Of MOOCs and Mousetraps

Karen Head, a guest blogger for Wired Campus, is 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 reports periodically on her group’s efforts to develop and offer a massive open online course in freshman composition.

Generally people approach new problems by beginning with what they already know, so early conversations are rooted in clichés about reinventing wheels or building better mousetraps. However, MOOCs aren’t like the existing structures we know—they are neither traditional lecture courses nor traditional distance-learning models. The “massive” component changes every aspect of what we are attempting to do and requires innovative approaches, especially for a course on freshman composition.  With technologies evolving so rapidly, it is easy to overestimate the available tools, and we find that we may not be able to adapt our courses for massive audiences in all the ways we might like.

In the field of composition and rhetoric, designing a new course has never been easy, and doing so by committee complicates the process. For our course, which has grant support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and must be completed by the end of June, we have only three and a half months for planning before our rollout in late April. In my last post, I mentioned how fortunate I am to be working with a large and diverse team. But it also means that consensus is more difficult to attain. Our greatest asset can also be a weakness.

From the beginning we have had logistical issues getting a large group together on a regular basis. After only three meetings, we decided to break into two main subgroups: one focusing on curricular decisions and the other on technical ones. My partner in this project, Rebecca Burnett (director of our Writing and Communication Program), and I attend all meetings to ensure that the two sides remain coordinated. Some of the key curricular decisions we needed to make immediately were the length and theme of the course, expected student commitment, types of assignments, and appropriate instructional approaches. We decided the course should last eight weeks rather than six to create a framework for students to understand the goals and approaches, and to allow time for more end-of-course reflection. We also decided to have a single “build on” main assignment; each week students will learn new skills and apply these to the continuing project. For our theme, which lends itself to our multimodal course goals, we will have students write and speak about a principle that guides their everyday lives.

The subgroup on technology is addressing a critical question: How can we turn our pedagogical preferences into practice? This is where our ideas about a “course” most diverge from what we know. Many of us have spent years getting away from a traditional lecture model, but we acknowledge the impossibility of having synchronous class discussions with thousands of students. Consequently, we will have some content-driven video modules. We also are considering ways to integrate other forms of discussion, including using Coursera forums to ask students to contribute questions, and then vote for the top questions, which we will respond to in less-formal video live-streams.

Still, we have deep concerns about crashing current platforms. Discussion and peer assessment are central to our traditional instructional approach, but may not be possible in the ways we currently use them. Recently Georgia Tech suspended a MOOC (aimed at teaching the fundamentals of online education), in part because of the difficulties in using Google Docs for large groups. While our project is not connected to that one, the incident provided yet another set of considerations about how to design our course.

We also have team members embedded as students in a variety of MOOCs offered at universities worldwide, so we can better understand the student experience and the many ways other instructors are using the MOOC format. This experience strongly influenced our decision to make the course longer.  Having no way of knowing who our students might be has led us to rethink our initial communication strategies to make sure our expectations are clear to students. We want to learn from other MOOCs because mistakes in this environment affect thousands of students.

Collaboration is an important element, and since my last post, the instructional designers of three other MOOCs devoted to introductory composition have joined us to create a consortium to discuss best practices. Those MOOCs will also be offered this spring. Our discussions have highlighted our biggest challenge—finding an experienced MOOC instructional designer, or at least a platform specialist. As instructors continue to take the necessary risks to test this new pedagogical environment, colleges may not be able to meet the growing need for sophisticated support systems. In our case, we cannot wait, so we continue to make adjustments day by day.

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