ModPo: Long Live the Online Seminar

PC Magazine
December 3, 2015

The Kelly Writers House is, in many respects, a relic. Tucked inside the sprawling University of Pennsylvania campus, nestled behind Sweetbay Magnolias and English Yews, the Tudor-style cottage is one of the last vestiges of famed Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan. When you enter the house, you can intuit its age from ornate crown molding, cuspidated windows, and the original oak floors. Yet, juxtaposed against worn leather couches and unmatched wooden chairs are wall-mounted HDTVs, tangles of audio cables, and DV cameras perched upon aluminum-legged tripods. Make no mistake: Behind its nineteenth century enclosure, the Kelly Writers House is a laboratory of 21st century experimentation in online education.

For the past four years, Professor Al Filreis and his team have pioneered Modern & Contemporary American Poetry—ModPo for short—a 10-week online seminar. Unlike many other online courses that boom and bust, ModPo has earned enduring popularity thanks to lively discussion forums, a prolific roster of guest speakers, and a syllabus that evolves with each year. By fostering a public peer-review process and encouraging copycats and regional meet-ups, ModPo delivers the personal engagement learners receive through a small private online course (SPOC) without compromising the scale—tens of thousands of regular participants—of a massive open online course (MOOC).

I discovered ModPo through a recent conference on the future of online education, and, as a skeptic of the online lecture, I was eager to see an online seminar in practice. Last week I traveled to Penn to attend ModPo's penultimate workshop. What I found was an online class that was more open-ended and engrossing than any online course I have attended. Where many online courses evoke the term conversation over an impassable gulf between lecturer and listener, and even between listener and listener, Filreis and his team have developed a kind of hybrid conversation that traverses analog and digital terrain.

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