Published on 2014/04/30

Learning Without Pressure: English Writing MOOCs for an International Audience

Learning Without Pressure: English Writing MOOCs for an International Audience
English writing MOOCs offer students from across the world the opportunity to write and think in English without the pressure of grades and degrees.
In my cozy writing class at the University of California, Berkeley, 13 international students pursuing their undergraduate degrees — between the ages of 17 and 20 — read, write, discuss and puzzle over the challenges of academic writing. We spend six hours a week together, reviewing thesis statements, talking about citation practices and working on developing arguments. It’s hard work for everyone.

When that class is over, it’s time to check on my other writing class, College Writing 2x, also for English language learners. But instead of 13 students, there are 50,000. Their ages range from 14 to 88, and they come from dozens of countries, from Andorra to Zimbabwe. Some are home-schooled high school students, others already have degrees, some are seniors returning to university educations unfinished or never started. These students also read, write, discuss and puzzle over the challenges of academic writing. It’s hard work for everyone.

It’s not surprising that College Writing 2x reaches so many participants in a vast number of locales. This is typical of most popular MOOCs. However, this is the first MOOC, to my knowledge, that focuses specifically on academic writing skills for a non-English speaking audience. Like most MOOCs, it serves a variety of purposes for its participants, many of whom do not have academic aspirations or a desire to be educated in the United States. But, for those who may have academic goals, writing in this environment offers some benefits.

Writing for an Audience

It’s inevitable when I tell people I teach an online writing course that enrolls 50,000 that the first question is: “How do you grade that many papers?” A related question came after I gave a conference presentation about the College Writing MOOC. I was asked by an audience member, “How do you motivate that many students to write for you?”

The answer to the first question is I don’t grade them. This is closely related to my answer to the second question: “I don’t want students to write for me.” In the real world, writers write for each other, for audiences, for an imagined or real reader. In a class so large that the instructor cannot grade, or even read, all the students’ work, students must write for each other. The student in Belize, writing about ecological challenges to her home town, must not only express herself in English well enough to be understood, but must also write for a reader with little background knowledge about the subject matter; that reader may be in Somalia or Ukraine, Mexico or Vietnam. In return, the writer gets near immediate feedback from her peers as to what was or was not clear, with suggestions for improvement.

Active Learning

Another question is an implied criticism: “How will students learn proper grammar if there isn’t an instructor to correct their writing?” This question underscores a larger issue with how writing is understood and taught around the world. Instead of approaching writing as a method of inquiry, discovery and expression, it is frequently approached as a series of formulas (à la five-paragraph essay) or drill-like tasks focusing on “correctness.” Asking students in the MOOC to read and respond to a complex story or article, or to write about challenges to local governments, or to explain how to perform a task they know how to do well, keeps the focus on writing. Some may be able to write only a few sentences; others will write a few pages. In both cases, the response has little to do with grammar.

Perfecting English grammar can be a long process; this fact should not prevent students from diving into writing, regardless of their level of grammatical proficiency. Requiring students to focus constantly on grammar, and not on writing, is like requiring the novice home cook to focus constantly on knife skills, never allowing him or her to cook a meal.

Good grammar matters, but it is not the only thing that makes writing valuable. I would rather read an insightful, sincere essay on the future of education, written with imperfect grammar, than read a flawlessly grammatical essay with nothing to say. Learning to write is learning to think, whether it takes place on the screen or on a piece of paper. It is an active process of engaging with ideas and finding things of value to write about.

This brings us back to these two classes, one small and intimate, one massive and public. My goals for both groups are the same: to write well, to engage with ideas in meaningful ways and to write in a way to attract a wider audience. Without the pressures of grades or degrees over their heads, the students in MOOCs are free to learn, interact and grow in a way that is truly unique.

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Readers Comments

Charlene L 2014/04/30 at 10:11 am

Sokolik has hit on what the next phase of the MOOC could be. Many MOOCs currently use a similar form of peer grading because of their size, but this system has led to mixed reviews. Proponents of the MOOC as a credit comparable to one at an accredited institution claim that peer grading devalues the MOOC by not having an instructor look over work.

