Enter the MOOC

by Colette Hayes

Klari Reis’ Petri Dish Art :: http://www.klarireis.com/

At Cal Poly, there is a huge lecture hall called the Business Rotunda. Everyone knows the Business Rotunda. Its distinctive spherical shape seats upwards of 300 or 400 students per class.  When I was a student, I avoided the Rotunda like the plague.  Large classes nannied by TAs meant less learning, I’d been told.  As it turns out, I ended up taking two classes in the Rotunda: political science and US history.  I later became a TA for the professor that taught the political science class, a job that I loved and that taught me a ton.  The history class is among the most memorable classes I’ve ever taken in my life. So much for loathing the large lecture hall.

Fast forward about 10 years, and I’m a student in a lecture hall that dwarfs the Rotunda by a long shot.  In the space of my Massive, Open, Online Course (MOOC -hard “c” – for short), there are some 30,000 students clambering/clamoring to learn. Today, the Modern Poetry class I’m enrolled in opened its doors. While the user interface is simple enough, things, are, well, a bit awkward and unwieldy, for me right now at least.  Case in point: I accidentally “subscribed” to the introductions feed and immediately had two hundred email updates that began “Dear Colette, So and So has posted in blah blah blah.” Oops. Forums and posts and strings and threads about the first poem we are to read — Emily Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility” — are growing faster than cultures in a petri dish.  There’s no way I’ll be able to keep up with the massive explosion of text.

I’ll heed Ms. Dickinson’s advice here, though, and proceed, for we are dwelling in a space of  possibility, I’m sure.  From the introductions I did read, I learned that there are students from every walk and climb and age and corner of the earth. They’re excited and eager and now they have access to, and the attentive and encouraging ear of, U Penn scholar Al Filreis.  Like the experimenters and innovators that sought to stretch the stays of traditional, narrative-based poetry, MOOCs are about to challenge our restricted notion of what a classroom means. If my past experience tells me anything, I have every reason not to be scared.