My MOOC-y and SOCC-y Summer

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“What cool digirhet projects” have I been working on during “summer vacation?” Well, I don’t think this is exactly digital rhetoric or cool or even that “new,” but I have been working and thinking a lot about MOOCs and SOCCs.

You’ve probably heard of “Massive Open Online Courses” or MOOCs: these have been all the rage in places like The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, and they have gotten the popular press “bump” in places like The New York Times. I’ve been reading and blogging a lot about MOOCs since April or so.  While the first classes called MOOCs couple years ago were the freewheeling, DIY experiments of a small group of Canadian educators, the MOOCs in the news now are corporate enterprises that have attracted a lot of attention and venture capital.

I started with Curtis Bonk’s “Instructional Ideas and Technology for Online Success,” which was sponsored by Blackboard.  Sadly, it was hosted in Blackboard’s horrific Learning Management System as well. Bonk is a professor of Instructional Systems Technology in the School of Education at Indiana University, and he’s been a leading scholar in online teaching for years and years. The “class” was more of an exchange space/seminar of online teachers with various levels of experiences from all over the world– perhaps something more akin to a workshop– and while  there were some useful bits about online teaching for the novice online teacher, I was overall less than impressed. This is how I summed it up in my last post about Bonk’s class in late May:

It’s weird that MOOCs are getting as much press and attention as they are right now, frankly.  Just over five years ago, there was a controversy here at EMU about a faculty member in my department teaching these online classes with 100 or so students.  I blogged about it here; the problem of this made national news because the idea that you could actually have an online class worth anything with that many students was back then considered ridiculous.  Most of the best practice studies I saw back then said that online classes functioned best when enrollment was capped at around 15-20– not unlike face to face classes, by the way.  So why is it that now anyone thinks that a “class” with 1000 students– even a free class– would all of a sudden be a good idea?

But the “MOOC Madness” kept coming and Coursera (currently the biggest corporate player in MOOCs) just kept rolling, so I decided to get a front row seat in the student section in one of their courses. I enrolled in World Music and blogged about it in some detail from beginning to end, starting here and kind of ending here, though I am still writing and thinking about it. I don’t want to go into a lot of detail here because I already wrote plenty about the experience on my blog and because some of my current scholarly irons in the fire are about the experience and what MOOCs might mean in writing studies. But the short version is I left this experience highly skeptical about the format and I continue to be confused as to why so many Silicon Valley venture capitalists and university administrators remain enthusiastic.

Meanwhile, through July and August, I taught a “small online closed (mostly) course” (or SOCC, pronounced “sock”), a course I’ve taught several times in the past in both traditional and online formats, “Writing for the World Wide Web.” It was nothing new– I’ve been teaching the class for a dozen years and I’ve taught it in an online format for at least the last five years– and this last summer’s class was not a particularly “innovative” one for me.

What’s the difference between a MOOC and a SOCC?  The most obvious one is size:  while MOOCs are enrolling tens of thousands of students (though these numbers can’t be taken too seriously since a fraction of the number of registered students for MOOCs actually participate), my SOCCs are capped at 20.  In the World Music MOOC, interactions between students was optional and chaotic.  At the beginning of the class, it was the proverbial “drinking from a fire hose” information overload; by the end of the class, the conversation had pretty much dried up since there wasn’t really any point to it anymore.  In the SOCCs I teach, timely interaction is a key part of the course and I assign grades to students based on their participation.  The content for the World Music MOOC was almost entirely in the form of “sage on the stage” pre-recorded lectures by the professor and her graduate assistants.  In contrast, the content in my SOCCs is a combination of readings, text notes and descriptions, and videos, all delivered while both my students and I are present: that is, while most of my class content is preplanned and prerecorded and the class is asynchronous in that we aren’t all logged in at the same exact time, I am “there” with my students in answering and asking questions, participating in the discussion, etc.

And of course, there’s a difference in what students pay and what students earn.  Like all of the Coursera offerings to date, the World Music MOOC is free, while my students each have to pay Eastern Michigan thousands of dollars in tuition.  On the other hand, I didn’t earn anything from the World Music MOOC– other than the satisfaction of having participated and the joy of learning a little more about World Music. To date, I haven’t even received a certificate of completion. But with my SOCC, all of the students who successfully complete the class earn actual college credit that can be applied toward their actual degrees at EMU (and, presumably, elsewhere), and, because of the activities and the extensive interaction with me and with other students in the class, I like to think that folks actually learn quite a bit more, too.

Obviously, my tongue is firmly in cheek in coining the term SOCC since I am not describing anything that hasn’t been done for decades. I’ve been teaching online courses of different types for about seven years now, there have been online classes similar to mine (albeit with less sophisticated interfaces) at EMU for at least 15 years, and, if we consider in the mix correspondence courses, alternatives to conventional college courses have been around at least since the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But my thinking is if I can get an acronym out there, well, maybe there is hope that they too will get the popular press bump, finally, after all these years.

In any event, the MOOC-iness keeps unfolding with more speculative articles about the role these giant courses might serve in saving higher education as we know it, while simultaneously, even MOOC supporters admit they have no idea how that might actually work. The verdict is out, and for me, the classes continue– I’m signed up for Coursera’s “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution” and “An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python,” both scheduled to start in the next week or two. If I had to guess, I would predict MOOCs will join the long list of previously hyped and failed attempts at using technology in education to make save money by reducing the costs of instruction. And if I’m wrong, then I suspect that a lot of us will be seeking different lines of work.

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