In day two of the MOOC MOOC (#moocmooc on Twitter), one of the main planned activities was a collective essay based upon two questions or prompts developed by the facilitators. Individuals had the choice of participating in one of five different collective essays that were mostly divided by context: What is Learning – K-12, What is Learning – Higher Education Pedagogy, Higher Education Economies, What is Learning – Student Edition, and What is Learning – Non-academic. The facilitators pre-created a dedicated Google Doc for each category, with instructions. There was a specific word count requirement, two questions, and a very short (less than a 1/2 day) time limit. Everything needed to be completed by the afternoon of the same day.
Here are some of my initial reflections on the collective essay and more generally about the affordances and limitations of collective essays. I do this by reflecting on three previous experiences that I have with collective essays, and then thinking specifically about this most recent experience in the MOOC.
Using a Google Doc to Co-author an Article
Two years ago, a colleague and I collectively wrote an article for a publication in Google Docs, with limited to no conversation in person. It turned out to be a well-received publication, but we did it over a two month period. That allowed us to add notes and research, write and re-write, fully leverage the comment tool, and much more. At times, I played the role of researcher and the colleague refined the rough ideas from the research, putting them into an essay format. Later, I added more stories and illustrations to support key points, and he played the role of editor. It was a wonderfully fulfilling experience and I am proud of the result. We were motivated with a very clear goal in mind. The extended time was a valuable part of that process, allowing us to carefully refine our ideas for eventual publication.
Using Collective Essays with my Online Students
I also use collective essays often in online graduate courses in Educational Design and Technology. In those instances, I typically make it a one or two-week project, and students are divided into groups of 3-5. I sometimes assign specific roles to each person (team leader who keeps everyone on track; researcher who contributes new ideas; writer who takes the rough ideas and puts them into essay format; storyteller who builds metaphors, examples, and illustrations; challenger who asks tough questions in order to refine the ideas; and editor who ensures a good, solid final essay). In other instances, I do not assign roles but I list the roles that need to be involved, inviting students to jump between roles as needed and negotiated with teammates. This, too, has been very successful. I am very often quite impressed with the quality of work. I have even followed up by creating ungraded quizzes on the content of their essays to see if many of the ideas were retained by participants. Consistently, retention is good.
Another way that I use collective essays with students is to start them with a highly flawed and incomplete essay. They have the challenge of correcting and refining it based up a pre-defined set of readings and resources from the course.
Third, I sometimes have small groups do collective research in the form of a collective annotated bibliography in a Google Doc or Spreadsheet, but then they must write individual essays based upon the common sources. It is often a rich and insightful discussion when we discover the amazing differences between essays that use all of the same sources.
Eliciting Feedback from Diverse Colleagues
Third, I use collective essays to work on projects with colleagues. For example, I am working on several online graduate certificate programs that my University will offer in the next year. For each, I created a Google Doc with a rough paragraph introduction to a graduate certificate (e.g. Graduate Certificate in Adult and Community education…one that we are actually building right now), and a list of very rough (in need of much work) certificate level outcomes. I then identified 8-15 experts in adult and community education, inviting them to edit the document however they see fit. Nothing else was required of them. Based upon all of their additions and suggestions, I followed up with a real-time meeting with another single expert, and we further refined the essay for a final draft that is going through the approval process at the University. This process allowed me to quickly garner the expertise of many people from around the United States without requiring large amounts of time. It also allowed me to finish the entire process in well under a month.
Each of these were powerful, effective and successful uses of the collective essay. Because of these past experiences, I was disoriented with the massive collective essays in the MOOCs, especially given the very short deadline, my limited amount of time to work on it (less than two hours because I planned to do most of my work on the MOOC in the evenings), the rapid rate of content change, and the restriction to a very small and specific word count. I had dozens of sources on my bookshelf that I wanted to contribute, but time was prohibitive. As a result, I resolved to mostly lurk for this activity, learning from and reflecting upon the different ideas shared in a couple of the essays. That alone was a rich and rewarding experience, but less engaging and qualitatively different from the three prior experiences described above.
I leave this recent experience reflecting on many possibilities for collective essays in MOOCs. Here are six possibilities that one might consider for using collective essays in a MOOC:
- Set up a process where participants divide into smaller groups of 5-10 and complete the same exercise.
- Given the short time frame, have them simply develop an outline with sources, and then invite a follow-up activity where people use the comment tool to ask questions and make suggestions.
- Short time frames may be more effective for brainstorming and initial research and not the entire writing process. As a result, have groups develop a collaborative annotated bibliography or a massive mind map instead.
- Create prompts that are case studies or scenarios, and have users provide a collective response, allowing for “minority reports” for those who have different perspectives but hold back because the majority is going a different direction with the essay.
- Provide a pre-written essay that is rich with strong opinions and errors, but with no citations. Invite the group to collectively edit and refine the essay, adding sources to support key ideas. Also invite participants to simply use the comment tools to comment and pose questions about different parts of the essay. Then host a structured real-time debriefing by essay.
- Keep the instructions basically the same, but add an explicit section that invites participants to use this experience in order to reflect on how they can most effectively collaborate in a way that produces the best product in the short timeframe. Have a separate “journaling document” for people to write about the strategies and processes that are working / worked for them.
I leave the experience today with many new thoughts and considerations about the possibilities of collective essays in MOOCs and online learning environments in general. For that reason, I consider it a great success. Without that experience, I may not have thought through things enough to share the ideas in this post. After all, we often learn what we choose to learn.