Scale what?

I was recently participating in a webinar about a MOOC-style first-year writing course, and a few words kept confusing me. Content. Delivery. Scale. . . .  If you’re a teacher and have thought about these terms, here’s my humble attempt to think through the confusion.

What is the “content” of a writing course? Whatever text its instructor assigns students, right? How about the basic knowledge of terms and concepts, skills and conventions that students need to acquire? Citation guidelines, punctuation rules, rhetorical terms, knowledge about genres and conventions of writing, strategies for analyzing texts or engaging sources. I spend about ten percent of my class time teaching them. And I have often created videos, encouraging students to watch them, so we can use class time for more discussion and practice. But students didn’t like it. I hated using the “content” from one year to the next; I want to cover new issues, approach them differently, and so on. I would rather find the ten percent class time and integrate content within interaction and practice more seamlessly.

My classes are too far off the content base. Briefly, I teach first-year college writing where “content” and “testing” are marginal to learning objectives (students have robust intellectual discussion of issues they collectively choose to read about, analyzing academic writing as they both emulate and critique in their own writing), upper division professional and cross-cultural communication (students interview professionals in their disciplines or workplaces of their interest, or interview peers from around the world, as they practice writing skills and build their professional profiles), and graduate-level academic writing (students analyze genres of writing and study communication in their fields as “disciplinary ethnographers” while applying the skills they practice and knowledge they develop in class to a major writing project such as a grant proposal or journal article).

Content is “delivered.” Teaching is not. When emerging technologies and support services are developed to “deliver” content, they seem to be created by experts who cannot possibly account for the wide varieties of pedagogies used by scholars across the disciplines or even the varieties of curricular objectives. Especially in the country I teach now, the United States, college professors change our courses “on the fly” as well as every time we go to our conferences and come home filled with new ideas. We experiment. We function well After Pedagogy, as the title of a book by a fellow writing scholar puts it. We constantly disrupt our own practices (but typically don’t want others doing it for us). And, more importantly, we don’t want to repeat. To bore ourselves to death. This is why the most disruptive “innovators” quickly get frustrated by us and move on to try to disrupt something else. Writing teachers don’t really do content, so, there’s little to disrupt about how we deliver it!

I’ve taught writing online and plan to more and more involved in it, or, rather, to involve it more in my teaching. But an even more common term about teaching online is the most puzzling to me. Scaling.

“The real value add[ed] of higher education,” says Joshua Kim, writing on Inside HigherEd,  “cannot occur at web scale. It can only occur at human scale.” That scale occurs “where a skilled and passionate educator interacts directly with a student to guide and shape their learning.” As Kim adds, in an article meant to debunk myths and criticism of open, at-scale online education (not a critique of it), “[o]pen online courses at scale expose just how valuable, essential, and irreplaceable are our tight-knit learning communities. Never before has the teaching efforts of a gifted, knowledgeable and passionate instructor . . . been as valuable and as essential.” Online education at scale has to somehow find ways to substitute one-on-one and/or face-to-face human interaction, decreasing the time and attention given by an educator to learners who can ask questions, feel the presence. In a writing class, only some things can be scaled without fundamentally compromising learning.

Lexically, scale is not just an instrument for weighing or measuring but also the act of climbing or increasing something by numbers. In math and music, scale refers to relative position or variation. When business or education is done at scale, it is calibrated or adjusted to the larger scope. Proportional impact and quality is strived for but not certain. The idea of “levels” implies social ranking and also ways of measuring or ranking something. The word’s connotation of magnitude (often negatively) connects to the qualitative meaning scope/extent or reach/access. And, finally, scale means to climb (from Latin “scalare”), with the connotation of difficulty or boldness in overcoming it, as in scaling the Everest.

That brings me to an argument I’ve been trying to make for a few years now: Why do advocates of online education seldom talk about scaling beyond numbers? Can’t we scale teaching and learning by quality as well? Can we not scale them in terms of access and inspiration for the learners, rather than in terms of reach and impact by those who want to deliver the same content to more students?

When Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and Edmund Hillary climbed Mt. Everest for the first time, they weren’t doing numbers. They were undertaking a superhuman challenge. It was a qualitative matter. It was a matter of inspiration. It was making the impossible accessible by showing that someone could actually do it. It was redefining success.

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