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:

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In defense of machine grading

In defense of machine grading?!?! Well, no, not really. But I thought I’d start a post with a title like that. You know, provocative.

There has been a bit of a ruckus on WPA-L for a while now in support of a petition against machine grading and for humans at the web site humanreaders.org and I of course agree with the general premise of what is being presented on that site.  Machine grading software can’t recognize things like a sense of humor or irony, it tends to favor text length over conciseness, it is fairly easy to circumvent with gibberish kinds of writing, it doesn’t work in real world settings, it fuels high stakes testing, etc., etc., etc. I get all that.

We should keep pushing back against machine grading for all of these reasons and more. Automated testing furthers the interests of Edu-business selling this software and does not help students nor teachers, at least not yet.  I’m against it, I really am.


  • It seems to me that we’re not really talking about grading per se but about teaching,  and the problem is writing pedagogy probably doesn’t work when the assessment/ grading part of things is completely separated from the teaching part of things. This is one of the differences between assigning writing and teaching writing.
  • There’s a bit of a catch 22 going on here. Part of the problem was that writing teachers complained (rightly so, I might add) about big standardized tests of various sorts not having writing components. So writing was added to a lot of these tests. However, the only way to assess thousands of texts generated through this testing is with specifically trained readers (see my next point) or with computer programs. So we can skip the writing altogether with these tests or we can accept a far from perfect grading mechanism.
  • I’ve participated in various holistic/group grading sessions before (though it’s been a long time), which is how they used to do this sort of thing before the software solutions. The way I recall it working was dozens and dozens of us were trained to assign certain ratings for essays based on a very specific rubric.  We were, in effect, programmed, and there was no leeway to deviate from the guidelines.  So I guess what I’m getting at is in these large group assessment circumstances, what’s the difference if it’s a machine or a person?
  • This software doesn’t work that well yet, especially in uncontrolled circumstances: that is, grading software is about as accurate as humans with these standardized prompt responses written in specific testing situations, but it doesn’t work well at all as an off-the-shelf rating solution for just any chunk of writing that students write for classes or that writers write for some other reason.  But the key word in that last sentence is yetbecause this software has (and is) getting a lot better. So what happens when it gets as good as a human reader (or at least good enough?) Will we accept the role of this evaluation software much in the same way we now all accept spell checking in word processors? (And by the way, I am old enough to remember resistance among English teacher-types to that, too– not as strong as the resistance to machine grading, but still).
  • As a teacher, my least favorite part of teaching is grading. I do not think that I am alone in that sentiment. So while I would not want to outsource my grading to someone else or to a machine (because again, I teach writing, I don’t just assign writing), I would not be against a machine that helps make grading easier. So what if a computer program provided feedback on a chunk of student writing automatically, and then I as the teacher followed behind those machine comments, deleting ones I thought were wrong or unnecessary, expanding on others I thought were useful? What if a machine printed out a report that a student writer and I could discuss in a conference? And from a WPA point of view, what if this machine helped me provide professional development support to GAs and part-timers in their commenting on students’ work?

ATTW & CCCCs in Vegas

Before writing this post, I looked through what I wrote last year about the CCCCs in St. Louis and in a lot of ways, this CCCCs in Las Vegas was remarkably similar to that CCCCs: my semester/year is/has been complicated, I went to some okay panels, stayed at kind of a crappy hotel, etc., etc.  In somewhat chronological order:

  • Let’s get the hotel and Las Vegas issues out of the way: the Riviera is definitely the low-rent district of the strip, kind of a dump, though not really the worst hotel ever. I have empirical survey data on this. I asked at least a dozen people (maybe more) the following: “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best hotel you’ve ever stayed in and a 1 being the worst, how would you rate this hotel?” The answer was about a 4– maybe 3.5, though I had one outlier rate it a 7 (grad student).  The room was fine (albeit beat up and small), service was good, the wifi was robust, and the conference space was pretty good. But even at this price I doubt I’ll be staying here or at the Circus Circus the next time I come to town on purpose/for fun.

