My own classes have started (it's the pre-start, I guess you could call it - classes start officially August 20, but I'm glad for people to get a head start, so about half the students are working on stuff already this week, which is great)… so, that means a lot less time for this Coursera class, including less time to blog about it. But something came up in a couple of different conversations I was having with people today, and it seemed important to note it here. While I can see a lot of problems with the Coursera course (both this specific course, and also the specific model), I don't want people to assume that I am implying that the same problems do not beset regular college courses: when it comes to finding ways to teach writing, everybody is struggling! Writing is surely one of the most important skills that someone can learn in school… and it is also one of the hardest skills to teach. In general, colleges don't do a very good job with it at all.
Sure, college students write papers - but does their writing improve as a result? Or are they just writing in order to write, to get the assignment done, to get the grade? Do they feel confident in their writing? I would suggest that the widespread problems with plagiarism in college writing (and they are, indeed, widespread) are mostly a reflection of how alienated students are from their own writing, how unconfident they are in their own writing, as well as being bored and/or confused.
So, just very quickly, here are some of the things that I would like to see happening in ANY college writing course - not just in something offered by Coursera. How many college courses that require some kind of written work from the students include all of these features? Precious few, I am afraid. I would be curious to hear what features others would add to this list, based on either your good or bad experiences in learning to write and/or in teaching writing.
* PERSISTENT WRITING. Don't let everything go into the trash can! Every course can yield a writing portfolio or mini-portfolio, whatever you want to call it - just so long as it does not all go into the trash can, real or virtual. It would be so easy for our writing to appear to us in the Coursera course in something more like a portfolio. Even better if people are encouraged to at least consider exploring a theme or themes in more than one essay, for a sense of continuity and building connections.
* REVISION… AND MORE REVISION. No piece of writing is ever good the first time around, much less great! Writing, all writing, wants to be revised, and then revised again - preferably over a period of some time to allow for self-reflection, feedback from others, etc. The complete lack of revision in the Coursera course is very discouraging. At a minimum, I would suggest that people be required to revise their essay each week - or maybe just pick five essays to revise out of the ten, for example, and put the revised essays in a course portfolio.
* REAL AUDIENCES. Getting real feedback from real readers (NB: plural!) is essential. To make that work, you also need to learn how to give good feedback in return. Being good both at getting feedback and at giving feedback are skills that every writer needs - and like any kind of skill, these skills can (and must) be taught, with "feedback on the feedback" to help people as they acquire and master those skills. I would say Coursera definitely needs to help people in giving better feedback, and "feedback on the feedback" in an important part of how that could happen.
* STYLES GALORE, CONTENT GALORE. There are so many styles of writing, and there is something to be learned from the process of trying a variety of different styles - and along the way discovering just what styles of writing work best for you. So too with content. The breadth of content that is relevant to any given college class is very extensive; helping students explore that breadth of possibility and make good personal connections, choosing topics they really care about, is one of my very favorite things to do. We could do with a wider range of writing style options in the Coursera course, and I think we could also do with a different way of presenting the writing prompt each week - open-ended is good, but completely directionless is, for many students, not so good.
* MULTIMEDIA WRITING. Combining writing with images, for example, which is so easy to do when writing for the web, adds a new dimension to the finished product. Working with audio and with video can also be thought-provoking and energizing! I feel so image-deprived everywhere at the Coursera course website, truth be told.
* REMEDIAL WRITING. This doesn't have to be something to be ashamed about - it's important to figure out if you have some actual writing skills deficits and work on them until you have acquired those missing skills. That might mean spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, word choice and idiom, etc. Accurately identifying skills deficits and being committed to remediating them is an essential part of becoming a writer.
What do others think? What elements of a good writing strategy have I left out here? I'm so much "inside" this in my own classes that I am probably leaving out something hugely important. But even with this short list of elements which I consider really essential, I think it shows just why I am not especially satisfied with the writing dimension of the Coursera course, and what enormous work remains to make writing work in a MOOC like this one... and in any college course with writing assignments!
Is it worth all that work to get it right? ABSOLUTELY.