Final Considerations

MOOCs remain an area of interest as evidenced by the variety of MOOCs available to interested participants and the range of approaches these interviewees took to developing, delivering, and discussing this form of instruction. This forum focuses on individual concepts to highlight one or two unique aspects of an individual panelist’s MOOC experiences or practices.

MOOCs, Hysteria, and Educational Ideals

Repurposing of Created Materials

Denise ComerInterviewer: It's interesting that you talk about having your materials out there and then letting the community figure out how they're going to be used because I saw that you had, for instance, contributed one of your lectures that was recorded [for the Duke MOOC] to Writing Commons. That space is an open-source space where people submit materials, but then how [those materials] are used by other teachers and other pedagogues is really up to them. … There’s the Writing Commons space where the materials that you created for the MOOC are having sort of another life. Do you see any other spaces where some of that work that you really put time and effort into creating will find another space beyond the MOOC?

Denise Comer: Yeah. I've had two or three direct inquiries to borrow portions of the videos. One was an international one, and I don't remember even what region of the world it was from. I'm sorry! [Laughs] They wanted to use the videos in their educational context. And one was from Texas, I know. Somebody involved with some kind of program in health care wanted to use some of the videos. And then internally at Duke our Writing Studio, I know, is making use of the resources and referring students to the videos. I've also used the videos. This summer I'm wrapping up right now an online course that's a tuition-bearing, for-credit online course and it has 18 students in it. It’s a course on composing the internship experience, and I borrowed some very small amounts of the video material for this course also.

Interactions within the MOOC

Jeffrey GrabillJeffrey Grabill: [We need] to take seriously that peer learning is powerful and can happen. One of the things we’ve learned in trying to get Eli* out into the world is that while teachers say they value and do peer learning and say they value this thing we call peer review, by and large writing teachers from what I can tell don't. They don't do it. They don't value it. And they don't do it particularly well. People keep telling me, "You can’t say that to people, Jeff. People get angry." But it’s true. One of the things that would be good in a traditional classroom is to create feedback-rich environments. When you can create a feedback-rich environment, the power of that classroom to impact student learning and student writing is exponential because the teacher's not the only person doing it. There are some complexities involved with that, but a commitment to it changes that classroom dramatically. It actually becomes something that we might think of as a learner-centered classroom and a student-centered classroom because student interactions and student activity become the focus of what we do in that classroom.

And the second thing is picking the right moments when teacher feedback and teacher interaction one-on-one with a student really has big oomph. What we're really talking about is thinking carefully about a classroom in which we have very thoughtful many-to-many interactions, very thoughtful few-to-few interactions, and very thoughtful one-to-one interactions, and relatively few but important one-to-many interactions.

When we think about those ratios, and we think about the kinds of interactions that are implied by those ratios, we are now working with an implicit if not an explicit learning theory. We're deploying tactics in the classroom which are consistent with that theory. This is a way of thinking that, I’m going to make people mad again, I wish were more commonplace in university writing instruction. I’ve seen a lot of programs and a lot of classrooms in the last three years, and I just don't see this happening very often. It's still Dead Poets Society out there for a lot of writing instructors.

*Jeff Grabill, Bill Hart-Davidson, and Mike McLeod are co-inventors of Eli Review, a software service that supports peer learning.

Student Development and Instructor Silence

Kay HalasekKay Halasek: For us, [peer review] really became a site of really significant advantage because what it allowed, and really in some ways, forced . . . invited . . . the participants to do was rely more on one another. From that, these communities developed, and we began to see them really serving in a kind of role as mentors to one another and facilitators to one another. For example, if someone were to ask a question about whether a piece she was working on had a sufficient amount of logical appeals to meet her purpose and her audience, that would be something I as an instructor might typically step in and answer.

What we found was that before we even had a chance to kind of step in and give a response, that person would have seven or eight responses, maybe even more, to that particular question. Those responses were robust and insightful and they did in a sense, in many ways, exactly what I would have done as a teacher. I learned this very early on because I'm very much a hands-on teacher, responding very, very quickly, now I realize perhaps too quickly, to students and inquiries.

What the MOOC allowed me to do was sort of step back and value my silence a little bit, which then opened up the space for the participants to speak to one another and to take on that role of mentor, you know, peer reviewer. And these were outside the sort of conventional peer reviews, but really step in and serve as sort of co-instructors of one another. That was really made possible I think largely by scale.

