I mentioned recently on this blog that I got absolutely no guidance in graduate school about teaching. At least I didn’t get a chance to teach my own course until my very last year. Starting in my second year, however, I did serve (off and on) as a teaching assistant.
If you don’t know, the sole job description of history graduate student teaching assistants in the pre-MOOC days was to run discuss sections and to grade tests and papers. My professors always graded three or four papers to show you what their scale would be so that you could do better. I don’t ever remember getting guidance on how to run a discussion and it’s not as easy as it looks. Sometimes students don’t do the reading and therefore won’t talk. Sometimes students do do the reading and don’t want to talk. On the other hand, students sometimes won’t shut up and you have to manage them. All that time, you need to try to pass on the kinds of skills that all those students need to succeed in the course.
I thought of those experiences while I was watching the “Global Precept” for Jeremy Adelman’s World History MOOC last night while simultaneously returning to the course’s forums (as I promised Jeremy I would) in order to read some of the comments there. I thought about being a TA not because the Global Precept conversation resembled that experience. I thought about it because that experience couldn’t have been more different.
For one thing, Jeremy Adelman did a fine job at keeping an interesting conversation going. Yet, at the same time, he didn’t really have to work all that hard to do so. The participants were a varied group of interesting Princeton undergrads, grad students and very interesting students from all over the world who have participated in Jeremy’s Coursera MOOC. He called it “a global conversation about global history” and it certainly was. It was also an excellent review of the general advantages of approaching history from a world perspective. It was obvious that this course has reached all of these students and taught them not just valuable historical facts, but historical concepts that they will find useful for understanding the world around them for the rest of their lives. As an educator, this was the most useful thing I’ve watched since I started taking this course. Bravo Jeremy.
But – And you knew there was going to be a “but” didn’t you? – I couldn’t help but think of all the people who weren’t participating because they already dropped the course or the ones who still might be in it and won’t watch it because it’s not required. When I went back to the forums I remained extremely confused, but I also noticed for the first time that each individual comment has a number of page views attached to it. None of the comments in recent weeks had more than a couple of thousand. Most of them had only a few hundred. [For context, Jeremy recently told us that 92,000 people have signed up for this course.] Some of that is obviously attributable to students dropping out of the course, but some of that has to be people like me who simply aren’t taking advantage of what the forums have to offer.
Jeremy got a chance to pick the best of the best for his conversation, but who’s going to teach this stuff to the people who are merely average or below? I guess I keep coming back to this because it’s my primary pedagogical takeaway from my MOOC experience: I think every student deserves a caring education professional directly monitoring their progress. Ironically, the people who could most benefit from a global conversation like this would be precisely the people who won’t watch it.
Contrary to my relatively newfound reputation as a Luddite, I don’t want to take anyone’s MOOCs away. What I want is to see caring educators everywhere join together to make sure that the new permanent worldwide austerity doesn’t leave anyone anywhere with those MOOCs as their only higher education option.