Recently, I had an opportunity to travel to Cambridge as a member of the Visiting Committee for the Humanities at MIT. I learned a lot by reviewing the work of several key groups, and particularly the new unit combining Writing and Humanistic Study with Comparative Media Studies. I came away deeply impressed with the exciting projects this group has going, from the Center for Civic Media to the Education Arcade and Hyperstudio. I came away thinking what fun it would be to be an undergrad (or better yet, a graduate student) in some of these projects.
I also heard quite a bit of talk about MIT’s venture into the world of MOOCs (massive open online courses.) MIT is partnering with Harvard on edX, while Stanford is offering Class2Go, with 16 free courses on offer so far. These are both non-profit enterprises, in contrast to for-profit Coursera, started last January by a former Stanford Professor, which has reached nearly 2 million “Courserians” so far. And Google is already into the act with its MOOC-building online tool, released just a couple of months ago.
At Stanford, where I teach, the University has created a new Provost-level position for online learning, the president of the university is pouring resources and plenty of attention in the direction of this phenomenon (which he has likened to a “tsunami”), and faculty are abuzz with talk of how or whether to develop courses for MOOC delivery.
Of course, online learning is by no means new: when I taught in Canada in the 1970s, the Open University was in full swing, as it had been in Great Britain for decades. What is new is the scalability of the project, with millions signing on for the new courses. And the problems with traditional online learning are also still around: how do you make a course with 300,000 students enrolled in any way intimate? How do you foster give-and-take among the participants? How do you avoid rampant cheating? And perhaps most vexing, how do you evaluate the work of students in such courses, especially ones that don’t lend themselves to multiple choice scantron tests. Colleagues across the country who are working on MOOCs are quick to say that they don’t know much about what they are doing and that experimentation is the name of the game—for the near future at least. The excitement and promise of MOOCs are very real: stories of people with no access to formal education suddenly being able to take courses from the best faculty in the world are heartwarming, as they signal an opening up and democratization of education scarcely imaginable in earlier times. But the problems, some of which I’ve just enumerated, are also very real. In addition, the nation’s most prestigious institutions aren’t likely to trade in that prestige any time soon.
As I’ve been thinking about these issues and talking with colleagues who are now teaching MOOCs, I’ve seen how they rely on the traditional lecture model but also how they are struggling to make that model more learning friendly. In this regard, composition studies has a lot to offer: after all, writing teachers have been working to “flip the script” of the classroom from lecture to interactive forum for the last fifty years. And these same teachers have been experimenting for two decades now on how to use technology to break down the walls of the classroom. So we know quite a bit about how to engage students in deep learning.
Has your campus joined Coursera—or some other MOOC community? How much is your campus investing in online learning in general? More to the point, what role have you and your colleagues in writing studies played in the decisions being made on your campus right now? Now is no time for writing teachers to hide our lights under barrels: rather, it’s time for us to join committees, volunteer for working groups, and make sure we are on the front lines of what some are calling the biggest change to come to higher education—ever.