A creative writing MOOC to reclaim MOOCs

One of the earliest problems with the MOOC phenomenon was discord:  on one side there were distance/online education scholars devoted to digital learning as a transformative opportunity, on the other AI and Machine Learning mavens (whose models focused on the Tech side of EdTech) who were largely unaware of existing methods and progress and saw EdTech as a mechanism of convenience/ease/economy.  MOOC was a term borne of experimentation and cutting-edge theory, a background it lost once MOOC became synonymous with LMS-based content streams.

One year ago, focused on the disparity between the freedom of the original MOOC and the limitations of the Frankenstein’s Monster MOOC built of venture capital and buttressed institutions, I made a call for scholars to step back from fighting for the MOOC monicker.

Today, I am announcing a course I will lead in collaboration with Canvas network and a slew of writers, educators and scholars, scheduled to launch in January 2015.  It’s a course about establishing tangible and repeatable creative writing practices  (#cwmooc), built around the development and drafting of the written word.  It will look very little like the MOOCs of Udacity/Coursera/edX.  But it is a MOOC.  And I am not shying away from calling it such.

What has changed?

1.  If the MOOC is a phenomenon rather than a model, avoiding the term only further bolsters the dominant interpretation.

Despite societal MOOC conversation continuing to hover around large institutions and LMS-based courseware, the scholars and practitioners of online and distance education have continued to work around, within and outside MOOC systems to deliver transformative education opportunities.  Mikhail Gershovich, one of the original edupunks, put it well last week:

We can call our work open, open online, networked, distributed, or any other terms synonymous with what the MOOC originally represented, which will earn laudation in our field and continue to render our work absent from how society views the future of education.  The MOOC is a phenomenon representing, among other things, a shift in society to valuing online learning opportunities.  If the best and brightest scholars and researchers do not associate with the term it will only remove them from the discourse and leave society’s view of the future of higher education bereft of what could be truly transformative for students.

2.  The future of learning should be transformative, not convenient.

The courses that led to the initial MOOC fervor were designed around a notion of connecting learners to networks of information as well as networks of people, each of these networks adopting the tenets of openness on numerous strata (OER, access, content, architecture).  This harkens back to the early days of telecommunication-based distance learning, which saw technology as a means to allow connection, creation and collaboration in a manner heretofore unavailable in education.  It was not just a tool for changing the way we do the same old thing, but a gateway into seeing education from a new and much wider lens.

The MOOC madness post-2011 dials into the rhetoric of the above paragraph, but in practice it is an extension of practices its advocates dismiss.  Whether it is about learning as a flip, learning as unbundled, learning as an economic transaction or learning as a pragmatic exercise, the learning experience is still a content-mandated, instructor-dominated experience.

No matter what the MOOC developers of Coursera, Udacity and edX say about disruption and innovation and revolution, this use of technology results in the same learning they point to as outdated from the first universities of 1000 years ago: learning remains contained, within the MOOC LMS rather than to the University of Bologna; lecture remains king, just divided up into video chapters rather than across an hour; assessment remains didactic, only immediate and computer-enhanced rather than shortly thereafter and on parchment; and gain remains primarily for the individual, though in earlier days it was with the intention that this knowledge would be used to better the local community.  The MOOC of popular opinion personalizes a specific education process by potentially making some logistical aspects of learning easier for some students, ignoring those who have struggled under this purview for 1000 years.  Convenience was not the primary intention of early telecommunication-bound distance education advocates, and it should not be advertised as the salvation of whatever education crisis we say we are in today.

3. If it is too tough to do something such as properly support an essential form of human communication via a system, perhaps the system is faulty.

I have a longstanding theoretical contention with automated grading software that can be summarized as follows: we write so we can communicate with other humans, so if a writing assignment is not important enough for another human to read, why are we doing it?  The use of automated grading software is largely as a convenience mechanism for scalable practices:  standardized testing, competency measurement, MOOCs.  Even in spaces where elements of eReader software are designed to work in cohesion with human-moderated writing instruction, the approach to writing is one of establishing a competency rather than engaging in a form of communication.

