B.11 "Composition MOOCs and Pedagogy by the Thousands: Reflections on Five Open Education Initiatives
Reviewed by Andrew Kinney (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chair: Joe Moxley, University of South Florida, Tampa
Joe Moxley, University of South Florida, Tampa, "Writing Commons, the Open-Education Home for Writers"
Karen Head, Georgia Tech, Atlanta, "Composition MOOC: First-Year Composition 2.0"
Rebecca Burnett, Georgia Tech, Atlanta, "Composition MOOC: First-Year Composition 2.0"
Kay Halasek, The Ohio State University, Columbus, "Composition MOOC: Writing II: Rhetorical Composing"
Denise Comer, Duke University, Raleigh, NC, "Composition MOOC 1: English Composition 1: Achieving Expertise"
Rebecca Burnett opened this session by framing her co-panelists’ motivations for teaching and researching Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as one of adventure and exploration. No one on this panel, she stated, claims to love or hate MOOCs. Although many thought a composition MOOC was impossible, Burnett pointed out, the panelists sought to provoke that idea by attempting the "impossible." To reflect on panelists’ MOOC experiences, and to gauge their success to date, Burnett suggested focusing on five education initiatives: program, professional development, technology, labor, and pedagogy.
Burnett began her reflection by suggesting we need to negotiate tensions between disciplinary practices and MOOC practices. Here, and throughout the session, the Position Statement of Principles for Online Writing Instruction (OWI) provided an important metric for asking how composition MOOCs meet or fail to meet disciplinary standards. Most of Burnett’s MOOC practices met OWI Principles. However, two principles reflect some tension. Principle 1 ("Online writing instructions should be universally inclusive and accessible") reminded us that accessibility comes with a price tag. Burnett pointed out that MOOCs won’t necessarily cut the costs of higher education, as some administrators hope. Principle 9 ("Online Writing Courses should be capped responsibly at 20 students per course with 15 being a preferable number") obviously is a standard no MOOC meets. Interestingly, Burnett added, students in MOOCs believe we’re talking to them—individually.
Kay Halasek next spoke on Patricia James’ behalf. James has been working on developing a course overview and believes her data will show why some MOOCs attain higher completion rates than others. Halasek transitioned to a reflection on labor and pedagogy by reframing the common criticism that MOOCs are ineffective due to high attrition. Instead, she encouraged us to ask why MOOC students join in the first place.
A consideration of OWI Principles related to labor revealed another interesting tension. According to principle 8, online writing teachers should "receive fair and equitable compensation for their work." The Writing II: Rhetorical Composing MOOC created by the Ohio State University team, however, invested 3500 hours, produced 58 course videos, and involved countless work hours by staff and graduate students. The only compensation provided faculty beyond regular pay was a single course release. This model, Halasek noted, is unsustainable.
A consideration of pedagogy revealed something unexpected, too. Halasek proposed that the Ohio State University MOOC team in part developed an alternative to the preexisting Coursera environment for students to share their writing due to pedagogical concerns reflected in OWI Principles 2, 4, 6, and 11. For example, Principle 11 is: "online writing teachers and their institutions to develop personalized and interpersonal online communities to foster student success." Rhetorical Composing's alternative MOOC writing space, the Writer’s Exchange (WEx) allowed Halasek and her colleagues to emphasize interpersonal peer assessment and revision. The development of WEx suggests learning writing in a MOOC may be as effective as an online writing course.
Next, Karen Head described her team’s experience teaching First-Year Composition 2.0. Head managed Georgia Tech’s 19 team members in collaboratively designing its curriculum, technology, and pedagogy between October 2012 and July 2013. She summarized several constraints specific to her experience. Students, Head reported, seem to conflate the teacher on the screen with the platform itself, adding that "Coursera was a problem for us." It is also possible, she cautioned, that the Coursera platform controls the pedagogy. One version of this is what Head’s team called the "I Trout" problem, which referred to the inevitable limitations of algorithmic writing evaluation; or, like Les Perlman’s essay awarded a top score by machine grading, Head’s caution reminded us to critically investigate how writing assessment is determined by a platform’s step-by-step procedures. Furthermore, Coursera allows students who fail a writing assignment to later peer review passing students’ work. These parameters are fixed, which gives rise to Head’s feeling that the Coursera platform insufficiently values pedagogy.
