murmur: a MOOC by any other name

August 13, 2012

So, I’m participating in this week’s MOOC MOOC, a massive open online course about massive open online courses. As a part of Monday’s exercises, participants were instructed to introduce themselves to other course participants on the course introduction space and to complete a reading and writing assignment. With some folks beginning to participate over the weekend, and since I am operating on Mountain Time, there were already around three hundred introductions–and they were flying in as I completed mine. Thinking about this from a student perspective, it’s hard not to feel a little lost already.

For the first reading/writing assignment, we were asked to contemplate a list of questions and to explore six “articles.” The readings ranged from blog posts and articles to an online wiki-style guide to MOOCS.  The guiding questions were as follows:

The Questions at Hand

  1. What are MOOCs? What do we think they are? What do we fear they may be? What potential lies under their surface?
  2. How do we approach the MOOC? If MOOCs render our previous pedagogies dull and ineffective, how do we innovate? What do we innovate?
  3. If MOOCs aren’t a replacement for the classroom in higher education, how else might they be employed in our teaching and learning?
  4. Does connectivism make more sense than broadcast-, auditorium-style online learning? Why or why not? What do each offer — to students, teachers, administrators, institutions?

The writing assignment is a collaboration. Participants were asked to ponder two questions–What is a MOOC? What does it do, and what does it not do?–and then contribute to a 1000-word essay as part of a google docs collaboration. Participants were also instructed to include a picture licensed through the Creative Commons and to reference the assigned research articles.

(If this sounds a bit like a course observation at this point, it’s only because that’s the best way I know to provide the context for this post.)

As both a writing instructor and writing studies researcher, I found this assignment intriguing. Unfortunately, because I didn’t get underway until Monday, I am unable to participate in the activity. Still, I want to engage with this process as earnestly as possible, so I’ve chosen to share my response to the assignment on my blog.

a mooc by any other name

As far as I can tell at this stage, a MOOC is a way to deliver learning opportunities to the largest possible audience. Period. There doesn’t appear to be a shared technological platform or instructional philosophy. Although, as Marc Bousquet (drawing on the work of George Siemens and Stephen Downes) points out the best MOOCs are rooted in “connectedness” and “the social character of learning”:

Good MOOC’s, in [Siemen’s and Downes’s] view, foreground and sustain the social dimension of learning and active practices, i.e., knowledge production rather than knowledge consumption. To a limited extent, certain experiments in MOOC’s that foreground social media participation over “content mastery” realize some of the ideals of Siemen and Downes.

Since collaboration, active learning, and the production of knowledge lie at the heart of most contemporary writing classes–regardless of the environment in which they are delivered–I find this possibility heartening. For those of us who believe (because our experience and research show us) that writing courses are necessarily small in order to enable collaboration, community, and connection, it is great to see leaders in this movement highlighting the value of those ideals.

The challenge, however, is that some early MOOCs have privileged content mastery. As Sean Michael Morris notes, some MOOCs simply scale up old models of online teaching and learning for “massive” audiences. Morris participated in a University of Michigan course on Science Fiction and Fantasy offered through Coursera and found that it employed methods and mechanisms he and his colleagues had used a decade prior:

Granted, I’ve only gotten a glance at what Coursera is doing; nonetheless, they appear to be offering the same brand of content that CCCO offered a decade ago — but without the innovations and interactivity available when I left the school. The one extra thing they’ve added are video-taped lectures by well-known professors — professors who, it turns out, don’t actually teach the course (I received an e-mail from a course “staff member”).

This, along with access, is my primary concern. If the most visible MOOCs rely on class structures we’ve been trying to escape for decades, how are they an improvement? How long have we heard the complaint about higher ed–from students, parents, and pundits–that college students are reduced to numbers, herded into large lectures that allow for little interaction with senior faculty (or one another) and then corralled into breakout sessions or labs led by over-worked, under-paid teaching assistants? This argument was around when I was an undergraduate in the early 1990s, documented quite memorably in Reality Bites. Social Security Number? “It’s the only thing I really learned in college.” And as labor issues are a growing concern in a higher-education system that relies heavily on contingent faculty, I cannot imagine this MOOC model will allay them.

