Essay writing and the dance of peer review

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 10.53.42Source of image: Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC (ModPo) course site

There has been a really interesting discussion this week between ModPo’s leaders, Al Filreis and Julia Bloch, about the progress of this year’s ModPo course. For me the fact that they continually reflect on what works and what doesn’t work in ModPo is a model of good practice in teaching and learning. The added bonus is that they openly share this, so that other educators can learn from it too.

In this discussion they discuss the first ModPo assignment (the 500 word essay on Emily Dickinson), peer reviews, some notable discussions in the forums, what is coming up in Week 5 and what is the value of ‘massive’ participation (30000 +) in ModPo.

I particularly enjoyed the discussion about assignment writing and peer review.

Assignment Writing

This is the third time ModPo has run, and over this time Al and Julia have come to see the limitations and risks of the assignment review rubric and how a rubric can dampen the potential for a good assignment. They say that they noted how a rubric wasn’t able to cover some of the fabulous close reading of poetry that was/is being done in ModPo. I can relate to this having in the past marked assignments that are clearly much better than the rubric that is being used to mark them. I can also relate to their discussion because I know from experience that the first time an assignment is given, it is unlikely to be completely ‘fit for purpose’ and will need ‘tweeking’ for the second, if not the third, use. Eventually it becomes a good assignment which both tutors and learners understand and which allows learners to reach their full potential. I always used to worry about the first run of an assignment and whether it would be fair on the students.

Al and Julia also have a wonderful discussion about the meaning of the word essay. Julia points out that the word ‘essay’ comes from the old French word ‘assai’ , or ‘essayer’ meaning ‘to try’, ‘to examine’, ‘to test’ . So an essay is a practice, not the final word. At this point their poetic selves take over and they describe an essay as a finger exercise, an etude, a venture, a fugue, an unfolding dialogue; people riff, expand, post variations, in call and response mode.

Peer Review

Discussion of the word ‘essay’ led naturally into a discussion about what Al called ‘the dance of peer review’. A person ‘assays’ forth, someone pulls back, then comes forward and meets you half way, there’s a bit of a dance, a fugue, a give and take.


A dancer in virtual space performs with her reflection (Source of image)

‘It’s not that you learn and then I judge whether you learned, but rather you ventured forth and I came to you, and we’re together trying to figure out how this works. You are allowed to change my mind.’ (Al Filreis)

Al pointed out that this type of peer review is possible because the course is ungraded, non-credit bearing, free and open and that through this, improvement of the course is a communal activity. The course gets better as people learn how to respond. Al and Julia have seen better assignments this year as a result of this ongoing, iteratively reflective process.

I think this is all about feeding forward, rather than feeding back.

Taking stock

My understanding is that by ‘connectivism’ we mean that knowledge is distributed across a network and that learning is the ability to access that knowledge through navigating the connections in the network. I think that’s the essence of it.

This assumes that we know what knowledge means, which is in doubt judging by the forum discussions. I can see that there is information in the network. It only becomes knowledge for me when I can make sense of it. That whole discussion in the Moodle forums around externalisation left me floundering.

Is connectivism a new learning theory? To answer this we need to agree what we mean by learning theory. From the 78 posts in the Moodle forum it appears that this is also a difficult task and there is little agreement. Personally I like the explanation provided by Stephen Hawking and quoted on Wikipedia but this relates to science so I’m not sure how helpful it is in relation to connectivism? I think connectivism provides a framework in which to think about learning, but whether this makes it a theory or not I wouldn’t like to say.

In addition I couldn’t possibly say whether connectivism is  a ‘new’  learning theory without knowing a lot more about existing learning theories and it seems to me that that could be a life-time’s work. I think you could say it’s a new perspective on learning – but does that make it a theory? So – all in all –  yes – the concept of theory may be distracting (to answer the assignment question , which incidentally I am not doing).

What are the strengths? Does connectivism resonate with your learning experiences? If so, how?


As a practical way of working/ learning, connectivism clearly makes sense in many ways. Technology is developing fast and the world is becoming a ‘smaller’ place. It’s quick and easy to connect with people from all over the world – although we shouldn’t assume that this is the case everywhere, see Frances Bell’s post (See- Re: What happened to you in the history of the social web? – Saturday, 4 October 2008, 08:54 AM) in the Moodle forum and Maru’s post on her blog. For those who do have access to the web, there is a whole world of information to tap into. The skill needed is in knowing how to do this, how to select the information we need and how to assimilate the information. I know that I can ‘google’ any information I need. I know I can also access networks for any information I need. However, accessing information doesn’t equal learning.


What are the weaknesses of connectivism as formulated in this course?


I can’t comment on weaknesses, but I can comment on where connectivism doesn’t resonate with my learning experience – and that is in personal contact. On this course I have made an attempt to ‘connect’. I skim read the Moodle forums – but I  ‘feel’ little connection there, either with the ideas being discussed or with the people. I read a number of blogs, and whilst many posts resonate with my own experience, I have only made very loose connections with people who have either commented on my blog or where I have commented. Connecting through blogs is a slow and laborious business. Blogs were not designed for this. Where I feel more connected is in the synchronous Elluminate and Ustream sessions. There I get some sense of who is on this course and I think that I learn most through these sessions. I can connect more easily with the ideas. But this is the most traditional aspect of the course in terms of teaching and learning, i.e. ‘the lecture’ for ‘the group’. So what does that say about learning in networks, or to qualify – ‘my’ learning in networks?


So is connectivism any more than a by-product of advancing technologies? To me it is obvious that there is just too much information accessible by too many to continue with an education system which relies on ‘the teacher’ to be the source of knowledge. The role of the teacher will have to change and is already changing in many cases – but to what? And if there continues to be a role for teachers, then since teacher and learner are linked, the role of the learner will also change. The inverse will also be the case in that changing learners will necessitate changing teaching. So my outstanding questions are around this relationship.

So, what have been the key learning points for me so far:

1. It is possible to have an open access course for 2000+ participants, provided you have one or more people to manage the technology

2. That Blogs are not good for conversation (I only didn’t know this because I have never tried it before – it never occurred to me that anyone would want to do this. In the past, I have always used blogs for personal reflection.)

3. That forums are subject to ‘trolls’ (I realise that I have been very fortunate in my prior online learning not to have experience of this)

4. That networks don’t support the affective elements of learning (this is obvious, but I have not been involved in any networks before)

5. That for me, the affective elements of learning are very important

6. When the Moodle server is down you can’t find the links for your post!

7. That it’s possible to spend a lot of time not getting very far despite having made efforts to connect! 🙂