The conference hotel/city choice has been a dilema for the CCCCs for as long as I remember. It’s a big conference, but it’s not quite so big as to be able to leverage both a great location and a good rate on conference hotel rooms. So I can understand why people were kind of grumpy about the hotel because it wasn’t nearly as nice as almost anything else on the Las Vegas strip. On the other hand, I can’t remember the last time I’ve been able to afford my own room at the CCCCs conference hotel. 

So it’s kind of a lose-lose situation for the CCCCs. I am sure they could have had the conference in Las Vegas in a nicer and significantly more expensive hotel, and then people would have complained about it. Instead, they opted to hold the conference in an affordable hotel, and people complained about that.

As for Las Vegas: well, so much to say, really. I’ll probably report more on my own adventures with Annette and Will here later– or maybe just on Facebook. But generally speaking, it seems to me few people are neutral on Las Vegas; it’s either “Ooo, Vegas is a lot of fun! Great food and shows and gambling and people watching!”  or “Why on earth would anyone go there?” There’s not a whole lot in-between.  I enjoy Las Vegas quite a bit, but in modestly low doses– for about three days every five or so years. So sure, I understand “the haters” among the college professor/English teacher crowd. But if the CCCCs is going to be somewhere in the west every three or so years, then Las Vegas strikes me as a pretty good choice. Besides, I am pretty sure a lot of the haters just stayed away entirely this year, and judging from my Facebook and Twitter feeds, a lot of these writing teachers let their hair down and put their birkenstocks aside and went out on the town and had a lovely time.

  • My main conference this year was actually at the ATTW, which I attended in Louisville but I actually presented at it this time around.  I saw a panel on visualization that had some good moments and one on posthumanism that was really two different panels because two of the folks– Jim Henry and Byron Hawk– were more or less presenting on the same topic, while the third panelist, Liza Potts, was added on to round out a full panel.  Interesting combination, though I would have liked to have asked at some point “for our purposes, what would you define as posthuman?” not because I am unfamiliar with the term but because I am familiar enough with it to know it is a term that is complicated. Of course, part of my problem with the first two sessions is I was “multitasking” and taking advantage of the fine wifi at the conference center. A blessing and a curse since it allowed the likes of me to continue/catch up on some teaching.
  • My presentation/panel was a roundtable called “MOOCs in Professional Writing: Could We? Should We?” with Bill Hart-Davidson, Jeff Grabill, and Marcy Bauman– Asao Inoue couldn’t make it.  Bill talked about rethinking the way we embrace modes of delivery, Grabill talked about what might be the MOOC model tried by MSU, Bauman talked about a very local alternative she’d like to see happen at Lansing Community College, and I talked about how MOOCs as we currently know them are pretty lame.

This was my first slide, which drew applause before I could even speak:

I thought it was a good roundtable because we were all right in our own ways– that is, if Grabill et al attempt a MOOC, it will be better than what I’ve seen so far and/or be an “interesting failure” (I believe that’s how he put it) and I think I am right in that the hype around MOOCs right now simply does not square with the realities of what they currently are. Anyway, a good conversation.

  • On Wednesday night I went to part of the MA Consortium that John and Derek are leading. Then Thursday I gave/delivered/stood next to my poster for my poster session about iBooks Author.  Here’s a link to a web site about that. I actually showed up with a poster, printed on paper and everything, and I guess I didn’t get the memo because everyone else had some kind if experience/web site/whatever projected on a screen. I have mixed feelings about the whole poster thing. It could be a bit more “real” of an event, though I have to say I submitted it after my proposal for a presentation was turned down by the CCCCs this year (and I gave up second-guessing the CCCCs on who gets in and who doesn’t a few years ago, though this year was, IMO,  very heavily skewed to first year writing and simultaneously away from technology).  Having it actually in the program for the CCCCs and having the event in an accessible location would help with that a great deal. But as it was, I thought it went well in that I did get to talk about my attempts at an iBook with several people and I also continued some side discussions on MOOCs.
  • I attended a nice session done by some current and recently past graduate students called “Constructions of Composition Students as Exigencies for Change: Four Critical Perspectives on Going Public.” That was pretty interesting and they did well. And I did a bit of socializing and a bit of business through the course of the that until we left town.
  • But really, I spent most of Friday and Saturday being a tourist because that’s when Annette and Will showed up.

