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I’m failing my MOOC.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not learning anything.

I enrolled in Coursera’s “English Composition I” with the best of intentions. I’ve been writing about MOOCs, often critically, and thought I should experience massive, open, online learning for myself. I chose English Composition I because it’s a course I teach and I was curious to experience it from the student side of the equation.

So, six weeks ago, 60,000 classmates and I began watching the initial videos featuring our teacher, Prof. Denise Comer of Duke University.

Professor Comer is no “sage on the screen,” but instead acts as a friendly and open guide, spending her time (in the initial videos at least) not lecturing, but talking directly into the camera from her office, Skype-style. Periodically, animated PowerPoint-ish slides serve as visual aids, not too different from what a student might experience in a lecture/discussion course in a traditional setting.

In the first unit, we were asked to consider ourselves as writers, and given a task to help us brainstorm the writing milestones in our lives.

I do something similar in my own class, but found Professor Comer’s brainstorming prompt superior. I’ll be stealing it.

I was looking forward to our first assignment, a critical review of an article, in this case Daniel Coyle’s “The Sweet Spot,” a chapter from his book, The Talent Code, which explores the ways we develop skills and debunks some myths about the role and recognition of talent. The assignment is actually a tad more sophisticated than how I begin with my students in that it asked me to both summarize and respond to Coyle’s argument. I begin the semester with an initial assignment where students are asked to do only a summary, with the response being added in as part of the second assignment.

I felt like I had lots to say in response to Coyle, particularly in the context of learning writing and spent some time considering different points I wanted to raise, not too different from how I approach writing for this space.

And then I got sick. Not sure what it was. Possibly the plague. I reduced my activities to the bare essentials, breathing, basically, and even as my brain boiled in my skull, I managed to meet my classes. The ten days of being well beneath full capacity put me behind in all kinds of life and work responsibilities, and my MOOC participation suffered. I missed the draft deadline for assignment 1 as well as the peer review. Once or twice a week Prof. Comer sent me (and 60,000 others) a friendly reminder of where we’d been and where we were going next. Each time an e-mail arrived, I felt brief pangs of guilt before deciding that completing that work was too far down the personal priority list to even register.

I now find myself hopelessly behind. We’ve just passed the midway point and I have the functional equivalent of a zero. I’ve caught up with my school and life work just in time to receive the final researched essays from my students, essays which will take me a solid week to grade and return, a process which sometimes makes me wish for something more pleasant, like being sick with the plague.

Even though I’ve all but abandoned my MOOC after barely getting started, the experience has provided some fresh personal insights into teaching and learning.

For one, it reminded me how difficult it can be for my students when some misfortune, like an even briefly debilitating illness, hits them during the semester. The schedule waits for no one, not even in the MOOC world. Without sufficient incentive to catch up in my MOOC, one hiccup was enough to put me off track.

For another, in terms of external content, MOOCs match or even surpass traditional classrooms. In addition to the “lectures,” and other related videos, Prof. Comer arranged a live, 45 minute-long “Google Hangout” with Daniel Coyle that allowed for questions from some of the participants. I imagine it’s relatively easy to get authors to sign on for group video chat when you tell them there’s a potential audience of 60,000 people for it.

At the same time, for me, it reinforces that the content by itself is a very limited part of what matters in terms of teaching and learning. This feeling is perhaps biased by my discipline (writing/literature) and relatively small courses (20 students max), but as good as Prof. Comer’s content is, and as engaging and nice as she appears to be on screen, she and I don’t have a relationship, and when it comes to learning, relationships matter.

Like just this afternoon, I was holding some final office hours prior to the turning in of the researched essays. One of my under-the-radar students dropped by. I was surprised. This student has been cruising pretty comfortably in the B/B+ range this semester, clearly doing the essays without breaking much of a sweat, but also, by not breaking a sweat, not excelling. This is actually a student who could likely pass a proficiency test in the course without taking it.

I answered a couple of questions about the assignment and then encouraged the student to really polish the final version because it was on track to be the best work of the semester, and that I could tell, for the first time, that this student was engaged by the challenge of an assignment. I also told the student that I knew about the coasting. I guessed (an easy one) that the student had come from an affluent school district, and that the course material, the modes of discourse we practiced, seemed relatively familiar.

The student indicated I was on target. There was a sheepish grin. I said that it didn’t bother me that the student was coasting, but that it seemed important to say that I had indeed noticed, and I was glad to see it less in evidence in this final assignment.

We had a nice chat about some other things, possible majors/fields of study, how the field of interest in the researched essay might mesh with those things someday.

We talked about the fact that a number of the student’s colleagues had in fact quite possibly not written analytical essays (or any other kind of essay) before attending college, and were therefore struggling with a course that seemed so easy to the student.

The student was surprised by this. This student had never considered this before. That felt like an important victory, hopefully for both of us. The student left, “excited” to finish the project. I said I was excited to read it in its final form.

I like to think that it is this conversation, more than the content of our course, that will linger with the student. My hope is that the student will remember the time a teacher was willing to call the student out for coasting, the time we could tell each other we were excited to see how things were going to turn out.


Conversations happen on Twitter too.


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