Online writing

Duke Professor will develop a free online writing course

The head of Duke’s highly regarded writing program for freshmen joins the growing list of faculty members teaching a potentially large audience online. Denise Comer will develop an introductory course in English composition with a new $50,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Comer seeks to teach aspiring students and others how to write clearly and persuasively. She says her 12-week course will provide “an introduction and foundation to academic writing that students can use in their later courses in higher education.”

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The course, which will include 65 lecture segments and demonstration videos, will cover syntax, punctuation, and other tools of good writing. Comer says she’s more interested, however, in helping learners embrace writing as a way to think critically about their world.

“You have to encourage students to recognize that they have something worth saying,” she says. “They will become better writers by writing often and a lot, and by writing about something that is close to their hearts.”

She will draw heavily on her experience as an assistant professor of practice at Duke, where she directs the first-year semester course in academic writing within the Thompson Writing Program. Professors with doctorates in various disciplines teach these Writing 101 seminars, which are required for all undergraduate students. Comer also oversees a Writing 70 summer course for students who need additional preparation before enrolling in Writing 101.

No more than 12 Duke students enroll in each Writing 101 section, which means everyone gets personal guidance on how to write more effectively. Comer knows that won’t be possible in an online course with enrollments that can run into the thousands, so she plans to experiment with techniques where participants can give each other feedback on their writing.

“You can help students become more sophisticated readers of each other’s writing,” she says, adding that she will regularly evaluate and adjust the course. She is also eager to see “how the course’s international context can enrich our thinking about writing conventions and reader expectations.”

Comer hopes to begin offering the course in March 2013. She will build it on the same platform as Coursera, the consortium through which Duke and other major universities began offering MOOCS. (open and massive online courses) on the Internet. She has already begun working with colleagues at the Thompson Writing Program and Duke’s Center for Instructional Technology to plan and develop the course. The provost provides additional financial assistance.

“MOOCs are an exciting innovation. They hold great promise, but aren’t without challenges — and we’re still discovering their full potential,” said Dan Greenstein, director of post-secondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We believe that having diverse options for faculty and students that meet a wide range of learning needs and styles can enhance student engagement, improve academic achievement, and increase completion rates. We look forward to learning and sharing the data that will be generated from these investments in MOOCs.

“I care a lot about finding ways to give meaning and value to writing,” Comer says. “I’m thrilled that the Gates Foundation is supporting these gateway courses. I really love the idea of ​​teaching writing to thousands of people.”