This does not ignore the logistical problems of writing in a scalable course.  If 10,000 people write a four-page essay, it is impossible for one instructor to assess even a fraction of those works.  The instructor can incorporate a bevy of TAs, or even crowd source the initiative, but in a learning environment borne of scalability and standardization, there will not be a standard manner to assess the writing, no matter the rubrics or rosters or gizmos a professor provides to the assessors.  If personalization allowed students to experience a different element of the field based on their prior work, this would not be a problem; however, personalization is not a choose-your-own-adventure but rather a progress-through-my-narrative-at-a-different-speed.  Personalization and standardization only work if both are designed to promote ease rather than  a definition of personal-as-uniqueness, and this means even if there were not human resource issues involved in TAs or crowd sourced graders, assuring students their work was held to the same standard would be impossible.

Modern learning theory sees learning as situated, environmental, communicative and collaborative.  If the scalable manner in which we approach educating a citizenry cannot support the use of basic human communication, there is a flaw in the apparatus.  Perhaps this is the problem of digitizing existing learning practices for purposes of scale:  they exemplify the problems inherent in the system.  Leading students on a guided tour of content and asking them to reflect honestly allows for slight derivation from the path in seminar courses; when magnified and exemplified, we see the limits of reflection because the magnifying glass ends up on the dominance of the established pathway rather than the tangential reflection that shows a student’s ability to relate content in situated context.

4.  The MOOC is not a system; it is a phenomenon.

Looking at the MOOC as a specific type of online learning instrument has a certain logic to it, and to that end the vast majority of MOOC research and news literature identify the MOOC as an instrument to facilitate learning.  If we look at the etymology of MOOC, however, it becomes much more difficult to associate what MOOC means today with a singular instrument, as the term’s various meanings are highly contradictory.  Rather, when viewed from a sociocultural lens, we see a movement that generally accepts online learning as a viable alternative or compliment to traditional learning, and specifically identifies methods and manners in which this learning should happen and how this learning affects institutions and governments.

Phenomena are wide and ranging in belief; there are certainly zealots who see the MOOC as the end of higher education as it has been known, but there is space for diverse opinions.  Moreover, while the general push of the phenomenon has largely been positive for online learning, specific interest in automating courses and sacrificing pedagogy for profit are potential future scenarios seen as viable based on the current path of the movement.  In order to change that future the phenomenon needs viable alternatives within its general purview.  Much like the Reclaim Your Domain movement provides an alternative to student creation within an LMS, MOOCs can offer viable alternatives through eschewing the ease and economy of content-dependent modulation and developing theory-based models and designs?

What better way to advocate for and promote an alternative vision than to teach a MOOC on a subject considered antithetical to the dominant paradigm (writing) that mixes the importance of social learning/Communities of Practice with an opportunity for individuals to personalize their experience through personal choice rather than algorithm?

The logistics are basic:  the course will run for six weeks, focused on helping writers establish a sustainable practice that fosters improvement and idea development.  The course will not progress along the same narrative, but there will be multiple narratives to choose from based on the desires of the writer and what they are looking for in developing a writing practice.  From there, students will also have the opportunity to go on tangents based on their needs and desires.  Writing will be shared in the community and assisted by a mix of peers, experts and the writing community.  It aspires to provide the same motivation for writers as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), but not require students to begin (or ever have) a story or plot idea; moreover, the course will provide numerous opportunities for scaffolded, zone of proximal development exercise.  It is an attempt to use technology as an opportunity to transform and better a learning practice in a space where there is room for technology to make writing more available to individuals of all ages and abilities.

If you are interested in joining the course and/or would like updates on its progress and vision, there is a simple Google Doc to fill out and you will be added to a mailing list for information and other happenings.

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2 thoughts on “A creative writing MOOC to reclaim MOOCs

  1. Pingback: A creative writing MOOC to reclaim MOOCs | ilen...

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