Karen Head is blogging about a freshman composition MOOC that she is developing with a few other team members. Like myself, and no doubt many others, she’s skeptical that Comp 101 could work as a MOOC, but she’s brave enough to try anyway. Admirable.

My feeling is that Comp requires meaningful feedback, specific to each student, so it needs a small class size. My other reservation is that MOOCs, as independent learning environments, require strong self-motivation and self-discipline, which might be challenging to the average freshman.

But as I think about it, maybe a fifteen-week course is the wrong paradigm. Writing skills develop throughout our formal education, and beyond, if we’re lucky. Instead of a course, maybe it should be a community of practice. Something that doesn’t just end after a few months, but continues on and helps members grow.

I’m reminded of something I read many years ago, about megachurch maestro Rick Warren. He said that the way to build a large church that holds together and keeps people actively involved is through small groups. Forming groups, and keeping them small and intimate, fosters personal bonding and makes people feels responsible to each other. Maybe this could work for a Comp MOOC. Instead of moving from Comp 1 to Comp 2, members could move into group leadership positions, and help new members learn the ropes. Group leaders could be members of more advanced writing groups, and individuals could work their way up a pyramid of excellence by sticking with the MOOC over time.

I’m also reminded of my time with Toastmasters. Their goal is to help people become better, more confident speakers. They meet in small groups, and members work their way through a structured program, crafting speeches according to specified parameters, which provide a lot of room for creativity. Member critique each other’s speeches, following guidelines designed to be supportive first and constructive criticism second. It is essentially peer grading, and part of the program is learning how to provide effective feedback. Toastmasters’ practices would transfer well into a MOOC environment.

This would make an EngCompMOOC look less like a traditional course and more like a specialized social network, like Ravelry. But that’s what the best MOOCs do. DS106, a digital storytelling course which doesn’t like the MOOC label, has had members stick with it beyond the limits of a traditional semester, so it seems not to end. CMC11, focusing on creativity, likewise has had long-term participation from some members. Envisioning a MOOC as a community of practice changes it from a hoop students have to jump through to an environment where they can enjoy practicing their craft while developing personal connections.

A system would have to be developed for students to get credit for participation. Perhaps they could build a portfolio of work, including feedback both given and received, and write a reflective piece on their growth and learning that make the case for a passing grade. It would be up to an advisor at their home institutions to either accept the portfolio or send it back for more work. Students should be provided with rubrics so they can see how their portfolios will be evaluated.

So I think such a thing could work. I’m sure there are numerous angles that I’m missing. I’m curious to see what results from the work of Karen Head’s group.


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