The SUNY Council on Writing (SUNYCoW) is a thirty-five year old professional organization of teachers and scholars in Rhetoric and Composition across the SUNY system. As the faculty primarily responsible for overseeing and delivering the Basic Communication in Writing requirement, we have followed the plans for OPEN SUNY and seamless transfer, as well as the recent announcement of SUNY’s partnership with Coursera, with great interest.
Nationally, faculty in Rhetoric and Composition have begun to experiment with massive open online courses (MOOCs), and most of these professionals are skeptical about the value of MOOCS with respect to many important aspects of teaching writing. Likewise, members of the Council have participated in the few existing experimental Coursera MOOCs in writing by enrolling in those offered by Duke, Georgia Tech, and Ohio State. Based in part on this experience, we concur with the growing national judgment that MOOCs are not an effective mechanism for delivering credit-bearing writing courses, especially first-year composition.
We are aware of no peer-reviewed research that shows MOOCs to be pedagogically effective in and of themselves. Best practices in writing instruction have always relied upon the ability of experienced instructors to offer close and continuous individualized feedback to student writers; however, this practice is prohibited by the basic structure of MOOCs, which make individualized expert support impossible to provide because they are designed to enroll thousands of students. Indeed, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the main professional organization in our field, has long recommended that writing class sizes be limited to 20 students, a recommendation that guides current practice on most SUNY campuses. The pedagogical mechanisms commonly employed to scale instruction to a “massive” number of students, then, are deeply at odds with both current SUNY practice and acceptable norms in teaching writing. We are especially concerned about the prospect of the machine scoring of student writing often associated with MOOCs (cf. NCTE’s statement on the subject <http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/machine_scoring> and this well-researched petition against machine scoring, with over 4,000 signatures <http://humanreaders.org/petition>). Interactive work with student writers is at the center of our pedagogy, as many decades of scholarship in our field confirms it should be. We believe that the impossibility of this sort of mentorship in MOOC settings is likely responsible for their very high student attrition rates and frequently superficial levels of participation.
For these reasons, the SUNYCoW opposes the prospect that MOOCs–or any other form of massive-scale instruction–might be accepted for credit in writing, especially in satisfaction of SUNY’s Basic Communication requirement. Completion of the Writing requirement should always involve close work with a faculty member who can provide students mentorship, careful assessment and a genuine sense of a human audience. While we are reluctant to interfere with individual campuses’ freedom to make independent decisions on curricular matters, we recognize that a system of “seamless transfer” would suggest that any single campus’ decision to accept such courses for credit would in effect impact us all. CUNY’s highly publicized “Pathways” embarrassment might serve as a recent and near reminder that decisions affecting system-wide policy and pedagogy require considerable vetting by all stakeholders. We also assert the necessity of considering carefully and collaboratively how agreements with corporate providers such as Coursera may work for or against the best interest of students in all disciplines and how they may impact the larger mission of public higher education.
At the same time, we acknowledge that open-access, web-based education is an evolving experiment, and we commit ourselves to researching potential benefits for students in this technology, both as a potential supplement to conventional instruction in required first-year writing courses and in courses that do not fulfill the requirement. As rhetoricians we recognize that in the future these evolving forms of instruction may serve roles we cannot now anticipate in helping our students to thrive in a global digital culture, which seems to us a central task of humanities education in the twenty-first century. We can also imagine online offerings in Writing and Rhetoric Studies that might appeal to the general public who do not seek college credit. The Council looks forward to continued discussion of this matter and reasserts its commitment to working with system administration on behalf of composition teachers within SUNY on these and all other matters connected to the teaching of writing.
Affirmed by consensus but the SUNYCoW Executive Board, July 5, 2013.
Note: Peter Khost and Pat Belanoff have briefly discussed this petition in their Composition Forum article available here. It was circulated as a petition and endorsed by 433 members of the field, inside and outside SUNY, available here.