A Good MOOC is Hard to Find: Visit ModPo

A Best Practice for Distance Education

David Seelow, PhD

A few weeks ago, along with thousands of others, I received an email from Professor Al Filreis from the University of Pennsylvania, providing an outline for live webcasts in his fall 2024 Massive Open Online Course Modern and Contemporary Poetry. The following week we received another note expressing sorrow over the passing of noted American poet and innovator Lyn Hejinian. Both gestures are uncharacteristic of MOOCs, but they signal how a MOOC can be an effective, innovative platform for higher learning.

When the MOOC fanfare exploded around 2012, the platform pitched three appealing features: free cost, unlimited unenrollment, star professors. All three features are still true but shown to have significant limitations. The free cost is great. Even a certificate of completion generally only costs about $49 on Coursera, the largest MOOC platform. However, a certificate of completion does not carry or even merit credit. Consequently, I like to think of MOOCs as a form of continuing education like professional development courses or adult education.  Given that caveat, MOOCs still have some real value.

 The free or low cost is still a terrific feature. Unlimited enrollment is a terrific feature because the courses attract a global audience far more diverse than any traditional online or face-to-face course. That’s a great feature and the chief reason I enrolled in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry. I don’t need credit. I already have a reasonably in-depth knowledge of American poetry, but I wanted to interact with a global audience and see how people from widely different backgrounds would react to poems ranging from Emily Dickinson to John Ashbery. However, given the large number of students and the continual enrollment policy meaningful interaction does not happen very often in comparison to a traditional online course. More on that later. Yes, there are star professors and students who can take courses from great schools like Stanford and Yale as well as international universities. I took a course from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. There are many star professors, including Coursera’s cofounder Andrew Ng and distinguished scholars in my field like Stephen Greenblatt and David Damrosch from Harvard. I certainly enjoy listening to fascinating and thought-provoking lectures, but aside from prerecorded lectures, the professor is nowhere to be seen or heard. Moreover, the courses are often out of date by years. That’s another significant limitation.

Can the problem of scale, staggered start dates, and missing professors be solved?  Yes, but only with effort and that’s why I call your attention to the design of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry.  You have the free tuition, an Ivy League School-University of Pennsylvania, and a star professor, Dr. Al Filreis, a leading expert on American poetry and literary history. However, Modern and Contemporary American Poetry goes well beyond these three appealing features of most MOOCs thanks to Professor Filreis, Laynie Brown and other staff’s several innovations.

First, the webcasts. ModPo, as the course is affectionately referred to, offers a synchronous version with a cohort every fall. This version of the MOOC runs for ten weeks during which Professor Al is a genuine presence.  The course still has the traditional option of enrolling at any time and working your way through the course at your chosen pace. There are also intensive mini courses offered in the spring and summer. These courses are referred to as SloPo and they are taught by instructors with expertise and interest in a particular poet. These mini courses are synchronous, include a live webcast, and feature lively discussions with heavy input from the instructor. This spring included mini courses on Rosemarie Waldrop, Renee Gladman, Louise Gluck, and one I enrolled in, Frederico Garcia Lorca. Sure, he is Spanish, but modern poetry has a distinct international sensibility and some of Lorca’s most inventive poems were composed in the U.S. during stay at one of my alma maters, Columbia University, including Poeta en Nueva York (1930). Nonetheless, the synchronous cohort sessions offer the richest learner experience.

The teaching assistants are highly knowledgeable about modern poetry, and just as important, passionate about poetry.  The T.A.s are extremely active on discussion forums and because all students are reading and listening to material at the same time discussions are far more extensive than other MOOCs where you might enter a discussion that the other discussants have long since left behind. Moreover, the T.A.s hold weekly office hours on a rotating basis, which allows students to have live sessions with poetry experts. Professor Al also participates in discussions and uses the course announcement feature each week to give students a detailed framework for that week’s material. When I say students, many students, including myself, are also professors.  

In addition to T.A.s, ModPo has many Community Teaching Assistants. There are volunteers with a love of poetry who have demonstrated expertise through rich, in-depth discussion posts in previous versions of the course. I am told there are around 100 CTAs, which guarantees all learners will receive insightful responses to their posts. To my knowledge, no online course, credit or noncredit, offers such comprehensive coverage of the discussion forums. Moreover, as mentioned above, there are not one or two discussion forums each module, but a minimum of one per poem, and then other discussions relevant to each week’s material.  Laynie Brown describes her careful selection of CTAs, “I go through the list, invite the CTA’s to join us for another year and add a handful more. Many CTA’s remain for many years to come, and that’s what we are hoping for, an ongoing global and growing community.  The CTA’s often are the ones to make recs for new CTA’s. During the summer I offer some mentoring to new CTAs, though generally, they already know exactly how to be a fabulous ModPo CTA. And yes, all CTAs are volunteers, for which we are grateful!”

