MOOCs, the Teaching of Writing, and Academic Labor

Originally published in the newsletter of the Oswego chapter of UUP:

Writing program administrators often joke that class sizes in first-year writing courses have more to do with US News and World Report – which defines “small” classes in its college rankings as those enrolling fewer than 20 students – than with all the impassioned arguments and eloquent resolutions of the field’s scholars and professional organizations on class size and workload over the years.  And indeed, many institutions did lower the caps in their first-year writing courses to 19 as college and university ranking indexes became really visible and influential in the 1990s, pretty much on cue.

But the truth is that central administrators never actually needed either rankings or resolutions to convince them that Writing should be taught in small classes:  it’s just common sense.  Indeed, the caps in Writing courses on most campuses were always pretty close to 20 to begin with, even before the college rankings services came up with their definition of “small” courses, which is why they were natural candidates for lowering to 19.  SUNY Oswego’s cap on ENG 102 when I began teaching here in the early 90s was 23, and when the Writing Across the Curriculum Program was set up in the middle 90s, one of its key features was “small group instruction (25 or fewer students) – a configuration that promotes frequent student/teacher interaction and peer discussion.”  Student writers improve predictably when they’re given access to faculty mentors – experienced and reflective academic writers who can help them develop ideas, think about why those ideas matter, read drafts carefully, make constructive suggestions, and provide genuinely formative feedback that makes them better, more self-conscious writers in the future.  Close work with informed, sensitive readers, that is, has always been very plainly in the best interests of student writers.  A no-brainer.

This, however, is not the educational model being promoted over the last year or so in MOOCs, massive open online courses.  MOOCs are courses offered for free online and designed to be taken by thousands of students in a single session.  Readings and assignments are posted, course leaders appear in regular video discussions, video hangouts are arranged with small groups of students with representative questions, and students are encouraged to share written work with one another.

But from the perspective of a writing teacher, MOOCs offer something much more like an enhanced library service – the provision of a really wonderful, rich resource – than a teaching service.  For one thing, MOOC instructors never actually read student work, even to evaluate it summatively – much less to offer the sort of supportive readerly feedback and suggestions for revision that really help writers improve.  Instead, students enrolled in MOOCs typically get feedback on their work from whatever fellow students are interested in offering it, which experience suggests is usually a pretty small number.  Of course, peer revision workshops provide a very useful developmental experience under the right circumstances, one practiced in face-to-face courses with some frequency, but it’s no replacement for close work with a mentor.  And though most MOOCs are not now offered for credit, at least one MOOC provider has promised to deliver automated grading software emulating the patterns and preferences of given readers to facilitate evaluation on a mass scale – so that, theoretically, grades could be awarded without anyone ever actually reading a word of a student’s work.  It’s no wonder UUP President Fred Kowal has expressed “alarm” about the University’s apparent “goal to use MOOCS to add 100,000 students without increasing faculty.”

This is why the SUNY Council on Writing, a faculty group representing teachers of Writing across the SUNY system, recently passed a resolution against using MOOCs to satisfy the Writing component of SUNY’s Basic Communication requirement and has begun to circulate it across the system for signatures.  I should be clear that to date no one has proposed that MOOCs be used in satisfaction of this requirement:  SUNY has only recently begun to think through how it will use the contract it signed late last spring with MOOCs provider Coursera.  But the Council wanted to make it clear as these discussions proceed that this is not a model that works for first-year Writing courses.

As the Coordinator of Writing Across the Curriculum here at Oswego, I’d argue strongly that MOOCs are similarly unsuited for all courses deemed writing-intensive.  These courses depend directly, as the WAC Guidelines ratified in 1998 by the Faculty Assembly point out, on the close attention of faculty-mentors to the work of student writers.  Neither peer response alone nor (certainly) automated grading software will invite students into the real discussions of scholars or offer them counsel about the nuances involved in writing and thinking like an Anthropologist, Art Historian, or Economist.

Proponents tout the democratic potential of MOOCs, which on the face of it might seem consistent with the aims of a public university:  these are free courses for anyone who’s interested, often led by accomplished scholars.  And indeed this sort of access is a wonderful, exciting, even groundbreaking prospect – as is the opportunity for so many networked voices to be joined in a collective give-and-take over ideas.  But the danger is that the possibility of working closely with faculty-mentors will be restricted to an ever smaller core of students with the means to attend an elite college or university – and hence the establishment of a much more clearly and deeply entrenched two-tier system in higher education.  Students at public universities deserve more than either pro forma or automated responses to their work.  They deserve what’s always been the promise of higher education:  authentic exchanges with real people who’ve given their lives over to the serious study of ideas.  (Originally published in the SUNY Oswego UUP newsletter)


Michael Murphy is Assistant Professor of English and Coordinator of Writing Across the Curriculum Program, as well as Vice-President of the SUNY Council on Writing.  The Council’s resolution on MOOCs can be viewed at <>.  All SUNY teachers of Writing, including those who teach writing-intensive courses across campus, are invited to sign.  

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