World History MOOC Report 6: In which I take one for the team.

15 10 2012

James Atherton left our World History MOOC last week. The weekly e-mail explained that only 1800 of our 82,000+ students submitted first essays so he certainly wasn’t the only one. Atherton wrote at his blog that:

the experience has been distinctly unrewarding. After less than three weeks, it has become a chore

I can’t say I blame him. This part of his analysis in particular is spot on:

History is, like other humanities subjects, contestable. It is studied not only for its own sake, but also in order to develop skills of critical thinking and argument–and so its teaching media need to support that process.

I was having a similar thought while watching last week’s lectures (before I saw James’ post) when our super-professor, Jeremy Adelman, declared (I know this is right as it shocked me so much that I wrote it down):

“Thinking like a global historian is considering connections.”

That shocked me not because it’s incorrect. It’s not. It shocked me because he’s hardly been making any connections at all.

At another point last week, Adelman was talking about Peter the Great and I said to myself, “When did he start covering Russia in this course?” That’s when I realized something really damning: This class has no syllabus. There’s an announcement page, there’s a lecture page (that only posts the lecture videos on a weekly basis, I assume when they’re ready), there’s a gigantic forum, but there’s no place where you can get an overview of the entire course at once.

Maybe Adelman is slavishly following the textbook (which would be damning by itself), but I can’t believe that any textbook would be this disorganized. I don’t even know what century we’re in half the time. Geographically things are a bit better, but the writing on the map slides is too small to read the names of cities on them. Seriously, how hard could it be to do a close-up of the blue screen when a map comes around?

To make matters worse, Mazel has been pursuing another killer anti-MOOC argument in the comments to my last report on this experience:

I think we should all keep asking this question to keep ourselves from being bamboozled by what seems to have become the default “Gee whiz!” framing. You know, as in “Wow! The MOOC allows the masses to learn from the best minds in the world!” As if books don’t allow the same thing….

What we should be asking is this: What (if anything) is the MOOC doing BETTER than the book? Not much, if you ask me. That’s not to say that MOOCs cannot do lots of things, just that they can’t do those things better than a book.

Seriously, read the whole exchange. Now part of me wants to just quit and read The Wealth and Poverty of Nations again instead, but I’m going to stick with this ordeal for at least a while longer.

If you remember the post in which I explained why I signed up for this MOOC, you know that I was excited to list this experience in the section of my annual performance review devoted to further education. Now I’m thinking it really belongs under service to the profession. After all, somebody has to be able to explain why the future currently looks more like 1984 than it does The Jetsons.

You can thank me later, assuming I make it to the end.



9 responses

15 10 2012

Thank you later? Why wait? I’ll thank you right now, both for trialing the MOOC and for your kind words about my comments. Thanks, Jonathan!

As for what MOOCs might actually be able to do well, and do better than a book, I’m thinking now about how web technology might help us as scholars to engage with a wider public. Maybe instead of a sweeping course like Adelman’s we should be offering MOOCs on our published articles and monographs. What if such “courses” became so routine that The Chronicle Review started to augment each entry in its “Weekly Book List” with a link to a MOOC on that book? What if you were teaching such a course right now on Industrialization and the Transformation of American Life? I doubt such a course would attract tens of thousands of students, but it might well attract, what, a hundred or so? Enough, I would think, to make the effort worthwhile–worthwhile to you in terms of amplifying the impact of your research, and worthwhile to the MOOC participants in terms of greatly enriching their reading experience. Maybe too, teaching the MOOC could get you some “Scholarly Activity” credit toward tenure and promotion, and the student might be able to get, say, 0.5 credits toward a degree (or maybe points toward their grade in a regular college course that assigned your MOOC).

Maybe there’s a happy medium somewhere, an enrollment level high enough to justify the time and effort but low enough to allow genuine interaction and personalization. At that sweet spot, maybe we would have something better called a POOC: a Personalized Open Online Course. Part of the POOC’s allure for the student would be the opportunity for some genuine intellectual interaction with the author (something not really offered by a truly massive MOOC). This allure might derive in part simply from the glamour our culture attaches to publication. (How many undergraduates dream of being a “published author”?) Another benefit might be better supervision (better facilitated discussions, less cheating). Maybe eventually the experience of discussing our work with POOC students would even get us in the habit of writing more clearly and accessibly.

15 10 2012
Jonathan Rees


If I wanted to start a micro-MOOC, what platform could I use?

19 10 2012
Music for Deckchairs

Are you asking a serious question here, JR? To me, the next obvious phase of this is to recognise what’s happening already in many small ways: opened up face to face courses adding an online dimension to bring in wider connections among people who want to have those conversations, including enrolled students at more than one place.

