Built Beyond the Walls

A pile of rubble and debris in front of a graffiti-covered wall. But a tree grows to the left, and the blue sky shows through, so it's not all bad, right?

In this post, I want to look outside the traditional classroom to look at new, networked approaches to teaching and learning to show how the practices essential in Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, can benefit small, in-person composition classes, as well. I believe our face-to-face classes can be built beyond their walls, creating open, collaborative environments that foster genuine learning. But I am getting ahead of myself. First, let me briefly address the relationship between technology and composition courses.

Writing is a Technology

As Gail Hawisher, Cynthia Selfe, and especially Christina Haas would argue, writing itself is a technology, and the study of writing is a study of the development of human technology. Writing was a tool developed by humans to allow humans to accomplish a particular goal, specifically to document and distribute communication. In addition to developing the technology of writing, humans have consistently developed ever-more-complex technologies to help create and share that writing. From the tools designed to at ancient cuneiform into clay tablets through movable type letterpress and the material technologies of ink and pen, we have arrived at the modern convenience of writing through the press of a button. Or, perhaps more accurately, multiple repetitive presses of multiple buttons. But I digress. The fact is, our written communication technology has continued to advance as literacy became more widespread. No doubt the two social developments have been directly interlinked throughout human history.

The most recent chapter of that history has brought us ubiquitous mobile access to a global network of instantaneous communication technologies saturated with various forms of composition which are all at their essence digital. Yet the typical composition class exists within the four walls of the classroom, surrounded by bound textbooks and handwritten student work. Indeed, Dennis Baron recently lamented how one of his colleagues banned laptops from his classes in an effort to maintain greater student focus. Baron equates such a ban to disallowing books in a university cafeteria, but I see a laptop ban as a separation between two halves of the same subject: how can we teach part of writing and demand that students not bring the other part of it with them to class? The most common modern writing technology involves a keyboard and a processor, both connected to the Internet. If our students do not have keyboards, processors, and Internet access from within our writing classroom, we are constructing an artificial writing environment that will doubtless affect the quality and nature of their work.

A Brief MOOC History

It is in the spirit of integrating technology and composition that I now turn to the massive open online course. For readers unfamiliar with the concept, I would like to provide a brief overview of, introduction to, and history relating to MOOCs. For those already familiar with MOOCs, I promise this will be brief.

MOOCs began with an experiment in 2008 by the University of Manitoba in which 2300 students enrolled in a course on connectivist thinking. They got a great deal of attention and publicity and 2011 when Stanford University offered three classes online for free and saw enrollments reached 230,000 students in the course about artificial intelligence. If any of our course enrollments grew 100 fold in three years, I suspect we would make the same decisions several professors from Stanford made: they left academia and went into business. They created Coursera and Udacity, major online education content delivery platforms. Not to be outdone so easily, Harvard and MIT created their own offerings and their own delivery platform, edX. Within the span of two years, open online courses have gone from isolated exceptions from established institutions to revenue-generating staples of well-marketed, big-brand corporations and cooperatives.

MOOC Varieties

To help make sense of the proliferation and diversity of MOOCs, George Siemens proposed a differentiation, identifying two distinct approaches to the MOOC phenomenon.

xMOOCs are content-driven, pre-packaging it for efficient online distribution at large scales. They expect students to master a predetermined set of information and be tested on it. With an xMOOC, prestige counts. Established, well-endowed institutions fund the development of these courses. This type of course is commonly associated with organizations like Khan Academy, Udacity, and Coursera, with a variety of high-profile schools signing on to use their tools.

cMOOCs, or connectivist massive open online courses, rely on the networked nature of learning, and the connections students can make among their ideas and their resources. They leverage creativity and autonomy through collaboration, giving groups of people shared goals for distributed projects. These courses tend to be delivered by university instructors directly, emphasizing the student’s role in learning over that of the content, which is designed to be shared with a wider audience. And rather than rely on the prestige of the institution offering the course, a cMOOC relies on the resource-richness of the Internet to provide the value of the experience.

