Here a MOOC, There a MOOC: But Will It Work for Freshman Composition?

The following is a guest post by Karen Head, an assistant professor in the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication, and director of the institute’s Communication Center. She joins us today and in the coming months to report on her group’s efforts to develop and offer a MOOC (massive open online course) in freshman composition.


In November 2012, I was part of a team that was awarded a grant by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a MOOC for one of the most ubiquitous of university courses: freshman composition. Over the next five months, I will blog about our process. And I will try to address a central question surrounding the proliferation of massive open online courses. Many people argue that rising technologies could allow us to educate the world more efficiently. My question is, can we educate people more effectively?

I teach writing and direct a communication-tutoring center at the Georgia Institute of Technology. I’m also a writer. When I began teaching 15 years ago, I was one of the first instructors to volunteer to teach in a technology-augmented classroom. When online videoconferencing technology was introduced, I began holding office hours through that platform, and later did the same in Second Life. In short, I am no Luddite. However, I will admit to some reservations about whether a MOOC is the ideal platform for teaching writing. I have argued passionately for keeping composition classes small. Ultimately, I decided to pilot this MOOC because I am open to the possibilities, but I prefer to discover firsthand whether it works.

I cannot imagine doing this alone. I’m joined by Rebecca Burnett, director of our Writing and Communication Program and the project’s co-principal investigator; Richard Utz, chair of the School of Literature, Media, and Communication; a group of 11 postdoctoral teaching fellows; plus several specialists in assessment, IT, intellectual-property law, and videography.

There is a growing body of literature on the theoretical underpinnings of MOOCs, but it is harder to find material on the process of developing, facilitating, and assessing a massive open online course. We plan to roll out the six-week course later this spring. The prep, development of pilots, and video-taping will take place in February and March.  Our group’s first meetings, held in recent weeks, have focused on teaching philosophy, division of labor, and a project timeline.

We quickly discovered that we must also negotiate with some unexpected outside constituencies. A representative from Coursera (the platform we must use) contacted recipients of the Gates MOOC grants asking all the recipients to form a collaborative led by a Coursera representative to discuss course design. While the explicit message was one of helpfulness, the implicit message felt intrusive and seemed more about Coursera’s desire to ensure a certain continuity of experience for its users. Since Coursera is a business, I can understand its desire for such consistency. However, ours is a nonprofit project. This creates an obvious tension.

While all university instructors are subject to certain parameters, like established regulations regarding curriculum, I have never had to concern myself with any kind of conformity of delivery. Even the Gates Foundation is involved in unexpected ways: Recently we received two days’ notice that we should join a Webinar conducted by Quality Matters, an organization that provides subscription-based quality-assurance plans for online education. The Webinar introduced the company’s program and course-assessment rubric—the same rubric, we learned, that the Gates Foundation would use in its assessment of the MOOC grants. This was news to us, and we remain unsure how this new assessment requirement might affect our work.

Even without outside intrusions, we struggle with new challenges, some anticipated, some not. How can we keep students engaged, especially when we do not have traditional contact with them? How can we recreate and encourage extra-classroom support mechanisms like study groups, office hours, or tutoring?  How do we protect students’ privacy and intellectual property without the firewalls of closed learning platforms? How do we address plagiarism? And, of course, the biggest question of all: How do we evaluate writing assignments in a course with potentially thousands of enrolled students? Because this MOOC is being designed for an open audience and will not award course credit, it is impossible to know who might enroll, or how many.

For our team, the greatest challenge is finding a way to provide the necessary substantive feedback to a large number of students. When Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera, visited Georgia Tech last fall, I asked in a public meeting if she thought her company’s platform was appropriate for teaching a writing course. She responded that while there were robo-grading programs capable of evaluating mechanical errors, she wasn’t sure you could teach style or more complex skills.

That made me think about the popular children’s toy “Farmer Says,” which was designed in the 1960s to help children learn the names and associated sounds of common animals. I learned about animal sounds from my “Farmer Says,” but when I was 8 years old, I was watching television with my father and commented that I’d never seen a real pig. Two weeks later he took me to the South Carolina State Fair. Somewhere beyond the basic content knowledge there was a need for something more—something that required a more personalized and involved approach.

Can our MOOC be efficient and effective? I’ll let you know.

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