If, like me, at some point or another you’ve thought of enrolling in a massive open online course (MOOC), only to decide against it, the reasons are understandable: too many people and not enough personalized attention; the online format makes it feel impersonal; the lack of accountability outside of a non-physical classroom results in not showing up, not doing the homework, not sticking with it. The New Yorker last fall published a critique of the MOOC model of learning, concluding that the future of this approach, for all the initial buzz around it, was still uncertain. (My thought as I was reading the article was to ask what emergent approach to higher ed isn’t, especially one that’s so dependent on the internet?)
Without venturing into all that, though, I’m here to advocate for MOOCs, especially as a learning tool for busy writers dedicated to improving their craft.
By now the drawbacks of MOOCs are well agreed-upon: yes, they are big. In fact, they are often huge. I enrolled this past spring in Writers Write Poetry course through the University of Iowa; there were thousands of students in my class from all over the world. On the one hand, I loved the cosmopolitanism of studying alongside such a diverse community of fellow readers and writers; on the other hand, overwhelm was a constant. I’d spend an evening writing a poem, post it to the online forum and log onto the course website any given morning to find that my little post had been drowned out by hundreds of other poets as they also shared their homework assignments. Were it not for the site’s notifications settings, I wouldn’t have been able to find the comments people had made on my work. And when I did finally get back to my post, there were disappointingly few comments because there was simply too much homework for everyone to give feedback on, and students had to pick and choose. So a MOOC is not a place to get many and thorough critiques of your work, even as you get the community that so many lone writers need and crave. The other common criticism of MOOCs is their low rates of completion, owing to the fact that most MOOCs are free. With no financial skin in the game, students start out with great intentions and don’t finish, which affects the cohesion of the community the students formed at the course’s beginning, if one can say that it even exists at all.
But having said all that, here’s why I think MOOCs are a terrific learning option for serious writers.