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MOOCs and Comics

posted: 3.14.14 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

In the composition community, there has been a lot of discussion about the efficacy and difficult of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that may enroll tens of thousands of students in courses designed around video lectures, online quizzes, and peer grading of assignments. Coursera offers English Composition I: Achieving Expertise from Duke University and First Year Composition 2.0 from Georgia Tech.  Steven J. Krause and Charles Lowe have edited the recently published Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promises and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses, and it’s also a topic for this year’s 4C’s conference.  High-profile MOOC instructors, such as Karen Head, have published reflections that indicate that it can be difficult to scale up from an intimate setting and to work with existing platforms designed for quantitative rather than qualitative assessments.

When Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric decided to launch their own online learning modules using the open edX platform, they wanted to use a different approach: comics.  After all, the program had been shaped by the commitment to teaching multimodal rhetoric championed by former director, Andrea Lunsford .  As academic technology specialist Megan O’Connor explained in an interview with Bedford Bits, when Stanford built it’s modules “using graphic novel style, people have had a really positive response.  They were surprised and excited to see something so different.  The project, which O’Connor explains is “not massive and not a course,” is called Adventures in Writing and uses comics characters to cover a number of subjects in comics format, including active and passive voice, academic language, punctuation, argument, and the rhetorical concerns of audience, purpose, and context.   “We developed the characters by working with six lecturers and a program administrator,” although she admits that they “came to the style somewhat by accident.  We were asking ourselves how to make the most compelling learning tool possible, and we didn’t want to have just talking heads, which are not very helpful to our students,” although they are common in the canned instruction of MOOCs.

From Adventures in Writing’s module on argument

As in the case of composing Understanding Rhetoric, dialogic approaches seemed to be a natural way to approach the task of teaching first-year composition.  Lecturer Erik Ellis, known for arguing for reclamation of the metaphor of conversation in the Burkean Parlor, mentioned doing storyboards as a way to express the group’s ideas.  “He came back with fantastic storyboards,” said O’Connor, which started from his own rough sketches and were developed into finished illustrations by another Stanford lecturer, Sohui Lee.  It was also a solution in which a virtue was created by necessity.  O’Connor described how “our initial idea was to produce motion graphics animations, until we figured out that animation would be really impossible.”  Using the storyboard format as a launch pad, the group eventually decided that the graphic novel format would work better than animation and divided the remaining four units among lecturers who co-wrote the scripts: Erik Ellis, Sohui Lee, Christine Alfano, Wendy Goldberg, John Peterson, Carolyn Ross, and program administrator Zach Waggoner.

Speaking with O’Connor, it was clear that some of the same challenges emerged for the Stanford team creating Adventures in Writing as they did for our University of California team when we created Understanding Rhetoric, particularly when tasked with creating believable and compelling student characters.  She detailed how the two characters that reoccurred, “Maya and Chris, were developed for their current lives in beta testing.   We wanted two characters students could identify with and went back and forth about who they should be.  We were especially concerned that one not seem smarter than the other by being the always narrating lecturer.”  Issues about representing gender and race also were tricky, especially since each module was illustrated by different Stanford students.

From Adventures in Writing’s module on argument

Nonetheless, O’Connor is enthusiastic about bringing comics into an open online learning initiative.

“We felt that this is a different style that may help learners that haven’t learned about these subjects in the traditional way succeed.  In our beta testing we’ve found that some students prefer to learn the traditional way with something that is not visual necessarily, but most appreciate the fact that we are bringing “something different to the platform.”  The technical challenges of adapting the edX platform for close reading panels in comics have also spurred improvements to existing MOOC technologies: “the ability to zoom in, which was not part of edX initially, was developed for us, which was nice.”  In closing, O’Connor summed up the group’s approach: “I think we want students to have fun learning about these topics, and we think the graphic style novel format is fun and very informative.”

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