A Massive Online Writing Workshop

A Look Back at Duke University’s English Composition I: Achieving Expertise

One of Professor Denise Comer’s primary goals for her Coursera course on academic writing was to create a seminar atmosphere. In her on-campus courses, taught in Duke University’s First-Year Writing Program, class time includes peer feedback on drafts, students reading their work aloud, plus written and oral feedback from the instructor. The challenge was to decide how to scale up that experience from a dozen to tens of thousands of students.

Although there is no way to equal the individualized feedback a small seminar writing course offers, English Composition I tried to replicate many of the hallmarks of an on-campus writing course and to create a community of learners who supported each other in their writing.

  • Learn with others. Professor Comer knew she could not duplicate the experience by herself. First, she wanted to be sure that students got a glimpse of different kinds of academic writing. Disciplinary consultants from the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences offered lectures on academic writing in their disciplines and different schools of citation. The consultants also helped to monitor forums and model writing workshops. A course librarian created videos about finding popular and peer-reviewed sources for students as they began conducting research. A specialist in writing assessment designed the peer feedback rubrics to elicit directed advice toward revisions. David Jarmul, the Associate Vice President of Duke University’s News and Communication, was a guest lecturer for the final writing project — an op-ed.

But the single most important strategy was to encourage students to utilize their peers and the process of peer feedback for learning. Professor Comer’s mantra was “reading and responding to other writers makes you a better writer.” Seven out of the ten assignments for the course were built in the peer assessment tool and required students to submit writing and then read and respond to other students before receiving a final grade.

  • Build in flexibility. The average MOOC student isn’t likely to finish all of the course work and may have competing interests that interfere with finishing assignments on time. Professor Comer encouraged students who missed deadlines to keep writing. The “Procrastinator’s Corner” forum was developed as a space for students who were not able to hand in their assignment drafts on time to get feedback on their writing and prepare for the next deadline. There were about 250 threads started by students seeking feedback in that official forum alone.
  • Model real feedback. Students were asked to submit a first draft and a final version of their writing assignments. During the week a draft was due, students volunteered to take part in recorded writing workshops. Either Professor Comer or one of the disciplinary consultants then held hour-long Google Hangouts to model writing workshops. The workshops were streamed live on YouTube and posted to the site for students to view later. These workshops modeled a variety of methods for giving and receiving feedback – both from instructors and peers – and addressed issues that were relevant to a broader range of class participants. Along with these video workshops, the instructors choose a few essays to evaluate according to the same rubric the students used when reading their peers’ essays. There were nearly eight hours of recorded writing workshops by the end of the course.

Visit the course YouTube channel.

  • Make it personal. The traditional lecture is probably the least important part of teaching writing in a face-to-face class. While some lectures could be content-driven, Professor Comer had to figure out ways to prompt students to start a step in the writing process. She chose to share details about herself as a writer to inspire the students to do the same. For example, in an early video Professor Comer talked about her rituals when writing. Then students filled out a poll about their writing habits as an in-video quiz and got an instant snapshot of the habits of their colleagues. Often students were invited to continue a conversation she began in the video in dedicated forums. Along with cultivating a personable video style, Professor Comer wrote essays and provided peer feedback under a pseudonym. She wrote blog posts about her experience in the course.

Discover what English Composition I students report is the most difficult part about writing.

  • Encourage self-reflection. In the final week of English Composition I, students were asked to compose a cover letter to a potential employer or university admissions office. The letter described the development of their writing over the length of the course and pointed to elements of their writing that demonstrated the learning objectives of the course. This was the last in a series of reflective exercises to increase students awareness of their own growth in writing. In the same spirit, Professor Comer and the disciplinary consultants filmed a reflective video about what they learned from teaching the course.

The course was one of a number of introductory writing MOOCs to be awarded a Gates Foundation grant. The foundation is dedicated to increasing access to higher education by low-income students and MOOC courses are being assessed for their effectiveness in teaching writing. While research in the coming months will look at the correlation between peer assessment scores and independent raters, the anecdotal evidence from the course itself is inconclusive. The students discussing the topic in the forums were split in their opinions. The peer feedback process was difficult for many of the students, especially at first. There were several factors that led to this unease. Students had to learn how to use a new technology, overcome the perception the peer feedback is personal, and accept that they wouldn’t always get the guidance they needed.  However, the students who got the most out of the experience pushed beyond their initial reactions, as this student explained in the forums:

“I am glad I resisted the temptation to drop out of the class after the horrid (sorry!) experience of the Project 1 Draft. I got wonderful, constructive and meaningful feedback — I can truly improve my writing. Thank you to the peers who corrected my work for Project 2.”






2 thoughts on “A Massive Online Writing Workshop

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  2. John Ogrins

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