World History MOOC Report 15: In which I watch “a global conversation about global history.”

13 12 2012

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.



11 responses

13 12 2012
Anne Corner

I am quite confident that MOOCs, at least in their current form, will never be the only higher education option. But I am surprised that you are so concerned over those left behind. When I took history in college, the professor would start out the first day with a talk on how much work this was going to be. We would read a book a day and write many papers, etc. The next class would be half the size of the first and then we would start for real. No one worried about the half that didn’t come back.

14 12 2012
Jonathan Rees


I am not John Houseman in “The Paper Chase.” My single most used phrase when teaching is, “Did you read the syllabus?” I know there’s only so much I can do to get people to make the most out of the opportunities my classes offer, but I am determined to do that because that’s my job.

15 12 2012

Have you noticed that the quality of the essays has vastly improved since the beginning of the course? I have. Is that because only those who had prior knowledge and experience on writing academic essays kept up with the assignments, or did the feedback and practice improve struggling writers’ later work? Only Coursera knows, but I suspect it’s the former, not the latter.

15 12 2012
Jonathan Rees

Yeah, Hendy. I have noticed that, but at the same time the comments have gotten worse. In my case, I haven’t gotten a single comment longer than three sentences. For mott essay there have only been two or maybe three people commenting at all. How can you possibly learn anything about writing from that?

15 12 2012

Exactly, and that’s where the “caring educational professional” is really needed. Some of the earlier essays that I saw left me thinking, “where do I start with this one?” Teaching and learning writing is very labour intensive, and this is where the MOOC experience falls short. Writing teachers are skilled professionals who should be paid.

17 12 2012

Agreed with you all that teaching how to write and formulate arguments is not so easily scalable, and that nothing beats mano a mano. I have two potentially irritating thoughts:

1. How much of this are faculty doing anyway? As universities first expanded from the 1960s, then faced fiscal crises from the 1970s (while still expanding), and the social pact that legitimated public infusions of tax revenues began to break up, mano a mano teaching of basic skills started to backslide. The caring educational professional IS needed, but even without dreaded MOOC’s, they are in dwindling proportion to the size of the student body. Hence the rise of “non-traditional enrollment” (attrition, return to second institutions, part-time learning etc); this is the effect of the overall rising national/global enrollments combined with casualization of the academic labour market. (This is why Jonathan worries about MOOC’s aggravating the pattern — do I get you right, Jonathan?).

2. If you DID want to teach a course in which the subject — the globe — is also the way we learn, how else would you do it without long distance interactions of this highly fallible nature? That, or charge a fortune to go to NYU-Abu Dhabi.

18 12 2012

You’re right, Jeremy: in my medium-sized Canadian post-secondary institution, our Learning Commons is doing a booming business in writing support. High-achieving undergrads & grad students are paid roughly $20.00/hr for the mano a mano work that faculty might have once done themselves. That said, the scope and depth of these services are a far cry from the sink-or-swim days I spent as an undergrad in the mid-80s.

I think it’s worth opening the discussion on whether learning in the Humanities & Social Sciences is best assessed by writing essays: especially on a MOOC scale. I was pretty surprised when I enrolled for this course that writing assignments were going to be such a big component of it. I expected more online quizzes or some other techno gizmo to reinforce the curriculum.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the challenge of writing the essays: I did, and I’m pretty proud of the few 9s I earned. However, I agree with Jonathan on the mediocre quality of the feedback. And the number of completed writing assignments probably speaks for itself.

17 12 2012
Matthew Dalton

Perhaps the hamartia of the MOOC is its desire to be all things to all men. The interest of MOOC providers’ seems to lie in enrolment numbers, not participation. And to achieve high numbers, it must be as simple as possible for the enrolling student to click the ‘Enrol’ button.

But would asking potential students to sit a multi-choice entrance test stop them clicking that button?

Entrance tests could help you gauge the level of the students in the course. Entrance tests could help group students of similar aptitude together. These groups could have their own forums or, at least, their own forum views. Entrance tests, followed by periodic multi-choice tests, could give students an idea of their progress. I know multi-choice tests aren’t much chop, but they are an indicator of attainment, and they are empirical. For some students, an empirical indication of progress might be preferable to the subjective comments of a peer reviewed essay.

I seem to recall some Canadian guy saying something about knowledge, and the power of bacon. How much do you know about the people taking these courses? How can you help these students without knowing who they are? How can you know who they are without asking them?

Perhaps the wisdom of Bacon can solve your hamartia problem.

19 12 2012

It’s true, Hendy, I’d pinned a lot on the essays as I would any Princeton course, which I assumed is what I was supposed to do — teach a “Princeton” course, or some simulacrum of the artifact. In fact, what I did discover is not only that peer assessment is not as easy as Daphne thinks it is for an interpretive discipline, but that my Princeton student essays weren’t all that good. Flipping the classroom pulled the spine out of the course. So, next year I am going to focus on “projects” where students analyze primary and secondary texts collaboratively.

What I am trying to figure out — and Jonathan must be groaning at my determination to figure out whether this can work — is how to design projects on Coursera, to accentuate the participation. But Matthew is absolutely right, the logic of Coursera is all about numbers, one metric of “open.” Given the numbers, how can I really know who they are? Impossible….

As it is, there are about 50 frequent flyers on the forum threads that I have to say that I have become very fond of and in a few cases even Skyped with. But that’s not really “teaching.”

19 12 2012
Jonathan Rees


I’m not groaning, but I do think you’re doing Sisyphus’ job there. Do you want to increase total participation, or do you want to improve the quality of participation? There is a big difference there.

21 12 2012

Hi Jonathan: Didn’t Camus say that what was important about Sisyphus was that he smile while working? On participation, I totally agree that it’s the quality of the learning — and we’d no doubt agree that interaction is a powerful enhancer to learning — not the scale that matters, to me anyway. The changes I am working on are designed to intensify the interaction. If the enrollments drop, so be it. I am not paid for this anyway. But there’s a second issue that you and others are concerned about, and that’s whether it’s ME that students interact with. THIS is what I am not at all convinced by. Or rather, there are limits, once you are beyond the seminar scale, to what I can do in real live INTER-activity. I could go on about this, but I think there’s a lot more to learning through student-to-student engagement than we give credit for. What I am experimenting with is how to motivate and inform that, which to me is all the more important because my theme is global learning as a new way to understand our planet.

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