In 2018, two weeks after my Spanish language MOOC (massive open online course) ended, I received an email with the subject line ”Guess who’s impatient to talk to you?” It was from a student in Poland that wanted to continue having class discussions. As the course was ending, a group of students had expressed interest in continuing to meet.  We exchanged email addresses and promised to stay in touch, but I wasn’t sure that it would actually happen, but they followed through. Wanting to support their enthusiasm, I participated in a couple of sessions with them, but frankly, I was looking forward to having my Sundays free again. So I left my Zoom “room” to a group of four or five learners from all over the world who are still having weekly discussions. I dropped by occasionally—once to thank the student from Texas that had sent me a scarf with calaveras on it for the Day of the Dead—but basically, the students are now officially their own teachers. In May of 2020, after the last run of the MOOC, one of these learners spearheaded a second weekly conversation group that has morphed into a book group in Spanish.

It has been such a surprise and delight to me that this MOOC, a course that was in its conception quite traditional as it was originally designed to help prepare high school students to pass the AP Spanish Language and Culture exam, has spawned these two independent learning cohorts. The opportunity and space to continue beyond the course end date and for students to use the web to come together with a common learning objective are among the the highest promises that digital learning offers. Students that are empowered to engage with the material on their own terms is the ultimate goal of critical digital pedagogy. The formation of these learning cohorts has led me to question what it was about this course that enabled collective, intrinsically motivated learning to flourish. Upon reflection I believe that there were three steps that I took that facilitated student independence: hacking the LMS, repositioning my role as an instructor, and letting go of control.

This MOOC started in 2015, as part of an EdX high school initiative that aspired to provide affordable college readiness to high school students that may or may not have AP courses in their schools. I invited two of my colleagues in Spanish at Boston University, Alison Carberry and Borja Ruiz de Arbulo, to answer a call for proposals sent out by our university’s Digital Learning and Innovation team (DL&I). At the time, like most college educators, we had very little knowledge of MOOCs. Our goal wasn’t to disrupt higher education, nor did I particularly believe that MOOCs would serve as a free alternative to a costly four-year education. We were simply curious. Our objective was to innovate language teaching, to see if this new course format could be feasible to teach a second language and to make use of the global student population as a means of fostering intercultural competence.

The content that our teaching team created was aimed at a high school audience (we chose materials that we thought would appeal to adolescents), and we reproduced the kinds of activities that they would encounter on the AP exam. When the course launched, it became clear that while there were some high school students in the learning community, the student population also consisted of adult learners that had a variety of motivations to improve their Spanish skills and language teachers that were interested in professional development. While this was, at first, a challenge to overcome, I quickly discovered that it was a great learning opportunity for all involved, and it subsequently taught me to find greater flexibility in all aspects of my teaching.

Hacking the LMS

While creating the course, I didn’t really reflect upon the fact that I was preparing students for a problematic standardized test that tends to reproduce income inequalities nor did I realize that the Edx platform was essentially another LMS that constrains learning and destroys the best aspect of the internet: its openness. While the EdX mission is laudable in that it strives to provide education for all, the platform itself is quite limiting in its ability to empower students, to allow them to communicate with each other and interact spontaneously and/or synchronously. The EdX discussion forum has the limitations of all discussion forums, namely, as Stommel and Morris have so aptly described, they are “more like bus stops — each participant stopping by, saying a few words, and then going on their way.” As foreign language teachers, our first priority was to find a way to change that, as spontaneous conversation is not only the students’ primordial goals but also a skill that is evaluated on the AP Spanish exam. As a result, we had to find technological tools beyond the EdX platform. At the time, our instructional design team from BU’s DL&I had no knowledge of reliable nor scaleable tools to enable students to talk to each other in real time. Back in 2015, I found another MOOC that was using a platform called TalkAbout that used Google Hangouts to randomly place students in discussion groups, and then in 2018 the course switched to Zoom, which gave me the ability to form breakout rooms and move the students between the rooms based on their speaking ability, their culture of origin (to create diversity), and their willingness to be interactive conversation partners. In addition, we added Vocaroo and Voice Thread for asynchronous audio interchange and a closed Facebook group for social interaction. Only through hacking EdX we were able to have natural and meaningful discussions that are so important to not only foreign language acquisition but to active learning as a whole, and it was these synchronous student interactions that eventually led the students to get to know one another and form their own learning groups.