There is a glimmer of hope out there, I guess. Drawing on a piece by Jesse Stommel, one of the managing editors of Hybrid Pedagogy, Morris points out that this is not all set in stone.  Yet.

Jesse Stommel reminds us in his article, The March of the MOOCs: Monstrous Open Online Courses, that “MOOCs are all untapped potential” and “MOOCs are trainable.” In reality, the shapelessness of the MOOC approach, the vast chaos of it, can likely contribute much more to resurrecting that important connection between student and teacher than can any other form of online learning. Edmundson himself says that “Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.” And if there is any online educational approach that percusses the way jazz does, it’s the MOOC.

I love the hope and idealism expressed by both Stommel and Morris, but I am (as ever) skeptical. I wonder, for example, what happens if you’re a shy participant. Or working through a technology anxiety. Or a slow typer.

And that’s why “murmur.” It’s not just the predilection for REM-inspired blog titles. I was overwhelmed by the volume of activity on the introduction thread on this MOOC. And I’ve participated in and read plenty of online discussions. I felt like a murmur in a lively conversation. It’s like not knowing anyone at a party. Like everyone knows everyone and is having a great time. Except you. It’s usually an illusion, but that doesn’t change the way it feels.  I wouldn’t want my students to feel that, and I wouldn’t want them overwhelmed by that first dip into interacting with their classmates.

So, I guess as a writing instructor, my skepticism thus far (beyond, you know, the usual level that comes with being a too-young curmudgeon) is a hesitancy associated with anything massive.

I look forward to learning more, of course, and I’m so very glad that we are having a large, public conversation about it. I don’t want anyone–especially those of us who do the work of designing and teaching courses, research the teaching of subject areas, or administer (and/or research the administration of) academic programs–left out. I think our disciplinary differences need to be as much a part of this discussion as pedagogical best practices and the best interests of learners.


keywords of multimodality

March 21, 2012

As an inventional exercise in our workshop at Computers & Writing 2012, we all shared our definitions of multimodality. Here is the list of keywords that came out of that exercise:

layers of meaning
expansive/expanded view of composing
spectrum of composers (amateur to expert)
semiotic systems
multiple symbol system
mixing of old and new
digital & non-digital
trans-systemic (platform to platform)
rhetorical canons

multimodal assignment resources

March 21, 2012

Gliffy (flowcharts & diagrams)

Hohli (online chart builders)

MS Excel (charts & graphs)

StatPlanet (maps)

stock.xchng (free stock photography)

MS PowerPoint (using PPT to create infographics)

“The Genius of Old Spice’s Marketing Campaign”

“Behind the Work of Old Spice Responses”

“Internet Famous”

“4Chan Users Seize Internet’s Power for Mass Disruptions”

multimodal assignment: internet phenomenon project

March 20, 2012

internet phenomenon project

For this assignment, students work collaboratively to create and disseminate a media object in the hopes of making it “go viral.” It allows media-writing students to experiment with identity construction and popularity online; to gain experience with designing, recording, and editing audio/video; and to plan and manage a multimedia project. This semester-long project includes a concept paper with production schedule, a media object, a social media plan with implementation schedule and evaluation plan, a critique, a team postmort, and a presentation.

concept paper

The internet phenomenon is the actual media object (e.g., YouTube video, e-mail message, photograph, song) students produce and spread. For this assignment, groups submit a concept paper for the internet phenomenon. The concept paper is a short (approximately 500-word) document, akin to proposals for academic writing and treatments for film and television, in which groups present the concept they plan to develop. It includes the name/title of the phenomenon; drawings, images or storyboards; a rationale for the phenomenon; and the intended audience and the purpose of the phenomenon.

social media plan

The social media plan is approximately 500 words long and includes a situation analysis, a discussion of tactics for dissemination of the phenomenon, a schedule for implementation, and a plan for evaluating the success of the social media implementation.

project postmort

In the postmort, groups discuss what went well, what didn’t go well, and what they would do differently for future media production and social media implementation projects.

internet phenomenon critique

Students complete the critique independently. This assignment serves as an opportunity for students to reflect on the project individually and to apply concepts discussed during the course to the larger phenomenon of virality/popularity online.