For the remainder of this discussion, I shall focus exclusively on cMOOCs, as I believe that xMOOCs can be seen as a traditional LMS used at large scale. cMOOCs, however, reject the typical lecture-drill-test methods of traditional online courses and instead find new challenges in networked learning and creative ways of addressing those challenges.

5 Essential MOOC Philosophies

When managing a course offered to thousands of students in dozens of countries, several things have to work differently than they typically do in a face-to-face classroom of thirty. Many assumptions of traditional classroom-based education simply do not work in a massive, distributed environment. Collecting papers, to say nothing of grading them, can be logistically prohibitive. One-to-one teacher-to-student tutoring would be impractical or impossible. Textbooks would even be a challenge to manage at large scales. We may think of these as situational limitations, but the cMOOC approach specifically relies on the opportunities hidden behind each one. Let’s look at the five essential features of MOOC philosophy and see how they can apply to smaller, in-person classrooms.


First and foremost, a MOOC must involve collaboration, distinguishing it from independent study. Students need an opportunity to discover the identity and perspective of their peers. Students’ engagement with one another forms the essence of a MOOC experience. By allowing massive numbers of student to interact as needed to achieve their shared goals, MOOCs implement Vygotskian social learning to a degree unseen in traditional classrooms. The idea may be the same at heart, but the scale provides vastly improved access to resources.

We easily form groups within our classrooms for discussion or collaboration. But do we ever create groups that go outside the class? When most of our students bring smartphones with them that can access the Internet from their desks, why do we not use those tools to connect with the outside world? To ignore the potential collaborations is to assume that all the knowledge we need for the semester can be found within our classroom. Considering everyone in that room is there because they want to learn more, it seems that we should be compelled to go elsewhere to find the knowledge we seek. Students sitting in a classroom can engage in the same kinds of meaningful, expansive connections that MOOCs provide. We just need to take out our devices and strike up a conversation.


Stephen Downes identified connection as one of the key principles of MOOC design, saying that these courses view connection as a process that enhances a student’s experience in a course. He also stated that the currency of knowledge — how up to date information is — becomes one of the most critical elements of student learning in this environment. By teaching students to use the network and its resources to benefit their own problem-solving strategies, we encourage our students to view themselves as more than an isolated learner trying to achieve what others have done. We encourage our students to view themselves as members of the community, capable of applying and enhancing the existing knowledge of that community. I have often heard MOOCs compared favorably to professional conferences. When we attend conferences, we form networks of information sharing and establish ourselves as nodes among those networks. The networks themselves are quite distributed, determined by the distribution of attendees, and quite heterogeneous, thanks to the collection of divergent opinions. Indeed, I argue that the variety of viewpoints found in conferences are frequently their most refreshing and intellectually stimulating characteristics. The same can be true of a distributed course. If we view our classroom as a node in a distributed network of potential learning resources, we might begin to take advantage of the knowledge that is out in the world, helping our students harness those resources to achieve their goals.


MOOC-styled assessment differs radically from typical submit-grade-return assessment from traditional teacher-lead classes. The economies of scale involved in MOOCs prevent teachers from grading work from individuals enrolled in the course. Instead, students self-assess, determining whether they have done what they needed to do or got from the assignment what they expected to get. Extrinsically motivated students reach out to their peers to evaluate their work or provide other feedback. With a MOOC assignment, as with real-life projects, grades do not serve as the ultimate goal. Instead, accomplishment or achievement is the target, and satisfaction measures success. Our students may not be qualified to determine whether they have submitted ‘A’ quality work (indeed, many are sorely mistaken in thinking that they have), but I believe all students are able to tell whether something has been done or not. If we change the terms of assessment to be “done” versus “not done” and clearly delineate our objectives, students are impressively capable of measuring against an explicit standard.

