When faced with a complex, fluid, and potentially uncontrollable situation, I’ve often heard people say, “It’s like herding cats.” I can think of no more complex, variable, and fluid task than writing. Its nuances and complexities seem to defy consistency; what works as “good writing” in one circumstance can be disastrous in another. Indeed, the push toward multimodality in student writing means even the products can vary: essays one minute, blogs the next, videos after that. We also strive to develop stylistic variation: the strongest students develop a personal voice that makes their work distinctive. Everything about writing activities makes them seem like one-offs: what works in each instance is different than the next solution. The complex challenges of teaching students to work within that degree of variability makes me despair.

Recent writing studies scholarship on transfer attempts to address this frustration by identifying the parts of our writing courses that stay with our students and benefit them in future situations. What parts of writing are transferrable to new situations? What skills do we need to teach our students to best benefit their future writing tasks? These answers are not simple, certain, or clear. What we do know is that metacognition is essential for effective writing practice: if students are conscious of the decisions they make when crafting their words, they make better decisions. Therefore, the task of effective writing instruction often becomes one of teaching awareness as a skill.

Teaching students to be aware of their thinking is challenging enough when working face-to-face with a student. Is it even possible at a distance? The current push toward reducing time spent in classrooms, or eliminating the classroom altogether, also pushes instructors away from the students they are charged with teaching. The MOOC movement (is that even the right word now?) goes a step further by allowing students to be completely anonymous—the more massive the course, the more compelled a teacher is to treat the students en masse. With a subject so specific and individuated as writing, can students learn proper strategies or practices in an unindividuated learning environment?

Schools like DukeOhio StateMt. San Jacinto College, and Georgia Tech are experimenting with that very question by offering their own composition MOOCs. Educators across the nation, including those in the Hybrid Pedagogy community, are watching carefully. What will students get out of these courses? How will they work? Questions of assessment, course credit, and financing also abound. Many instructors fear MOOCs, seeing them as an unknown entity that threatens to swallow up their jobs as more students can be taught by fewer instructors. (What kind of student-teacher ratio can any of Duke’s 60,000 enrolled participants expect?) These new composition MOOCs stand to solidify opinions on the effectiveness and potential of composition education at a large scale.

Two common reactions dominate the current discussion: 1) fear and loathing that MOOCs will disrupt and devalue the current education system 2) growing excitement over the spreading hype surrounding fully online and fully distributed learning using modern technologies. In this piece, I wish to strike a middle ground, arguing MOOCs make us re-think our teaching in ways that ultimately will enhance, not replace, classroom learning. We cannot teach all students every intricacy of writing—for their future courses, their careers, and their civic engagement—using a MOOC format, but we can use MOOC strategies to improve our existing in-class teaching efforts. The current debate over the value of MOOCs may distract us from a greater opportunity: while a few instructors experiment with composition MOOCs, the rest of us can determine whether the lessons learned by those instructors can inform and enhance our own teaching methods.

For example, I recently proposed five essential MOOC philosophies that can be applied to face-to-face instruction. I’ll review them briefly here to start thinking about the interactions between writing courses and distributed learning.

1. Collaboration. Instructors have long encouraged students to work in groups when thinking through ideas, working on projects, or reviewing one another’s work. How often do those groups span institutions, time zones, or continents? MOOC-scale collaboration encourages students to find collaborators with markedly different perspectives, helping them develop a wider appreciation for complexity.

2. Connection
. Students looking for information or examples in a traditional course are often limited to what their teacher or textbook provide. MOOCs, however, often skip the textbook, relying instead on the seemingly endless resources of the web. For instance, Duke’s writing MOOC uses the open-source Writing Commons for its source material. Because students often bring connected devices to class, on-ground instructors can use those technologies to connect to outside resources, letting students find relevant material in the “real world”.

3. Assessment
. MOOCs make us rethink or reinforce our conceptions of assessment, pitting the allure and efficiency of mechanized essay grading using machine readers and database-driven plagiarism detection against the more intimate, yet slower, traditional human-scored high-stakes writing. The unsettling spectre of automated essay scoring, applied at large scales, calls us to refine our approaches to writing assessment. Noted composition-assessment scholar Ed White credits the Duke writing MOOC with including reflection, revision, peer review, and challenging reading as pillars of assessment practice, even though the instructor isn’t directly involved in the process. Given most instructors’ distaste for grading, refiguring its role in composition might be the best thing we take from MOOCs.

4. Reflection
. Returning to the importance of metacognition in effective writing practice, it’s clear that students most effectively learn what they do when they write if we ask them to reflect on their processes. MOOCs virtually require this approach, as the instructor has insufficient exposure to student writing to determine what the student has or has not learned. By asking students to moderate their own learning, regardless of course format, we foster student independence and self-reliance.

5. Trust
. Each of the above elements builds to a sense of trust between instructor, student, and available resources. MOOCs force educators to give up a degree of control, but that sacrifice shifts responsibility onto the student—a move I cannot help but see as drastically beneficial for learning and growth. Proximity within the classroom often leads to authority struggles; these issues evaporate when the persons involved likely never communicate directly. That we would all work so hard to empower our students.

Overall, MOOCs force a paradigm shift in pedagogy as we consider education in different contexts and at different scales. Since its inception, Hybrid Pedagogy has questioned, explored, and celebrated the potentials of that paradigm shift. As we turn our attention to the connections between the open classroom and the writing classroom, we need to question and explore the skills that writing courses allow students to transfer into new situations. We must look for creative ways to get students to engage with the essence and process of writing that embrace, rather than fear, the complex, variable, and fluid nature of writing.

Rather than attempting to tame either MOOCs or writing courses, let us consider setting them both free. MOOCs should not be limited to impersonal, isolated information processing, and writing courses should not be limited by the boundaries of classroom walls or purely academic audiences. By combining the open flexibility of MOOCs with the personal connections inherent in writing (and writing classes), we can unleash our students’ abilities to write in the world around them. Our in-person courses can benefit from MOOC strategies because they challenge us to refigure our role as instructors. By harnessing and directing distributed online resources, digital pedagogues can master the occasionally crazy, often delightful art of teaching…or, as I like to think of it, cat-herding.