The Invictus Writers, or Why I Don’t Get Overly Excited about MOOCs

The National Science Foundation posts grants for people who develop informal learning spaces around science. I love that idea not because I think classrooms aren’t great places to learn (they are), but I recognize that motivated students can work outside the classroom to learn as well.

People go on about the idea of “transformative learning technologies” such as Massively Open Online Classrooms (MOOCs) or flipping classrooms or whatever else they are happen to come across on that day. Most analysis though strays very far from the science of how we learn, and focuses instead upon new delivery mechanisms. (I recommend How Learning Works: Seven research-based Principles for Smart Teachingif you really want to understand how to transform education.)

What we know works – in general – is mixing theory with hands-on learning so that students can first master skills and then transfer those skills into broader areas. This requires a mix of activities, work, and philosophy.

As I consider my own teaching, the best class that I offer isn’t actually a class. Instead, it’s a year-long writing project that (until now) students have taken for no credit. Instead, they work individually (but as a group) on personal essays that explore one transformative moment with their lives.

That project: The Invictus Writers.

These young writers spend a year conceptualizing, writing, reporting (because I ask them to go discuss their story with the people who appear in the story), editing, and publishing their work. We meet at least once a month – sometimes more – on Saturdays so that we might discuss our stories, our progress, our problems, and our solutions. Many writers end up holding “writing days,” where they would gather at cafes to write or congregate online to share the process.

I am convinced – although I have no empirical evidence to back this up – that my students learn more about writing in those informal (but directed) learning spaces than they do in any classroom dedicated to writing.

While there are no grades (I don’t believe grades matter), there is feedback. Students receive both instructor feedback, and peer feedback. Students are asked to write publicly about their process on our blog. Every writer’s work doesn’t appear in the book. A small subset of writers within the group make the final decision on what does – and what doesn’t — appear. And finally the essays are published in a variety of formats (.txt, .pdf, .ePud, and paperback book) where the words live for others to see.

The grading system is thus informal in the same way the learning is.

Certainly we talk of writing structures, of writing styles, of solutions to writing problems, but I doubt any of The Invictus Writers could pass a scantron test about writing.

What makes this project so worthwhile is that it brings together everything we need in education: formal, expert instruction, informal learning spaces, holistic evaluation structures, granular grading structures (copy editing anyone), and external validation that drives achievement.

The delivery mechanism for Invictus is irrelevant. I’m convinced I could run this project through Google Hangouts and lose very little of what we accomplish. I’m sure we could develop a MOOC around the idea of this informal learning space. (In fact, I know we could because we’ve outlined that idea.)

What I’m not convinced is that MOOCs, or any other delivery mechanism matters in terms of teaching. What matters most is restructuring how we think about evaluation and how we understand learning. If we begin there, the mechanism for delivery becomes less magical. We won’t see emerging technology as revolutionary. We’ll view it the same way we view pipes in our house, which is to say not at all (except when said pipes get clogged).

I say all this as a fan of emerging technologies. I’ve spent the better part of my career writing about, talking about, and helping push the adoption of cutting edge tech. And I run the Digital Media Minor at Ball State University, a program we’ve just launched as online-only.

But I view our vast digital network in the same way I view design: integral to the content and the philosophy of what’s being communicated.You can’t remove one component and speak about it as though it has no connection to the others.

I suspect MOOCs will become part of the educational experience, and if done well they will open up learning in new and exciting ways.

For that to happen, though, we first have to embrace the formal and informal learning mechanisms that drive all learning, and build our teaching around that.