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Creating a MOOC in the Liberal Arts

AUDIO | Creating a MOOC in the Liberal Arts
As experiments with Massive Open Online Courses are becoming increasingly popular, one group is looking at how they can transform liberal education.

The following interview is with Jeff Grabill and Julie Lindquist from Michigan State University (MSU). Lindquist and Grabill recently developed a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) called “Thinking Like a Writer,” aimed at preparing students for college-level writing. The course, which launched in early July, is MSU’s first MOOC in the humanities. In this interview, Lindquist and Grabill discuss the creation of the MOOC, the value such a course will have for adult students and the challenges of creating the course itself.

1. Why did you decide it was important to create a free online resource to help students gain college-level writing skills?

Jeff Grabill (JG): A week into the MOOC, in some respects, we’re asking ourselves that question again and again. Michigan State is a research institution and our department, in particular, has high-quality expertise in writing, instruction and, in particular, in digital writing instruction and, so, this MOOC moment that higher education seems to be in is attractive to us for a host of intellectual and research reasons. So we became, like many people, interested in issues of access — which our faculty has always been interested in — interested in issues of digital technologies with regard to instruction, that is, what works and what is efficacious in that regard. And so … when MOOCs emerged, we became interested in them as platforms for research and innovation.

And so, having a massively [open] online writing course per se isn’t something that we needed to do and isn’t something that we’re particularly interested in, in and of itself. What we were interested in is a set of researchable questions related to whether or not we can teach writing in the ways which we understand can be consistent with evidence-based practices; teach writing in ways which have some fidelity to what works at scale and online. The “at scale” is, really, the interesting part to us.

Scale puts all sorts of pressure, in particular, on common and effective writing pedagogical practices which require high-quality interactions between human beings around a piece of writing. So, massively and online — massively, in particular — really puts some high-quality practices under a tremendous amount of pressure. And, so, for us the question became, “Could we design and deliver an experience with integrity and learn a little bit about these pedagogical practices?”

Julie Lindquist (JL): I’ll add that when Jeff first approached me with the idea to do this MOOC, my first response wasn’t, “Oh, good, a MOOC! This is exactly what I had in mind. This is what I’ve been wanting to do.”

My first response was, “What is this thing and what can it teach me?”

As the director of the first-year writing program, my interest is access. I’m interested in creating a good experience for all our students. I want to learn more about learning, I want to learn something about how our curriculum works and doesn’t. And so, I saw an opportunity to poke at some of those questions, to do what Jeff was just describing, to take the deep common places we have around teaching, writing and learning and — especially as it’s delivered in the classrooms — … move around them a little bit. To see what we’re assuming and what we know and what we still need to know about writing and learning more generally.

2. What impact do you think such a resource will have on adults looking to return to higher education, or enroll for the first time?

JG: Well, we might know a little bit more about that when we’re done than we do now. … One of the big unknowns was who was going to show up for this MOOC. … We’re bootstrapping this.

This is something that is internally funded and internally generated and we don’t have partners with megaphones — with marketing megaphones — like they currently exist in the MOOC space. And, so, we weren’t really sure how widely distributed our message would get in terms of marketing. It turns out that we have students from every continent on the planet except Antarctica, which surprised us, frankly.  And we weren’t sure of those students who would show up. So, we anticipated a fair number of second-language learners, we anticipated some adult learners, of course. And it’s not clear yet who we have. We certainly do have some second-language learners and we think we have a fairly high number of older North Americans and their presence in the quantities that I think we have them was kind of surprising to us. …

For a number of our learners, at least the learners who have demanded the most attention from us, there are some fairly significant issues of technology access and also some widely varying needs and interests with regard to writing instruction. And, so, we thought we fairly explicitly marketed the course as a developmental course, to help people prepare to take another course at university. But we, of course, have people who are here for all sorts of different reasons. This is adult free choice learning in many respects, and they’re doing it. They’re there for all sorts of reasons and impulses. So it’s really hard for us at this point in time to get a really good handle on who our learners are and, therefore, what their needs really are.

