Roles of Teachers and Learners in a Writing MOOC

Doug Hesse, in "Learning to Write with 67,259 Others" (2013), observed, "Traditionally, of course, giving feedback has been the role of writing teachers; in fact, I'd call it the main role, with well over half the hours that one spends teaching writing devoted to giving feedback" (para. 6). He explained that the challenge for him in thinking about MOOCs was that "if practice and feedback truly matter" (para. 7), what happens in a course with tens of thousands of students where the professor is not central, necessarily, to that feedback? Hesse noted, "In traditional classes, even traditional classes taught online, peer response is but one aspect of feedback; the teacher has a vital, even central role, but in the Duke MOOC (and many like it), feedback and evaluation are entirely ceded to peers" (para. 11). Hesse admitted that even he would be challenged in a role where he was "serv[ing] considerably more as clockmaker god than as traditional reader, coach, critic, collaborator, and advisor" (para. 12). In the conversation below, our interviewees consider the many roles they have played participating in, facilitating, and delivering MOOCs.

What roles do instructors and peers enact in a writing MOOC? How does the use of this environment change the way instructors and students interact with course content?

Denise ComerDenise Comer: I wouldn't say that feedback was entirely placed in the hands of the learners…. Ed White, who was our consultant on assessment... we designed really tight rubrics for the drafting phase and the feedback, the revision final evaluation phase. We had a lot of self-reflection and we tried to tightly organize those in terms of at least encouraging learners to provide feedback through a set of questions that we thought were important for helping develop writing projects. Then we modeled peer feedback, or we modeled feedback practices through Google Hangouts that were recorded and then posted on YouTube and they could watch a facilitated version of peer feedback. And then we also posted examples of writing with me doing the feedback so they could see a model of what kind of responses might be for the feedback. And yet, still it was uneven. Some learners did that and some didn't.

The responsibility goes to the writer, to the learner, to be self-reflective in being able to figure out where and how they want to grow, and then also to the peers that provide the feedback, and then to themselves as they give feedback to other people. We really stressed in the course that it wasn’t just a matter of… I want to be careful with the words I use… that if you don't get the kind of substantive feedback that you think is productive for your writing, that's a problem for sure. But, still, those writers and learners have read four other people's drafts and given feedback to other people. And the very act of reading another person's writing and providing feedback is also feeding back into your process of growth in writing. And so we tried to make that clear so it enables them to have autonomous learning. But the disadvantage is that the feedback process is not as closely constructed as it is in other settings.

Pat JamesPat James: I think you have to go at it with that idea, that it isn't traditional education; it's providing information and some interaction and educational experience for people, but it's not what we would usually consider working with students... We did get to know students; some students, not all students, but we did get to know some who were really involved in the discussions, and I think you need to make sure that that interaction is built in, that you expect students to be interactive. Sometimes students even get into traditional online courses and they don't realize that they're supposed to be talking to each other, that you're going to require them to talk to each other.

There was peer review of the writing, because you cannot review the writing yourself. There's just no way you can do that. So the teachers give really detailed rubrics that you have to follow, and the Coursera system has a really nice peer review component where students have to go through it in order—they have to address the rubric in order to get through the exercise. We were able to do a detailed rubric, students submit their writing, they're put in a group—the platform puts them into groups—they submit their writing, they review each other in groups of five. The high and the low are dropped out, and their grade or their score is based on the average of the other three. In talking to students, they said that reviewing each other’s work was a bigger learning experience than doing their own work. Because of the rubric.

Bill Hart-DavidsonBill Hart-Davidson: Eli* is certainly created with at least a piece of this problem in mind. And that is […] if we think about the underlying theory of how we learn from peers, from Vygotsky the notion of peer scaffolding, it really hinges upon one very important thing. I mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again in the theory language and that is peer scaffolding requires that you first be able to identify with a more capable peer. So you have to look around and see someone who is a co-learner, someone who is trying to learn something that you are and who is slightly more proficient than you are at that moment. They don’t have to be better than you forever.

So, I have this picture in the book that I like to show of a dance recital, and there are two little girls and in one case there are four little girls, and they are doing the same dance moves except one of them is not. One of them is sneaking a look over at her fellow performer/learner because she’s not on the right foot. […] For that moment, that’s peer scaffolding. […]

So, what Vygotsky is trying to tell us in this concept of peer scaffolding and the broader phenomenon that he calls the zone of proximal development is that when those learners are working together on the stage they are all capable of more than they would be working alone soloing on that stage because the mere environment of having co-learners in close proximity identifying each other means there that there are learning resources provided in those interactions.

I like to emphasize in that dance recital how in just a few measures determine the role of the more capable peer. It's not like we have strict hierarchies, where we have this person is always going to be ahead of this person. It’s an ongoing scene of action, where I'm more proficient a little bit at this moment, and maybe I need a little help in this moment. That's why you have to be constantly monitoring and status checking to make that peer scaffolding work.

The people who are most expert at this are early childhood teachers. They set their learning environments up this way; they are activity centers. And they set them up with clear lines of sight on purpose so the kids can use each other as the primary resource for solving problems and resolving little ambiguities. They don't want 30 kids asking the teacher what to do next, they want to see this person learn from that person learn from that person. For some reason we don't do that once learners become more adult. I don't know what makes us think that mode of learning is invalid.

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

Pat JamesPat James: Our design is a unit structure, where all of the things that you do for that particular area are in one location. And we had a little trouble because you couldn't take the video lecture link out of the menu within the platform, and we really didn't want it there like that, because we really want students just to go listen to the videos. Which is a little short-sighted; these are people who we don't know why they're taking the course. If all they want to do is the video, let 'em do it. [Laughter] But that's not how we were feeling; we were thinking of our students and so we were thinking "We want them to go through this series of things." And I think it was appropriate for us to build the course that way because our end goal was to have students bypass the developmental course sequence. That was our goal—in writing.

We wanted them to view the lecture—first of all, read what our outcomes were for the unit. We had five units, the first one was about being a successful online learner. We figured that we'd have students come in who hadn't taken an online class before, and as it turns out that was 30% of our students, and another almost 30% of them had only taken one or two online courses and not successfully, so it was a lot of students who needed that little bit of introduction to what it's like to be a successful online learner. And we really focused it on successful online learning in traditional online courses. "Traditional online courses"—that sounds so funny. We wanted them to be able to go on and be able to go on and take other online classes, too, not just MOOCs.

So that's what that first unit is about. It's real short, but it tells them what kind of things they need to know and has them do an exercise in time management and some other stuff. And then the second unit really gets into the writing. The second unit starts with what you're going to learn and what you're going to do, so the students really clearly see the outcomes and objectives of the course and then how the activities that we have them do meet those outcomes. When the student sees that, it's more about "Okay, I get why I'm supposed to do this, because I want to learn this thing that they say I'm going to learn. And in order to learn that, I have to do this." They're starting to make those connections and I think they're more invested. We got compliments from students about that, that it wasn't just "go in there and figure it out on your own," it was very clear how we wanted them to move through the course. And the students who did, did well.

So you see a lecture, you go through what you're gonna learn, what you're gonna do, you see the lecture, then you read. There was a teacher-created reader for that class. And this is foundations of writing, so it's parts of speech and language usage. Like watching paint dry. But they did it in a really good way. You do the lecture, you do the reading, you have exercises to do. [...] So they did that and then they also had a discussion assignment that was optional, they didn't have to do that, but there was always a discussion question that they could be involved with. They usually took a quiz of some kind. Those are the main components of the course.