Case Study 3.5: Scaffolding Synthesis Project

Subject: Composition MOOCs: Theorizing Pedagogy, Space, and Learning.

The Composition MOOC is one of many different types of course offerings in an emerging trend (some would call it a fad) of online higher education. This is a site of considerable tension in our field of composition studies, perhaps because many scholars see this as a step backward and away from the hard-won push for smaller-sized, learner-centered classrooms for freshman writing courses (FYC). However, there are some scholars who argue that these digital spaces can, with careful attention to the space’s design, exemplify the best-practice models of collaborative learning and scaffolding teaching practices found to be so productive in an f2f FYC course. This final case study is not intended to be an argument for Composition MOOCs; rather, it is my intention to theorize the potentiality of such a space using the following theories.

1.  Which 2-4 theories are you choosing and why?

1st Foucault – As I’ve said all semester long, Foucault is woven into everything we’ve explored this term; so it seems only reasonable to apply his theories of knowledge archaeology to this OoS. Indeed, for this reason Foucault will lay the groundwork of my final Case Study.

  •  “Discontinuities, ruptures, gaps” (169) – I envision applying Foucault’s concepts of gaps, ruptures, and irregularities (“differance”) to several possible areas of theorization / operationalization. First, the apparent tensions within scholars/practitioners within our field over MOOC spaces may allow me to explore (as I did in Case Study 2) what I may call the gaps between two space-dependent pedagogical traditions.
  • What I’ve seen in some of the literature: some compositionists argue that our field must consider a refreshed pedagogy for learning spaces like MOOCs (Debbie Morrison’s “A Tale of Two MOOCs”). The assertion is that the traditional f2f methods and technologies cannot be simply overlaid onto the MOOC space with any hope of success.
  • Discursive Functions, Formations, and Relations – Foucault charges that his theory “reveals relations between discursive formations and non-discursive domains (institutions … and processes)” (162), allowing theorists and practitioners alike to “map…the point at which [these multiple dissensions] are constituted, to define the form they assume, the relations that they have with each other” (155). This part of Foucault’s theory seems to be a productive fit to a complex system composed of both human and technological features, where navigation between humans must take place in spaces mediated through techonologies.

2nd Ecology Theory – The potential for mapping a dynamic and complex “living” network of actors as described by this theory is one of the more productive connections for a MOOC I’ve found thus far. Given the mechanics of the numerous digital platforms and software needed to operate this learning/teaching/collaborative space, it seems a natural tendency to see a MOOC along the lines of Hardware Theory (HT), which may be at the heart of many critical concerns about this trend in education. Therefore, this theory offers several useful threads in contrast to HT.

  • Gipson’s theory of affordances will allow me to discuss the structural elements of MOOC spaces in more agency- and relationship-oriented terms. Some studies on MOOC participant identities seem to suggest that these students are typically older professionals; however, many MOOC critics problematize the connectivity and structure (the “massiveness”) of the space as if the students are the 18-year old freshmen common to a physical, f2f classroom space. Therefore, Gibson’s theory may move the discussion toward the space itself in terms of activity potential.
  • Additionally, Gipson’s critical attention to the observer within the environment speaks to not only the observer/participant MOOC space designer / instructor but also the scholarly critics “reading” this trend. This points to the influence of scholarly traditions of rhetorical and pedagogical value systems informing our concept of the 21st century writing classroom space, a potential secondary network or ecology system impacting the MOOC network, and is well worth examining as part of a case study.
  • Bateson’s concept of boundaries within an ecosystem seem especially promising as a means to discuss boundaries – both as frontiers and as “economies of information” (466-67). Given the many nodes and boundary interfaces of technology-mediated teaching and learning spaces, these concepts appear to be promising methods of discussing the MOOC environment.

