Poe in Cyberspace: Poe MOOC Blog
Edgar Allan Poe Review, Fall 2013
Heyward Ehrlich, Rutgers Newark

Master of the unexpected, Edgar Allan Poe took pains to avoid the middle path of conventional writers, preferring the higher ground of aesthetic exploration—or the nascent base of popular culture. His creative strategy might be explained by the theory of disruptive innovation, often applied today to the dramatic challenges to higher education being posed by MOOCs (massive open online courses). In these arresting developments, Poe is playing a small but interesting part.

On November 12, 2012, a headline in the New York Times proclaimed it to be “The Year of the MOOC.” Unlike previous online courses, MOOCs are open, free of cost, and without prerequisites, available to anyone with an Internet connection who understands the language of instruction, often English. In addition, MOOCs are massive: there is no limit to class size: one early MOOC on artificial intelligence at Stanford University attracted an unprecedented 160,000 students. Coursera, the leading provider of MOOCs, reached 1 million users in just four months, faster than Facebook or Twitter accomplished that same feat. Aand by mid-2013 it was offering 423 college-level courses through 84 educational partners to 4,349,523 students in every country in the world—an unprecedented development in light of the typical glacial pace of things in academia. But first let’s review Poe’s role in these massive open online courses.

For his versatility in the fields of poetry, the short story, science fiction, the Gothic, and the detective story, Poe was selected for inclusion in three literary surveys in early MOOCs: a 19th nineteenth-century American poetry MOOC at Harvard, an American RenaisissanceRenaissance MOOC at Saylor online, and a Science Fiction and Fantasy MOOC at Michigan.

The Poetry in America MOOC at Harvard, offered in the EdX format and taught by Eliza New, starts in the 17th seventeenth century with The Poetry of Early New England: “The first module of a course surveying 300+ years of poetry in America, from the Puritans to the avant-garde poets of this new century,” will cover “Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Williams, Hughes . . ..” (https://www.edx.org/course/harvard-university/ai12-1x/poetry-america-poetry-early-new/937).

The American Renaissance MOOC at Saylor online aims in part to correct F. O. Matthiessen’s decision in 1941 to omit Poe from his landmark work that named that literary period. The Saylor MOOC poses the question, “What was it in American culture and society that led to the dramatic outburst of literary creativity in this era?” It intends to “analyze competing conceptualizations of poetry and its construction and purpose, with particular attention to Poe, Emerson, and Whitman,” one goal being “to describe the emergence of the short story as a form, with reference to specific stories by Hawthorne and Poe.” Online readings will be assigned on the backgrounds of the short story, the Gothic tradition, and the detective story, followed by Poe’s Review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Ligeia,” “The Imp of the Perverse,” and “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (http://www.saylor.org/courses/engl405/).

Eric Rabkin had the advantage of building his MOOC upon a course he previously offered in a classroom at the University of Michigan. He thus describes the aim of his MOOC, the full title of which is Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, as follows: “In addition to dealing with some terrific fiction, this course aims to help everyone think more imaginatively, read more deeply, and write more powerfully.” Each unit in the MOOC contains video clips, book-length readings, a student essay assignment, a required response to the essay by four class peers in the continuing group, a quiz, and a participant forum. Individual grading was impossible because Rabkin’s MOOC had thirty-nine thousand students: “If any participant desires a grade, the grade will be determined by the quality and quantity of the writing and responses to the writing of others.”

Using The Portable Poe as his text, Rabkin assigned “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” “The Oval Portrait,” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” “The Bells,” “The Raven,” and “Annabel Lee” (https://www.coursera.org/course/fantasysf). The eleven video lectures in his Hawthorne and Poe unit, comprising two hours of viewing, are available online in HTML5 or Flash format (https://class.coursera.org/fantasysf-003/lecture/preview).

Remarkably, one student in Rabkin’s MOOC, Laura Gibbs, had previously taken the course in the classroom at Michigan, and enrolleding a second time out of curiosity as to what it would be like as a MOOC. Moreover, Gibbs was herself a “dedicatedly digital!” teacher, having conducted ten years of online courses at the University of Oklahoma. In responding to her assignment to write a short essay on Poe’s “The Oval Portrait”—designed “to enrich the reading of a hypothetical intelligent, attentive fellow student in the course”—Gibbs instead ventured a short fictional sketch. Poe had inverted the Pygmalion effect by portraying an artist who transmuted the soul of his wife into the soul of his art; in her response, Gibbs attempted a contemporary allegory in which a technology-sodden father is so distracted by his compulsion to record everything about the birth of his daughter on Twitter, a webcam, MiFi, YouTube, Flickr, the Facebook Timeline, and the iPad (all in 273 words) that at the end, oblivious to the fact that his child has died, he cries out, “This [Facebook] Timeline is Life itself!” (https://sites.google.com/site/mycourseraportfolio/fantasysf/ovalportrait).