If, however, we move to a model where a MOOC is a supplementary form of learning, and where grades/credentials aren’t the main concern, there could be value in peer interaction and feedback. Sokolik’s course seems to be moving in that direction.

Tawna Regehr 2014/04/30 at 4:18 pm

Interesting case study. My question is, of the 50,000 or so enrolled in this MOOC, how many are actively involved in completing the material and providing feedback/support to the other students? I suspect the number is not high, as preliminary data for MOOCs shows completion rates are quite low. With this in mind, I wonder if MOOCs are the best way to teach a language or writing course, when such courses rely on regular engagement/participation and a certain amount of completed work at each benchmark.

    R. Coile 2014/05/01 at 6:13 pm

    Twana– I agree with you. This is the greatest drawback to taking classes like this.

    I’m taking the class this year, and although I was surprised how much feedback I got, I was also disappointed in the quality of the feedback. For those students who primarily speak English, this class doesn’t really provide much help in the form of student critiques. However, the class does contain some good content for students such as myself to learn from.

    Basically, I feel that the biggest ‘help’ to the students that speak English as a second language will benefit most from the more ‘experienced’ students’ constructive critiques/comments, while those whose primary language is English will benefit most from the content taught in the class.

      B. Le 2014/05/08 at 11:11 pm

      As many of you already know English major at Berkeley ranks #1 among U.S. Colleges & Universities. I’m so proud of learning a piece of English from UC Berkeley thru Dr. Sokolik. I really appreciate her offering the College Writing 2.2x and 2.3x (I missed the 2.1x) although feedbacks from those classes have not really helped, but the content/techniques of the courses do help me.

      English is my second language. Fortunately, I earned a BS and MS in Engineering from a reputable university in USA and have also worked for a US company for 6 years. My daily job duty is engineering, analyzing, and writing reports. I look forward to participating in many more writing courses especially courses offered from UC Berkeley.

      Hope everyone enjoys learning those writing courses!

Sergio Fabbri 2014/05/01 at 4:08 am

I’m an Italian 58-year-old student–a physics teacher in life–of a course led by prof. Maggie Sokolik. I have to say that the key point about what she said–and only from a student’s point of view is understandable–is: “Learning to write is learning to think”. I noticed all materials prof. Sokolik chose greatly satisfy this feature: during “Principles of Written English part 3” we students read and commented texts from Ray Bradbury, psycological researches, academic studies and so on and so forth… Perhaps my English improved only a bit, but I remember all moments of my engagement in this course–with the warm and enjoying collaboration with my peers–as something which will leave a sign in my experience as a human being!
Thank you.

David Crosswell 2014/05/02 at 6:35 pm

What some, who apparently took part in the course and are self-declared ‘English_as_a_first_language’ exponents didn’t seem to comprehend, is that on the course, if you didn’t provide feedback on the discussion boards, you didn’t gain accreditation for that unit.

A failure to note that isn’t something I should classify as being competent in the comprehension department. I know ‘English_as_a_second_language’ exponents who can do far better.

I also found that many non-English speakers had more of an emotive element in their writing than many of the staid, rigidly-correct, stifled, pallid, rat-dropping offerings of some English speakers.

I think that a brief excursion into the colourful land of the MOOC, despite expressions of culture shock from the English-speaking, cream-brick, venereal disease, suburban sect, could well have been good for them, and a lot more wouldn’t hurt.

That’s all from me for now and, if you’ll be kind enough to excuse me, I’ll go back to terrorist-land now.

    Sergio Fabbri 2014/05/05 at 3:03 pm

    I want you as a lawyer, David!

mizrani a. 2014/05/06 at 1:07 am

As someone who took the course College Writing 2x I found it very useful and interesting. The problem with requiring mandatory participation in the discussion forum is that participants will go for quantity and and not quality of responses.

Maggie Sokolik 2014/05/07 at 11:13 am

Thanks, everyone for you thoughtful and interesting comments here.