At the end of the semester, groups present their internet phenomena, evaluation plan, and results to the class.


multimodal assignment: the commonplace book

March 20, 2012

the commonplace book

For this assignment, students create a commonplace book in which they use Tumblr to collect images, words, sounds, or any scrap or snippet to aid with the process of invention. Tumblr allows users to post text, photographs, quotations, weblinks, dialogue, and audio and video clips easily. For the most part, this assignment asks students to curate and comment. They are expected to make a minimum of five Tumblr posts per week for twelve weeks. The baseline requirement for an entry is to post an artifact (e.g., a YouTube video) and to comment on it. However, many of my students have used this as an opportunity to respond at length to what they read/view/hear on- and offline and, in some instances, to share their photography, art, and audio/video compositions.

This assignment runs the bulk of the semester, and it is evaluated simply based on its completeness. In other words, posting sixty entries that include an artifact with commentary within the specified period will receive full credit.

multimodality & teaching writing, a brief statement

March 20, 2012

As a part of a workshop at CCCC 2012 on multimodality that I am facilitating with colleagues from North Carolina State and Florida State (go State U’s!), I am going to provide additional information on a couple of multimodal assignments that I have used in writing classes. Before I do that, however, I thought I might provide a discussion of my philosophy on multimodality and teaching writing.

While I strive for innovation in my scholarly work–I am, with colleagues, “presenting” an interactive installation at Computers & Writing 2012 that visualizes sex-related content from a popular online dating site, for example–I am far more conservative in the writing classroom. In part because of my WID/WAC training, and in part because I was an extremely practical undergraduate, I tend to focus on traditional academic writing and research, as well as rhetorical training, when I teach writing. I use multimodal assignments as a) a way to expand students’ understanding of writing and composing in order to prepare them to communicate in a heavily mediated world and b) an opportunity for students to examine critically contemporary web phenomena (e.g., viral video). Sometimes simultaneously.

I accomplish my goal of practicality through two primary mechanisms. Either I position digital media as a new mechanism for doing (sometimes very, very) old work, or I package multimedia projects as a part of larger projects that involve a variety of composing, editing, and re/presenting in multiple modalities. I rely on my strengths and experiences (e.g., working in the technology sector in the late 90s and early 00s) when designing assignments. Don’t consider myself especially creative, at least one it comes to audio-visual design, which is the primary challenge I face when attempting to develop innovative assignments. However, the collaborative nature of the fields of composition and writing studies offers opportunities to work with others to explore exciting new avenues.

endgame–or, out of time

May 5, 2011

Apologies for a second, tenuous REM song/album title connection to a post. If you know me and are familiar with my previous forays into blogging, then you know how I adore blog titles that are a) only tangentially related to the blog topic and b) song titles or lyrics. Anyway, on to the point of this blog.

This week the CRDM program sponsored an excellent roundtable discussion on the academic job market. The discussion included fourth-year students who were on the market this year and faculty members who have served on search committees recently. This productive conversation allowed for students in the program to receive perceptions of the market, but it didn’t include a practical component with strategies for a successful year on the market. The biggest piece of advice that I have on this topic is simple: Know what works for you. Having said that, I’ll tell you what worked for me.

Hit the ground running

I started the semester with a strategy for searching for jobs.