Hopeful that fellow students in such a “non-traditional course” would feel “a sense of independence and self-determination as learners,” Gibbs eagerly shared her sketch with the four peer reviewers in her MOOC group, as was required. Three of the four liked it, one praising it highly: “It made me think more than any other essay so far.” Armed with this encouragement, Gibbs was hopeful when she then posted her sketch on the general discussion board of the MOOC. The surprising results became the basis for her commentary, “Teacher Authority and Student Initiative in a MOOC.” Facing “an outraged chorus of people who think I broke the rules of the class and should be punished,” she was scolded for taking the liberty of producing a sketch instead of the assigned essay: “Since he’s a professor and since he’s the expert on this subject, he has the right to set up the rules. And we should follow those rules.” Another objected: “Since she didn’t follow the rules of this course, she insulted all the other students who are trying very hard to write those difficult essays while she in fact got away with writing a very easy story since all she had to do was copy the story from Poe.” A third chastised her: “The law is as it is, and if you don’t want to end up in jail, you’d better not break it.”

Gibbs concluded that many students in her MOOC were unprepared for an open structure without visible teacher authority: “In the absence of the teacher-as-rule-enforcer, some students seem ready and willing, even eager, to leap into that role themselves.” She was concerned that such students wanted the teacher to function as “the voice of absolute authority” even while physically absent. Evidently MOOC designers had failed to take into account the wide range of cultural values in “the international audience and different cultures of schooling in different countries” (http://courserafantasy.blogspot.com/2012/09/teacher-authority-and-student.html).

A fellow student, who happened also to be a graduate student at Michigan, Chris Leeder, joined Gibbs on her blog, pointing out that open forums can reveal cultural differences and assumptions about education that ordinarily are concealed: “There are fundamental differences in perspective on the concept of education itself that are unlikely to emerge in a physical classroom.” Indeed, the international reach of MOOCs is one of its most prominent characteristics. About half the students on Udemy, another MOOC provider, connect online from outside the United States, enjoying instruction translated into local languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Russia, and Turkish, to be followed by Korean and Hindi. For the 2.,8 million learners on Coursera in March 2013, students from the United States contributed only 27 percent of the total, while six other countries, India, Brazil, the UK, Spain, Australia, and Russia, accounted for portions ranging downward from 9 percent to as little as 2 percent, the remaining 42 percent of the total being scattered in even smaller quantities among many other countries (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massive_open_online_course).

Several other Internet-literate students in Rapkin’s class posted their personal reactions to the course on their own blogs, including copies of their work. Louise Charente described the Poe assignment and posted her biographical essay from which this paragraph is taken (it earned a grade of 5.5 on a scale of 2 to 6):

“The Oval Portrait,”, written two years after his wife’s death, compares the permanence of art with the impermanence of life. Full of life when the picture was started, the “tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sat beside him.” As the picture is finished, the artist declares “this is indeed Life itself!” and his wife dies. In a reversal of the story, Virginia’s portrait was painted a few hours after death as though to bring life back to the dead through art. (http://louisecharente.wordpress.com/2013/07/15/hawthorne-and-poe/#more-1673).

Another student in Rabkin’s MOOC, blogging under the pun-name of Miss Elaineous, described the writing assignment: “[W]e had to write about something that we found particularly insightful or interesting about the plot, theme, style, structure, imagery or allusion etc. in the book. We were not supposed to write book reviews, and we were not supposed to discuss non-literary matters (we had to focus on the book itself).” Then the essay was submitted to peer review: “Each student was given a minimum of four (anonymous) essays to grade (anonymously again) on two counts: form and content. ‘Form’ consisted of structure and grammar of the essay whereas ‘content’ meant insight, argument and examples.” To encourage student originality, Rabkin did not make available his video lectures on the works and their backgrounds until after the peer responses were completed. The final step in each unit was the discussion forums, about which this student observed,: “I got to read other people’s essays and most of them were amazing, especially with regards to content, but also form; I learnt a lot from my fellow students.” Having completed 7 seven out of 10 ten assignments, she received a 70 percent% mark, which she regarded as a “great grade,” earning her a course certificate (https://mirage231.wordpress.com/2013/02/06/free-online-learning/).