Overall a success, but I am once again reminded of the shifting value of big academic conferences in my career– that is, it’s not the CCCCs, it’s me. When I was a grad student and new faculty member, the CCCCs was important because there was a lot more to learn and because giving a presentation in and of itself constituted scholarship. But at this stage, I need another presentation on my CV like a hole in the head, and while I still learn things and enjoy engaging in the conversations, it’s just not the same as it was.

At this stage, I get a lot more out of smaller events like Computers and Writing or even smaller (and free!) events like the WIDE-EMU.

MOOC and Pony Show

(And that blog title was brought to you by Derek who named my just completed trip the “MOOC and Pony Show.”)

A while ago (maybe two months ago?), I was invited to give a talk about MOOCs at the American Federation of Teachers Higher Education Professional Issues Conference in San Diego. It just goes to show you what happens if you keep blogging about something long enough: pretty soon, people (might) like what you say and (might) think you know what you’re talking about. Sort of.

Anyway, a few highlights and not a lot of details for now because I am woefully behind on planning for ATTW and the CCCCs which will take me back to the Pacific time zone (this time in Las Vegas) in less than 60 hours:

  • Here’s a link to a Google sites version of my talk– the script and the slides. It’s long because it was what they called a “workshop presentation” though it was just me for a 90 minute session.  I also include a bunch of links to the things that I cite here too. Putting it together was a bit of a procrastination writing when I should have been doing other things, but it was also some work that might come in handy later if I keep doing this MOOC scholarship. Anyway, the format was I talked for about half of the time and then we discussed.
  • I have to say I was a little worried about how this was going to go over.  I’m far from a MOOC enthusiast, but given some of the responses from academic labor to MOOCs, I was afraid they were going to be mad I even brought up the topic. One of the things that I quote and cite as more or less a straw man is this piece from Inside Higher Ed “Unthinking Technophilia,” which was written by a group of community college faculty members in the San Diego community college district (and the article was reprinted on the California AFT web site, too). So I was prepared for some pitchforks and torches in the crowd.

But the folks who came to the workshop (I don’t know, somewhere between 50 and 100) were all curious and even enthusiastic about the possibilities of MOOCs. I was surprised, but then again when I asked “how many of you teach online?” and about half raised their hands, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, we heard the “technophilia” rhetoric about the emergence of online courses a little over a decade ago and it turns out the sky didn’t fall then either. And as one of the folks said to me when we were talking about all this after it was done, “Faculty aren’t scared of innovations in pedagogy. They’re interested in that. What they’re worried about is what administrators are going to do with this.” And I share that fear too.

  • I did go to one panel that I thought was pretty interesting about some different ideas for funding higher education in a way that would make it more affordable and robust and such. These folks have a web site that is probably worth checking out– Campaign for the Future of Higher Education. Of course, the main problem (as one of the speakers said) is a lack of political will in this country to take the issue on; I guess I would also add a lack of political priority too.
  • That was pretty much all I did at the conference itself. I didn’t actually know anyone there and while I am supportive of academic labor unions like the one I am in, I’m not really interested in it the way that these people were. I mean, these folks were all union organizers, AFT local presidents, etc.
  • I did do some touristy things in San Diego, though purposefully not the zoo. I like zoos and all, but I just didn’t think it made sense to go there by myself. Instead, I spent a fair amount of time walking around the Gaslamp Quarter (near the conference hotel) and then I rented a car the next day and drove around to various beaches and such. Lovely.

And now on to ATTW and the CCCCs.

E-Learning and Digital Cultures ends with a Meh #edcmooc

Back in January, before the E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC got started, there was a bit of talk on the WPA-L and Tech-Rhet mailing lists about a bunch of folks from those communities signing up for the course. I know several did. I wonder how many others there finished; anyone?

Anyway, I finished it.  In brief, I was disappointed and it will definitely figure into my part of the roundtable about MOOCs I’m on for the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing. The title of my contribution for that is “MOOCs: the M is for ‘meh.'”

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