Teacher-Imposed Structure in Participant Pedagogy

The Case for Creative Paradox

In the swirling debate about the “openness” component of the MOOC acronym, participant pedagogy is perhaps one of the most problematic concepts.  Teachers in higher education  know pretty well how to define, encourage, assess, and measure student participation in face-to-face or hybrid courses. But such practical and theoretical knowledge is not easily  transferable to the MOOC format–nor should it be, since MOOCs offer entirely new sets of challenges and chances for individual as well as peer-to-peer as and  group interactions that implode the confines of the traditional “Participation/Attendance” grade.  What forms can, should, or must “participation” and “attendance” take in a MOOC to be successful, both on an individual level, for each student, and as a contribution to the success of the course, as an individual and group learning project?  And more importantly, what should the “pedagogy” be that informs these new forms of participation online?

In particular, what does this mean for humanities MOOCs, which are still such a new and undertheorized phenomenon at this point? As a traditionally trained humanities teacher of literature, cultural studies, film, and writing courses, I wonder what to do with that “massive” and “open” component online, when so much of my own best teaching and learning focuses on the details and nuances of texts, delves into contexts in depth, and thrives on interpersonal debate and argument where ideas are weighed, compared, and contrasted, accepted or rejected, added to or thrown out, and bounced off of one another in creative interchange.  Participation and presence are absolutely vital to the success of a traditional humanities seminar, but these only become meaningful if the points made, and indeed the participants themselves, can be identified and followed within an argument or debate.  As humanities courses are starting to wake up to the possibilities of MOOCs and online higher education and starting to explore the new tech tools, how do we make sure teachers and students do not fall into chaos, drown in the cacophonous chorus of too many voices all speaking at the same time, lose sight of important threads of thought and writing in discussion fora, when faced with all these discussion trees, twitter hashtags, Facebook pages, online aliases, barrages of possibilities and invitations (not to mention irritations)?  How can we find a productive balance between true openness, with the results of students’  learning and interests not fully predictable, and our wish as teachers–I would actually say, responsibility–to help guide them through the fray?

As the etymology indicates,  the concept of “pedagogy” (at least in its Urform in ancient Greece) involves the idea of “leading” (>ἄγειν, to lead) or actively guiding students: from ignorance to knowledge, passivity to activity, theory to practice (or practice to theory), initial insecurity to independence and a sense of self-possession, and so on.  Is there still a place for such active leading and structured guiding on part of the teacher in the wide-open participant pedagogy of the MOOC?  And does “wide open” necessarily mean unstructured?  Not teacher-led, only student-led?

I wouldn’t pose these questions if I didn’t want to make a case for the place of structure and for the teacher’s role here: not always (not everything should be structured like this, all the time), and not thinking of the teacher as the sole arbiter of wisdom and knowledge, of course.  Rather, I think of the teacher here as an informed, experienced arranger and leader of participatory activities that can become better and more productively open, precisely because of the teacher’s skilled initial arrangement of questions and tasks.

Let me illustrate what I mean, with the start of a list of concrete, structured online activities that build on “traditional” literature and cultural studies teaching ideas but could potentially work really well for the MOOC format, all geared at TEACHING CLOSE READING (a topic I’ve committed myself to for next year).  Feel free to add your own!  I will add more to these in the future.



Set up shared Google document (or use online discussion forum). The task is to draft a spontaneous group essay that delves into a particular text (it could be a passage, a poem, a scene in a play or film, etc.–need to specify ahead of time) and develops a coherent line of thought, with each student building upon previous students’ ideas.  (Initially, a specific passage, a short scene, or a short poem might work best since the text to discuss is more contained that way; eventually, you could experiment with writing about a whole work of literature or film that way.)  The rules: each student can only write one or two sentences, then it’s on to the next student (over and out).  There does not need to be a formal “end” to this crowd sourced essay.  The value of the exercise lies in the brevity/clarity of each individual idea, and in students’ connectivist skills, as well as in the variety of things in the text that can be discovered or debated in such a close reading.  After activity closes (deadline, or next f2f class session), there should be a discussion on learning outcomes, of course.  I’ve just made this exercise up today, but I can’t wait to try it out in class this fall.  I expect surprises!  Please let me know your experiences if you decide to adopt this idea for your course.



Filed under MOOC musings

9 responses to “Teacher-Imposed Structure in Participant Pedagogy

  1. I’ve been thinking about this too. Here’s an idea that I probably will never get to try out, but I offer it. I do what’s called a “pointing” as preparation for finding the hotspots of interest in a text (poem, short story, or a striking passage of a novel, play). We can then either write on the hotspots or open for further discussion. There are lots of interesting things that come out of pointing. First and importantly it is a way of rereading — a practice we have to teach for deep comprehension. So here is how it might look in a mooc: select the passage in question. Have a twitter session or some other synchonous way to allow students to “shout out” a line or phrase that strikes them as important. There is no limit to how many times a person can shout it out (twitter it) or how many times a passage can be used. In fact what happens is that certain phrases and passages begin to stand out through repetition as important. I can see the instructor wanting to put a time limit on the exercise and then have students work through the record of the pointing (this would be an advantage of the online format — in f2f the experience is not recorded). Then groups could select themes or words or ideas that emerge and do informal writings on the piece. I think this has potential.

