For three days last week I was participating in an advanced writing workshop. This was a very small class of eight students with two instructors.   Learning  in the class was dependent both on the knowledge of the instructors and the knowledge/professionalism of the students.

The format included an overview of the background tools/techniques needed to write effectively within my organization followed by practical exercises reviewing papers from both the instructors and the students.   Initially we reviewed/graded the  papers handed out by the instructors individually and then collaborated in teams of two on a joint review.  This was followed by a open discussion of both an initial and revised version of the paper.  After this we brought in our own papers and graded them while going through two other student papers.   This was followed by different teams of two collaboratively discussing their review.   The open discussion started with the first author giving his/her personal grade followed by the team who had evaluated that paper.  Other students were then invited to add anything that they felt was missed.   Once the review process was completed, students were given the time to update their papers and send them around for review in the same process by the same teams.

Although not familiar with many of the specific topics in the papers, I found both the class format and the associated resources (e.g. checklists, tradecraft materials) to be very valuable in learning to effectively evaluate both my own writing and others.  And the feedback was critical in helping me focus  my  own writing which tended to cram too many points into one rambling mess.

But as I finished this class, I was thinking about how it compared to the two  massive open online courses (MOOC) that I had just completed.  In these two courses,  the peer review process was key in completing the course.  Each student was assigned to review the work of 5 other students and provide written grades based on instructor protocols.   You could not pass the course unless you had also completed the minimum 5 evaluations per assignment.    In some ways the process was very similar to that of the classroom where we reviewed student efforts.   However, there was no opportunity to interact personally  with the other four members of the review team or the students you were reviewing.   That later created some frustration among students who felt that they were unfairly judged and given significantly lower grades with little feedback.  Additionally, there was no continuity throughout the course.  While this meant that we were able to see more students, it also meant that you weren’t following a student’s ideas from creation to completion.

I think that for MOOCs to be truly effective, they must provide better opportunities for interaction during the course beyond the forums.  Somehow, the same type of small group interaction that occurred during my advanced writing class should also occur during a MOOC.  This way learning not only occurs from knowledge shared by the instructor but knowledge shared by the students.  The technology exists to permit that experience with applications like Google+ hangouts, Skype or getStudyRoom.com.   The biggest drawback may be the global nature of the student body that limits real time interaction because of schedule conflicts or different timezones.    It will be interesting to see if the #edcmooc group can solve this lack of interaction through the community that has been forming since November.

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