But what of quality measures? Can students articulate whether something is “good enough”? I’m still not convinced. I’ve been in the classroom for over a dozen years, and I still haven’t found a way to reliably give students the tools they need to give accurate evaluations of “objective” quality, such as the characteristics shown on a rubric. When teachers grade papers, we have the advantage of quantity, which allows comparison. We can point to one paper, assert that it’s of sufficient quality to earn a B, then point to another paper and say that it does not reach the same standard. When a student writes a single paper for an assignment, that student has no such luxury of comparison. In short, the student cannot calibrate for assessment. If we give students multiple papers to review, couldn’t they identify which papers are better or worse than the others? And from there, couldn’t they identify why the papers are better or worse than others? So rather than establishing an arbitrary standard for each letter grade, we could use rank to tell us the same information about relative quality, but with far more meaningful results: Students could say which products were the best and explain the characteristics that imbued that quality. Our students could provide all the benefits of grading without the haggling of assigning an actual letter. And we wouldn’t grade a thing. That sounds delightful.

Instead of providing grades for assessment, our classes would provide comparative, evaluative, constructive feedback—far more valuable, meaningful, and beneficial. This feedback has two goals: first, to help students complete the projects of the course. Feedback would provide guidance to improve quality and ensure success. The second goal of feedback-as-assessment is to encourage and provide opportunity for reflection, the next essential philosophy of MOOC design.


Reflection is nothing new for many traditional courses, especially those that use portfolios for student or program assessment. Brian Huot, Kathleen Blake-Yancey, Ed White, and of course Nedra Reynolds and Richard Aaron Rice have all outlined best practices for student reflection within portfolios and their cover letters. White’s 2005 piece in the CCC asserts the benefits of metacognition and argumentation that lead to effective portfolio cover letters and efficient program assessment. Because MOOCs are built around an open-ended learning process, rather than a set curriculum, asking students to reflect on their experiences may seem more natural in these large classes than it is in a more intimate setting. When the point of a MOOC is to provide students with an opportunity to learn, the only way to measure the course’s success would be to ask students whether those opportunities materialized. Because a MOOC relies on building connections with ideas and resources, we must encourage our students to recognize those connections when they exist. Building reflection into the structure of the course helps create a sense of cohesion in an otherwise disparate platform and directs student attention to the intrinsic benefits of connected learning. By means of an isolated example, the two MOOC MOOC courses created by Jesse Stommel, Pete Rorabaugh, and Sean Michael Morris established a regular point of contact for thousands of participants through a daily Twitter chat using a specific hash tag. Their daily discussions invariably asked participants to reflect on the day’s activities and connect them with their own teaching and learning processes.

Those daily Twitter chats were a means of collective sensemaking, to borrow a word from Karl Weick’s Sensemaking in Organizations. The chats allowed people to highlight what inspired them and flesh out what confused them. Reflection through shared sensemaking formed the core of the conversation and shaped the foundation of the learning for each day. Weick defines sensemaking in terms many of us might use to describe learning: “Sensemaking is about such things as placement of items into frameworks, comprehending, redressing surprise, constructing meaning, interacting in pursuit of mutual understanding, and patterning” (6). Of note, he includes interacting in his definition, again asserting the primary position of connections within the learning process.

Speaking of process, Weick employs that term when distinguishing sensemaking from interpretation:

Sensemaking is clearly about an activity or a process, whereas interpretation can be a process but is just as likely to describe a product. It is common to hear that someone made “an interpretation.” But we seldom hear that someone made “a sensemaking.” We hear, instead, that people make sense of something, but even then, the activity rather than the outcome is in the foreground. A focus on sensemaking induces a mindset to focus on process, whereas this is less true with interpretation. (13)

By asking students in a classroom—distributed or otherwise—to reflect on their experiences accomplishing tasks they set out to do, we are asking them to engage in an active process of sensemaking and knowledge construction. These acts lead to the final essential philosophy of MOOC design: trust in students.