    • That’s great, love the idea–and coincidentally use a version of this in my face-to-face classes already! When poring over a particularly rich passage or poem together, I initially invite students sometimes to just speak the words or phrases that jump out at them (without any further explanation or commentary). Activity goes on until participation does down, usually 2 minutes max. We then discuss what they pointed out, and speculate why, also connecting/contrasting some of the words/phrases with one another–and voila, lively intro to discussion! I really love this exercise, but it is easily overused–must remain fresh. You’re right that it’s better to do in real-time online environments (synchronous), as the brevity and spontaneity is really important, I think. I’ll mull this over a little bit more …

    • Cynthia Cyrus

      My own approach (in music) is related-but-different. I had a fabulous f2f experience teaching analysis by talking about “THE moment” — the one that a listener thought was “the reason for the movement” — an aesthetic high-point, if you will. It would be an interesting exercise to ask MOOC participants to mark their chosen moment and annotate it with a precis of why that moment matters and how it was set up. You’d get an interesting set of contrasting readings — and coming back and commenting on someone else’s choice (perhaps with a “Yes, and…” prompt) could be really useful.

  2. Vivian Halloran

    @petradt Your blog addresses my own misgivings about how connectivist MOOCs sideline instructors/professors. As humanists, we have both the expertise and the interest in conducting focused discussions with our students that help all of us elucidate new meanings in the texts we read. That is hard to do amidst the din and chaos of unmoored learners’ contributions. We need more follow through. I love how the assignment you designed keeps the focus on the text while allowing for creative collaboration and peer to peer learning/instruction. Great job! I might take a page out of your book and do something similar with my class this fall. Thanks, @HalloranVivian

  3. I really like this collaboration exercise, I’m sure it’ll have very good learning points!
    About the discussion and bouncing the ideas: as much as I like them, they have their disadvantages:
    1. The participation very much depends on one’s verbal argument skills. And confidence. And acceptance of taking it easy. Yes, a good teacher can help but can’t change personality.
    2. Pressure of saying what others want to hear. Sometimes it’s peer pressure, sometimes it’s the pressure of giving the teacher the “right answer”. Again, a good teacher can help with that but not always.
    I think this is where online discussions can have an advantage if, as you pointed out, they’re well equipped for this.

    • Sorry for the tardy reply, Andrea, and thanks for your comment! I hear you on different learner participation patterns. I do think that incorporating various forms of participation/collaboration exercises–including ones in which the group project takes precedence over individually identifiable voices–should give students more opportunity to try stuff out and take off some of the pressure (always a problem, online and off). All best to you!

  4. Chris Friend

    Saying there’s no formal end to the essay strikes me as odd. Would you not want the class to reach a form of consensus and conclusion after they’ve had a chance to write out what they’re thinking and discover more ideas? The lack of closure reminds me of today’s MOOC MOOC activities/chat, where things were very spread out. Nothing wrong with it, but the benefits of reflection might work best after some form of conclusion.

    I also can’t help but think of accountability here, especially given your comments in ¶1 about participation/attendance. You’re right to say that the traditional uses/meanings of those terms are inapplicable to a MOOC, but I wonder how we work with the ideas in the context of traditional ed institutions. I have to track attendance for funding purposes. How does that work online? I expect students to participate; how is that measured in a MOOC? For that matter, how do students know when they’ve participated enough?

    I suspect we could rely on the complexity of the task to set the bar that must be reached. Tell students that they must participate enough to get the job done. Sounds authentic. Sounds sketchy, too. Does that mean that our assessment necessarily becomes high-stakes? Participation isn’t measured, but the final result is The Standard by which all is measured/defined (including formatting req’s in Stommel’s prompt today). That sounds dangerous…and exactly the opposite of what I’m trying to do this semester.

    I’m afraid I’ve raised more questions than I’ve added comments. I blame you. 🙂 Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    • Chris, thanks so much for the post, and I’m chagrined it’s taken me so long to leave a reply. I think your point about the necessity of a formal end point is a good one, but I am intrigued by the possibilities if we let go of that for just one activity or exercise, and see what happens. I normally give lots of instructions and set up rules in advance, but I’ve begun to suspect that while that may help some students (and me as a teacher who likes clarity and control, I admit), it may also prohibit other, more spontaneous and playful types of developments. For the upcoming academic year at Stanford, I’ve set myself the task of learning by “playing”, in addition to (or as a variation of) the more rule-based learning and teaching I’m used to. It’s an experiment–wish me luck! (And thanks for your nice comment about my post!)

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