Wading into Walt Whitman and One of His MOOCs

So now I’m wading into the MOOC. We don’t have any required work until January 29. But we have been told to get started reading the poems in the syllabus, because they “bunch up at the end.” Lots of thoughts regarding MOOCs and my experience thus far with the course members, facilitators, and Whitman himself.

1. When you go onto a discussion board, it is different from being in a classroom. (Our first assignment was to introduce ourselves via YouTube or the discussion board.) You are sharing your thoughts publicly – not to the whole world in this particular MOOC, but to all the class members. So if there are 100, 1000, or 10,000, some of them will see what you say. I have noticed that one presents a particular self to the discussion board, and some use it to publicize themselves as well. (I understand you are not supposed to do that – where did it say that? But my sis says she found that. I actually said I was going to blog on the experience here, so does that count as self-aggrandizing? Don’t know. Too late anyway – oh, maybe I could edit the post – if I could find it among all the other posts.) So I think all of us think more about how we present ourselves, given that what we say is not only not fleeting (it is written, not spoken), and we are presenting ourselves to many more students that we normally face (or at least than I normally face as an instructor or faced as a student).

2. One person I communicated with thinks there are differences in the poets’ discussion forum from the teachers’ discussion forum. She has a sense that the poets are behaving like – well, poets and talking poetry in general and sharing their own poetry, and that the teachers are industriously doing their assignments – already – and behaving like the over-achievers that we are stereotyped as. Whether or not that’s the case overall, we don’t know. But it makes one smile to think so.

3. There’s the feedback from the course staff. Some people’s posts are commented on by the course staff, which makes some of those of us whose post is not commented on, feel bad! Just like schoolkids who want to get the A!

4. The videos are wonderful! I think I mentioned in another post that the audio and the closed captioning really help you focus, concentrate, and maybe even remember! The ideas are very interesting, and what is really nice is that the project has had the funds to make the videos more than talking heads. While the main people do talk, nevertheless there are inserts of examples of various sorts (students making points, sites being visited, scholars talking together, manuscript pages being discussed) that underscore the words in a visual way, making for greater learning and definitely for greater interest.

5. We’ll see what the assignments are like after Jan. 29!

6. The discussion board. I haven’t been there for a while, but will go back. It’s interesting, because I found I had a different opinion about a poem from what the others found. More on that later.

7. Whitman. What an interesting man about whom I never knew much more than his name and the title Leaves of Grass. I am fascinated by this man, because I’ve always read people like Longfellow – very different from Walt Whitman.

8. MOOCs in general: I see a real need for MOOCs. People in rural areas who are isolated and need community and intellectual stimulation, older people who need younger people but are not around them, can profit enormously from a MOOC. Even people isolated within the city can have that online community. People who live in rural areas or towns without colleges and cannot make it to other cities to take college courses, people who cannot afford to take college courses, retired people who want that kind of stimulation – all in addition to the young people who want the course material – can have access to ideas in ways they could not before. People who don’t normally like to join discussion boards may find they like interacting in intellectually stimulating ways.

9. The best a MOOC has to offer: virtual and face-to-face community – and the desire to learn. I know of one person who is doing this MOOC and has both: involvement with the discussion boards and a weekly meeting with two other friends who are taking the MOOC. As for me, I talk with my sis about it, and I’m getting online. The other thing about the MOOC I’m seeing is that, since there are so many people, there is a core of people who are doing this because they absolutely want to – no other reason – no credit, no degree, no extrinsic need – just the desire to interact with these ideas. So the discussions among that core are more interesting and “real” than in a smaller class with a smaller core. So we’ll see how it goes from here. The other thing is that there are retired people involved, and people with more time. That makes a difference! When students are working, raising families, and going to school, they are deprived of the opportunity to devote as much time as they want to a topic they are passionate about!!! So these folk can make the MOOC into “Slow Education,” just like “Slow Food.”

NOTE: Did you know there’s another MOOC on Whitman at the University of Iowa? Ashley Davidson, Program Coordinator for Outreach at the University of Iowa, wrote me this regarding the multi-language, multi-cultural possibilities of MOOCs:

“The University of Iowa’s new Whitman MOOC is trying to address some of these points by using the online Whitman Web gallery of Song of Myself, which includes translations and discussion forums in 13 languages, including Chinese, Farsi, Arabic and Malay: http://courses.writinguniversity.org/course/every-atom.”

For information on what they are doing: They have an international writing program (“1400 writers from more than 130 countries”): http://iwp.uiowa.edu/about-iwp/iwp-staff.

From their website: Ashley DAVIDSON is a graduate of the University of Arizona, Sciences Po (Paris), and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has appeared in Mid-American Review, Nashville Review, Quarterly West, and elsewhere. She teaches a First Year Seminar in Creative Writing at the University of Iowa.

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