The Blogora: The Rhetoric Society of America



Submitted by John W. Pell on March 26, 2013 - 1:27pm

As usual, the 4Cs was one of the highlights of my academic year. Brilliant panels, thoughtful conversations in smoke-filled hallways—each brilliant idea punctuated with the chime of slot machines celebrating the interest paid on a five-cent wager. What struck me this year, though, were the myriad of discussions concerning MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and LMS (Learning Management Systems). Panel after panel seemed to touch on these issues in some way and the conversation continues on many of our professional listservs and discussion boards.

My instinct, typically, is to either be too liberal in my praise of “new things” – “yes, Virginia iPads will change the world”—or, to be a stick in the mud about things—“I don’t want to put my grades on Blackboard, these cryptic marks and scratches on this napkin in my desk drawer are good enough.” Either position, with regards to MOOCs and LMS, is limiting, and given the current state of higher education (read: underfunded, over tested, and misunderstood) neither view is particularly effective in helping make sense of what the implications of these technological wonders might be on the actual teaching of writing.

That being said, well, actually, a lot of people have been saying precisely the same thing: “Let’s be thoughtful and see what happens.” Of course, this is one of the appropriate responses, I think, but it is also obfuscates the fact that each of us observes train wrecks…ur…. technological revolutions from a vantage point, a particular perspective. That is to say, as rhetoricians and teachers of writing we need to be a part of these important conversations concerning the future of writing courses, but at some point each of us have to understand what theoretical and pedagogical ideas and attitudes inform our orientation to these discussions.

In other words, it is not enough to simply say we want what is best for students—I am a cynical rhetorician and even I think most people involved in these discussions want the best for students. However, the corporations that fund these projects see no contradiction in the belief that capital gain and student well-being go hand-in-hand. For some us, raised on the idealism of Dewey, we continue to believe that education smoothens the rough edges of democracy and capitalism and thus for profit models of education are suspect. And while the pragmatist in me understands that these position will be forced to interact, if actual writing instructors want to have a say in these conversations, I find myself feeling defeated when reading the “real-time” assessments/assumptions emerging from conversations about MOOCs.

To be fair, MOOCs are in their infancy, so my thoughts are anecdotal because, like most, my thoughts stem from the coverage of these issues provided by a variety of media outlets and professional discussion boards. On the other hand, to be fair, many of us have been trained as rhetoricians and thus we should be particularly interested and critical of the language being employed in these conversations.

For example, many of the discussions about MOOCs rely upon the language of “community” and “discussion” in order to make the case for how these enormous online courses (some courses have over 60,000 students enrolled) create space for students to take ownership of their learning. In broad strokes—students are able to “ask questions” and “discuss” course ideas, readings, etc. via a MOOC’s LMS. Perhaps this is possible….of course, I have yet to see anyone involved in these discussions address the material and kairotic differences between “online discussion” and classroom discussion. What is the functional difference between comments being organized in descending order, chronologically? What happens when 1/8 of the students in a 50,000 person course each ask a different question—that’s 6,250 unique questions? Does each of those questions go on the course discussion board? If so, how is that discussion, if we believe that discussion actually requires interlocutors responding to each other and not simply listing their own thoughts?

Now, I would guess, that given the sheer size of these courses steps have been taken to divide these medium size cities…sorry, classrooms… into smaller, more manageable groups. So far, so good, but if we are dividing students back into smaller groups, why did we need 65,000 from the outset? It’s hard not to see this move as simply cost effective—one celebrity educator gives a lecture (content delivered into the vastness cyber-space) and underpaid instructors carry out the assessment of student work (or at least manage the software that electronically assesses generic papers written in response to generic questions).

Let’s assume, however, that the mechanism for delivering content, creating assignments and providing assessment work brilliantly. What are we to make of the fact that in many of these MOOCs more than a third of the students are L2 learners? If that is the case, are we suggesting that a COMP 1 MOOC is about helping students learn the grammatical and syntactical aspects of English? And while I love the ideas of students from all over the world learning together, this seems to contradict what Rhetoric and Composition as a field has worked for years to demonstrate: First-Year Composition is not remedial (i.e. focused on grammar and syntax) but integral and foundational for students’ work as researchers and writers?

And this is to say nothing of retention rates, how courses will be accredited in the future, how these models will affect universities' non-profit statuses, or even what happens when “researchers” and “administrators” design environments for learning regardless of their own aptitude for things like “teaching” or “discussion.” While it is difficult to predict where all of this will lead us, it seems appropriate to suggest that the discussion of MOOCs and their place in higher education is important to all of us that teaching writing. However, it seems naïve to suggest that we can observe these events in neutrality. In fact, it may be advantageous for many of us in Rhetoric and Composition to take a break from our primary vocation of justifying our existence as a discipline and instead exert our expertise as rhetoricians: just because you call something “open” doesn’t make it so, nor a “discussion board” a community make.

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