Don’t be alarmed. There will be no new 16-part series of the entire process because I have my own three classes to teach starting later today. I just wanted to see how Philip Zelikow of the University of Virginia handles the structural issues surrounding his World History MOOC and maybe check out his lectures on some of my favorites subjects like industrialization and World War I.
Even though the class just started today, I can see major differences with my last MOOC already. For one thing, Zelikow isn’t using peer grading. Instead, MOOC student grades are based on long (at least compared to Jeremy Adelman’s class) multiple choice tests. On the one hand, as a believer in good writing I should find that appalling. On the other hand, peer grading in the Adelman MOOC was such a disaster (at least IMHO) that I actually understand his decision. This doesn’t mean I want to give anyone college credit based on their performance, but I do understand why Zelikow went this route.
The other major difference is only obvious because I’ve been in contact with Zelikow already and he was nice enough to send me his on-campus syllabus.* He is doing what they call in the trade these days a “flipped classroom.” In other words, his students at Virginia are watching the exact same MOOC lectures that the Coursera students are. In other words, the University of Virginia is both a producer and a consumer of Zelikow’s MOOC materials.
UVa isn’t hiring adjuncts and grad students to do the teaching dirty work here. As Zelikow’s syllabus explains:
“[E]ach discussion section will be in a classroom of no more than sixty students. It will be led by the professor, not a TA.”
This is a good thing. Think how easy it would be to immediately double or quadruple the size of the class. Despite the obvious, immediate cost-savings adjuncts could bring here, Zelikow and UVa are talking the more expensive way out. After bitching for three months about how nobody taking Jeremy’s MOOC had a living, breathing professor helping them out, the on-campus MOOC students at UVA will have Zelikow himself. How can I possibly complain about that?
But what’s going to happen on all those campuses where Zelikow isn’t available? As far as I know, cloning him isn’t option. For any other campus, this flipped classroom would become a “wrap-around.” That means they would farm out their content creation to Zelikow and Coursera while local faculty would just lead discussion sections. Six community college faculty members in an absolute must-read at IHE today explain the problem with that arrangement:
In the meantime, our job as professors, according to the dictates of the emboldened technocrats, is to become rope-makers for our own professional hangings. The debate here is not really one about technology and higher education, as most of us know that online education is now a permanent part of the educational landscape with legitimate uses. No, what this MOOC debate is about is whether we blithely open the door to the gutting of what is most precious about what we do.
No self-respecting tenure-track historian would allow their content creation to be farmed out off campus because picking what they teach is what makes the job fun. Besides, as I’ve explained before, content knowledge is what makes Ph.D.s worth our salaries. Without it, we’d all be paid like high school teachers or even worse. Despite Zelikow’s excellent intentions, this is how the debundling of the history professoriate begins.
Look for more occasional updates about this MOOC coming eventually, but this time I’m conceding immediate failure before I ever begin. Sure, I feel guilty about contributing to the ruination of the course retention numbers, but at least I’m doing it in the name of quality blogging.
* Which, by the way, I describe and quote with his permission.