The end of the Duke Composition MOOC: again, what did we learn here?

I have a boatload of MOOC reading links I feel compelled to write about, but I want to write about about the just ended English Composition I: Achieving Expertise.  Just the other day, I received what I suspect will be the last email from the folks at the Duke Comp MOOC I’ve been in for the last 12 weeks.  Here’s what it said (in part):

Congratulations are in order for the 1289 students who earned a Statement of Accomplishment for English Composition I: Achieving Expertise. About half of those students had a score of 85% or higher. As such, I decided to award a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction to those students.

Let me pause there for a second: in the first of many updates/announcements from Denise Comer at the beginning of this MOOC, we were told there were over 60,000 “students” “enrolled;” in this last announcement, we learn that 1289 earned the “statement of accomplishment” (aka “completion”) for the course.  That’s just over 2%. Oh sure, the very definition of what counts as a student and what it means to enroll in a MOOC is fuzzy, but even by most MOOC standards, that’s poor.

But let me back up a bit:

The last project for the class was an “Op-Ed” writing where we were asked to build on what we did in the first three assignments to write a “500-700 word op-ed in which you address a current event relevant to your area of expertise, and articulate an opinion about it.”  I decided to write a response to an article that had been making the rounds in social media, “Do the Best Professors Get the Worst Ratings?” by Nate Kornell in Psychology Today.   I think Kornell has a good point regarding the limits of student evaluations and I tied my reading of Kornell with my overall evaluation of the Duke Composition MOOC. Here’s a paragraph from my essay:

As a student, I feel like I have enough expertise to weigh in at the end of a course about things that I think the teacher did well or wrong. For example, for this course, I think one of the positive experiences for me has been to see the work of my fellow students, many of whom are clearly participating in a course where English is not their first language and where they are enthusiastic for the opportunity to write and share their work with others.  On the negative-side of things, I feel like the course might as well be anonymous and just a series of writing assignments because I never felt a connection with the professor (who really never even talks about the assignments specifically, just writing generally) or with any of my peers in the class, and by the end and with this assignment, it all seems just like an empty exercise and chore.

I handed my work in right before the deadline but I didn’t participate in peer review (I forgot about it while I was at the Computers and Writing Conference), so I was penalized for this assignment. Still, I got a 4 out of 6– I would have received a 5 had I done the peer assessment.  Here’s the feedback I received:

What overall comments do you have for the writer as he or she continues to work on writing beyond this course?
peer 1 → Your point should be hammered home in the first, brief paragraph and in the conclusion. One of your later paragraphs which start with , “as a both a student” contains some great statements that could have been reworked in your into. Your sentence construction does not lend itself well to Op-Eds (neither do mine). I would recommend looking carefully at Dr. Comer’s video on prepositional phrases and using the active or passive voice. When editing, I needed to be ruthless and transform my sentences into Op-Ed forceful, quick and entertaining statements. For your conclusion, I would list more possible ideas to resolve this issue..e.g. two types of student assessments (e.g. strict policies versus student impressions of knowledge imparted). I really agree with you on your premises however you would want to write more forcefully and succinctly to convince the average student and/or functionary who rates evaluations.
peer 2 → “recently came across an article in Psychology Today” is a published recently. However, it is not current event. Score of 1: This project has misunderstood the nature of the assignment or the meaning of the current event
peer 3 → I like it. Yes, definitely. I appreciate the juxtaposition between technical and practical examples and your opinion. I really like your ending!
peer 4 → As a fellow teacher I totally agree with you. I like your work, very well written and structured.

What did you learn about your own writing based on reading and evaluating this writer’s project?
peer 1 → People are often right in their premises…I agree with them! They may fail to convince the general population if they don’t use an Op-Ed genre of writing.
peer 2 → I learn to play by the rule of the professor.
peer 3 → Your opinion about MOOC and your end.

The actual quality of my op-ed essay aside, I think these responses once again exemplify the problems with both peer review and the logistics of the course.  My peers did not have or adhere to any common vision of what the evaluation rubric meant– that is, what constituted a 6, or, in the case of grumpy peer 2, a 1. There isn’t even consensus here about what constitutes a “current event.” There is no way with Coursera’s system to have any exchange with my peer reviewers (because it’s all anonymous) and there is no way to evaluate the evaluation.  I really wish I could have asked peer 1 a lot of questions about what he meant by his review and to press peer 2 on the “current event” issue.

And there is clearly a problem of expectations about what constitutes both good writing and good peer review and also what is appropriate for this level of class. This isn’t a surprising problem since in a MOOC, the student body is far too diverse in terms of age, educational background, and English language experience, and there’s no sort of intervention from the instructor because there is no instructor.

My final grade for the course was 84.3%, which means I missed a “with distinction” certificate by less than one percent. Figures.

So in the end, what did I learn and accomplish? Well, for me it all goes back to the main question and fear that has been simmering around MOOCs for a year and a half now:

What are these things for? Are MOOCs  EDUCATIONAL experiences that can provide affordable and transferable college credit to students for a variety of general education classes, including first year writing? Or are MOOCs LEARNING experiences that are valuable in and of themselves for self-enrichment and perhaps to other stakeholders outside of traditional higher education? Are they potentially useful learning supplements for more traditional college courses as textbooks and learning communities? Are they useful as “alternative”/life experience credit of some sort?

