Monday, September 09, 2013

Reflections on teaching a freshman composition MOOC at Georgia Tech

Karen Head has written a series of blog posts on a Freshman Composition MOOC she and her Georgia Tech colleagues (a team of 19) taught using the Coursera platform with support from the Gates Foundation. (The course name, composition, reflects the legacy of a course catalog -- this was a course on written, visual and oral communication).


Anyone thinking of teaching a MOOC (in any subject area) should read these columns. They are an open minded presentation -- the good and the bad. One is left with the feeling that today's Coursera platform is not up to the task of teaching a MOOC on a topic that requires substantive, subjective feedback on student work. That's the bad news. The good news is that we are at the start of a period of innovation and Dr Head and her colleagues learned a lot from the experience that will improve their classroom teaching. She says she is glad she engaged in the process, stating that "It is important, I think, to be part of things rather than only yelling from the sidelines (no matter which side you support)."

The following are quotes from the blog posts, with a few parenthetical remarks I added. (I hope I found all the posts).

Here a MOOC, There a MOOC: But Will It Work for Freshman Composition?
January 24, 2013

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.

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. (Like the "suits" -- network executives -- who sensor and tamper with creative decisions in a movie or television production).

Of MOOCs and Mousetraps
February 21, 2013
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.

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.

Sweating the Details of a MOOC in Progress
April 3, 2013
Our consortium’s members collectively decided to add intention statements to our syllabi, stating that our courses are not equivalent to a semester-long college-composition course. The main reason for that decision is not that we believe our courses have inferior content but that there is simply no way to adequately evaluate the writing of thousands of students—something we would need to be able to do to certify their work.

My first video, which advertises the course, took more than an hour to record. It will run approximately three minutes in edited form.

Massive Open Online Adventure -- Teaching a MOOC is not for the faint-hearted (or the untenured)
April 29, 2013
[machine-grading technologies] remain unable to provide substantive evaluation, and I recommend that those who want to learn more on the subject look into the extensive research done by Les Perelman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

While it hasn't been smooth sailing, I still see this as an important adventure. I already see the potential for MOOCs to provide certain supplemental content for my traditional classes, freeing me to do more of the work that only I can do with students. This form of a hybrid classroom excites me very much.

Inside a MOOC in Progress
June 21, 2013
It is exciting to see students forming communities within the discussion forums, to help one another with questions about content or technology. Our more ambitious students have developed study guides. Some self-identified writing-and-communication instructors have formed their own forum, to consider how they can use our course to teach their own students.

The most rewarding aspect of the course is the weekly “Hangout” session, live-streamed using Google Air.

... students (with limited and expensive Internet access) have complained about not being able to complete in-video quizzes when they download the lecture videos. (Those of us with experience of the Internet in developing nations would have predicted this).

My limited ability to make key pedagogical choices is the most frustrating aspect of teaching a MOOC. Because of the way the Coursera platform is constructed, such wide-ranging decisions have been hard-coded into the software—decisions that seem to have no educational rationale and that thwart the intent of our course. (The restrictions she describes regard problems with peer review).


Lessons Learned From a Freshman-Composition MOOC
September 6, 2013, 11:58 am
If we define success by the raw numbers, then I would probably say No, the course was not a success ... only 238 students received a completion certificate—meaning that they completed all assignments and received satisfactory scores.

... if we define success by lessons learned in designing and presenting the course, I would say Yes, it was a success. From a pedagogical perspective, nobody on our team will ever approach course design in the same way. We are especially interested in integrating new technologies into our traditional classes for a more hybrid approach.

With that said, I don’t think any of us (writing and communication instructors) would rush to teach another MOOC soon.

If we define success by a true and complete “open” course, I would say No, the course was not a success. I have major concerns about access and privacy in a MOOC format. In many situations, “free” simply isn’t free.

Our MOOC has ended, but a larger, more positive conversation is just beginning.

(Earlier posts about MOOCs).