Help me help my superprofessor.

20 11 2012

It’s funny that on the same day I discover this parody of how unoriginal MOOCs can be, Jeremy Adelman asks me to elaborate on how he can do a MOOC without straight lecturing.

Certainly when I started this process, I expected more than what Cathy Davidson keeps calling “the sage on the stage,” but I admit I haven’t got the faintest idea what beyond lecturing in a MOOC format would look like. So, dear readers, help me help Jeremy. Tell us how an innovate humanities MOOC would operate as I know many of you know a lot more about this than I do.

If they’re going to take over the world, then they should at least be the best MOOCs they can be.

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12 responses

20 11 2012
Jeremy

Thanks in advance, folks!

20 11 2012
Vim, Ph.D. (@Exhaust_Fumes)

I think the RSA Animate lectures is a good way of showing what dynamic visual cues can do to make a lecture’s content more compelling. (My favorite is the Zizek: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpAMbpQ8J7g ).

The RSA series doesn’t rely on anything radically new, tech-wise; it’s also pretty much just taking a straight lecture and adding pictures. It differs very little from, say, School House Rock. But I find it in almost all ways better than the MOOC lecture with the occasional static image that I can’t really see any detail in because of low production values. If your professor can’t talk to you in real time anyway, then why not make videos of lectures that are more vivid and more provocative by making use of technology beyond basic film? But even that isn’t just a MOOC thing–it’s just teaching-in-general thing.

My own lectures always include images, not because students need pictures, but because material culture is so different in the period I study, and it helps make the learning environment we’re in look like the environment I’m teaching them about. And I also think most professors use the technology they have in the classroom to zoom in on images, overlay, and juxtapose them, and *show* students what something looks like while telling them about it. I also have parts in the lecture where students have to respond to specific questions–not quiz questions, but discussion questions. And we always return to those discussions at the end of class.

Beyond lecturing requires real-time, synchronous tools. The Dialectic. Exchange. And more importantly, exchange with a specific pedagogical purpose. I think for that element, forums kind of stink. I started teaching with them in 1998. That they still look like they did back then is unfortunate…but that they’re held up as the alternative to lecture-only as a form of communication? Sad. There are too many different uses of them. Some students are using them to ask questions; others to perform crap they knew from another source and to get the classroom experience of showing off to the prof. Yes, that part replicates the traditional classroom, but not the good part, or the part that’s actually useful for all students. Quite a bit of what’s there, I think, is tedious–exponentially tedious. (from another perspective, there’s something kind of beautiful about it, all the interest and stuff, but I think i struggle to remember that, because a lot of my teaching life is trying to achieve some balance between the students who want to talk all the time and those who don’t, but still need attention and encouragement. when I look at the forums, all I can think about is all the people who are just exhausted by looking at the mess there, who opt out).

I think it would be so much better if the student-generated content in the course functioned like Twitter! My cable company uses more dynamic ways of communicating with customers than forums–yesterday I got responses via Twitter and a real-time chat window. If Time Warner is dealing with customers more intimately than a professor with a class…well, it makes sense, actually. Courses shouldn’t be as large as corporate constituencies because they aren’t staffed like them. And shouldn’t be, I guess is what I always end up thinking. The more I try to think of ways to make MOOCs better, the more I decide I can’t really get beyond the basic labor issues involved and how much my teaching style–which includes lecturing, but is often rooted in student interactions with one another–wouldn’t work in them.

Please tell Dr. Adelman that an image of Tamurlaine’s fire camels would have changed my mind and ensured that I completed the remaining lectures. Kidding. Nothing short of him grading my students’ papers in 3 classes for me could have allowed that to happen.

20 11 2012
Vim, Ph.D. (@Exhaust_Fumes)

Also, full disclosure, I haven’t watched any lectures past #6, because I got overwhelmed by my job. And I haven’t looked at any of the forums for a month. Nor have I read anything for the MOOC beyond the emails, which I’ve read and then felt ashamed…sigh.

20 11 2012
Anne

Well he’s my super professor too and the thing I would like more than anything else is some way to interact. Couldn’t there be a weekly session like a call-in show but on the Internet where you get to ask questions or make comments. Of course only a few students would get to do so, but it would feel so much more alive. I know of such sessions with authors and famous people so I know the technology is there. Valeria is very sweet but she doesn’t stand in for me. Don’t abandon the lectures though. I notice Dr. Adelman’s enthusiasm has picked up a lot as we get closer to modern times.

21 11 2012
Laura Gibbs

Students can BUILD something together – for example, in the (very frustrating) Fantasy-SciFi MOOC from Coursera, instead of just having thousands of students bang out meaningless 300-word essays, what if we had built a giant wiki that created beautiful paragraph-by-paragraph commentaries on the public domain texts that constituted the reading for the course (we read Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Moreau – so much great stuff, and most of the course reading was public domain). If the programming gurus at Coursera had gotten some decent wiki software and set up the novels chunked into paragraphs, we could have produced a fascinating collaborative commentary on those texts, internationally informed, instead of thousands upon thousands of 300-word essays that all went straight into the digital trash can.

21 11 2012
Jeremy

Well, Jonathan, you are your own worst enemy! You see, all this helpful advice to improve a course that will be the death of us all!

Vim, no need to feel guilty. The attrition rate on this course is akin to all the others. Life catches up with you, and if you’d had the spare time for a course you’d have been reading more books anyway. I do like your idea of more dynamic graphics. One critique I have of myself is that I use the images too much as if the lecture were an oral book, with the images as embellishments. The problem, and here’s some fodder for Jonathan, is that I can’t do the more spontaneous, “hey let’s look at this sleeping peasant — what’s that all about?” in the broadcast booth because there are no students to riff with. So the interactivity is gone that helped bring images to life. I’ll have to look into more lively images, then — like burning elephants. (Good luck getting the credits for that one!).

