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Lessons Learned From a Freshman-Composition MOOC

Karen Head is an assistant professor in the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication, and director of the university’s Communication Center. She has been reporting periodically on her group’s efforts to develop and offer a massive open online course in freshman composition. This is her final post on the course.

Since our MOOC, “First-Year Composition 2.0,” officially ended in late July, I have been asked many times whether the course was a success.  My standard response is, “Define success.”

A little background: Our group received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a MOOC in freshman composition, a subject rarely taught in such a format. Starting in January, we spent a few months working through pedagogical and technology-related issues before finally rolling out the course in June.

If we define success by the raw numbers, then I would probably say No, the course was not a success. Of course, the data are problematic: Many people have observed that MOOCs often have terrible retention rates, but is retention an accurate measure of success? We had 21,934 students enrolled, 14,771 of whom were active in the course. Our 26 lecture videos were viewed 95,631 times. Students submitted work for evaluation 2,942 times and completed 19,571 peer assessments (the means by which their writing was evaluated). However, only 238 students received a completion certificate—meaning that they completed all assignments and received satisfactory scores.

Our team is now investigating why so few students completed the course, but we have some hypotheses. For one thing, students who did not complete all three major assignments could not pass the course. Many struggled with technology, especially in the final assignment, in which they were asked to create a video presentation based on a personal philosophy or belief. Some students, for privacy and cultural reasons, chose not to complete that assignment, even when we changed the guidelines to require only an audio presentation with visual elements. There were other students who joined the course after the second week; we cautioned them that they would not be able to pass it because there was no mechanism for doing peer review after an assignment’s due date had passed.

However, 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. For now, the technology is lacking for courses in subject areas like writing, which have such strong qualitative evaluation requirements. Too often we found our pedagogical choices hindered by the course-delivery platform we were required to use, when we felt that the platform should serve the pedagogical requirements. Too many decisions about platform functionality seem to be arbitrary, or made by people who may be excellent programmers but, I suspect, have never been teachers. Despite the challenges, we all feel that being part of the early process of testing new pedagogical approaches was instructive and exciting.

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. Most people pay for Internet access in some way, and some live in countries where that access is costly. I’ve previously discussed our use of “in-video quizzes” and the problems students had in completing these assignments.

We used only course materials that were “freely” available to students. However, for some materials associated with the oral-presentations section of our course, we linked to videos on YouTube. Students in some countries, like Pakistan, could not see these videos because YouTube is banned there.

Finally, if we define success in terms of outreach, I would shout Yes—our course was a success. We received amazing messages from students sharing touching personal stories, including a quadriplegic who told us the course made him feel equal to able-bodied students. (Unfortunately, some students with disabilities could not be accommodated and dropped the course.)  Another man told us we “saved his sanity” during long hours of sitting at his wife’s bedside during a difficult series of cancer treatments—and even sent us a photo of his wife and her oncology nurse. Students thanked us for doing what we set out to do—help them become more confident communicators.

Throughout my blog postings I have tried to report on the process as objectively as possible, and have avoided engaging in the more political and philosophical debates surrounding MOOCs. I’d like to close with this challenge: Please continue to think about the process and practice of teaching MOOCs as objectively as possible, using constructive academic discourse. We frequently hear this topic talked about in terms of “disruption,” a word I really disdain. I wonder how such a term—meaning disorder, turmoil, destruction —became the preferred way to talk about improving education. Why haven’t we gravitated instead to words like augment, extend, progress, or strengthen?

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

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