JL: Yeah, that’s one of the things that we can learn so much about. Well, who are the learners of writing, what do they need from a writing education? And we wanted to create a course that is just that, to prepare people to be better learners of writing when they went on to take traditional courses. There’s a vulnerable population of people we were thinking a lot of about access. But from what we’re able to tell, I almost want to call them first now, “The Id of Writing,” because there are all these writers who seem to have aspirations and desires to see themselves as writers and do something as writers in the world. There are no other places to realize it and a significant piece of this population seems to be people who don’t ordinarily think of having access — people who are not terrifically technologically savvy, people who are fairly isolated — and we see this is an opportunity to have this kind of education and interaction with other writers. …

We have sees a lot of these stories so far, so we’re eager to learn the whole stories through the data.

3. When looking at the traditional approach for adults when they enter higher education, do you find that a lack of writing skills can be an impediment to success for older learners when they enroll in higher education?

JL: I would say yes, but what you’re calling a lack of writing skills is related to a whole confederation of other discourses of literacies and understandings of how the institution works and how education operates and so forth.

So, when we think of people as developmental writers, that has to do with things that are associated in most people’s minds as skills but it has a lot to do with acculturation to the discourse practices and rituals of the institutions. This is something we had very much in mind, and I was a little worried at first about doing this before we figured out who the constituency would be and what the curriculum would look like because, as I said, there are vulnerable populations of students entering college and they’re at risk for all kinds of reasons and they need to be supported. Often, that support comes through human relationships with people, face-to-face human relationships, and so there needs to be a way to create those kinds of relationships and support structures for adult learners. And, so, this was important to us in thinking about this course.

4. How many individuals have signed up for the course?

JG: I think we got near 2,000. I haven’t looked recently, but I think our peak was somewhere between 1,800 and 2,000 people, which for us was a big number. We didn’t expect that many.

AUDIO | Creating a MOOC in the Liberal Arts
Activity-based learning is a critical approach to liberal arts education. The challenge is scaling this approach in a way that it can be effective for thousands of students.

5. The course itself appears to be designed so that students can proceed at their own pace through the various episodes. Why did you decide to take an activity-based, self-paced approach to the course?

JG: So, there’s two different things there. One is a choice and one we thought was built into the nature of the experience. So, let me take a shot at the self-paced nature of this.

As we looked at other MOOCs and the, sort of, set expectations of a MOOC experience, they seemed self-paced whether people wanted them to be or not. That is, it seemed to us that people who were signing up and doing MOOCs were doing them in a self-paced way regardless of what the expectations of the course were. Now there are always bound to be conditions — when it opens and closes — but within the beginning and the end of the MOOC experience, most of the people who sign up with them don’t participate or don’t participate much. But those who participate seem to do it as much at their own pace as they can for reasons which make a great deal of sense, which is why I refer to MOOCs as, sort of, adult self-paced learning. Our metaphor is that it’s been more of an informal museum experience than it is like a formal class experience.

So, we took that as a given, we took that as something we didn’t have any control over, even though it presents all sorts of problems for how you create a course. … We worked with that as a constraint and, so, we tried to lay down some time sequences and we’re going to degrade assignments and episodes slowly, so we’ll stop paying attention to early moments in the course as we start to continue to pay attention to new episodes and new assignments as we construct them. So, that’s the self-pacing part; it actually presents all sorts of problems for us as an activity-based course. Let me take a stab at that.

Writing instruction works as activity based, by which I mean, in order to teach writing effectively, people have to write. And not only do they have to write, they have to write with some intentionality and some guidance with regards to strategies. They have to revise; that’s the change moment, that’s where a lot of the learning and the change happens in writing quality. And, so, there’s a number of activities that have to happen around writing, reviewing and revising. And this is pretty common for writing pedagogy. And, so, this also presents all sorts of challenges in a massively online environment. This is what I was referring to earlier: how do you do this at scale, particularly in an environment in which people might choose not to do these things?

And, so, there are some expectations on the part of the participants in this course that we would lecture at them about writing, we would produce talking-head videos of what good writing is and how to do it.

The problem is that doesn’t work. Nobody gets better in those kinds of instructional environments in a domain like writing. And, so, this is part of the high-risk experiment for us and that is, “Can we do things with integrity that we know work?”

And that is a set of very focused, very strategic writing activities that we have confidence lead to learning and better writing outcomes — can we do that at scale? And, so, really what the choice of activity for us was really not much of a choice at all; we just we weren’t going to do it any other way.

6. What kinds of support mechanisms did you have to help create the course? You mentioned this was a bootstrap project, self-contained within your department specifically. Did you have an instructional design team or a visual design team working with you?

