Sunday, November 11, 2012

ModPo Part Two

Over the past few weeks I've had the opportunity to be involved in several conversations between Trinity faculty, staff and administrators about technology as it relates to Trinity's overall strategic plan.  These were lively big picture/vision talks, of which MOOCs were just a small part, but the funny acronym does seem to be popping up everywhere these days.

A recent Inside Higher Ed article argued that rumors of MOOCs disrupting everything about education as we know it are overblown because a MOOC sells something fundamentally different than the high-touch experience one gets at a place like Trinity.  Is the sky really falling?  I don't know. But just this past Sunday, I opened the New York Times Education Life section to read an article declaring this "The Year of the MOOC."  Most poet friends and colleagues still just look at me funny and even giggle when I mention the word.  They're not sure what I mean, and in truth, it doesn't seem like anyone wholly is.  Part of this may be due to the fact that MOOCs themselves are evolving even as I type this sentence.  What seems clear is that most everybody wants to be a part of this MOOC thing whatever it was/is/will be, but how?

Variations of these what and how questions keep coming up for me as I've moved through completing my MOOC course on Modern and Contemporary Poetry.  (And maybe this comes with the territory of my discipline, as poets are particularly concerned with both the what and how of language usage in a poem.)  As I mentioned in an earlier post, the what (content) of the ModPO course continues to be pretty great.  It  moves fast.  In fact, it sometimes moves too fast as I've occasionally gotten behind and pulled a few late night po-video marathons, which, by the way, is how and when many of my students actually do their learning, whether I like it or not.  I'd like to speak more to this piece of how MOOCs might meet real changes in the way students actually communicate, think, read etc. as many of the questions I feel like I'm generating from taking my MOOC are pedagogical rather than technological, but I'm still deep in the weeds of my thinking on all that.  For now, I'll just touch on two things that my MOOC doesn't do so well.

One consistent concern relates to MOOC evaluation methods.  Mod Po requires four close-reading essays to complete the course.  On my first essay, I received four peer comments.  They were all over the map.  You don't receive grades, just what the site calls "peer evaluation/feedback."  One of my anonymous evaluators wrote simply "I think that this is an example of a hard effort essay, unfortunately I think that the author doesn't get the main idea of the poem."  He, or she, was, quite simply, wrong on that.

But I do think that ModPo shows evidence of trying to make feedback better.  Whether students use it or not, the rubric for evaluating essays is solid and similar to the kind of thing I use in my own classes.   I expect my students to be able to identify some aspect of a poem, as well as connect the dots to what it points to/complicates etc.  In short, they should be able to answer the "so what?" question.  ModPo asks this too, with varying results.  One sample rubric asks "Does the paper say something about how Dickinson's dashes work.  If yes, please remark on how effectively, significantly, and/or interestingly the essay deals with dashes."  This "how effectively, significantly and/or interestingly" wording seems useful, but, as any teacher knows, even if you ask the "so what?" question, you don't always get an answer.  I got a few responses that reached beyond "yes, the writer does this" and "no, the writer doesn't do that," but not many, and that's the rub. While this course demonstrates excellent content and sufficient guidance for how students might engage with content, there is little follow-up or interactivity in terms of how well they eventually do it.  That kind of higher order thinking/guidance is the heart of any humanities course.  

Ideally, discussion boards provide a place for more interactive guidance, and I had hoped to spend more quality time there, but I admit I've been mostly distracted by the hundreds of conversations picked up and dropped off.  There are come useful threads happening.  They just don't seem to build in any way that creates collective inquiry and discovery, which is another big part of what makes a traditional classroom experience so meaningful.  Another argument against MOOC type learning is that professors simply can't interact effectively with their students, but Filreis comments on a surprising number of threads.  He's around, a lot actually.  I honestly don't think he sleeps.  Not surprisingly, the discussion boards are most interesting when he drops by.  This is an example of one of the ways in which my MOOC succeeds by being like a traditional classroom with a teacher steering discussion in fertile directions.

In addition to canned videos, the ModPo course features a series of live webcasts over the course of the semester.  During these sessions, Filreis and the TAs meet in real time at the UPenn Writers House and class members can call in/text/email questions.   You can also show up if you live in the Philly area.  From what I can see on the screen, live attendance is small.  During the one I watched last night, the first caller said he was an English teacher, and that he'd really learned a lot from the seminar style of the video discussions.  Filreis replied, "The hardest part about running a seminar is knowing what question to ask, so that it's open enough, but not so open that the things runs amock and you can't possibly finish the discussion in the time period." I want to make sure I'm asking good questions here. What is missing? seems to be the thread through this post.   Some kinds of learning can't be massively scaled, but how might the flexibility and expansiveness of a MOOC like this inform what we're already doing?  For the next post.