Published on September 3, 2012

Can a MOOC teach writing?

As Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, gain in popularity and media attention, it seems that the course format–featuring 1 instructor and many thousands of students–may not provide a good environment for helping students with their writing. As Steve Kolowich reports in the August 30, 2012 issue of Inside Higher Education, students enrolled in “Internet History, Technology and Security,” a MOOC offered by the University of Michigan, were asked to peer review the essays of their classmates. The intention was to help students improve their writing without the need for the instructor of the course to read and provide feedback on the students’ essays.  The course also gave the company Coursera the opportunity to test its “peer-grading system — the company’s answer to the challenge of running a course with tens of thousands of students and only one professor. For every essay they submit, students in the course have to read and evaluate four others written by their classmates.”

Asked by the course professor Charles Severance if he learned from his fellow students as a result of engaging in the peer evaluation, student J.R.Reddig said “no.” As Kolowich describes, “Not about the essay topics, anyway. Mainly, Reddig said, he learned how to read past the spelling and grammar hiccups of non-English speakers and try to grade them based on their ideas. ‘I said, Well, O.K., you can’t apply an empiric standard to them,’ said Reddig. ‘These people attempted to follow a thought, and so give them a 10.'”

As a teacher of writing, I wasn’t surprised by the limitations of MOOCs when it comes to dealing with student writing.  I was fascinated, however, by the phrase used to describe how Reddig evaluated the writing:  he learned “how to read past the spelling and grammar . . . and try to grade them based on their ideas.”  I see such separation of writing from thought as contrary to the purpose of writing, which is to communicate thought.  Instructors who give two grades to a piece of writing–one for the writing, another (probably higher) for the ideas–perpetuate this misconception among their students.  So while I see a future for MOOCs and recognize how they can change the landscape for some disciplines, I’ll wait for a better computer interface solution to the problem of improving student writing. Maybe Watson, the Jeopardy computer, has some free time?

Read more:
Inside Higher Ed