Repositioning the role of the instructor

Once we broke free from the limitations of this LMS, we set up three live discussion sessions a week, mimicking the kind of course schedule that we have at BU. These live meetings meant that I didn’t have to manufacture presence by simply sending out regular emails or responding to student discussion forum posts (both of which I did). I was much more visible and present, and the students could talk to me in real time. During the first run of the course, my colleagues and I more or less reproduced online the kinds of class discussions that we would have in the classroom. However, after the first run of the course, my colleagues moved onto other projects, and I started to take more pedagogical risks, such as  repositioning myself as a teacher. In order not to be perceived as the authority, I took steps such as introducing myself by my name, not a title. I am amazed at how articles suggest that it would be a lack of respect to refer to a professor by their first name. That simply reinforces the hierarchies that Paulo Freire suggests that we dismantle in order to increase student engagement and empowerment. Instead of looking for students to respect me, I was more interested in seeing them respect each other. This was especially important since the course had students of different age ranges and cultures of origin. Learning a second language can be a great equalizer for students regardless of their age or profession, as these students demonstrated by showing up each week and engaging in the mutual goal of advanced linguistic proficiency.

In addition, I started to pivot away from simply providing discussion questions based on the AP topic and instead moved towards Freire’s problem-posing approach by asking students to formulate their own questions and to pursue their own topics of conversation. This led me to discover what he calls authentic education, which “is not carried on by ‘A’ for ‘B’, but rather by ‘A’ with ‘B’.” This was especially true during the COVID pandemic when most students made it very clear that they were less interested in the topics of the course and more eager to compare notes about the quarantines in different locations, which was oftentimes a moving intercultural exchange. During one class, a student briefly left the conversation to go out to her balcony in Spain to applaud the frontline workers.

Another strategy that I used to decentralize my authority was to erase my presence in the breakout rooms for a relatively long time, thereby leaving the students on their own, a strategy that most language teachers eschew because they are convinced that the students will stop using the target language. However, I have found that when we trust our students, we get better results. The fact that they were always speaking Spanish when I returned is a testament to their intrinsic motivation to learn and their enjoyment of the conversations. The discussion sessions were scheduled for an hour, but I often even left the Zoom meeting, and they would continue for an additional hour longer.

It is worth noting that not all students immediately embraced my role as facilitator rather than a more traditional notion of a professor. Some would stop their conversations and ask me questions when I would show up in their breakout rooms. I politely reminded them that my role was not to correct their speech or explain grammatical concepts. This repositioning of my role as a teacher has continued in all of my courses, and recently a student complained that there was hardly any teaching in my class. At first I was taken aback and then I realized that it was actually a testament to my prioritizing student learning over my teaching.

As a non-native speaker of Spanish, I have long reminded students that I am not simply a language teacher but also a fellow language learner. In this MOOC, I witnessed other Spanish teachers also demonstrate that dual role. One of the most dedicated participants in the course (who is also a member of both of the current post-course conversation groups) was a high school teacher from Wisconsin (and later Hawaii) who had to convince her administrators to allow her to include this course in their curriculum. She was a wonderful model of a teacher who encouraged student participation in the MOOC by positing herself as first and foremost a learner, reminding them that language acquisition, as all learning, is a lifelong process.

Recently, while being interviewed by a PhD candidate writing her dissertation in the use of social media in MOOCs, I was asked if my use of Facebook or Zoom ever “blurred the professional lines between the student and instructor.” The interviewer admitted that the question was framed as a negative but could be seen as a positive. I responded that, of course, it did, and that was my eventual goal. Once I saw that students were interested in connecting outside of the course and sharing personal stories, I saw no reason to uphold my supposed superiority as a college professor. In fact, to do so would only undermine the organic learning community that had formed.