On the forums, it’s true they became a bit of a free for all, until I started to post my own focus questions. Usually I log in every day and follow two or three threads and wade in there so we can drill deeper into a question. But it’s not spontaneous or “real-time” like Twitter. But then the good old fashioned lecture was about the epitome of the one-way passive learning artifact that still dominates the humanities and social sciences.

One way around this is an open-forum structure, like Anne’s suggesting. I could skype some of this and students could text in their queries, objections etc. I am going to try this next time, like a bit of a call in show on line. Both Vim and Anne are right that the real-time interactivity is critical. Once upon a time, Anne, I was going to surround the Global Dialogue room with screens with Coursera students skyped in so they could participate, and I would do much less of the hosting and instead turn the guest over to the world. But our Info Tech people just didn’t know how to wire the room the right way.

Anne – the lectures are getting a bit better because I am getting more familiar also with my solitude in the broadcast booth. Weird, eh?

Hey Laura – great idea. When Daphne Koller and I were talking about rolling out my course, I told her my original idea was to have students build archives of their learning. Start with a blank map of the world and fill it in over the course of the semester with stuff you learned, including sections with burning elephants smashing into the walls of Delhi. By the end of each fortnight, students would have not an essay but a personally created map of their learning with all kinds of embedded information and analysis. She thought this was cool, but didn’t think her engineers could design the software in time, so we shelved it. You are reminding me that I should get Daphne’s team back on this.

21 11 2012
Laura Gibbs

Jeremy, the sooner, the better! I didn’t see even a glimmer of that way of thinking in the Fantasy-SciFi course, which was beset with problems. Every iteration of a course that passes with all the content generated by students going into the virtual trash can represents a MASSIVE (!) wasted opportunity.
I’m involved in the DNLE Designing a New Learning Environment course being offered by Stanford through Venture Labs right now and I am very pleased to say that the professor has embarked on a project to use highly active participants in the class as content curators in order to build a persistent website that will represent a kind of “greatest hits” of the course that will showcase outstanding team projects, etc. (That whole course is based on the idea of students doing work and sharing it; it’s not very much about content consumption… and I am enjoying it infinitely more than the Coursera class I participated in.)

22 11 2012
Christine Gordon

Agreed on all counts. I’m also in the DNLE class with Stanford’s Venture Lab with Laura, but I’m also in Prof. Adelman’s history class. I went to one of the top high schools in the country, and have a BS in biology and chemistry, and this history class is still one of my all-time favorite classes and I have learned a Ton of history. Dr. Adelman is particularly skilled at helping me see the story and connect the dots between all these different places and events. Before I could have just listed them off, now I feel I get how they connect to each other. And, I love the lectures, but then, I was a science major and that’s how I learn :) They are friendly, interesting, and complement the text nicely.

That being said, I think student-generated content would be wonderful! I am digging the team work in the DNLE class, although the forced competitiveness of it is getting annoying (I’m just there to explore and learn, not compete). I think it would have been cool to let us form our own teams in the history class and then do something. I hate to say write essays because they don’t actually end up anywhere. But, something (the only thing) my sustainability coursera class did that I found helpful was to have us create **anything** that related to sustainability and went beyond the scope of the class. People made websites, children’s books, approached their legislature, etc. I’m not sure what that would look like for a history class, but I think that’s part of the challenge. I’m discovering that I think every class should facilitate some thinking around “what do we *do* with this knowledge?”

22 11 2012
Matthew Dalton

The question is how one engages with 80,000 students who are spread over numerous time zones, and who have varying levels of interest in the subject matter. And the answer is, of course, that you can’t: at least not directly.

But this raises a question: did the 80,000 people who signed up for this course expect to be able to chat after class with the professor? Did they expect to be a part of a global forest of Twitterers sharing their thoughts on the subject?

Is the subject matter so dull that I need Silvia – a fellow student from Arizona, joining us now via Skype – to ask if slaves ever ate sugar coated cotton? “Well, that’s an interesting question, Silvia.”

I think that the subject matter and the teacher’s enthusiasm and presentation of that material should (and do, in this case) speak for themselves.

Having said that, I think the discussion forum is a good idea that isn’t really working. A symptom of that failure is the lack of questions being asked by students.

Also, I like it when we cross to the control room and Dan gets a go. 1869, what? This is great stuff for those of us who are slow learners.

My last point is this: surely, the beauty of the MOOC is the re-usability of the video lectures? And the time saved not recording lectures could be used to create a weekly exposé of a side topic: the Language of History, for example. Or we could have a fifteen minute lecture that shows how the weeks topics fit on a timeline.

22 11 2012
Matthew Dalton

Not to imply that Dan is a slow learner. I meant to say that it’s nice to hear from someone who is, presumably, not a history student.

I like Dan.

I am digging a big hole for myself.

22 11 2012
Christine Gordon

I like Dan, too! I like it when Adelman asks any of the others (even Valeria who ALWAYS knows everything! :) ) because it gives me a chance to guess the answer as well. And, when Dan says EXACTLY what I’m thinking, I can smile. :)

26 11 2012
World History MOOC Report 13: In which I violate one of Richardson’s rules. « More or Less Bunk

[...] Much to his credit, Jeremy Adelman is doing his best to overcome this structural defect for his world history MOOC. If you want to reach him, you can find him in the forums fielding questions. If you want to send him tiny parachutes of pedagogical wisdom (just like in “The Hunger Games”), you can find him on this very blog. [...]

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