Duke Professor to Develop Free Online Writing Course

Denise Comer's 'MOOC' will teach students how to write more clearly and persuasively

Part of the Online Learning Series
Denise Comer is about to help a lot more students with their writing. Photo by Duke University Photography
Denise Comer is about to help a lot more students with their writing. Photo by Duke University Photography

The head of Duke's highly regarded writing program for first-year students is joining the growing list of faculty members teaching online to potentially vast audiences. Denise Comer will develop an introductory course on English composition with a new $50,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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

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 most interested, though, in helping learners embrace writing as a way to think critically about their world.

"You need to encourage students to recognize they have something worthwhile to say," she says. "The way they'll become better writers is by writing often and a lot, and by writing on something they care about."

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

No more than 12 Duke students enroll in each Writing 101 section, which means each gets personal guidance about how to write more effectively. Comer knows that won't be possible in an online course whose enrollment may reach into the thousands, so she plans to experiment with techniques by which participants can provide feedback to each other about their writing.

"You can help students become more sophisticated readers of each other's writing," she says, adding that she'll regularly evaluate and tweak the course. She's also eager to see "how the international context of the course 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 leading universities have begun offering MOOCS (massive open online courses) over the Internet. She's already begun working with colleagues in the Thompson Writing Program and Duke's Center for Instructional Technology to plan and develop the course. The provost's office is providing additional financial assistance.

"MOOCs are an exciting innovation. They hold great promise, but are not without challenges -- and we are still discovering their full potential," said Dan Greenstein, director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "We believe having diverse options for faculty and students that meet a wide array of learning needs and styles can enhance student engagement, improve educational outcomes and increase college completion rates. We are eager to learn from and share the data that will be generated from these investments in MOOCs."

"I care very much about finding ways to make writing have meaning and value," Comer says. "Iim thrilled the Gates Foundation is encouraging these access gateway courses. I really like the idea of teaching writing to thousands of people."