Writing MOOCs -- what are they good for?
If you follow higher education even a little, you know about MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses. These courses – a look at early MOOCs is here – have been promoted for all sorts of reasons. I’m not against MOOCs, but, like others who are wondering if this trend will run its course, I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves.
First off, these courses represent, by and large, technologically-facilitated ways to deliver lots of content to lots of people. And why not? Schools have been looking for ways to streamline content delivery for a long time, including the well-entrenched giant lecture hall experience. Shifts to distribution-of-knowledge have always been viewed with skepticism. I mean, the book, writing itself, was once seen as a threat to traditional oral knowledge distribution systems, yet we now live in a time when sitting alone reading a book is a mark of erudition. Things change.
But a MOOC to learn statistics or history or poetry or game theory is one thing. Bring on that slick, video content! Learning the skill of writing in such an environment is different. Several institutions are offering writing MOOCs for thousands of students. Some are being run by quality, experienced writing faculty. I had personal experience with one of these courses, and while I remain underwhelmed by these efforts, I believe MOOC-like thinking might yet drive some ideas for writing instruction:
1) Improving the online writing group. If I'm working on a high-stakes writing project and you are working on a high-stakes writing project, we could get together, even by email, and work together quite productively to help one another, yes? MOOCs might help us develop new tech platforms and logistics for facilitating such interactions. Maybe, even better, we will break through with new approaches, pedagogies, and philosophies about peer review.
2) Parallel/"piggyback" writing experiences. I'm putting "experiences" in Italics for a reason -- I'm not thinking of courses. MOOCs are helping us think deeply about how students are educated. Many disciplines lament their students' writing, yet how to fix it within a curriculum? Adding courses is not an option in many cases. Students at Drexel, for instance, are already faced with a tight curriculum. But what if you created an online writing experience -- again, not a course -- that students could encounter in parallel with their other courses? Students could "unlock" progressive components while working on documents and writing skills integral to their success in their particular program. This wouldn't be Massive. It wouldn't be Open. But it could provide students with a structured way to help students write. I have been working with Drexel's School of Ed on exploring something like this for graduate education programs.
3) Rethinking gateways and competencies. Drexel's College of Nursing and Health Professions has been using what some have been calling, somewhat unfortunately, "mini-MOOCs." (Forget the mini-massive contradiction; the idea is good.) Students can enroll in a small cohort for a kind of free gateway course. I'm oversimplifying, but if students succeed in the course and then enroll in the program, they can then be awarded credit for the experience. Lots of students want equivalency credits for writing, and I think this is a potential way to address this problem, which I found nettlesome during my time as Drexel's Director of First-Year Writing. If students can enroll in an open course, they can demonstrate proficiency in ways that could later be counted/certified.
4) Providing highly focused writing instructional experiences. I don't think much of a composition course let alone an entire writing curriculum as a MOOC, but what about running an ongoing four-week course in creating job documents (e.g., cover letter, resume, thank you letter -- very focused)? This course could use the power of peer review productively (and perhaps its development could even be backed/supported by an online resume company). You could design similar courses for highly focused writing contexts.
5) Assessment of student learning. We still have a lot to learn about how teaching is connected with student improvement in writing. Some folks in composition are looking at this very question, based on the early writing MOOCs. The MOOC delivery model may open new avenues of inquiry for us.
Many ideas and technologies are fueling "massification." We, writing teachers, should be working to develop ways of using these concepts and tools, because, if we don't, without a doubt, ideas not of our own will be imposed upon us.