All distance education courses require some degree of trust in our students. For some courses, that trust manifests itself through believing that a student taking a quiz is that student claims to be. However, it should be clear by now that the greatest strength of massive online courses is their ability to provide opportunities for people to connect with one another; identity creation/management is part of the fun. When courses do not emphasize content mastery through assessment and instead emphasize problem-solving through collaboration, teachers place their trust on their students’ ability to creatively solve problems, look for resources and assistance when needed, and ultimately achieve the goals of the course. The challenge here is one of the most difficult for experienced teachers to manage: in order to trust students to solve problems on their own, teachers need to let go of a degree of control within the class. As one who taught in-person high school classes for a decade and earned reputation for keeping my students focused on work and not social distractions, I can directly attest to the difficulty of trusting students to do work without me having to oversee their activities all the time. Our ability to trust our students to complete the requirements of a distributed online class relies on our ability to construct achievable and clear objectives for assignments and the overall course. If we design classes that expect our students to learn to be able to do something, rather than learn to be opposed to memorize something, the process becomes flexible, and our students have the freedom to discover solutions that work for them. In effect, we end up learning to trust our students to be more like adults and their self-management and more aware of and responsible for their own learning.

This trust we place in our students builds directly from the four other core principles of MOOC design. By emphasizing collaboration over individualized work, we trust that our students will share their thinking and their ideas with others, allowing those other students to benefit from the unique perspectives each student can provide. By building our classes around connections students make between ideas and with outside conversations and other resources, we trust that our students will find themselves as a node on a greater network, and that they can establish themselves as a participating member of an ongoing conversation. By developing assessment standards that empower students to both identify when a task is successfully accomplished and compare multiple examples in an effort to measure relative quality, we trust that our students have an innate ability to critically distinguish varying levels of quality and need only to be guided toward refining that ability in specific ways that relate to our discipline. And finally, by building in opportunities for critical reflection on students’ own learning processes, we trust that students will develop an awareness of their own growth as a learner and as a thinker. Yes, the principles of MOOC design demand a significant degree of trust from instructors. But these courses demand that instructors trust their students to learn, to think, and to achieve. Rather than arguing that these courses expect an unreasonable amount of trust in student abilities, I argue that MOOCs require teachers to trust in our students’ abilities to do exactly what we want them to do: learn in new and creative ways.

Classroom Implementation

Having reviewed the five essential elements of MOOC design, I would like to review and emphasize how those elements can be applied effectively to the classroom environment. With MOOC-like approaches to class, students would have a need for genuine collaboration to incorporate a variety of perspectives, the authority to assess the work of themselves and their peers in meaningful ways, the obligation to reflect on their learning as a process, and an opportunity to connect with information and knowledge sources outside their classroom. At the same time, teachers of a MOOC-inspired course would be tasked with building cooperative teams of students that work together to reach a common goal, rather than to engage in artificial or detrimental competition; setting goals for those groups that require students to work together in social groups, rather than as isolated individuals; encouraging students to think they’ve urgently and find resources from across the Internet; and trust that students, given the opportunity, will find creative ways to solve challenging problems and achieve more than they believed they could. Each of these elements can help make a teacher’s job more rewarding and less stressful. Building collaborative teams allows students to draw from one another for energy, opinions, direction, and enthusiasm; the teacher need not be responsible for managing every moment of the students’ learning process. Setting clear goals that students are capable of understanding, managing, and assessing allows teachers to offload much of the tedium of grading to students, who stand to benefit from the process by becoming more familiar with the expectations of the assignment and the capabilities of their group members. Encouraging students to reflect on their experiences helps students see the value of course activities and, more importantly, to see themselves in the role of knowledge-creator, rather than seeing the teacher as the sole source of information. And finally, trusting that students will connect with resources as necessary and find surprising solutions to challenging problems enables students to grow as learners and independent thinkers. Students are given the freedom to learn the way they naturally do.

Implementing the essential characteristics of MOOC design does not fundamentally reform the education system. However, it provides a fresh perspective from which to evaluate the effectiveness and opportunities of traditional classroom instruction. By critically exploring the educational adaptations brought on by the MOOC platform, teachers can do away with the distractions and tedium of modern standardized education frameworks and instead focus on what really matters: helping students grow as learners.

I presented this material at the North Carolina Symposium on Teaching Writing; I have posted the slides I used on SlideShare.

[Photo background on title slide from country_boy_shane on Flickr.]]]>