A MOOC? Really?

I’m having to answer a lot of questions lately about the Digital Engagement Summer Pilot of Univ 200, also a MOOC, a Massive Open Online Course.  Maybe it’s the combination of both these notions:  a traditional research and writing course delivered online AND a course open to the masses that baffles, and maybe even terrifies, some of my colleagues and friends.  Three summers ago, when I first taught Univ 200 online, I encountered the same vague confusion.  Colleagues asked, “How can you teach that course online?” and better yet,  “Why would you even want to teach that course online?”

My most recent question about the summer cMOOC was posed by a colleague and friend as we stood alongside a bar one day after work. He asked, “What are our students going to do when they get that 70 year old Political Science professor who expects a traditional research paper?” The implication was: and you MOOC people have only taught your students to play around on the internet.

His concern, voiced honestly to me, was that we would be failing our students if we teach Univ 200 any differently than the way in which we currently do, and have done, for many years.  Like him,  I don’t want to fail my students;  I want to facilitate their learning, and to create a space for them to raise questions, find answers, practice writing, revising, thinking and rethinking.  But I don’t believe for a minute that the only space where genuine inquiry, research, and writing can take place is inside four concrete walls on the second floor in Harris Hall.

We have this myth, one that we live by, as teachers of Univ 200.  Maybe all composition teachers live by this same myth, and that is:  after our course (our well planned, well executed course) our students will step out into academia as capable researchers and writers.  Some of our students do improve over the semester, thankfully, but the truth is, a good many do not. They pass our courses because they go through the motions, but they are not any more competent as writers than they were when they first entered our classroom just a few months prior.  My bet is that when they get into the 70 year old Political Science professor’s classroom they will likely do what they have always done: figure out what the teacher wants, and work to give it to the teacher in the best way they can muster.

What is wrong, then, with trying out the online, connected cMOOC space for teaching and learning?  What is wrong with piloting a new course that promotes a radical vision for inquiry and research?   And why does teaching upstream against a current of naysayers feel so familiar?  Oh, that’s right.  It’s what we’ve done we’ve done for the last eight years in Focused Inquiry.