More Than Cogs: Resisting Mechanization with MOOCs

If we could juuuuust fit into those grooves, everything would be fine…right?

Standardized testing and an educational process formed during the Industrial Revolution have led to a view of students, particularly in K-12 education, of students as cogs in a mechanized wheel, there to do the same thing everyone else does, to achieve the same goals, and to write the same way. By the time our students get to our first-year composition courses, many have had any individuality in their writing and thinking stripped away. In this post, I turn to massive open online courses—MOOCs—for some inspiration to reform our on-ground classes and resist the mechanization of our students.

Back in 1989, John Seely Brown, Allan Collins, and Paul DuGuid distinguished between authentic activity and the ersatz activities they say are common in modern schools. They found that students were often told to act as though they were a member of a professional group even though assignments often ask students to complete arbitrary, only-ever-in-school kinds of tasks. Those of us who teach genre awareness should recognize this challenge when it comes to creating assignments that ask students to express their understanding of situated genres: in order to explain their knowledge about practical or real-world genres, they use a genre created only for the assignment or the course. Brown, Collins, and DuGuid saw this in the various classes they surveyed, finding that “many of the activities students undertake are simply not the activities of practitioners and would not make sense or be endorsed by the cultures to which they are attributed” (34). Do our writing classes ask our students to do the kinds of writing that writing scholars themselves do? This mismatch seems particularly difficult to combat in an FYC course, where many students (or their instructors) have not yet identified the students’ future cultures of practitioners in discipline-sensitive courses, or they do not feel students have sufficient understanding of the composition field to contribute meaningful texts in the genres we use. As an additional complication, FYC often exists as an institutional gatekeeper or general prerequisite, creating a reputation for the course analogous to little more than a stepping stone—something relevant only to the next writing course, rather than to life after the degree—or a hurdle—something to be successfully navigated and then left behind. In these limited-scope cases, there may be little incentive to create assignments that have relevance or implications beyond that of institution. Activities of practitioners are hardly relevant if the prospects of the course are to make students better students.

In a TED Talk from 2010, Sir Ken Robinson challenged us to “change the educational paradigm.” He claims that our education system, particularly K-12, treats students as little more than cogs in a machine, widgets to be cranked, or standardized products prepared for standardized processing through a mechanized production system. Robinson questions why we make students progress through their education based on their date of manufacture instead of on their demonstrated ability. He, along with those like James Gee who push for a more technologized approach to education, argues that learning—and human interaction—is far more individuated, social, and networked than traditional classroom-based education and should involve far more creativity, flexibility, and play than traditional one-test-fits all educational practices permit. Standardized processing of students is insensitive at best, culturally devastating at worst. To researchers like Robinson and Gee, school reform should focus on enhancing the abilities of individual students rather than relying on the abilities of the assessment industry. Of course, limited budgets and overworked teaching staff make individual attention a formidable challenge. Computer-aided learning, around the turn of the millennium, seemed to hold the key to tailored “instruction” where machines could provide individualized rote instruction at the expense of individualized human attention. Much more recently, the explosive popularity of MOOCs from major universities and corporations has caused us to reflect on the connections between teacher and student, particularly in terms of scale. The massive, open course format presents a pedagogical challenge: can networked education be creative, flexible, playful, and social while still being individualized? I assert that several features of MOOCs can indeed provide students with a relevant, appropriate, and adaptive individual learning experience.

The mechanization of education and the implications of individuation quickly become critical in considerations of first-year writing courses. These classes often expect each student to write a number of papers on fixed subjects throughout the term, which teachers (often graduate students) need to assess. This basic scenario, which has been the standard core of first-year writing courses for over one hundred years, places the instructor at the top of an authoritative hierarchy, asserting that the instructor knows the material best and is best qualified to assess the quality of student work. But that hierarchy falters when the subject or genre of student writing is outside the expertise of the instructor, which often happens if students are asked to write about topics of interest to the student, not the instructor. Beyond challenges of topic, issues of medium and genre further complicate matters. Though we can still trace many of our course and course assignments back to an exclusively alphabetic origin, the move in our field away from a narrow definition of “writing” and toward a broader conception of “composition” increases the likelihood that instructors will be evaluating genres that are to them unfamiliar. I see this unfamiliarity first-hand as a GTA in a program open to digital genres but built from a traditional essay-based foundation. Accepting diverse genres of student work on a broad range of topics creates the programmatic challenge of training for multimodal assessment: how do we empower contingent faculty to create assignments that explore new genres while also giving them the confidence to meaningfully assess those products? As we continue to theorize the nature of writing and adjust our pedagogies to accommodate, we continue to be challenged by the need for relevant, authentic assessment in first-year writing courses…the very assessments that we, as a field or particularly as contingent instructors, may feel least qualified to assess.