If the point of the Duke Composition MOOC was to see if it could provide an educational experience that could compete with a traditional first year writing course taken in order to earn the credential of a college degree, then the answer is clearly no.

First off, the way this specific MOOC was organized was problematic. I’ve already blogged about this several times, but basically, I thought there was almost no connection between Comer’s video lectures/teaching, the online discussion, and the assignments themselves, and every week there seemed to be something added to the Coursera web site to further confuse things. By the end, I completed the assignments and turned in my work and looked at nothing else. At Computers and Writing, I was on a roundtable/discussion panel with Heather Noel Young and her talk was about MOOCs and usability– specifically the lack of it in the Duke Composition MOOC; here’s a link to her Prezi talk. Among other things, Young talked about how teaching online can go wrong when instructors simply “pour” what they would do in a normal face-to-face class into an online class content management system. In the nutshell, I think that was the problem here.

Second, there’s that drop-out rate. As I understood it, the Gates Foundation grant that funded this (and other first year writing) MOOCs was intended to find ways to help remedial students with MOOCs. As I wrote back here in response to a Webinar I participated in that included Comer and other folks who received these grants, it seems like the developers of these MOOCs (and this would include, for example, the ones going on at Ohio State and at Georgia Tech) moved away from that and targeted these MOOCs to more “self-motivated/self-starter” students, which to me does not mean remedial students and/or students who struggle for some reason to write.  Regardless of that, it seems to me that the 97% drop-out/never participated rate should raise some red flags.

And there’s the problem of evaluating student work (e.g. grading), a critical part of the educational/credentialing process.  A multiple choice test for a writing course wouldn’t work, machine grading of writing (as it currently exists, at least) doesn’t work, and peer evaluation as the only means of evaluation for a credit-bearing course doesn’t work.  So logistically, it seems to me that the way we teach first year writing right now is probably the most efficient/effective way to do it at large universities– that is, as a course taught similarly (similar course materials, assignments, outcomes, etc.) in dozens (maybe even hundreds) of small sections, staffed with less than fully empowered instructors (graduate assistants and part-timers) mainly because of costs but also because of control from a Writing Program Administrator. In effect, we’ve been teaching first year writing in a MOOC-like environment for decades.

Mind you, I’m not saying this system is ideal.  On good days, I think first year writing is an important and useful class for our students, particularly at schools like EMU where a lot of our first year students are not very well prepared for college. But not every day is a good day, and I am frequently sympathetic to the argument that we ought to eliminate first year writing as a requirement because of the horrific labor issues, its effect on increasing graduate enrollment beyond levels sustained by the market, and because it does not do all that it promises to do to teach writing. I think Alex Reid has a point here when he suggests that maybe a more local MOOC would be at least as good as the messy system of many sections taught by GAs that exists now.  On a bad day I think maybe he’s right, but on a good day, I don’t think he is.

All I’m saying is in terms of the educational/credentialing argument for MOOCs:  is this (or a similar) MOOC a viable alternative to traditional first year writing courses, particularly at a place like EMU? Clearly the answer is no.

But I don’t think that’s what Comer, her colleagues at Duke, or the other folks involved in first year writing MOOCs have in mind. I think Coursera wants something different– I think they do want to be able to sell transferrable credit– but I think Comer et al wanted to a) create a learning experience, and b) collect a tremendous amount of student writing to research later on. I can’t speak to the data collection/mining of course, but as a learning experience, I think this MOOC was modestly successful and the format has a lot of potential. I’ve documented a lot of problems here with many different aspects of the course, but all of the student writing I read was earnest, engaged, and enthusiastic.  Maybe it was just my luck of the draw, but I didn’t come across any student writing in this MOOC that was obviously plagiarized, slapped together just to complete the assignment, etc. The students’ work I read and the reviews I received from my peers may have been misguided at times, but it was all highly motivated. This was a learning opportunity for sure.

Of course, you can’t make a lot of money with just learning, which might drive the likes of Coursera out of business. That would certainly satisfy a lot of MOOC proponents.

But besides being useful as a textbook and program community space, I think a MOOC like this is potentially useful for folks to put together a portfolio of work that might be submitted to places like EMU to exempt our first year writing course. Those 1289 students who actually made it to the end of the Duke MOOC perhaps have demonstrated through both the texts they created and the sheer perseverance it takes to stay self-motivated and involved in a MOOC to the end that maybe they don’t need to take the required first year composition course. I’m not suggesting selling credit so much as selling exemption, which would allow those students to get on to the more advanced classes they’re obviously ready to complete.

Anyway, this is probably the last MOOC I’m going to be taking, at least for a while. Besides the fact that today is the first day of summer, I’m also going to be soon swinging into editing mode for a collection of essays Charlie Lowe and I are putting together for a book we hope will be out in the fall. Stay tuned….

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