  1. I generally determined the kinds of jobs I would be most interested in. For me, that meant jobs in rhet/comp or media and/or cultural studies with specializations in digital or social media in areas I wouldn’t mind living in. Whenever possible, I tried to get information on whether I would be interested in working in the department. After a discussion with a colleague, I did choose not to apply to a job that fit my other criteria based on his/her knowledge of the program.
  2. For years now, I have subscribed to a number of listservs related to my fields, and I began monitoring them closely for job postings appropriate to my skills and experience.
  3. I determined additional sites that would be appropriate to my job search. It depends on the field, of course, but I checked jobs on higher education sites (e.g., The Chronicle) about once per week.
  4. Once the MLA Job Information List was published, I checked it fortnightly for updates.
In addition to this commonsense search strategy, I also began the semester with an updated CV, a basic cover letter, and a teaching philosophy. (I wish I had also started it with a dissertation abstract, multiple writing samples, and evidence of teaching effectiveness.) I made arrangements with the members of my dissertation committee to provide me with letters of recommendation. (I should also say at this point that I subscribed to Interfolio and was able to request confidential letters of recommendation through the site.)

Choose a system of organization that works for you

I had a multi-pronged system of organization that bordered on obsessive. It centered on three things

  • Things for Mac: I use Cultured Code’s Things for Mac to manage all of my tasks, and job searching is no different. When I found a job I was interested in, I copied it into a Things to-do item. This program allows you to right-click from a page on the interwebs and create a new task. I would actually create two tasks in Things for all new jobs: 1) the deadline for sending information about it to my committee and 2) the deadline for the position.
  • A Google Spreadsheet: I used a google spreadsheet to I shared with my committee that included all of the jobs I planned to apply for, their deadlines, the departments they were in, and the materials they required. It is highly important to track the required materials and to share them with the committee. Every school wants something different, and both you and your committee need to know that. I added columns as schools requested additional information or scheduled conference/phone and campus interviews. I also used highlighting to indicate completed applications and, later in the process, whether I was still in the running for a position.
  • Folders on My Laptop: I created a folder on my laptop with the materials I sent to each school.
  • Physical Folders: I’m old, so I also had physical folders that included all the same materials that were in the folders on my laptop. These project pockets (hello, years in industry!) also included a coversheet with a checklist of items required for the application.

Determine how long you think each app will take–then triple that

In order to customize materials for each job, I researched the program, department, university, and city. I tailored my cover letter to the needs of each department and university community. Whenever I had an interview with a school, I went into it with a detailed table that included information on all of the people I would talk to, courses I could teach in the department, courses I could propose for the department, an understanding of the department’s structure and its role in the college (and the college’s role in the university), and the university’s strategic plan. It took hours to prepare each application packet. It took many, many more hours to prepare for interviews.

Remember that it has nothing to do with you

Probably the biggest piece of advice I can offer related to the job search is just to prepare yourself as best you can, put yourself in the best possession to get a job, take the process seriously, and then let go. The job search is a lot like poker. You can get your money in the middle in the best position to win, but you can’t control how the cards fall. There are so many things out of your control, so many things that have absolutely nothing to do with you, that you just can’t take it personally. If graduate school is soul crushing, then the job search is soul eviscerating. In order to survive it, even if it results in a fantastic job that you’re elated to have (which is the case with me), it’s still pretty much impossible to come through without a few nicks.

good advices — or, fables of the reconstruction

March 2, 2011

I am a reluctant advice-giver. This doesn’t mean that I’m neither helpful nor opinionated. I like to think of myself as the former–and I know (and pretty much anyone who has ever met me knows) I am the latter. I generally don’t like to give advice, though, because I always feel a little especially selfish while dispensing it, primarily because it takes attention away from the person I’m trying to help and focuses it on me. Lately, I’ve noticed more frequent instances of advice giving. This advice is usually related to the exam-taking and/or job-searching endeavors of Phd students, and it is almost always unsolicited. Recently a friend and second-year student in my program tweeted about her desire to throw in the towel. This is not unusual for Phd students, as anyone who has the “pleasure” of spending time with us can attest. I have threatened to quit on numerous occasions. More often than not, the threat level fell in the blue-green range. However, there were definitely a couple of red-level days. Of course, I’m glad that I never quit. I’m working on a project I’m absolutely committed to, and I have the great fortune to be joining the faculty of a wonderful department in the fall.

