Well, I just hit submit on my last essay so even though I have a little bit of peer grading left to do, my MOOC experience is basically over. When I started this thing I wrote:
I could definitely stand to learn more specific factual knowledge from outside my country of specialty.
Although it turns out I knew a lot more about World History than I thought I did, there’s no question that I met that goal. Of course, I would have learned more had I read the textbook and took notes on the video lectures, but I’ll bet you anything I would have quit the whole thing in frustration if I had gone in whole hog. In that sense, maybe having different levels of MOOC participation is a good thing.
I still wonder though whether the course might have been designed better to draw slackers like me in further. When I teach my survey course, I spend the entire first lecture going through the syllabus and explaining the differences between history in college and the kind of history classes that students likely had in high school. Perhaps Jeremy does something similar on campus, but for this MOOC he certainly hit the ground running. Everything technical and bureaucratic had to be absorbed passively on the web site or through e-mail as the lectures (apart from the goofing around with Dan or Valeria) were all business – history business, that is, rather than the business of the course. I realize that the MOOC machine is supposed to be canned, but I don’t see why some of it can’t cover the course details that will change from semester to semester. After all, as numerous people have pointed out in the comments to earlier posts in this series, the history certainly does.
With respect to that history, what surprised me most is the way that I perked up more often when Jeremy was lecturing on material that I already knew rather than the stuff I knew nothing about. It’s not that I was determined to find errors in the lectures (I think I remember just one through the whole course).* I think it’s because that’s the material for which I already had the knowledge to put what I was learning into context. I knew there were lots of local revolutions during World War I, for example, but considering them altogether helps me understand that conflict better outside the limited American context.
Jeremy assumed a lot of prior knowledge for the students in his class. I’m sure that works for Princeton students. I had a lot of it (but by no means all that I needed). I have to wonder though if most of the 92,000 people in the course had what they needed to make sense of everything. And you have to remember, a lot of those lectures went over the “normal” three hours per week that you’d get in an on campus course. We were being inundated. For my peculiar purposes that was a good thing, but I doubt that was true for everybody.
If a history MOOC is really going to simulate a college class, it has to somehow teach writing and critical thinking. While I would quibble with a few of Jeremy’s administrative decisions with respect to the peer grading assignments (for example, I think the footnote/bibliography thing just confuses matters), I really admire his efforts to actually duplicate the Princeton in-course experience. I think the problem is that peer-grading is basically doomed from the start almost by definition.
I don’t want to get too much into this as I have an essay written up on this subject that I’m currently trying to place. The short version of the critique are two points that I think I’ve made in earlier installments of this series: 1) There simply aren’t enough incentives to make students care about their grading duties. [The last essay I turned in got a perfect score. Unfortunately, I was the only person who had bothered to grade it.] And 2) Even if they do care, there’s no reason to think that they can grade anywhere near as well as a trained professional. Maybe you can teach the world a lot of facts by showing them videos of the best professors of the world, but if you can’t teach them how to “do” history, then MOOCs will never be able to replace the in-class experience unless the powers that be no longer care whether students get access to that experience or not.
Alright, that’s it for me and MOOCs for a good long while. I’m going on a MOOC holiday. Unfollow the blog if you’re only here for the MOOC bashing as I think I’m going to start back after Christmas with a whole new topic. No, it won’t be all culinary history but there’ll definitely be a lot more history here than there’s been lately. I suspect I’ll even still cover some educational technology from time to time, but MOOCs are starting to bore me to tears.
Merry Christmas, everybody. Here’s hoping that 2013 turns out to be the year of something with a better acronym.
* It’s that bra-burning myth, Jeremy. The 1968 Miss America protestors actually dumped ladies undergarments and other “instruments of women’s oppression” into a “Freedom Trash Can.”