The course has a global audience of poetry enthusiasts and the CTAs help make and maintain this global, ever evolving community, possible. Most fascinating to me, the course has a fandom. Many people re-enroll in the course’s cohort session year after year. That says something about how positive the course experience has been for many lifelong learners. Speaking of global audiences, Al sometimes takes the poetry show on the road. Last fall, he held a session at the City University of New York (CUNY) and one in Scotland. How great is that!

The weekly live webcast goes for 90 minutes and encourages students to call in questions.  In addition, visitors sometimes attend webcasts at Penn’s Kelly Writers House (3805 Locust Avenue, Philadelphia) or other locations, adding another thick layer for the poetry gourmand.  Professor Filreis is director of the fantastic Kelly’s Writer House, and the many live events held at that spot, including recordings for the monthly podcast PoemTalk, allow for both new and older material to be seamless integrated into the course. Last October they hosted a wonderful “Celebration of the Life and Work of Bernadette Mayer,”(1945-2022) a tremendously innovative contemporary poet, and one of my personal favorites.

Discussion forums are the backbone of online courses, but, as mentioned above, in a MOOC, since learners may have left the course months or even years ago, the interactive nature of discussion suffers greatly. ModPo’s synchronous delivery and the active participation of T.A.s, and repeat enrollees, including repeat T.A.s, make the discussion board even more vibrant than a traditional credit bearing online course. Another excellent discussion forum feature has one of the T.A.s pose a “Canon Challenge” as part of the course content. These challenges reflect the various T.A.’s passion and provoke potentially deep discussion on the nature of what poetry counts as part of the canon and what is left out. A few times, I engaged the challenge by disputing the post’s underlying assumption. Although the original poster did not take up my challenge there were respondents from past incarnations of the course that did engage my challenge in a serious fashion. This engagement required the person to have a comprehensive knowledge of poetry and each time that proved to be the case. The interaction always deepened appreciation of the poetic tradition for those learners participating in the discission.

In terms of course content, ModPo also makes important innovations beyond the weekly “canon challenge”. Traditionally, MOOCs deliver content via prerecorded video lectures. In ModPo lectures are replaced by prerecorded discussions. These discussions are community/group close readings of individual poems. Each poem gets full attention from the entire small group. The advantage of discussion is that learners are exposed to multiple perspectives in addition to that of Professor Filreis, who leads, but does not dominate the discussion. Consequently, you have recorded interactive discussions that generate live interactive discussion forums. Furthermore, even though the sessions, sans the webcast, are prerecorded, the rich inventory of recordings allow for constant rotation, making material fresh for each incarnation of the course. Finally, the many visitors to Kelly Writer’s House and Penn’s own superb resident emeritus poets/professors like Bob Perelman and Charles Bernstein, often contribute to taped discussions.

Professor Filreis and his team also make full use of social media to connect with a global audience. There is a Facebook group page and study meet-up groups that meet both virtually and in person at various locations around the globe. These study meet-up opportunities extend the course boundaries and support the practice and appreciation of poetry in vital ways.

Additionally, a supplemental curriculum called the ModPo Plus syllabus expands the curriculum well beyond the weekly course material. This supplemental curriculum provides so much material that even experts have poems available to work on and through with others. Even if not an ‘expert’, all this material means learners can explore poems not covered in the standard curriculum. This dual curriculum represents a version of personalized learning I truly appreciate. These resources include a Teacher Resource Center that supports poetry instructors at all levels improve their ability to connect with students, promote poetry, and expand student horizons on a range of poetry from traditional to the most experimental.

In terms of assessment, the course requires four rigorous writing assignments. Each assignment asks for a close reading of a “difficult poem” not covered in the course discussions. Although still based on “peer evaluations,” the assessments are far more challenging and authentic than typical MOOC automated quizzes. Each submission has four readers, and these ‘peers’ often transcend the traditional understanding of peer. The evaluators are experts, often scholars, poets, CTAs, TAs, and a highly literate poetic public.  Once more, I remark that no other online course, to my knowledge, or even face to face course, for that matter, offers this depth of feedback on papers.

Students can enroll in a credit bearing version of ModPo by contacting ModPo coordinator Laynie Browne at modpo@writing.upenn.edu. Laynie is a highly accomplished poet in her own right. However, in terms of college credit, I am thinking about an increasing interest in alternatives to college signaled both by credentialing and competency-based education. This movement focuses on skills directly applicable to employment situations in fields such as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, project management and so on. Mini courses or training academies operated directly by corporations like Google, Open AI, IBM and others will, in my thinking, continue to challenge traditional college degrees. MOOCs have an opportunity, if properly designed, to offer such credential programs alongside their traditional degree or certificate programs. ModPo offers the perfect example of a MOOC designed in a fashion able to serve multiple purposes in today’s global environment.  

For information on ModPo visit: https://modpo.org/ and Professor Filreis’s introduction to the course.

P.S. Don’t forget to check out my last two books.

Games as Transformative Experiences for Cultural Awareness, Critical Thinking and Deep Learning

Teaching in the Game Based Classroom: Practical Strategies for Grades 6-12

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