Have you ever seen Tom Hanks in “Castaway?” I haven’t seen the movie since it came out, but I remember thinking, “Wow, that Tom Hanks is such a good actor that he’s worth watching all by himself for an hour and a half!,” when I did. OK, Hanks wasn’t entirely alone. He had Wilson the Volleyball to keep him company.
To put it as kindly as possible, Jeremy Adelman is no Tom Hanks. His weekly e-mail included a story about one of his regular students who’s in the MOOC meeting him in a Princeton dry cleaner and saying something like, “You’re much more interesting in person.” I believe it. Here’s a guy doing his normal schtick in a very abnormal situation. I think that’s why he treats his poor grad student Valeria like Wilson the Volleyball. He wants to do the kinds of things he can do in a face-to-face class but she and the tech guy are the only part of the audience that can talk back in real time. Oh, the perils of being a super professor!
We non-super professors have much more freedom to adapt. The other day, Leslie M-B and I were talking about lecturing in the comments here. The conversation reminded me how much less frequently I lecture in survey class than I did in the past. I changed because I wanted to spend more time teaching skills and less time teaching facts. Jeremy Adelman has no such choice. For example, the most obvious thing to do besides lecture is to discuss the textbook in class, but nobody is required to buy the textbook in this MOOC, let alone read it.* Instead, it’s just Adelman…talking…very…slowly. I have nightmares in which I’m doing something like that, but even they don’t take place in front of 70,000+ people.
This raises an interesting question: Could anyone else do this better? Definitely not this way. As I keep saying, the only way to maka a history MOOC work well would be to blow up the regular course and put it back together again differently. For example, I haven’t visited the forums yet. This is possible because the lectures and the forums are completely separate. Do they have to be? Interaction might help break up the monotony. Even the special guests are separate from the lectures. Why not get someone else in front of the class for Adelman to talk to besides
Wilson poor Valeria? Why not run an outline to the lecture on the side of the screen so that Adelman is easier to follow?
This is really rudimentary stuff, but imagine what historians with tech skills and some creativity could do in this format? But alas, that won’t lead to the mind-bending numbers of students that make venture capitalists get out their checkbooks. From this student’s perspective, I guess you get what you pay for.
* Another confession: I changed my mind about buying the text when I found out that Norton wants $35 for a 3-month e-book rental!!! That’s highway robbery!!!