Interestingly, the best solutions to these problems of assessment and qualification may come directly from the phenomenon that seems most contrary to the needs and nature of first-year writing: MOOCs. I suggest that, by applying some of the principle philosophies of MOOC course design to our traditional face-to-face first-year writing courses, we could better improve the individualization of the course experience while simultaneously relieving instructors of much of their formative assessment duties, thus reducing the responsibility of the instructor to know everything. I propose an approach to first-year writing using principles from massive open online courses but in ways that can be implemented whether a class meets online or on-ground. In this presentation, I will introduce and explore the characteristics of MOOCs that are relevant to traditional, smaller, and in-person first-year writing courses.

But first, I need to clarify the term “MOOC”. A massive open online course can be any course that is robust, resilient, and flexible enough for dozens or thousands of students to work on it simultaneously (hence “massive”); whose content is freely accessible (or “open”) to anyone who wants to explore, participate, or complete the course; and whose content can be accessed over a network without regard for physical location.
Beyond that basic definition, I need to make a distinction between two fundamentally different approaches to designing these courses: cMOOCs and xMOOCs. The xMOOC, made popular by corporate models like Udacity, Coursera, and EdX, work from an information-delivery model, in which the institution offering the course possesses knowledge that the student attempts to obtain, and proof of that achievement results in some form of credentialing. The other approach—actually the original—started with a 2008 course at the University of Manitoba from Siemens and Downes. Known as the cMOOC, or connectivist MOOC, these courses work from an information-discovery model, in which the institution facilitates exploration of knowledge, discovery of resources, and the development of social collateral. These courses are designed with internet-based thinking, or what Ulmer calls “electracy”, in mind. They don’t often lend themselves toward testing, and the experience of the course is generally more important than the content. From now on, when I talk about a MOOC, I mean a cMOOC.

Clearly, traditional FYC courses—indeed, our entire historical FYC paradigm—cannot work well as massive courses. Can you imagine grading thousands of assignments? There isn’t enough scotch on the planet. And while many of our courses really could function in open-access online variants, issues of originality might problematize the arrangement. Those two concerns are often at the heart of resistance to FYC MOOCs. However, if we look at other aspects of MOOC design, we will find that they can help inspire new thinking about our approaches to teaching FYC. I want to focus specifically on their openness, their tendency toward connectivity, and their use of distance. I argue that an on-ground writing course can embrace those same characteristics and allow the student experience to better align with modern demands for communication, composition, and rhetoric.


The open element of a MOOC means students have access to the course content and materials without being limited by a paywall, institutional membership, and sometimes even registration. This allows decisions about source materials to be flexible and adaptable to student needs. Because open-access materials are free, they eliminate an access barrier many of us—with our evaluation copies and tables full of free Bedford books—can too often dismiss. We should work to move our course designs to use freely available materials. As the open-access movement in journal publication continues to grow, this goal should become easier to attain.

Using free source materials for class would make students happy. Creating freely available work would make students understand. Our students should be contributing to the very online conversations they so often rely on to help build their knowledge. As Morgan Read-Davidson illustrated in his talk at last year’s conference, posting work to a public forum gives a better sense of audience, more accountability, and a clear sense of purpose. Letting students create work for the open internet forces them to consider the destination of their work, breaking them out of the traditional limitations of texts read only by the teacher. It also means their work will be judged by the same standard as the open-access materials they used, allowing students to turn a critical, reflective eye back on their own work.
The best MOOCs are connectivist, relying on links to build networks of understanding. On-ground classrooms can just as easily exist as part of a larger network; students with access to mobile technology are usually convinced that Wikipedia and Google are a birthright, accessible from anywhere and at any time. We should foster this sense of availability by having students explicitly link from their work to the source material they used, emphasizing intertextuality and collaborative authorship. Students are going to use network resources to compose. By making their own work open-access and by having them explicitly link to their source materials, we can add academic habits of mind to their typical work habits.


