“Will MOOCs Work for Writing?,” asks Chris Friend in Hybrid Pedagogy. The short answer is “No.” Two people who don’t know how to write cannot teach each other how to write. 200,000 people who do not know how to write cannot teach themselves how to write either. There is no such thing as a magic rubric. Teaching writing is labor intensive by definition.
Much to Friend’s credit he doesn’t exactly say “Yes, MOOCs will work for writing.” Instead, he suggests certain aspects of composition MOOCs that can make teaching writing easier anywhere. Unfortunately, the lessons he draws are exactly the kind of lessons that make MOOCs an inferior form of higher education. Due to my now well-known disgust for peer grading, I’ll concentrate on this one:
MOOCs make us rethink or reinforce our conceptions of assessment, pitting the allure and efficiency of mechanized essay grading using machine readers and database-driven plagiarism detection against the more intimate, yet slower, traditional human-scored high-stakes writing. The unsettling spectre of automated essay scoring, applied at large scales, calls us to refine our approaches to writing assessment. Noted composition-assessment scholar Ed White credits the Duke writing MOOC with including reflection, revision, peer review, and challenging reading as pillars of assessment practice, even though the instructor isn’t directly involved in the process. Given most instructors’ distaste for grading, refiguring its role in composition might be the best thing we take from MOOCs.
So just because something more awful than peer-grading exists, we should give up on the idea that every student deserves access to the professor? How cowardly. It’s obvious from the rest of the post that Friend cares deeply about effective education, but the “third way” on MOOCs that he proposes (somewhere between loathing and irrational enthusiasm) is a recipe for disaster.
While some of us debate the possibility of whether the impossible is actually possible, accepted standards are gradually changing so that every aspect of higher ed can be automated, whether or not that’s a good idea (and if you care about quality, it almost always is a bad one). God forbid if we actually start bringing peer grading (as opposed to just peer evaluation) into the physical classroom. Then it will be even easier for the powers that be to eliminate professors entirely as the difference between face-to-face instruction and a MOOC would then actually be minimal.
With all due respect to all the lovely people who are trying to use cutting edge technology to make composition (or other writing-based) MOOCs possible, I don’t need to conduct an experiment to know whether you can turn lead into gold, even if Bill Gates wants it to be so. And while the MOOC enthusiasts continue to fiddle, Rome burns on.