The Tiresome Insistence of the MOOC

Say "MOOC"... I covet beta site access. I download and install the newest tools. I try out and review apps before they catch on. I enjoy crash testing systems (even if their developers wish I wouldn’t). But MOOCs haven’t tempted me.

Every week, as I browse the higher ed news and the TechRhet Facebook group, I find at least one new article on MOOCs, but I rarely read more than the first paragraph. When my colleagues merrily enrolled in Duke MOOC and the E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC, I not only refused to play along but also questioned the worth of the entire endeavor.

MOOCs looked like nothing more than jazzy distance education to me. All I saw was oversized distance ed courses that employed as many digital bells and whistles as possible. Now to be clear, I have no problem with distance education. I don’t even have an issue with online distance ed. I taught Virginia Tech’s first online distance business writing course back in 1994. I have no complaints about using the digital tools to teach writing. I’ve been using digital tools for teaching for decades. I don’t see anything particularly revolutionary in the basic capabilities of a MOOC.

In fact, when I see the world of higher ed so titillated over something we’ve been doing in the computers and writing classroom for years, I’m mainly ticked off. What about a MOOC makes teaching with discussion forums, videos, and online peer review suddenly seem amazing? Seriously, world, I’m asking. Why is this approach exciting and revolutionary? As a writing teacher, I just don’t get it.

No matter how hard I try, what I see in MOOCs is pedagogy that just doesn’t fit with what I know about the best ways to teach composition and rhetoric. There’s a reliance on “sage on stage”-style video presentations. The courses are ridiculously oversized, with thousands of times more students than is recommended. From what I have seen, the students have widely differing levels of ability and need, making it difficult to make sure they get the support they need. It’s hard enough to reach every student when you only have a class of 20 or 25 students. How can you possibly reach every student when there are anywhere from 25,000 to 250,000?

When I teach, I try to reach individual students. Naturally, there is general advice that I share—show, rather than tell; meet the needs of your audience; and so forth. When I talk about these concepts however, I try to fit them to the students with specific examples that they will understand. Education is rarely a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Different students require different examples and approaches. As a teacher who prizes communication and values connecting with her audience, I struggle to understand how MOOCs can teach as well as the much less massive and less open writing instruction that I am used to.

It’s not the OC part of the MOOC that worries me. I champion online courses. It’s the MO I am trying to figure out. I want to understand how to make writing instruction work in a massive, open classroom. There are parts of my heart that really want this kind of global educational outreach to work. I would love being able to help anyone, anywhere increase their literacy skills. But are MOOCs the way to do it?

I see a tiresome insistence on pedagogy that doesn’t match with what I know about teaching reading and writing. Yet, a lot of teachers I respect see potential—and that’s why I’ve signed up for The Ohio State University’s Writing II: Rhetorical Composing (#WEXMOOC). If Susan Delagrange, Cynthia Selfe, Kay Halasek, Ben McCorkle, and Scott Lloyd DeWitt are devoting their time to this strategy, there has to be something there.

The more I have looked at what they are doing and the more I read about MOOCs this past week, the more questions I have:

  • Is my error comparing MOOCs to the classrooms I know? Are MOOCs a new kind of classrooms where the rules have changed?
  • How is the college campus norm of course credit confusing my understanding?
  • In what ways have the relatively even level of literacy skills on a college campus spoiled me? Has my experience with evenly matched students blocked my ability to imagine how to teach dramatically uneven classroom populations?
  • Why is the completion rate for MOOCs so low? If they are a revolutionary way to reach this population of learners, why aren’t they working? Do we need to change our definitions of success and completion?
  • What more do students need to succeed? Can we figure out why students who flourish in MOOCs do so, and then use that knowledge to identify students who needs additional support or preparation and give it to them? How can we provide personal guides to help students navigate this massively open landscape?
  • How do issues of digital access come into play in the success or failure of a student?
  • In what ways does successful participation in a MOOC relate to environmental and cultural parameters that have nothing to do with teaching and the MOOC?
  • How do my own questions of labor, workload, and job security color my understanding of the MOOC? How much of my dissatisfaction with this strategy relates to my fear that it is an attempt to balance the budget by computerizing instruction and removing the teachers?
  • How can a MOOC accommodate a range of student needs without exhausting those who design and teach in it?
  • How can we focus on the benefits of collaboration on such a large scale? How can we help students make personal connections? What do we need to do to ensure that there we build a community of learners that benefits everyone?
  • Are there ways to give credit for the informal or at least non-traditional learning of a MOOC in the more formal systems of higher ed?
  • How can the MOOC fit into the future of higher ed? Do they fit? Do they change the conversation about education and public outreach?
  • What do we need to do to ensure that the best pedagogy drives the future of the MOOC and other online education, rather than the budgetary needs of the university or the business decisions of companies like Coursera and Udacity? Where are we willing to make compromises, and what is non-negotiable?

That’s a lot of questions. Over the next few weeks, maybe I can find some of the answers.

[Photo: Say "MOOC"… by audreywatters, on Flickr]

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