JG: Yeah, we do. MSU has a group inside the University called MSUglobal, which is a really inventive and high-quality group of educational entrepreneurs. … The goal of MSUglobal is to take high-quality intellectual products inside MSU that has some sort of pedagogical component to them and turn them into products that can live in the world. And also to do a lot of research, so MSUglobal has a research function and also collaborates with the faculty who do research. All the MSUglobal projects also have a research component to them, usually related to the product that they are delivering.

They have instructional designers and they have visual designers and they help us with instructional design issues in presenting the course. They also were the people who lined up Canvas — the LMS [learning management system] that we’re using — and had a relationship with Canvas and built a relationship with Canvas and facilitated the interactions we’ve had with Canvas people who also supported the development of this MOOC.

Our team was actually quite large, and we do have some expertise and some experience inside MSU to construct environments like this.

7. Will the course be available at all times, or only in the months leading up to fall semester?

JL: Well, the course has an end date. The course won’t continue to go on forever. Whether we will run it again is another question, depending on what we learn, what kind of support there is available. We are already getting questions like this. “Will there be another opportunity to take this course? Can’t do it now, would really like to take it again, what’s going to be the future of it?”

I think the jury’s still out on that one, we have to see what the data shows and what kind of team we can put together for the next iteration.

JG: One of the things that we’ve always had in mind and that we’re also learning from participants is that while this — the subject matter of this course — is thinking like a writer and is focused on preparing students for a university-based writing course in the [United States], that’s not the only focus and subject matter of an experience like this. We imagined, and our participants have imagined, different kinds of themes and different kinds of focuses for experiences like this and I will also say that MSU doesn’t lock us into 15-week traditional semesters and, so, if we decide that this experience worked and we want to reproduce these experiences in the future, we will probably put them on time frames which are more attuned to the larger marketplace than they are to traditional university calendars.

8. Having created and now taught a MOOC focused on providing students with introductory-level skills in the liberal arts, do you think such courses will begin to gain popularity over the next few years?

JL: I would predict that they will. I think we’re creating a fairly novel experience in the kind of writing pedagogy we’re imagining. I think it is not entirely intelligible to people yet. I think it will become so. The MOOC phenomenon is certainly not going away anytime soon.

I think we’re going to learn a lot about what kinds of educational needs this concerns and we’re already surprised by the kinds of people that are showing up and the kinds of things that they seem to want. And that will continue to develop. … We started out doing this — creating this entire experience — because there was so much to learn about writing, about learners, about people writing about the communities that they need. …

This isn’t the end of the story by any means.

JG: I think this MOOC moment is a really interesting moment because I agree it’s a moment of, it marks a moment of, innovation and change and I think we — and I mean ‘we’ writ large — are going to learn a lot from these MOOC experiments that are happening all over the place that I think will persist in some way, shape or form in the way in which we deliver higher education.

I would also say this MOOC moment is a response to some structural transformations happening in higher education … And those are real. Those structural changes are real.

We will do higher education differently over the next 20 years and it’s not clear what that’s going to look like, but it’s going to look different and I think it’s going to create opportunities for more experiences like this in the liberal arts, and I think there are a number of people who will take advantage of them.

9. Is there anything you’d like to add about the transformation that’s happening in the higher education space and the potential for creating successful open and massive online opportunities for students to take introductory-level courses in the liberal arts?

JG: “Watch this space,” is the best that can be said. … Information technologies are maturing to such an extent that we can imagine doing things like what we’re doing. That is, I think some of the social software that people are using and creating to deliver these MOOCs have a level of sophistication and accessibility that just hasn’t been the case prior. And I think there are a lot of people inside universities who are really committed to access, and I think that access ethic is something to be taken seriously and not [to] be dismissed because it will drive more than anything else, the willingness of university faculty to experiment.

JL: I just want to add that there seems to be a fair amount of anxiety around these kinds of transformations and what it means for university relationships and arrangements in faculty labor and things like that. But I tend to think that things like MOOCs stand to return knowledge and new understandings of education more generally, and don’t necessarily need to be understood as something that will supplant traditional — what we imagine to be traditional — forms of education and delivery systems easily. They might transform them; they might put them into relationships with other delivery systems in a way that’s interesting.

But I think there’s a lot of anxiety that will be an easy substitution of one for the other, and I don’t think that’s how the story’s going to develop.

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