Our students are accustomed to having their work measured, assessed, or deemed worthy by a third party, and by the time they get to college, they generally have never held the authority to critique someone else’s work. While peer review has ostensibly been a part of our values in composition studies, how many of us help our students become so good at it that they can effectively measure one another’s success with their work? I tried that last semester, and let me tell you, I have never before failed so spectacularly. Most writing assignments in primary and secondary education revolve around the modes of expression and often show evidence of explanation, analysis if we’re fortunate, and synthesis if we’re lucky and the planets align. Students are infrequently asked to evaluate, and that leads to a severe dearth of familiarity and skill when it comes to reviewing other people’s work critically. MOOCs, due to their size, really don’t allow for any other source of evaluation for writing assignments, unless you count machine-scored writing. Which I don’t, and neither do you. Therefore, the participants in writing MOOCs must serve as evaluators for one another. I’ve been in a couple MOOCs designed for educators, and even we were paranoid about evaluating one another, questioning how effectively the student could become the judge. MOOCs make it impossible for teachers to grade student work. At first, that sounds like a delightful reprieve, and it is. But that reprieve moves a terrifying responsibility to our students, and it’s one for which they are woefully under-prepared. Rather than complain about the shortcoming, however, I choose to take this moment as a challenge. I underprepared my students for successful peer review. MOOC philosophies helped me see this.

The challenge to improve peer review effectiveness starts with more attention to collaborative, connective work. Allowing students to work together on writing pieces, including collaborative authorship in which students can make changes to one another’s work as they see fit, happens easily with tools like Google Docs. Going back to the idea of openness, if we help students find online communities that they can work to join, those groups can help provide additional guidance and feedback, so long as our students are prepared to seek it out (and interpret the feedback when they get it). Collaborating with outside groups reinforces the students’ need for strategic rhetoric to achieve their goals (of getting insight/support from the community).


Time Zones create interesting challenges for collaborative MOOCs. If most participants are on the US east coast and someone tries to participate from New Zealand, what seems synchronous to some is anything but to others. MOOC course design must therefore be both flexible and always-on. In order to allow anyone to feel like an active participant, many MOOCs have activities that can be completed with or without active community assistance, can be completed out of order or at different times. But with on-ground classes that meet in a specific room at a time set by the master schedule, this kind of chronological flexibility seems incompatible. But why? If we take the approach of a flipped classroom, having students work at a time that’s convenient for them, then meet to discuss afterward, we can ensure our students have time to process and reflect on their work.

Another significant advantage of designing an always-on course is that students see that the work in (or relevance of) our classes don’t stop when they leave and the door closes behind them. If our lives are infused with always-connected technology, tapping into that familiarity helps to make each class a hybrid class, infusing life outside the classroom with opportunities to learn. Digital tools work just as well away from campus as on. (Or perhaps better, if the internet connectivity of our dorms is any indication.) By opening the course content to elements that can be accessed and processed at any time, we establish FYC content as a more constant source of engagement. Students can see that our content matters and is relevant to life outside the world we create in class.

Continue the MOOCification Conversation

I’ve thrown around some fairly broad ideas today, just suggesting a different perspective on MOOCs that might be less frightened, intimidated, or reactionary than those claiming MOOCs signal the impending implosion of higher ed. I’d like to continue the conversation with you, to find more ideas for how we can effectively implement MOOC strategies in our on-ground classes. And I happen to have a MOOC coming up that will help us do just that.

On Saturday, June 15 (next weekend), I’m working with Jesse Stommel, Sean Michael Morris, and Janine DeBaise to host a 24-hour MOOCathon about integrating MOOC principles into on-ground courses, or what we call MOOCification. The course goes live at 12am EDT June 15, with open-access content about why and how to MOOCify existing courses. We’ll have Twitter chats under the hashtag #moocmooc at 12am, 8am, 4pm, and 11:59pm on June 15 to explore reasons, methods, rationale, and implications of moving distributed learning techniques into the local classroom. Because it’s a MOOC, we’ll use many of the principles I’ve discussed here, but our goal is to get people to explore how this buzzword course format du jour can help us re-imagine how our existing on-ground classes can adapt to modern communication and collaboration strategies. Go to to sign up or learn more.