Student Agency, Peer Tutors, and Dealing with Flaming

Pat JamesPat James: We have a tutoring center [and] peer tutors at our college. We had a pretty active writing center with peer tutors who were trained CRLA (College Reading and Learning Association) tutors. We hired seven of those, so we actually had fourteen people in the course when it opened. We actually were all answering questions, and were all in the discussion forums, and what we learned from that was that you don't have to answer questions immediately, and you shouldn't. You need to step back if a question comes up, and if you want to jump in there and answer it, don't. If you wait about an hour to even three hours, someone will come in and address the question—another student will come in and address the question. They help each other, and the platform itself allows for voting up or down of the posts in the discussion forum. If a student is flaming in any way, the students can vote it up and down.

We had one student who really hated the first unit, who said, "I know how to be an online student. Why do I have to take this unit that you're making me take?" It was just horrible things he said. He just railed. One of the instructors said, "We should take that unit out," and I went, "Why?" "Well, look at this guy's really upset." I said, "There's one in every class. When you have 35 in a course, there's always one person who doesn't like something you're doing. In a MOOC where there's 48,000, you can imagine there's going to be more than one to complain about something you do.” And when you've been told by Denise Comer, at Duke, who started her class a couple of weeks before we started ours, and she said, "You have to have a thick skin." That was great advice. I said, "Remember what Denise said, you have to have a thick skin?" He said, "Alright, I'll wait.” We learned to be patient and watch what happened and let our students handle some of the questions themselves. And they did a great job. The teachers and the tutors took shifts on when they would be in there, but there were always at least two to three of us in the course.

The Value of Rhetoric in Non-academic Writing

Kay HalasekKay Halasek: I will typically introduce [students] in a first- or second-year writing course at the university [to] ethos, logos, pathos, kairos, exgience. These terms that really help us not only produce pieces of discourse or just pieces, multimodal pieces, whatever it is that we might be producing. But [I] also use those terms as a way of engaging students in understanding what they were reading and how rhetoric was being employed and deployed by the sources that they might be investigating in their own work. To say that was a revelation to me and that they really valued it may be sort of selling short the power of rhetoric and rhetorical training at the university, but I think one of the reasons, that [it] came as a surprise to me was because of the learners in the MOOC. Most of the writers were not college age. Many of them, most of them were much older than our traditionally aged college students at Ohio State. The majority of them already held college degrees, and many of them held advanced degrees. It kind of reaffirmed for me the value of rhetoric as a kind of point of departure for thinking about writing regardless of the sort of current status of the writer. As a professional, a practicing writer, or an aspiring college student, I have to say that was very gratifying too to find that, right? They [MOOC writers] did find this kind of fundamental element of our instruction for our regular sort of face- to-face or hybrid or online writing classes an integral element of their learning.

MOOCs and the History of Distance Education

Steven KrauseSteve Krause: I think that the popular media and the education media has seized upon MOOCs as if no one has ever come up with this idea before. And reality is that you have to look at MOOCs in the context of a long history of distance education. It depends on where you want to call the beginning of that, but in the late 19th century, early 20th century, there were people who were very serious about how [written] correspondence (i.e., mail) was going to really make the face-to-face university irrelevant because you could just do all this through the mail . . . .

Why all of a sudden people think MOOCs are going to be the replacement for the university as we know it is kind of hard to say. But all of these things also exist in the context of the way that we do higher education. Online teaching is not going to go away. Something like a third of all undergraduates in the United States take at least one class online. And I'm not talking about Phoenix University here. I'm talking about all undergraduates at all different university types. Like I said correspondence was still a viable model up until recently. There are reasons why people watch the Food Network and the DIY Channel because those are essentially edutainment kinds of things. Again, MOOCs in context is really what I am trying to get at here. It's the latest wave of this larger issue of how do we get education to people over a distance? This is not necessarily a happy note to end on, but how do we minimize the connection between students and teachers? (If we accept the idea that the ideal model for education is a small group of students led by a professor or instructor of some sort.) Then what you've really seen from correspondence to radio to television to MOOCs to online classes is a greater and greater distance between that instructor over here and the students over there. How much further that distance can go, I don't know.