[This is a Guest Contribution by Ian Chowcat.]
When I first explored the Web back in the 1990s one of the greatest thrills I found was being able to virtually visit universities and courses across the world. Since then we have been able to download course materials and view lectures – the Open Culture site is currently listing over 700 free online courses. Now in the era of MOOCs more is promised: with unprecedented ease we can actually participate in courses run by universities the other side of the world. But can MOOCs really provide good learning experiences?
To sample MOOCs for myself I signed up for two courses from Coursera last autumn (being optimistic about course loads on top of full time jobs may well be a characteristic of would-be MOOCers). One, on models for making sense of the world, was enjoyable enough, with video lectures delivered in traditional style by a very engaging lecture, but it fell by the wayside as I became absorbed by my second choice: Modern and Contemporary American Poetry led by Professor Al Filreis of the University of Pennsylvania.
This is a cut-down version of an undergraduate course he runs. In ten exciting weeks we sampled key texts, mainly American, in modernist and post-modernist poetry, starting with Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman and running right through the key movements until arriving at the daunting shores of contemporary language poetry, chance operations, conceptual poetry and the uncreative writing tendency stimulated by the web itself. I have no hesitation in saying that it was one of the greatest learning experiences I have ever had: I haven’t had so much fun, or felt that I learnt so much so quickly, since my BA over thirty years ago.
What made it so great? The huge passion and enthusiasm of Al Filreis himself certainly helped – passion both for the subject matter and for this way of teaching. The teaching method involved helpful short quizzes. There were four assignments, providing the chance to write brief critical essays and to try out some post-modernist poetic techniques for ourselves: these were peer marked so you also got the chance to read and comment on what other students were writing. The course forums were very lively, with 957,000 views of messages from the 36,000 students who enrolled on the course. Although the Coursera forum structure leaves something to be desired, nevertheless students across the world were hazarding their own interpretations of the poems, and passionate debates broke out whenever boundaries were being pushed further than some people could accept. There was also a Facebook page and twitter feed.
But for me what really clinched the course were the videos produced for each course reading – over 80 of them, with running lengths from nine to twenty-seven minutes. These weren’t lectures but guided discussions. In recordings of high technical quality Professor Filreis and a group of student Teaching Assistants conducted collaborative close readings of each of the texts. While the Professor nudged and cajoled, and only rarely rhapsodised, the students showed how sense and meaning could be made of even the most obscure pieces – and there were many of those in this course (Kenneth Goldsmith’s presentation as poetry of a transcription of everything he said for a week provoked the most virulent debates and was the breaking point for many. But then modernism was always meant to be about aesthetic appreciation of the everyday).
I am convinced that this was a course in which co-creation between students and pure peer to peer learning would not have sufficed: the forums and peer assessments were great vehicles for testing out our interpretative abilities, but in themselves would not have provided the grounding that was needed to make progress. Nor would lectures have done the trick. It was the vicarious learning involved in seeing students being guided to fumble their way towards sense-making that gave participants like me the encouragement that the enterprise was possible, and the tools for being able to go on independently both during and, crucially, after the course. Without this I would have been where I started: struggling alongside others in the same position to make any inroads on the seemingly impenetrable. Lectures would have provided guidance from someone who had been down this path over many years, but the real trick was to link the two: to show in practice how beginners could be guided to develop and use the necessary approaches for themselves, and in so doing to become engaged ourselves in interpretative activity.
As a result I feel whole new worlds of literature have opened up to me which were previously literally closed books.
While difficult texts have not become magically easy I can now see a path to understanding. The main downside has been the damage to my bank balance due to the compelling need to invest in several shelves of new books.
In the current ferment of debate over MOOCs many doubts are being expressed about their pedagogical model and their quality. All I can say is that here is one instance in which a MOOC provided the occasion for what I think was a first rate learning experience. Perhaps this model of vicarious collaborative learning is one that others could follow.
The course runs again this September: check it out if you have any interest in the world of experimental contemporary poetry. It’s currently free, of course, though if there had been a donation box on the way out I would gladly have paid. You can find an overview, with links to some other participant views, at https://jacket2.org/commentary/modpo-overview and there is a link there to the course home page where you can sign up.