Letting go of control

One of the great lessons of this MOOC for me as a teacher was how to be flexible and meet the needs of a variety of different types of students. As I quickly learned, this was not the learning community of high schoolers that I had expected but instead one that had quite diverse goals. Additionally, I never knew ahead of time who would show up to a particular discussion section.  There were some regular students, and they did get to know each other and form bonds that extended beyond the course, especially once we formed the course Facebook group. But there was a beauty to the uncertainty. It reminded me that learning is best achieved when it is an invitation, not a mandate. In this way, the course was able to mimic the best of spontaneous hallway, water cooler, or café conversations. Students talked to whomever they met, whomever showed up on any given day or whomever happened to be in their breakout room. And they had the freedom to come and go as they pleased. Some students came late, others left early. It became a learning collective, an organic and free-flowing experience.

Welcoming, not instructing

Over the course of the five runs of this MOOC, my pedagogical style morphed into what Catherine Denial so beautifully and simply calls a pedagogy of kindness in which we choose to not only honor the humanity of our students but also to recognize their potential as co-collaborators. I prioritized participation and community over academic expectations and standards, thereby subverting the original goal of the course: to help them succeed on the AP exam. As Rebecca Weaver has discussed, this required new teaching instincts. Instead of fussing over whether or not they were discussing the topics of the course or correctly using the subjunctive, I focused on whether or not they felt welcomed into the community and whether or not they felt heard. I looked beyond the College Board’s pre-determined learning outcomes to students’ level of engagement, play, and curiosity. I put people over academics. I greeted everyone. I learned how to pronounce their names and where they were from. I made sure that they were welcomed into the breakout rooms. I would check in to make sure that their voices were being heard. This was particularly important to me this year during the pandemic, when participation in the course skyrocketed and MOOCs began to supplement classroom instruction.

Instead of a soulless, mass-produced educational experience, the “massive” in this MOOC became intimate and humane. The students felt cared for and listened to, and they fostered a sense of connection and trust among themselves. As bell hooks asserts in Teaching to Transgress, “As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.” This was a trait that I modeled through my own questions and my own active listening to student voices. Some of the most powerful moments were the most personal. Once, when we were discussing the AP topic of beauty and aesthetics, two high school women from Wisconsin shared their prom preparation rituals with older women from various countries in Europe. The high school students were delighted by the interest of the other women, as they shared photos of them wearing Crocs with their fancy prom gowns. The younger students reported feeling heard and respected by the older learners in the course. This MOOC’s age and cultural diversity provided such rich fodder not only for intellectual discussion but also for human interchange, and it reminded me of the limitations of our educational system that is strictly segregated by age and by geography until the post-secondary years.

Reimagining the potential for MOOCs

Anant Argawal, the founder of EdX, imagined that MOOCs could create a “path of lifelong continuous education.” While I do not have data to support that the high schoolers that attended my course continued to take MOOCs, and in most cases, it would be too early to tell, I was encouraged by the intergenerational connections that learners made in my course, as learning a foreign language was a great equalizer for them. In addition, the continuity of these online conversation groups demonstrates that while the EdX platform brought learners together, they have created a learning collective that can be ongoing, lifelong, and completely independent of any notion of an academic course. This is likely not what Argawal envisioned (he may hope that they take more MOOCs), nor was it part of what I thought was even possible when I created this particular MOOC. What started as a course to prepare students for a standardized test ended up as a means of fostering connections— linguistic, cultural, personal and professional—thereby suggesting the creative potential of online education.

In conclusion, my experience with this MOOC has led me to believe that there is still a great potential for this type of course. They may not have achieved their lofty goals of democratizing education, and their completion rates are not high, but they can have other positive outcomes. The diversity in the student population and the intrinsic motivation of the learners allow for gains that many of us educators did not predict. In addition to the age and cultural diversity there was also a diversity of learning goals. If we look beyond a traditional model of education, one rooted in a fee-per-credit system, there is perhaps no need to “complete” a course. Students can take from a course what they need instead of what we educators have decided that they need. In my AP MOOC, high schoolers could do the assessment segments that they needed to practice personally, without doing the others; and learners that were more focused on practicing their conversational skills just attended the live conversations. As a result, teaching this MOOC has taught me to approach my classroom teaching with a different focus on individual student needs and learning goals, as well encouraged me to let the students take even more agency in the classroom, such as setting their own learning outcomes and doing peer and self-assessments. When I set out to teach this course, my goal wasn’t necessarily to expand my teaching style, but that has been one of the surprising and appreciated outcomes.