The completion rate is, of course, a frequent criticism of MOOCs, but one which I think is misplaced. First, many people sign up with little intention of doing the work. Since MOOCs are so new, there are a lot of ‘spectators’ who just want to see what’s going on and what they’re about. Second, since MOOC courses are not obligatory, why do we hold ‘completion’ as the goal? I am very happy to see students who pop in and out, do what they can with the little time they have available. Since most who take the courses are adults, I’ll presume they have jobs, families and other duties to contend with–and yet, they are still trying to find time to continue their learning. Bravo.

Are MOOCs “the answer” to language learning? Of course not. Neither is “English 101” or Rosetta Stone, or [fill in the blank here]. Language learning is a long, complex process made up of many pieces. If MOOCs can be one of those pieces for some participants, then they’ve served an important purpose.

I could write another tome about the problems with encouraging people to participate in meaningful ways, and I will say it’s a work in progress (anyone who did 2.1x, 2.2x and 2.3x will recognize that–participation was handled differently in each, and I’m still trying to find the right formula). But education is like that, no? Always an experiment, never perfect, and filled with humans. Lovely, wonderfully imperfect humans.

David Crosswell 2014/05/08 at 9:46 am

Parallels drawn between elearning and bricks and mortar educational environments rarely occur, and perceptions that come from within a conventional educational environment that attempt to draw comparisons are doomed to see elearning in a poor light.

The audience type is totally different, and this is where these educators fail: in failing to learn. Assessing audience type is always the first step. Those that take up the MOOC option are those that are not in a position to go back to school: the suburban father, who wants to improve his professional standing and associated earning potential, but then has an employer that dumps a whole lot of take-home work on him that has to be done to a schedule. And with a young family, a mortgage, and all other associated bills, in a fiscal climate where 25% of the population are shopping on food-stamps, the MOOC comes second. Likewise with the single mother, and a whole lot of other demographics that wish to achieve what they see as a higher level of existence.

The attrition rate is far higher than anything that would be encountered in a conventional educational format, and many educators entering into the environment still haven’t clicked onto the degree of compensatory contact measures that need to be implemented, and maintained, in order to compensate for the lack of F2F contact. Not everybody is suited to the solo learning context: few are, and this is another factor in the high wayside incidence. There are others.

This is pointed out with glee by the conventional establishment, in their rush to purloin the MOOC phenomenon to extend their earning potential. Putting out a few free courses as ‘tasters’ in order to whet the appetite for the moneyed degree and diploma programmes.

But very little work has been done with statistics in regard to such aspects as those people that are forced, or merely obliged, to give up on a MOOC course in one sitting, to come back and try again in the next, or the one after that, once the events in their lives have become a little less hectic.

But, educators have always been slow to learn. An interesting phenomenon occurs early in their careers: generally when they are still in teacher’s college, or equivalent. A quantum leap, of massive proportion, encompassing a line of reasoning hitherto unknown in any recognised school of logic. These young brilliants, observing that they deal in intellectual subject matter, without any consideration at all to the fact that none of it is any of their creation, immediately assume that, they, themselves, are intellectuals. Consequently, they immediately conclude that they have nothing left to learn, and they who are charged with preparing the next generation for life do, instead, place it in great danger.

So, when such a warped level of self-perception is taken into account, it’s not at all surprising that they completely fail to see the real potential for MOOCs for the conventional bricks and mortar educational establishment.

As example, let’s take your typical university establishment. The first thing they need to do is understand their limits and, to be fair, some are beginning to do so and taking on skilled instructional designers and system administrators.

Secondly, they need to understand that the human perception factor has been educated into an ‘either/or’ mind-set, and that needs to be set aside, and a blended learning scenario needs to be implemented. How many learners in a MOOC environment have their own chemistry.physics/biology lab, that they can conduct formatted experiments in, that will gives the practical experience that provides the knowledge under-pinning aspect that ensures knowledge retention, just for a few examples. Apply this, full spectrum, with fields such as physiotherapy and sports fields, which these institutions also have.