Although Head recounted First-Year Composition 2.0’s promotion of interactivity and multicultural learning, she balanced these experiences against privacy and security concerns. Because teaching in a MOOC remains uncharted territory, uncertainty surrounds issues of how this kind of scholarly work impacts one’s ability to maintain privacy (i.e., how MOOC instruction might impede junior faculty’s progress toward tenure). She noted her strong preference to avoid becoming a public figure and troubled the yet-to-be considered implications for FERPA requirements within the very public MOOC context.
Denise Comer next framed her intentions, interests, and motivation to lead the team behind Duke University’s English Composition I: Achieving Expertise. She expressed hopefulness for cultivating conversations about writing among the thousands of MOOC students and interest in the research possibilities that working in a MOOC provided. Comer also described her team’s labor in building and running this MOOC: 20 faculty, staff, post-doctorates, and students ran this 12 week course, in which up to 64,000 students participated and 1289 received statements of accomplishment. 77% of the students reported using English as a second language, yet 59% reported English language fluency. English Composition I students completed four major writing projects, practiced revision and peer review, practiced peer assessment, worked collaboratively in Google hangouts and on discussion forums, and wrote reflectively.
Comer admitted to disappointment about English Composition I’s rate of completion, yet was also relieved because low completion rates might signal that writing instruction is not best accomplished in MOOCs. Regardless, we should feel excited for those who achieve completion considering the access and life challenges MOOC students face. Comer also wondered what the focus on completion rates says about our priorities.
Finally, Comer highlighted what her MOOC experience reveals about research and assessment. She recounts her team’s IRB approval, use of pre and post self-efficacy surveys, and reliance on peer review rubrics. Her team has also been working through the results of a Quality Matters Review. These and other assessments of English Composition I, Comer hoped, will tell us how many completing students achieve—and to what degree—the course’s learning objectives. There is evidence already, Comer noted, that peer assessment is slightly more generous than expert-provided assessment. However, MOOC students view assessment by experts as more reliable. Early attempts to code writers’ attitudes suggest English Composition I students value or are motivated by a sense of community, encouragement, and gratitude.
The final panelist, Joe Moxley, pointed to the description of education and access in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. OWI’s Principle 1 parallels these ideals, he reminded us: "Online writing instruction should be universally inclusive and accessible." These ideals are threatened, too, he added, wherever faculty lack access to academic publications. Moxley argued that just as Creative Commons lowers barriers to using academic research and writing, MOOCs provide educational access to many who otherwise lack it. Nonetheless, we should not ignore the cost barriers to educational access. By continuing to experiment with what’s new—whether by teaching or learning in a MOOC or contributing to an open source and free writing and research text like Writing Commons —we strengthen and expand availability and access to education.
Moxley’s role on the panel is significant, too, because it reflects the diverse interests currently at work on MOOCs. These interests include public and private entities like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, research universities, and platform providers like Coursera. Other members of this "invisible college" include the large support staff and graduate students who assist on these projects and content providers like Moxley’s Writing Commons or publishers like Bedford/St. Martins. The extent to which these interests succeed in providing MOOC students with access to free knowledge, determines the cultural significance of MOOCs.
Nonetheless, Moxley problematized this perspective by posing several questions: What happens when our audience extends beyond our individual students/institution? In response to criticisms of colonialism, how do we keep "open," open? How can we include non-US voices? How can our discipline best support the development of open educational resources within the context of graduate student work, hiring, and promotion and tenure practices? These questions point us toward a new moment in pedagogy.
Finally, Rebecca Burnett briefly concluded the session by noting OWI’s Principle 15: "administrators and teachers/tutors should be committed to ongoing research into their programs and courses." Consequently, researchers on writing and pedagogy should feel encouraged to become involved in exploring the affordances and constraints of MOOCs. We might better understand the broad implications for programs, access, professional development, technology, and pedagogy and learning.
The audience raised several exploratory questions of its own. Is there enough interaction with MOOC students to evidence "legitimate teaching"? That is, do students really learn? This deserves further research, panelists responded. Another questioner asked whether there is a disconnection between Western MOOC producers and non-Western MOOC takers. Several panelists spoke to the desire to study writing among people who aren’t 18 and on a college campus. Finally, one audience member wondered what the future holds for MOOCs. The panel believes universities can and should sustain their explorations.
Each panelist succeeded in laying out a unique set of concerns and experiences, all of which deserve our collective attention in the months and years ahead. Several of the panelists have begun to reflect on their experiences in print, too (see the recent release of Invasion of the MOOCs). As these scholars and others continue to work and publish on MOOCs, we all stand to benefit by their exploration of "composition by the thousands."