In my cozy writing class at the University of California, Berkeley, 13 international students pursuing their undergraduate degrees — between the ages of 17 and 20 — read, write, discuss and puzzle over the challenges of academic writing. We spend six hours a week together, reviewing thesis statements, talking about citation practices and working on developing arguments. It’s hard work for everyone.
When that class is over, it’s time to check on my other writing class, College Writing 2x, also for English language learners. But instead of 13 students, there are 50,000. Their ages range from 14 to 88, and they come from dozens of countries, from Andorra to Zimbabwe. Some are home-schooled high school students, others already have degrees, some are seniors returning to university educations unfinished or never started. These students also read, write, discuss and puzzle over the challenges of academic writing. It’s hard work for everyone.
It’s not surprising that College Writing 2x reaches so many participants in a vast number of locales. This is typical of most popular MOOCs. However, this is the first MOOC, to my knowledge, that focuses specifically on academic writing skills for a non-English speaking audience. Like most MOOCs, it serves a variety of purposes for its participants, many of whom do not have academic aspirations or a desire to be educated in the United States. But, for those who may have academic goals, writing in this environment offers some benefits.
Writing for an Audience
It’s inevitable when I tell people I teach an online writing course that enrolls 50,000 that the first question is: “How do you grade that many papers?” A related question came after I gave a conference presentation about the College Writing MOOC. I was asked by an audience member, “How do you motivate that many students to write for you?”
The answer to the first question is I don’t grade them. This is closely related to my answer to the second question: “I don’t want students to write for me.” In the real world, writers write for each other, for audiences, for an imagined or real reader. In a class so large that the instructor cannot grade, or even read, all the students’ work, students must write for each other. The student in Belize, writing about ecological challenges to her home town, must not only express herself in English well enough to be understood, but must also write for a reader with little background knowledge about the subject matter; that reader may be in Somalia or Ukraine, Mexico or Vietnam. In return, the writer gets near immediate feedback from her peers as to what was or was not clear, with suggestions for improvement.
Another question is an implied criticism: “How will students learn proper grammar if there isn’t an instructor to correct their writing?” This question underscores a larger issue with how writing is understood and taught around the world. Instead of approaching writing as a method of inquiry, discovery and expression, it is frequently approached as a series of formulas (à la five-paragraph essay) or drill-like tasks focusing on “correctness.” Asking students in the MOOC to read and respond to a complex story or article, or to write about challenges to local governments, or to explain how to perform a task they know how to do well, keeps the focus on writing. Some may be able to write only a few sentences; others will write a few pages. In both cases, the response has little to do with grammar.
Perfecting English grammar can be a long process; this fact should not prevent students from diving into writing, regardless of their level of grammatical proficiency. Requiring students to focus constantly on grammar, and not on writing, is like requiring the novice home cook to focus constantly on knife skills, never allowing him or her to cook a meal.
Good grammar matters, but it is not the only thing that makes writing valuable. I would rather read an insightful, sincere essay on the future of education, written with imperfect grammar, than read a flawlessly grammatical essay with nothing to say. Learning to write is learning to think, whether it takes place on the screen or on a piece of paper. It is an active process of engaging with ideas and finding things of value to write about.
This brings us back to these two classes, one small and intimate, one massive and public. My goals for both groups are the same: to write well, to engage with ideas in meaningful ways and to write in a way to attract a wider audience. Without the pressures of grades or degrees over their heads, the students in MOOCs are free to learn, interact and grow in a way that is truly unique.
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