Problematic Partnerships: An Analysis of Three Composition MOOCs Funded by the Gates Foundation

Problematic Partnerships: An Analysis of Three Composition MOOCs Funded by the Gates Foundation

Tyler Branson (University of California – Santa Barbara, USA)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 19
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1718-4.ch011
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Abstract

This essay analyzes the rhetorical function of partnership in the creation and administration of three first-year composition MOOCs taught at institutions that were recipients of grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2012-2013. Specifically, the author analyzes partnerships with MOOC developers Coursera and teams of academics at Duke, Georgia Tech, and Ohio State. These composition MOOCs are examples of problematic partnerships, or collaborations between academics and powerful groups, individuals, or companies that may have interests related to, but not necessarily in step with, academics' own disciplinary agendas. Ultimately, the author argues that despite significant risks, problematic partnerships can be potentially productive sites of research, teaching, and collaboration. Moreover, problematic partnerships can also potentially function as vital pockets where practitioners can leverage institutional collaborations to create new knowledge about writing and writing pedagogy and ultimately keep the field engaged in important public issues related to writing.
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Introduction

This essay analyzes the rhetoric of partnership in the creation of three first-year composition MOOCs taught at institutions that were recipients of generous grants by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2012-2013. Specifically, I analyze discourse surrounding partnerships with MOOC developers Coursera and teams of academics at Duke, Georgia Tech, and The Ohio State University. These composition MOOCs are examples of what I call problematic partnerships, or collaborations with powerful institutions that may share related interests, but not necessarily related goals, with academics in the field. The three university-MOOC partnerships I explore in this study are problematic because of their relationship with what Linda Flower (2008) calls the “problematic power of larger institutions” (p. 27). However, Flower’s approach in Community Literacy and the Rhetoric of Public Engagement, which argues for a “renewed rhetoric of public engagement” (p. 2) where students and community partners work together to “solve joint problems” (p. 71), is a bit different than what I’m envisioning. My notion of problematic partnerships is concerned with how academics leverage the influence of powerful institutions to solve mutual public problems. But Flower’s caution here against the tendency of institutions to “co-opt and control” despite their “potential for wider social change” (pgs. 27-28) is appealing, for it helps provide a framework for how socially conscious and publicly engaged scholars can better understand how the work of rhetoric and composition is distributed and mediated by a range of institutional partnerships that are inherently problematic.

My notion of problematic partnerships maintains a healthy skepticism toward institutional partnerships since they often operate in tension with the goals of and interests of rhetoric and composition practitioners. But I also understand institutions in terms of what Jeff Grabill (2001) describes as “local systems of decision-making within which people act rhetorically in ways that powerfully affect the lives of others, including decisions about the meaning and practice of literacy” (p. 8). My analysis of three University-MOOC partnerships hopefully will illuminate the importance of problematic partnerships for the field of rhetoric and composition particularly in how it reveals the ways complex matrices of institutions significantly impact the day-to-day work of the field. By considering these partnerships as fundamental to our work, moreover, we might find new ways to leverage the “problematic power” of institutions to create new knowledge about writing and writing pedagogy and ultimately keep the field engaged in important public issues related to writing. In fact, I think it would also be wise to consider the potential for social change through problematic partnerships, because as far as institutions go, as Porter et al. (2000) remind us, “we made ‘em, we can fix ‘em” (p. 611).

The MOOC teams’ partnerships are problematic for a couple reasons. First, with the Gates Foundation, each MOOC team found themselves in unusual company: on the one hand the generous funds brought increased public exposure to each respective writing program and issues in writing pedagogy (see, for instance, the March 18, 2013 blog post from open-text writing pedagogy blog Writing Commons, which boasted of the huge spike in visits after the launching of the composition MOOC at Duke). But on the other hand, some found cause for concern over the vested interests of the Gates Foundation in reforming higher education, efforts that have been critiqued as dubious by several in the field (Hesse, 2008; Ravitch, 2014). Second, each institution’s partnership with Coursera could also be described as problematic. The Silicon Valley-based MOOC platform founded by Stanford faculty Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller profits from their industry, the bulk of which currently comes from fees to MOOC subscribers for certificates of completion and even, as Rivard (2013a) reported, from Amazon.com sales of supplemental materials recommended by MOOC instructors. It could be argued that some rhetoric and composition scholars trained to be deeply critical of capitalism and neoliberal institutions stand to be at odds with companies like Coursera, whose promises of democratization may seem revolutionary but nevertheless grow their brand by coopting content and exploiting academic labor.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Establishment Group: Groups or institutions with significant power and/or influence over a particular public problem or issue.

Rhetorical Maneuvering: Negotiating inherent tensions in problematic partnerships by leveraging the collaboration such that one can benefit from the partnership while still satisfying the expectations of the establishment group.

Problematic Partnership: Collaborations between academics and powerful groups, individuals, or companies that may have interests related to, but not necessarily in step with, academics’ own disciplinary agendas.

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