It’s that moment where you’re sitting on a lovely little syllabus that works well for your students, and you start to think: how would this work even better if there were also students from Another Country joining this conversation? what kinds of different questions would they ask, what material would they share that would amplify what we have here, how would their sense of place shift the inevitable parochialism of our experience that shapes what we can discuss?

It doesn’t have to be M to be O.

20 10 2012

Not sure what platform would be best. I don’t know much about that side of the question–but I can describe how I’m teaching my own distance courses. These are upper-division undergraduate literature courses (e.g., Survey of American Lit to 1865). First, there are no lectures. The course begins with a selection of short, introductory background readings on the public sphere, the republic of letters, liberalism, the marketplace of ideas, and the like, followed by a quiz (which these days I typically do in a telephone call of 20 minutes or so, in which the student and I discuss these topics and their relevance to literary study).

These classes are asynchronous and self-paced. After completing the background reading and quiz, the student commences with the main reading, which is divided into six units. After reading through the first unit, the student emails me to say she’s ready for her first essay question. I reply with an essay prompt (customized for each student). She then has 48 hours to write a short essay (ca 1,000 words) and post it to the course blog (used to be on Blogger, but I’m now using WordPress). I then post a response and a follow-up question in the comments. After the student has responded to my follow-up question, I grade the entire exchange, and the student starts reading through the next unit. After completing all six of these exchanges, the student has to write a formal paper (ca 10-12 pages double spaced, MLA format, the whole bit) and email it to me as an MS-Word document.

Students are invited to read and comment on each other’s posted essays. In fact, their ability to spark good comments from others is one of the grading criteria. Sometimes my essay prompts refer to claims made by students in their posts (this is a good way to get students engaging with each other’s ideas on a meaningful level). The amount and quality of these student-to-student exchanges varies, partly because I only have a few distance students at any given time. I don’t do “massive.”

The blog for each of my distance courses is the same one I use for my corresponding F2F class (whose students also are required to post essays as a supplement to their F2F discussions in class). If it happens that I’m teaching the same course on campus, everyone is free to mix it up regardless of whether they’re in the F2F or the distance course.

Obviously, what I’m doing is nothing like a MOOC, or even what I described above as a POOC. According to the criteria used at my university, my distance courses are not even considered “online,” because there’s no synchronous component and they don’t use the university’s LMS. In our parlance,they are “open-enrollment,” “print-based” courses. A lot of my students are in prison and have no internet access at all, but with the help of work-studies to type up their snail-mailed essays, incarcerated students can still participate, albeit at a slower pace.

If anything, these courses are more like Oxford tutorials than MOOCs. FWIW, I estimate that I put in about 10-12 hours of work per student. And, not to brag, but the students love them: my evaluations for these courses are often glowing.

I’ve gone on at such length here to suggest what a course might look like if one’s primary concern in constructing it is the quality of the student’s learning experience rather than automation and scalability (that is, money).

15 10 2012

Thing is, if I were a sufficiently motivated and self disciplined autodictat, I wouldn’t need a MOOC: I’d just read Adam Smith on my own. But I’m not, and Adam Smith sits there, with all the other great books I should read, gathering dust on the library bookshelf. Some of us need structure and deadlines in our lifelong learning endeavours.

You’ve pointed out a lot of pedagogical and curricular problems with this course, and I agree with all of them. But despite the issues you’ve raised, I’m still learning a lot. I don’t have a history background (mine’s English Lit) and I’ve always been embarrassed by my knowledge gaps in world history. Adelman (and Valeria, and even Jeff) are doing a pretty good job at filling these gaps in. A survey course, even a mediocre MOOC, is just what the doctor ordered.

Meantime, though, I heartily encourage you to work on improving an online history course. Never mind service to the profession: how about service to those of us who didn’t take enough History in university! I’d sign up for sure.

Greatly enjoying your blog postings, BTW. Thanks for taking the time.

15 10 2012

sorry, I meant “autodidact.” I should go to bed now.

16 10 2012

This definitely belongs in the service portion of your annual review, Jonathan. Thankless work, indeed! (And I love those stats in the lede. That’s an attrition rate of more than 98%!)


23 10 2012
World History MOOC Report 8: In which I explain my MOOC student survival strategy. « More or Less Bunk

[…] close my eyes and make believe that I’m listening to him in a real classroom. As I’ve already mentioned, I can’t read most of the maps and the slides on the blue screen are mostly straight out of […]

14 11 2012
World History MOOC Report 12: In which I am in a state of confusion. « More or Less Bunk

[…] not fitting the new MOOC delivery system. As I’m writing about the assignments, I want to elaborate on how much I miss having a syllabus to fall back […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: