledon!” is a post by Jonathan Rees that circles around an obscure Monty Python sketch to make the point about MOOCs being this invasive species trying to take over higher education. Interesting enough reading, but….
  • …. the main reason I’m linking to it is because it discusses this essay from Inside HigherEd, “EdX Rejected.” In what is clearly at odds with the race into the MOOC business by so-called elite institutions, Amherst College said thanks but no thanks to edX’s invitation to join their consortium.  It’s a good read that speaks highly of both Amherst’s administration and faculty.  My favorite responses quoted in the piece are from Adam Sitze, who is a law professor.  There’s this:

Sitze, though, compared edX and MOOCs to a litany of failed dotcoms, including other education ventures with similar ambitions. He said MOOCs may very well be today’s MySpace – a decent-looking idea doomed to fail.

“What makes us think, educationally, that MOOCs are the form of online learning that we should be experimenting with? On what basis? On what grounds?,” Sitze said. “2012 was the year of the MOOCs. 2013 will be the year of buyer’s regret.”

and this:

Faculty also worried about edX and its broader effect on higher education, particularly edX’s plans to grade some student writing using only computer programs.

“They came in and they said, ‘Here’s a machine grader that can grade just as perceptively as you, but by the way, even though it can replace your labor, it’s not going to take your job,’ ” Sitze said. “I found that funny and I think other people may have realized at that point that there was not a good fit.”

Amherst is an unusual institution even among elite institutions, teaching all of its courses in seminars and never with multiple-choice exams. Still, I think it’s an interesting development.

Anyway, on to English Composition 1:

Last week was one of those times that are common in “normal” first year writing courses, weeks where we didn’t really talk about much of anything but we instead worked on stuff. There wasn’t even much from Professor Comer, just a video lecture on “Effective Claims” and another on “Paragraph Unity.” (I didn’t watch either one.)  Like I said, this happens a lot in a face to face version of the class, but in this distant and anonymous version, it seemed like time lost in a lot of ways to me.

But there was work done, a final evaluation and peer review of the first project and a draft of the second project.  The peer review for the first project was pretty straight-forward: we were all asked to assign a grade on a scale of 6 to 1; here’s how that range is described in the assignment:

Using the grading criteria above, you will be scoring your classmates’ project on a 6-point scale in order to help them improve as writers for subsequent writing occasions. Think of the 6-point scale as two halves:

  • a top half of 4,5, or 6 representing different levels of successful projects and
  • a lower half of 1,2, or 3 representing different levels of unsuccessful projects.

You can think of a paper scoring of 5 as the center of success and one scoring 2 as the center score of a lack of a success, with the other scores as a minus or plus. Thus a score of 4 is successful, but marginally so, a kind of 5-. A score of 6 is exceptionally successful, a kind of 5+.

Your score will be combined with three other peer scores to obtain a grade for the writer’s project.

Score of 6: This project will meet all criteria and goals for Project 1 and be very clear and well written.  It need not be perfect but it will be well reasoned, show a deep understanding of the Coyle article and a compelling discussion of the uses and limits of Coyle’s argument. Evidence is integrated effectively, and the title is strong. Citations are mostly correct.

Score of 5: This project not only summarizes and understands Coyle’s article, but offers an organized argument about the uses and/or limits of his argument. It is clear and well written. Evidence is integrated effectively, and the title is strong. Citations are mostly correct.

Score of 4: This project summarizes Coyle’s article in an organized way, but it does not address the uses and limits of his argument. It has few unconventional features written English, such as vocabulary, sentence construction, etc., but these do not for the most part interfere with the communication of the writer’s ideas. It is for the most part clearly written. Evidence is integrated effectively some of the time. Citations are present and mostly correct. The title is somewhat effective.

Score of 3:  This project show only a superficial understanding of Coyle’s article and limited summary of it.  It may have some unconventional features of written English, such as vocabulary, sentence construction, etc., that interfere with the communication of the writer’s ideas. It offers little by way of argument. Evidence is only occasionally integrated effectively, and/or not much evidence is used. Citations are often incorrect. The title is largely ineffective.

Score of 2:  This project pays little attention to Coyle’s article or shows little understanding of it.  It may also contain some unconventional features such as vocabulary, sentence construction, or other features that interfere with the communication of the writer’s ideas. It offers little by way of argument. Evidence is for the most part not integrated effectively, and/or very little evidence is used. Citations are mostly incorrect or absent. The title is ineffective.

Score of 1:  This project has misunderstood the nature of the assignment or the meaning of Coyle’s article and presents many unconventional features of written English, such as vocabulary, sentence construction, or other features that interfere with the communication of the writer’s ideas. Evidence is not integrated effectively, and/or no evidence is used. Citations are incorrect or absent. The title is absent or ineffective.

Within the obvious constraints of the MOOC, I didn’t think this was too bad. This assessment process was certainly more thought-out than the one in “Listening to World Music.”

And the four essays I read were all earnest and fairly well-written, all things considered.  The firstI reviewed was more of a summary than an analysis that used evidence, but I still gave it a 5.  The second was probably a writer whose native language was not English, and one of the things that I thought was interesting was this writer seemed a little puzzled at some of the more idiosyncratic cultural references made in the Coyle reading– that’s completely understandable on the writer’s part of course, but it does present a complex teaching problem.  Peer number three seemed to be one of those students I’ve had who feels the need to take on a particular and idiosyncratic voice in his or her writing to impress– baffling with bullshit, so to speak. But still pretty decent.  The fourth writer, who identifies her/himself as a teacher for many years, I think gets the point of Coyle, that expertise and “genius” are not something that just happens but are carefully arrived at through a lot of concentrated and hard work.

While I obviously have my doubts and reservations about the extent to which any MOOC (including this one) can “teach” writing in a way that is even remotely parallel to what happens in a more traditional first year writing class, I was impressed with the work of my peers. Which makes me think of another potential purpose for a MOOC:  placement either into a more advanced version of first year writing or maybe an exemption from the course.  At EMU, we recommend students take 120 or 121 based on a “guided self-placement” instrument that is supposed to help students figure out if they should take the not required 120 before they jump into the required 121. And we also exempt students from the first year writing requirement entirely based on test scores and AP credit.  None of these options are particularly effective.

So what if MOOCs came along as an alternative to this? What if a student could put together a portfolio from one of these MOOCs and use that body of work to place into a particular level of first year writing or out of the requirement entirely? I don’t see how Coursera makes a ton of money from that, but it at least is a use for Coursera.

Of course, the catch is in the teacherless process and the sheer volume of students:  as I mentioned last week, I did not have time to revise my original essay at all, even though my peers did have some good ideas for making changes to my first draft. So I simply resubmitted my original draft; my unchanged/unrevised draft earned me a 5.

Now, I am certain this happens in traditional sections of first year writing as well:  that is, I am sure I have had students often enough go through the peer review process and then not change anything before handing it in. At the same time, when I teach first year writing, I usually ask to see the first and the second draft, just to see if there have been changes, and I usually ask the writer to write some kind of reflection on the process. And with a group of 25 students, I can usually figure out who isn’t trying.

By the way, I’d share the assessment comments on my essay here as I have done in the past, but this week, I noticed a new warning/note:

Privacy notice (for this submission only): The student author has given you permission to view this particular submission only for the purpose of peer evaluation. You must not copy, share, or quote any part of it in the forums or anywhere else.

Hmm. I am going to guess that this is something having to do with an IRB request/requirement based on research that I think Comer and her colleagues are doing on this peer review process, but I’m not sure. It seems a little odd to me. I mean, these are people (albeit completely anonymous strangers) who are giving me feedback on my writing; shouldn’t I be able to share it with whoever I want?

The other thing going on this week was due this morning was the second writing assignment, which, as I discussed last week, has me a little confused. I decided that the area of “expertise” I felt comfortable talking about was teaching writing, but that’s not necessarily the most visually interesting thing, and I wanted to convey the idea that writing as a social activity where we learn to get good at it by interacting with others.  So I picked this picture:

I don’t think it’s a great picture, but it sorta/kind of gets across what I wanted to get across.  We’ll see what my peers think. I’ll need to comment on their work first, though before that, I’d better get back to my actual students’ work.

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