February 5, 2013

MOOCs Come to Writing

Filed under: MOOC,writing — jrice @ 10:25 am

MOOCs come to writing. In the short time we have been discussing MOOCs, and among the 55 articles I have saved in my Diigo (hardly as many as have been published on the topic), I notice that writing is now interested in MOOCs as well. Ohio State announced its writing MOOC recently. WRAC at Michigan State has announced a forthcoming writing MOOC. Despite the collapse of one class recently, Georgia Tech will have a writing MOOC.

“We’re very conscious our MOOC will not duplicate the face to face experience of a writing class,” Rebecca Burnett states in the WRAC webinar about Georgia Tech’s writing MOOC. “The goal of our MOOC,” she says, “is to develop expert  like attitudes and behaviors in the communication processes.”  Self motivation is one topic students will look at. Creativity and Intellectual Risk are two others. Apparently, Duke, too, will roll out its version of this online experience.  Though, a great deal of its writing director’s thoughts seem to be on how the MOOC is restricting teaching and the wearing of ties when recording video lectures.

These are not typical academic responses to MOOCs. At least not among the Facebook friends I have in rhetoric and composition and other Humanities based disciplines. Among my friends, MOOCs are dangerous to our future.  MOOCs, we  are told, will destroy tenure, Gen Ed, and everything we cherish. We can identify this other, positive position as either yielding to the hype (the cynic position) or taking advantage of a moment of opportunity (the invention position).

Most of our responses to MOOCs, these days, are speculation (disaster or riches) or anecdotal (what I learned in school). I like anecdotes. The first chapter of my next book will be about the anecdote as a craft beginning. I want to tell a first year, working online anecdote from when I was a graduate student teaching first year writing courses. Around 1999, I asked the IT crew at the University of Florida’s Networked Writing Environment (NWE) to install php and MySQL on the server so that we could install and run  advanced CMS platforms. The NWE was an exciting place to teach and an early adopter of open source technologies for the teaching of writing. But the crew would not install these languages. I was running Greymatter off of my NWE space, but I knew more powerful CMS platforms for blogging existed, and that they needed PHP and MySQL. “It’s a security  issue,” we were told. Yet, every main webhost provided both. They handled security without a problem. A disconnect existed between how webhosting worked outside the university, and how – even in an advanced, enlightened state, it worked within.

This is not a critique of the NWE IT staff. No doubt, they were concerned about security. But also, no doubt, they were not connected to webhosting outside of the university.  One of McLuhan’s main points was that there always exists a disconnect between pedagogy and technology.  Technology teaches one thing (let’s say, pattern formation, interconnectivity, the fragment), pedagogy in the university teaches another (thesis statements, linear ordering, cohesion, etc). With MOOCs, this point is not hard to imagine. The problem, as my Facebook friends come back to time after time,  is not the disconnect from face to face teaching or the corporatization of online spaces; the problem is the continuing disconnect with how online work functions. No platform with a “2″ in its name or an “e” as prefix, or a play on the word “learning,” has solved this issue. Message boards. Uploaded video. These are, indeed, features of many online spaces. I use two message boards regularly (though they are variations on message boards with additional social media functions: Ratebeer and Beeradvocate. But these are specialized spaces catering to specific interests (craft beer). In the big scheme of online work, how many people congregate to a message board to participate in a given specialized discussion? In academia, few. Blogora, as much as I like it, does not attract such participation via its commenting. That is also not a critique but rather a recognition of a limited specialized audience (rhetoric people are not congregating en mass on a site to comment on ideas).

That Georgia Tech will teach Self Motivation is a red alert. Citizenship. Everything’s an Argument. Community problems. These are not the spaces of exigence for writing. Or: these are not the spaces for all of us or all of the students we work with.  In fact, no content driven writing course can capture the exigence for writing – even if I try every semester to do so by offering food, music, media or something else as content that I think will motivate interest in writing. It is impossible to guess what a given group of 25-20,000 people will want to write about or feel the need to writing about. It is possible to teach method.

The webinar showcases folks thinking about method. And because many of these folks have already been innovative and led the way in writing pedagogy, I’m interested in where they go with this new project. With that interest, I have another anecdote: this morning, I’m in my office at UK listening to a webinar recorded last month at MSU. The Grateful Dead’s “Truckin” is playing off of a live stream from WUKY on one computer. The webinar is playing on another computer. I add a tweet to my first year class’s hashtag (they are supposed to tweet twice a week – a requirement I gave, but I’m still not sure about since, I, too, have little to say on Twitter about the course content, music). I blog about MOOCs and writing while listening. Some Facebook updates are showing in a tab on my browser. In the webinar, Steve Krause offers a rebuttal to the participants in the webinar. Later today, I need to stop at Bluegrass Baking and pick up some bread.  Some books next to my computer while I type: Into the Universe of Technical Images, Switching Codes, Lagunitas The Story. All of these items aggregate in a conceptual and physical space this morning.

I see my writing and teaching moving into this type of realm of aggregation. From my early publishing to my current book project, I have been aggregating. I ask students to do so as well (though, I don’t use that word). Research, writing, learning, these are moments of aggregation. “The relationship between learning and teaching….” I hear Steve say in the background. The relationship between learning and teaching is aggregation: bringing together the conversation. The conversation exists when we bring it together (as I start to do with these listed items). It exists in 55 bookmarked essays in a shared space. It exits in Ratebeer where aggregation is more than the message board (internal email, articles, ratings, following users, etc).  It exists in numerous online spaces outside the university. To me, aggregation is the expert attitude and behavior in the communication process. In the current Elearning and Digital Culture MOOC I am enrolled in, there is an effort to do that (video, links to articles, forums). But it doesn’t feel like this experience I am having this morning. It feels like an aggregation limited by taxonomy (digital) and that is more textbook than online aggregation (“compare and contrast the items we have gathered here…”….”what do you think about….”). The aggregation experience is the moment, for me, of writing, the space where ideas come together across a variety of media. Writing hasn’t been too good at that in face to face pedagogy, as McLuhan might say; why would it be in a massive online space? Or would it?

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