The Gates Foundation and Three Composition MOOCs.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have been getting a lot of attention lately.  The idea of free access to higher education via  online classes challenges our traditional assumptions about good undergraduate pedagogy–that small class sizes and significant face-to-face time with professors are crucial to learning.  As a parent with two kids at private universities, I find the idea of a quality, free education particularly appealing.

In its November 13th press release, Gates announced awards of 12 grants for a total of 3 million dollars to develop MOOCs for a variety of courses–from developmental math to English Composition.  Given my commitment to developing Writing Commons,, so that it’s the go-to site for any college student with a writing question, you can imagine how keen I am on the idea of using Writing Commons for MOOC-orientated writing courses.  That said, to be qualified for Gates’ funding for MOOCs, applicants had to convince a university to write a letter of support for the project.  In my case, for good reasons, this proved impossible.  After all, the worry goes, if you argue that composition can truly be taught to several hundred thousand students at a time, well, then, how do you defend the idea of small class sizes for writing courses?  Wouldn’t successful MOOCs undermine undergraduate education–especially in states with governors who are antagonistic toward education, in states where the bottom line provides the lens for judging success in higher education–the cheaper the degree (say a $10,000 community college degree) the better?

Sometimes, though, we need to experiment–even if that means challenging some of our most deeply cherished assumptions about teaching and learning.  Flipping the classroom is serious business for those of us who have teaching for 30 years!  Hence, I’d like to publicly congratulate some especially innovative/courageous faculty and institutions who have been awarded grants from the Gates Foundation for developing MOOCs for composition:

In the November-December edition of Duke Magazine, President Broadhead outlines some compelling reasons for supporting MOOCs: 1. success addressing the worldwide need for greater formal education may reap rewards down the road as experimenting professors learn some new moves and bring them back home to Duke students.  2.  Duke is committed to “knowledge in service of society” (9).  3.  “[I]t enables Duke to project itself and its values of excellence through the domain of online education” (9).

I'm jumping MOOCs

I’m jumping MOOCs

While I do not believe a composition MOOC with 100,000 students will help those 100,000 students in an equivalent way as a face-to-face classroom of 18 students where the instructor reads drafts of those students’ works and carefully moderates peer reviews, I do think getting 100,000 students to share drafts on one another’s projects could lead to some significant improvement in students’ reasoning, research, and writing abilities.  Clearly, MOOCs raise the equivalency question–but our analysis of equivalency is long over due.  Right now we consider some test scores or courses equivalent to composition that just aren’t equivalent–such as an AP English score of 3 for Composition 1 or so called “high school equivalency courses.”

Ultimately, I’d like Writing Commons to be involved in MOOCs with the understanding that we’re not offering an equivalent course, but that nonetheless–as President Broadhead noted–we’re serving a global society that is eager to learn English and improve writing, reasoning, and research skills.


Curious to learn more about MOOCs?  Here are some suggestions from Ilene Frank, the Open Access Librarian for the University of the People:

xED Book

At xEd Book, George Siemens et al are writing a book about the ideology and best practices of MOOCs.

What You Need to Know About MOOC’s. (n.d.)  Chronicle of Higher Education. 
The Chronicle regularly updates this web page about MOOCs.

On the territorial dimensions of MOOCs. Kris Olds.  December 3, 2012

How MOOCs already changed higher ed in 2012. EdCetera Staff.  December 2, 2012

Online Educa: MOOC-Bubble, MOOC-tastic,  or MOOC-agnostic?  Glader, Paul.  November 30, 2012  Dr Report on Dr. Gary Matkin’s trend statements that include a rationale for peer review, MOOCs, etc.

Why MOOCs will not save universities. Popenici, Stefan.   October 15, 2012

To MOOC or not to MOOC?   King, W. Joseph and Michael Nanfito.  November 29, 2012.

The emergence of MOOCs part 4: Assessment, certification and accreditation.  Mak, Sui Fai John November 30, 2012  (Series of posts about MOOCs)

Five short years to MOOC corruption.  Lane, Lisa M.  November 28, 2012

7 thoughts on “The Gates Foundation and Three Composition MOOCs.

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