Published on 2013/11/04
—Co-written with Jeff Grabill | Professor, Michigan State University, Kate Fedewa | PhD Candidate, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Kristen Heine | Faculty, Michigan State University, Jennifer Royston | PhD Candidate, Michigan State University—

What We Learned: Running an Eight-Week MOOC
As important as it is to properly design and run a MOOC, the students themselves must be engaged and driven to succeed.

This past summer, for the first time ever at Michigan State University (MSU), we made a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) focused around writing. Our MOOC, “Thinking Like a Writer,” was a course we developed over the summer that ran for eight weeks through July and August. It was a novel experience for all of us on the team we assembled to design and deliver the MOOC and one on which we continue to reflect on in the weeks following the course.

In reflecting on the course, we are reconsidering our motivation for creating the course, our instructional design choices, our process of producing and running it and our learning in the wake of it. When we took on the MOOC project, we were interested in its potential to teach us about what it means to learn writing and to give us a way to gather student learning data on a larger scale. We designed our MOOC for a population of transitional learners and imagined that it would prepare them for the experience of college writing. It was a not-for-credit experience, but participants could earn a certificate for completing the MOOC.

The course had several distinctive design features:

  • It was organized into four “episodes,” for which students would write, post drafts for peer feedback, assess feedback and create revision plans.

  • It used the writing generated by students as the primary content of the course.

  • It asked participants to generate stories about their learning experience, from which they could draw conclusions about the nature of learning writing and practice rhetorical strategies.

  • It put feedback and revision at the center of the learning experience.

  • The instructors did not assign grades.

We came to describe the “Thinking Like a Writer” MOOC as a “museum for teaching writing.” We saw it as an informal learning experience — adult free-choice learning — rather than a formal classroom experience. Therefore, in designing our curriculum, we created activities that supported engaged, inductive learning.

Lessons were taught not through lectures or content-heavy videos, but through guided moments of invention and reflection, focused around the student’s own writing. This experience-based pedagogical model allowed for an effective student-led learning progression; participants embraced the opportunities we provided for them to invent, reflect and — perhaps most importantly — share.

The students in our MOOC had a real appetite for learning and writing. They were not the demographic we expected: people preparing to transition to higher education. They came from all walks, all ages and all regions, but they still were hungry for an organized writing experience and eager to invest in the community the MOOC provided.

The combination of a student-led learning model and student self-motivation was what made the MOOC successful. Students provided each other with feedback that enhanced their own development as readers and writers. The feedback, we believe, is the real agent of change in the learning theory that informed our MOOC design. The participants learned to create and implement productive feedback; by doing so, they became more engaged learners and writers.

What we learned from the experience is that it is possible to learn writing from a massively scaled class, but that a few essential features must be part of the experience. We experienced how true it is that a team designs and teaches a MOOC and we learned how to draw on in-house experts, such as instructional designers, that we don’t work with for our on-campus programs.

Both the design of the experience — the curriculum, sequences, and technologies — and the ways teachers frame and facilitate the experience go a long way toward ensuring that students are productive peer learners. Students need to be self-motivated. High-quality feedback and revision are essential to learning in writing, so the teachers must facilitate these moves, but students must also be willing to invest their time and energy into helping others learn.

Like museum visitors, the students engaged with what they wanted from the course: some students didn’t respond to the experience, others sampled our writing MOOC but did not complete it and for others the experience played an important role in their lives.

Ultimately, we found that learning to think like a writer is valuable.

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Readers Comments

WA Anderson 2013/11/04 at 11:51 am

Are there any changes your group would put into place if you were to run this MOOC again?

Also, is the international element of the MOOC concerning to the institution? To my mind, these MOOCs should be driving some kind of money to the institution… if they’re not doing that, what return does the school see from investing in them?

Jeff P 2013/11/04 at 3:50 pm

I’m also curious about the benefit the institution or the instructors gain from running MOOCs.

I mean, if you’re getting insights into how students learn and applying that back to your classes–almost a cost-free pedagogy experiment–then I say all the power to you.

However, as an administrator, I would be uncomfrtable dedicating monetary resources and manhours toward a project like this without understanding “What’s in it for me?”

Jeff Grabill 2013/11/07 at 1:18 pm

WA, Jeff, Thank you for your comments. They raise issues that are consistent with why the investment was made and what we are planning for the future. To continue with MOOCs of some kind–with more focused subject matters, audiences, and value propositions for students–we need at a minimum a financial model that will sustain them, and we are working on such modeling right now. At the same time, this first instance was very much a research project (that has generated a new round of development). We have learned a few things that have caused us to rethink some practices in our traditional programs. And in the case of the MOOC itself, we learned that we needed to provide forms of content–rationale and procedural–that we didn’t provide the first time.

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