My point here is, and I tend to take the winding road to my points, that I’m going to offer some advice here. I’ve decided to do it for two reasons. First, as I mentioned earlier, I have some things I’d like to share with my twittering friend, and I can’t do it in 140 characters. I could send her an e-mail, but that gets me to my second reason for writing this post. Over the past couple of semesters, I have been requiring my students to blog about a topic/interest across the course of the semester. One concern that many have is their lack of authority as authors. I think it’s a legitimate concern, but I encourage them to find a niche and join the conversation. (I will add that this is a media-writing class that is generally taken by students who hope to be professional writers and therefore must become accustomed to engaging in public writing. I’m not sure how I feel about these sorts of assignments in other kinds of writing classes, but that’s a conversation for another time.) Truth be told, I suffer from those same authorial doubts. And if I, a burgeoning expert (oh, that still feels sooo uncomfortable) in my field, can’t blog on a topic, how can I expect them to? So this is also a case of my doing some practicing to go along with all the preaching I do (and must do) as a writing instructor.

Now that i’ve sufficiently situated my advice-giving so as to distance myself from the act of choosing to give it, here goes.

One of the reasons graduate school is so completely ego ravaging is that it’s a struggle to assume a new identity (Phd student) only to be forced out of it. The goal of being a graduate student is not being a graduate student anymore. Once you get comfortable as a successful seminar participant, you’ve finished your coursework. Once you figure out how to succeed with taking preliminary exams, you will (hopefully!) never take another exam. All the while, you’re also trying on different scholarly identities, donning different cloaks of thought. If you’re in an interdisciplinary program (like me), your academic closet is of the walk-in variety, the kind that gets special attention in real estate listings, perhaps even multiple photos in the virtual tour. Playing dress-up is fun, but when it comes to determining the uniform of your life’s work, it can be anxiety inducing as well. I am not saying that it’s necessary–or even a good idea–to pick a narrow specialty. (I am certainly not advocating teaching the pony to count to five and nothing more. Goodness knows I have worked very hard not to become the Buffy girl. By the way, since we’re in a parenthetical aside here, I take full license to move between metaphors willy-nilly.) I think my work spans a pretty wide spectrum. From twenty-thousand feet, it probably looks more than a bit scattered. However, there are clear themes (identity construction, the problematic of a public-private binary, the study of cultural practices) that run through my research trajectory, regardless of the diversity of methods and the disciplines I choose to engage with.

Although I know I still have plenty to learn–and a lot of work to do–I have an increasingly clear idea of who I want to be as a scholar, and I am working every day (well, most days, anyway) to become that person. I think the most important thing, though, is owning it–taking responsibility, avoiding defensiveness, and (no matter what my TCM doctor tells me about my sodium intake) taking every single thing with a grain of salt. In the words of the venerable Chuck D, don’t believe the hype–and that goes for your toughest criticism as well as your highest praise. Sycophants and naysayers rarely have your best interests at heart.

However, and this is a big one, voraciously consume (after seasoning it with the aforementioned salt grains) all feedback on your work. Whenever possible, ask for clarification and follow-up. If others take the time to comment on your writing, you owe it to them and you to take the time to take it in, reflect on it, incorporate it whenever possible (and understand when its not appropriate to do so). In graduate school, you have a captive audience of experts and peers–first in coursework and then on your committee–and that might not be the case in the future. Take full advantage of this situation.

Another ego-ravaging part of this process is that fact that we spend almost all of our time with really smart people–people we usually think are smarter than we are. That may or may not be true, but it doesn’t matter. Comparing yourself to others is, at best, unproductive. More than likely, comparing yourself to classmates or scholars in your field or Charlie Sheen is going to make you feel like a fraud, a sham, a loser. How do I know this? Because we’ve all done it, and we tend to compare ourselves to others when we’re feeling especially low. The only comparison you can make in which all variables are accounted for and all playing fields are equal is to yourself. Every now and then, revisit where you were when you started. Reread your thesis. I think you’ll surprised, both by how good it was and by how much better you are now.