Heli Nurmi, also in Rabkin’s MOOC, expressed satisfaction with her treatment as a foreign student: “I learned a lot about literature . . . Professor Rabkin has the ability to empower students, he helps to find the best inside us (how to say that better in English?)” (http://openbrookes.net/firststeps12/category/mooc/). She praised the peer responses: “The assessments differ greatly but I can learn from everyone. Someone corrects my English, someone the structure of my essay” (http://helistudies.edublogs.org/2012/08/27/fantasy-and-science-fiction/). Nurmi also had a high regard for Rabkin’s effectiveness: “The aim of the course was to help everyone think more imaginatively, read more deeply and write more powerfully—and this became true in my mind.” (http://helistudies.edublogs.org/2012/10/07/fantasy-and-science-fiction-eric-rabkin/). On another Poe-themed blog, a student named Kabir also praised Rabkin: “The University of Michigan professor is brilliant! Kabir is working harder and having more fun than he did in any of his classes at Cathedral Methinks we are onto something big with MOOCs” (http://first-thoughts.org/on/Edgar+Allen+Poe/).

Afterwards, Laura Gibbs later had second thoughts about the course, adding postscripts to her blog with a more critical view of Coursera. She regretted “the grading debacle” that ensued when the instructor’s letter grades were replaced by Coursera’s administrative percentages, causing some students to lose their certificates. In addition, even though Rabpkin had promised students that they would own the copyright of their essays, the legal terms of the agreement with Coursera undercut that promise (http://courserafantasy.blogspot.com/). When plagiarism on the MOOC became a greater problem than was anticipated, Gibbs called for moderation when extreme denunciations appeared on the discussion boards (http://courserafantasy.blogspot.com/2012/09/final-thoughts-about-plagiarism.html)>. While on the subject of plagiarism, it might be mentioned that well before MOOCs appeared, commercial paper-writing mills had already begin to exploit online courses, selling not just term papers but actually all the required work in a course, and promoting themselves brazenly on wWeb sites with such names as and . Unfortunately, students who attempted to cheat by using these services inevitably became victims themselves, with their passing rate, according to one report, never exceeding 25 percent (http://reviews4onlineclasshelp.com/.

In the MOOC boom of 2012, the prestige of founders Harvard, MIT, and Stanford haad seemed a sufficient guarantee that Ivy League quality could be brought to the masses, and a MOOC bandwagon followed of with institutions and investors jumping aboard. However, by mid-2013 an anti-MOOC reaction had begun to emerge. On June 13, 2013, tThe New York Times reported a “rancorous debate” in progress over whether MOOCs would indeed lead to “better learning, lower costs and higher graduation rates—or to the dismantling of public universities, downgraded or eliminated faculty jobs, and a second-class education for most students” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/20/education/online-classes-fuel-a-campus-debate.html?_r=0. ). Several universities made headlines by canceling early MOOC efforts.

One early concern was that the vocational emphasis in MOOC offerings would drive out traditional subjects in the arts and sciences, but Scientific American in March 2013 reported that about three-fifths of the total offerings in Coursera were still in such traditional areas: , 30 percent% in sciences, and 29 percent% in the arts. Yet to offer a MOOC [NT3]often proved more difficult and more expensive than many expected. The early MOOCS at at MIT, Harvard, and Stanford were the result of a decade of prior preparation, not only for the course materials but also for wide support in the form of foreign langaugelanguage translations, Creative Commons agreements, open courseware production, high school versions, audio and video materials (and their distribution on YouTube and iTunes), mirror wWeb sites, and modifications for independent learners.

The future of MOOCs remains difficult to predict. Surely the recording of every keystroke and Internet action will lead to great deal of Big Data, out of which general patterns may seem more relevant than the fate of individual students. MOOCs may be seen as a 21st twenty-first-century response to the information revolution, comparable to the universal literacy movmentmovement of the 19th nineteenth century as a response to the industrial revolution. Serious questions remain as about tthe long- term effect of MOOCs on curricula, grades and credits, and even faculty compenationcompensation and tenure. In some quarters there is great concern that the global networking of a few outstanding MOOCs might threaten the independence of professors atr other universities. Another question is whether social networks will ever become a substitute for the social experience of the classroom. As the initial reactions to MOOCs subside, best practices may emerge that combine the best most useful elements of classroom and online components in blended or hybrid courses. It is too soon to tell what impact MOOCs will have on two of the major crises in higher education today: that too few graduates are displaying neither the skills increasingly required for employment nor the creative ability to exercise criticialcritical thinking.

Although MOOCs are changing too rapidly for books and academic journals to keep up, current information can be found in publications such as tThe \\Chronicle of Higher Education, tThe New York Times, and The Guardian, their respective wWeb sites, and on the wWeb pages of Slate, tThe Huffington Post, and Inside Higher Education. In addition, there are useful wWeb sites offered by the major MOOC providers, Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/), edX (https://www.edx.org/), and Udacity (https://www.udacity.com/www.udacity.com), as well as the Educause Library (http://www.educause.edu/library/massive-open-online-course-mooc) and the University of British Columbia Directory of MOOC Resources (http://wiki.ubc.ca/Documentation:MOOC/Resources).

Or just fire up your Web browser and search for “Poe Mooc blog.”

“Poe in Cyberspace” columns are archived online at eapooe.info.