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Education for all part deux: UI gears up for its next round of massive open online courses


IWP's MOOC
IWP Director Christopher Merrill (pictured) will teach the poetry course alongside poet and Writers’ Workshop graduate Mary Hickman. — photo courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs

Following the success of its first massive open online course (MOOC) earlier this spring, the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP) is gearing up for its next round of open education with two new (completely free) MOOCs.

The two courses, How Writers Write Poetry and How Writers Write Fiction, will begin on June 28 and September 27, respectively, as part of the IWP’s new MOOC series entitled, “How Writers Write: Talks on Craft and Commitment.” Each course will run for six weeks under the direction of IWP Director and UI English Professor Christopher Merrill.

Similar to the IWP’s first MOOC, “Every Atom: Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself,” which wrapped up in March, both courses will incorporate online discussions and writing assignments, as well as live question and answer sessions conducted by contributing authors. Each week, graduates from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop will workshop a representative sample of students’ submissions.

Black Rainbow Editions Editor Mary Hickman will join Merrill in co-teaching the poetry MOOC, while a contemporary fiction author, not yet announced, will co-teach the subsequent fiction MOOC in September.

Both courses are currently open for registration.

Approximately 2,100 students enrolled in the IWP’s Walt Whitman MOOC earlier this year, according to Ashley Davidson, program director for IWP Outreach and Special Programs. The IWP expects to see similar enrollment numbers with its two upcoming MOOCs, with 686 students currently enrolled in “How Writers Write Poetry” and 900 students currently entrolled in “How Writers Write Fiction.”

“Typically what we saw, with the Walt Whitman MOOC, is that the enrollment for these courses moves along at a steady pace, and then they tend to double in the last week [of the enrollment period],” Davidson said.

Students enrolled in the IWP's Walt Whitman MOOC were encouraged to leave a pin in the locations from which they were studying. The map includes data from about ten percent of the MOOCs enrollees. View the interactive version here.
Students enrolled in the IWP’s Walt Whitman MOOC were encouraged to leave a “pin” in the locations from which they were studying. The map shown above includes data from about ten percent of the MOOC’s enrollees. View the interactive version here.

IWP Distance Learning Coordinator Susannah Shive says her department is particularly excited about the upcoming “How Writers Write” series because creative writing MOOCs represent uncharted territory — and not without reason. Adding an interactive workshop to an online course with thousands of students presents a difficult task for instructors. Engaging students with meaningful feedback is the primary challenge, and MOOCs are still experimenting with how best to overcome it.

“What we’ll do is select a nice representative sample every week and workshop those, and of course everyone will be invited to join in on the workshops,” Shive said. “Hopefully, that means everyone will get some attention. If you post questions or comments, we’ll certainly respond to them so you’ll be able to fully engage in the discussion.”

Similar to the IWP’s first MOOC, Shive says staff will be on-hand 24 hours a day to respond to student feedback and questions, and that most responses will come within an hour, if not sooner.

“Our mission is to reach out and connect [with] underserved communities in particular, who don’t have as many opportunities as we do in a place like Iowa City,” she said.

The format allows the IWP to create connections with communities on a scale never before possible, Shive says.

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“I think universities are, in general, excited about reaching communities they haven’t been able to reach before,” she said. “So, getting to be a part of the global conversation about how to make education accessible to everyone — that’s exciting.” Getting to take part in the sort of technological and pedagogical experiments that make MOOCs possible presents exciting opportunities for the university, Shive says.

As a format, MOOCs are still a relatively new concept, with differing ideas about financial viability — an inherent issue given the format’s tuition-free structure.

“One of the things that I really admire about the University of Iowa’s commitment to [MOOCs] is their willingness to suspend that concern,” Shive said. “…MOOCs are something they’re very excited about and they’ve been very thrilled with what we’re doing.”

Until then, the IWP is feeling optimistic about its upcoming “How Writers Write” series — a sentiment that stems, in part, from the reaction to its Walt Whitman pilot MOOC.

“You never know how it’s going to turn out, but we worked really hard to create a course that would function effectively in this format, and to draw together and then support a teaching staff who could interact meaningfully to create a real learning experience for thousands of people,” Shive said. “We were very appreciative of the enthusiasm that everyone brought to the discussion forum, and their commitment to a really deep, rigorous examination of the poem. People really put an enormous amount of energy and thought into their comments and responses, and their participation overall.”

“The commitment was just really extraordinary to witness,” Shive said.


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