In my second year, I had an identity crisis of sorts. I was struggling with how to balance “friend” Dawn with “scholar” Dawn. My friends had always thought of me as a fun girl — carefree, maybe a little too loud, first to the front of the stage at the rock show, last to leave the party — but I felt that I couldn’t be a fun girl and a serious scholar. It was tension in my self-conception that felt unresolvable. I felt that I couldn’t both be the person my friends and family loved and be a serious and productive scholar. I’m not sure exactly where I go this idea, but I was wrong. Now I don’t stay out as late as I used to, and I’ve pretty much traded in all rock shows for late-night rounds of BSG or Dominion (or, on one rare occasion, Talisman), but it is possible to be fun and serious. If you’re fun and serious. If you’re only fun or only serious, that’s okay, too. If you’re going to be only fun, however, you’d better be seriously good. My (academic) writing tends to be straightforward with the occasional splash of whimsy, so I’m not much of a pranker/playa.

I can feel myself losing the tenuous hold I have on this post, so I’m going to make one last point (and then I’m going to make dinner), but I think it might be the most important one. Never pretend to know more than you know. In fact, I tend to approach most every subject as if I know less than I probably do. I find that I learn more that way and that I’m more open to new ways of thinking. Plus, it’s hard to come off as an ass that way. However, I think it’s important to maintain an air of confidence and competence. Don’t play dumb. It’s can be an easy way out for women and girls, but it’s a cheat. Be confident and competent, fun and serious. Be good and good at what you do. Don’t be an ass. It’s a tough game, and the rules aren’t written down anywhere that I could find (not even on the internets!), but it’s kind of a calling, if you believe in that sort of thing. So just accept that you’ve made this crazy life choice and own it.

playing by the (foursquare) rules

February 18, 2010

Some of my fellow CRDMers and I have been experimenting with Foursquare. I am a firm believer that academics should spend time using/playing/working with the technologies they study. Since some of the folks in our program study mobile locative media (and games), a group of us regularly experiments with applications or programs that either seem interesting or seem to be catching on. This time around it’s Foursquare. I won’t provide a review or detail our experience, but I will say that that we’re having a good time. And unlike some of the other applications we’ve tried (I’m looking at you, loopt), I actually see (at least marginal) value in using it.

It was with great interest, she said hyperbolically, that I read a recent LA Times blog post on Foursquare cheating. You see, we had just had a discussion about this last week, except for us it was pranking and not cheating. Users can create and check into locations willy-nilly, so what’s to stop me from checking into a friend’s home when he leaves a rousing game of Dominion to get in a little late-night studying. You know, just for example. The subject of the blog post took it even further, going so far as to create bots to grab mayorships in something like 120 Starbucks locations. In describing his antics, he bemoaned Foursquare’s lax security. He seems concerned that the game has no rules.

Oddly, this reminds of the two projects I’m working on currently, two projects that send me in two lines of flight as I write. And that causes me to think that they’re more closely related than I’ve realized. I won’t touch on both here, but I will address one briefly, primarily because it’s an idea that I’ve been working through lately, and the subject of my Carolina Rhetoric Conference presentation on Saturday. You see, there are rules that govern Foursquare, just as there are rules that govern all communication. Sure, you can do lots of things on Foursquare–create joke locations, become the mayor of the busstop–that aren’t sanctioned by the game. But what makes it okay in my circle to check-in at home when we wake up in the morning, but makes us feel bad for checking in to a friend’s house when he’s not at home? I think it’s because we’ve decided (somehow) on what is appropriate, and I think that appropriateness is determined by how we are choosing to use this game. Although it’s fun to check the leaderboard to see who’s winning that week, we actually seem to be more interested in keeping tabs on one another. Perhaps that terminology is a bit too sinister, but it allows us to know where people are. Whenever someone cheats (or pranks) the system by checking in where she’s not, then that function’s value is diminished for us. So, like so many (rhetorical) situations, what is at stake here is the question of appropriateness, or decorum.