Sunday, November 4, 2012

Composition MOOC

Until I see someone – and it might be me – teach composition in a MOOC-style environment, I'm going to assume that it's impossible and/or doomed.

Before you write me off as opposed to large-format online instruction, let me first briefly explain the ways in which I think MOOCs can be terrific:
  • I can't imagine a better way to teach committed students about subjects easily rendered in visual form: circuitry, programming, suturing, pharmacology, and so on; and
  • I'm absolutely convinced that it's possible to teach deeply committed students about subjects NOT easily rendered in visual form: sociological principles, political philosophy, biological taxa, stages of human history, literary form, and so on.
But I'm not the least bit ready to accept, on no more than a purely theoretical basis, that unengaged students will ever be persuadable through MOOC-style learning to focus on a subject whose content is innately unattractive to them.

St. Patrick's Day Party Gone Awry
By user Eilonwy77, at
Bring on all the testimonials you want to: humanities graduates with great jobs; executives saying that while job training can happen at work, writing ability is golden; science professors bemoaning the writing skills of their own best students. None of that matters, because really it's not a student thing.

Every teacher of English has the same experience. Each time you're introduced to someone new, the odds are excellent that you'll hear some version of “oh no, I'll have to be careful about the way I talk!” Get into a conversation about the details of your work, and more often than not you'll probably hear someone confess – wistfully, faux-cockily, worriedly – something like “I was just never good at English.”

In sum, people are afraid of writing courses that aren't courses in creative writing. They're never, ever going to sign up for a composition MOOC, because enrolment in composition courses depends on coercion and institutional compulsion, and MOOCs have no hammer.

However, my university is considering – hopefully just as part of a strategic exercise – moving its composition courses toward something MOOCish. In other words, suddenly there'll be a hammer, so the focus moves away from recruitment and toward assessment. And that's a seriously thorny question.

Dr. Kristin Sainini is teaching a “Writing in the Sciences” MOOC this fall, with 30,000 initial registrants, so that's something to keep an eye on. MOOCs that have engaged with the question of writing have emphasized peer evaluation, in something of a throwback to Peter Elbow's 1970s classic Writing Without Teachers, but my university – like many others – prohibits instructors from using student evaluations in the calculation of final grades. If a course will ask 300 students to become better writers, those students will have to write texts that will need assessment; the instructor won't be able to do that volume of grading, so the only option would be graders or teaching assistants.

Got any research supporting the idea that writing instruction should be kept separate from feedback on student writing? Well, if you do, then you've got the first piece of evidence that might get me to think that a MOOC-style composition course could work. Wow, do you ever need to come up with more evidence, but it'd be a first step.