Much of the curriculum, properly planned and designed, could be delivered on-line, and those that lived, even at a considerable distance, could travel in to stay for a week to do the on-site, practical aspect, and also fulfil the sociological, community factor, once every two or three months.

There’s absolutely no need to keep students on-site permanently. Those same dormitories can be employed for a floating population and, in this way, these institutions could cater to a student base at least three times the size they do now, with no increase in real estate or other overhead. The same scenario can be applied to sporting teams with clinics, employing the facilities on-site also.

That particular context would provide the opportunity for those same physics/chemistry and biology teachers/lecturers to apply research/knowledge in a translational context and they would find themselves learning at a rate of knots, and actually enjoying it.

Even writing lecturers could get in on the act: ‘this is how you write scientific reports’, or whatever particular format applies.

I forgot. I was going to go back to terrorist-land.

Sergio, as your attorney, I advise you to call me whenever you need me.

Sergio Fabbri 2014/05/08 at 1:08 pm

Dear Attorney David,
you said: “But very little work has been done with statistics in regard to such aspects”.
As a physics teacher and author of physics books for high school too, I’m very interested in all this discussion implies. I’m trying to use social networks or internet in general as a tool to improve or even shake the normal way my students are used to studying–until now with modest results, honestly. Anyway…
Attending this year a physics course, synchronous and particularly well structured with mid-term and final exams, at the end of it the instructor made a short analysis or the overall results. He said, circa: the percentage of the students that have a high grade either in the real college (Standford, I would say) and in the MOOC are almost the same. A significant difference there is in the medium and low grades, where we can see the MOOC is clearly… below! It looks like students more weak and needing a highest level of attention, in some sense… fail! If you think to what is the philosophy of Coursera, this is not a great signal.
However, we are at the beginning and I prefer to know the destiny of our guys. Even though I’m not too far away from my retirement… I prefer do die fighting, with my own hand in the mud, to know what is happening, and to pay critically attention to the development of this “experiment, never perfect, and filled with humans”–as prof. Sokolik said.
P.S. If you need a translation from my English to a real English, you can use the google translator or make a complaint against my teacher… prof. Sokolik! Finally, you can send your fee as my attorney to my fb profile (Sergij Fab)… 🙂

David Crosswell 2014/05/09 at 3:47 am


I’m not contesting other figures concerning MOOCs, just the high drop out rate, and that is fairly well documented. What I’m saying is that the potential of those same students returning to a future occurrence of the same course is not.

I’ve been involved in the MOOC phenomenon almost since Stephen Downes and George Siemens activated the whole concept, along with the connectivist theory of learning that goes with it.

But my own distinct impression is that, until the technology matures to the point where on-line virtual realities become much more mature than they are at present, the blended learning environment is the most comprehensive learning environment for the end-user. This is very much dependent on the subject matter type, of course, but also depends on how the individual end learner is most receptive in absorbing knowledge, also. If you have subject matter that requires a high level of hands-on, physical interaction, a sole, on-line learning resource simply doesn’t cut the mustard.

I’m afraid that I don’t do Facebook. You can run, but you can’t hide. Professor Sokolik will translate this for you

Sergio Fabbri 2014/05/09 at 4:34 pm

I’m trying to cut the mustard, David… BTW, if you want to hide something, you have to know that… the more evident the more hidden!
P.S. I charged Sherlock to find out where you’re hiding… Ciao!

David Crosswell 2014/05/10 at 6:11 am

There are strengths to on-line learning, also.

Many that are to timid to project within a F2F context, feel able to participate more in an on-line scenario, because the judgemental aspect is diminished.

There’s a lot of research needed in this area before a really successful format matures.

Just reading on-line is a whole different kettle of fish:

Sergio Fabbri 2014/05/13 at 9:30 am

Thanks a lot, David.
Hope to meet you again here and there in more “mature” (like me…) websites!

sara 2015/11/12 at 11:44 pm

The core of English vocabulary is not hard for learning Only be practical to understand the whole system

IELTS Speaking question

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