3rd Spinuzzi’s Activity Theory and connected activity systems provide a concrete means of application in the potential comparison between Spinuzzi’s designer vs. user and the Composition MOOCs between instructor vs. student participant. Spinuzzi’s use of distributed cognition (Activity Theory) and interconnections also maps onto MOOC spaces in potentially useful ways, particularly when focusing on “interrelated sets of activities” (62) rather than the individual learner — i.e., networks. MOOC classroom models vary widely, earning such monikers as xMOOC and cMOOC, the latter of which has been deemed most effective by several scholars due to its emphasis on coordinated collaborative networking. As Porter observes, we as scholars and compositionists must remain critically aware of the design of the learning / teaching spaces we employ / deploy, and Spinuzzi’s discussion of mediation and mediators

4th The Neurobiology Metaphor – as stipulated in my third case study, the neuronal network mapping metaphor provides interesting ways in which to discuss learning and knowledge transfer within a large, complex network system much like a MOOC classroom space.

2. How are they similar enough that you can justify getting them to work together?

  • Complex systems and affordances of web technology-based classrooms invite these theories to weigh in.
  • Hardware / framework of the technology invites discussions of the activity AND the space, as impacted by the affordances of the technology itself.
  • Mapping the complex systems nodes and networks (ecology, neuro, hardware, AT) PLUS the traces of Foucault all have the potential to align when talking about the learning space of a MOOC and the risks involved.
  • Each of these theoretical tools at some point hinge upon the concept of “relationships,” a concept key to collaborative, workshop-based FYW pedagogy.
  • Each of these theorists provide a means of exploring the types of collaborative activities which an ideal cMOOC might employ to foster distributed cognition.

 3. How do they fill each other’s gaps?

Foucault emphasizes gaps and differences; clearly these theorists provide distinctive focal points for their own work, creating potential for layering.

None of these theorists wrote with MOOCs in mind, yet their attention to varying components of a network may produce a FrankenTheory that covers the key moving parts essential to any discussion of a Composition MOOC.
Foucault calls our attention to those theoretical areas of dissonance that often go unmapped (traces). Spinuzzi and Activity Theory allows the focus to be centered on the concrete nodes of activity with a system, where and how the participants interact (where the learners learn and connect). Ecology looks at the system from a larger scale, allowing me to discuss systems within systems. Neurobiology allows us to look at the potentiality for knowledge transfer in terms of “how” learners learn.

4. How do these theories align with how you position yourself as a scholar?

  • For a Compositionist who mixes in rhetoric with digital media interests, online spaces for teaching are an intriguing area of study. MOOC spaces seem to carry incredible potential for the type of scaffolded learning and teaching practices common to writing centers, theories that have informed my scholarly interests in writing center theory as well as learning theory (such as pedagogy vs. andragogy, a key area of difference that appears to be fruitful ground of inquiry).
  • I am also a pragmatist, looking to ways to operationalize theory in practical classroom application. As an instructor, I am more interested in discovering ways to make every space – online or brick-and-mortar – one in which students are visible and active in their learning.
  • These theories intersect in varying ways with each of these positions.

5. How do these theories align with your own biases and background (the reason you came to this project in the first place)?

  • I must admit, I’ve been suspicious of MOOCs as a productive place for freshman writing instruction since I first learned of them a few years ago. As a proponent of our field’s insistence upon smaller-scaled classrooms following a student-centered workshop / studio activity design, the sheer size and decentered nature of the MOOC seemed destined for trouble. I have taught freshman writing sequences online in the past, and it quickly became clear to me that the nature of the space cannot merely mirror that of the f2f classroom. The MOOC design takes this distinction to entirely new levels of complication.
  • But the very nature of our field demands flexibility and openness to new ground / tools with which to best equip college-level writers for the demands of communication across disciplines as well as across technology-mediated spaces. MOOCs may be in their early stages of a full life in the realm of Composition Studies, or they may be on the road to extinction – a fast-burning flame. Another possibility is that they must simply be reclassified, recognized as a unique learning space for unique student populations. What the scholarly discussions seem to reveal is that we as a field are not yet certain how to deal with MOOCs, all the more reason why such theorizing (even after the fact) can be so productive.
  • My interests are also in the field of rhetoric, and in particular the rhetoric of classroom space. From what I’ve read so far, it seems that much of the criticism leveled at MOOCs within higher education emerges from ideologically-infused rhetorical frameworks. These gaps might be revealed – perhaps even bridged – through such intentional FrankenTheorizing.

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