So I signed up for another MOOC…

14 01 2013

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.



13 responses

14 01 2013

I speak only for myself, but I’d be happy to read more about your working through a MOOC.

And here’s what I’d like to ask about the “flipped” thing: when do the students read? Because reading is one of the ways we learn and process information, and can be a pretty good way. So when do the students read in the “flipped” situation? Or do they add viewing lectures to reading time?

14 01 2013
Jonathan Rees


That was more about sparing my sanity due to time constraints than sparing you all my prose.

The reading this classroom seems to be additional as opposed to instead of reading. Indeed, the recommended reading list is the UVa students’ required list and it seems really, really interesting. How students down the higher ed difficulty scale would respond to such arrangement remains an excellent unanswered question.

14 01 2013
Music for Deckchairs

Hi Jonathan

One small thought on reading what no self-respecting tenured academic would do: the process you describe is already standard to many well-established international partnership arrangements around the world. The home institution creates the syllabus, the host institution delivers it, and the home institution applies QA processes to ensure that X means X wherever you go.

It’s also already the familiar experience of anyone teaching introductory courses from a textbook, bundled with digital content and quizzes.

Whatever MOOCs are, they aren’t inventive.

14 01 2013
Jonathan Rees


Of course you’re right, but I still think there is one important difference. A lot of people who use textbooks as a crutch still have the power, for good or ill, to decide for themselves how to teach their classes. MOOCs are largely admin driven so that that power can be taken away.

18 01 2013
Give the people what they want. « More or Less Bunk

[…] people out there really want to know what it’s like to take a history MOOC. Therefore, by popular demand, here’s a report on the first week Philip Zelikow’s version, including […]

18 01 2013
Contingent Cassandra

I’m glad the UVA students will have some face-to-face contact with their professor, but a room with 60 students in it doesn’t fit my idea of a discussion section. For a real discussion — one where everybody can see everyone else’s face, and all participants have at least the chance to make a substantive contribution in the course of 50 minutes, and the professor, should (s)he choose, is in a position to require each student to make such a contribution, at least on some days — the max is 15-20 students.

One could have an interesting discussion about whether it’s a better pedagogical deal to spend an hour in “discussion” with the professor and 60 other students, or to an hour in a real discussion with a TA well-trained and supervised by the professor (the best model I know of involves a concurrent double-credit grad seminar, half of the time spent on discussing the subject at the graduate level, and half of the time spent on pedagogy). I’d argue for the latter (with full awareness that such a model would mean that using grad TAs would not save universities money, and might even cost them some. As far as I’m concerned, that’s one of the attractions of the plan).

21 01 2013
Norm Matloff

Hi, Norm Matloff of UC Davis (Computer Science) here. I would raise two (facetious) questions about MOOCs: 1. If this is all for altruism (“People in the Gobi Desert can learn quantum mechanics!”), why weren’t Coursera and Udacity established as nonprofit organizations, rather than moneymaking corporations? 2. If teaching and other communication can be done so well online, why are the CEOs of Coursera and Udacity busy traveling to dozens of campuses to sell their products–why not just give their pitch online too? When I asked a colleague Question 2 about Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, the answer was, “Oh, this is different, because Sebastian wants to interact with our faculty”–meaning that the faculty’s interaction with STUDENTS is unimportant. If universities want to go to MOOCs because of budget pressures, then say so, instead of saying it’s to “enhance the quality of learning.” By the way, I’m not a Luddite; all my course materials are online, indeed accessible in the Gobi Desert. But I teach only to live students, face to face.

21 01 2013

“Oh, this is different, because Sebastian wants to interact with our faculty”–

A-HAhahahaha!!! Hilarious.

Good questions, Norm. Here’s another one: MOOCs ought to ask themselves how putting free content on the web has worked for the newspaper and magazine industry. (Or do they expect college courses to be simply vehicles for selling advertising?)

22 01 2013
Norm Matloff

The “interact with our faculty” comment is a classic example of what happens when one talks only to like-minded friends, in this case a core group in my department who were raving about this “disruptive” new educational technology.
I must say, though, that a few weeks later this same colleague volunteered to me that he found Coursera and Udacity courses in his field to be quite shallow–which they are. And they of necessity are shallow, as you can’t make challenging assignments, have spirited discussions or give probing exams when you are computer-processing 80,000 students.
The most likely business model will be simply to charge either the students or the universities or both. You may know that UVa President Teresa Sullivan was fired for not moving fast enough on MOOCs. She was reinstated after a faculty outcry, but her first act back in office was to sign a contract with Coursera. Clearly, this is not free, and I don’t think even our hypothetical physics student in the Gobi Desert will get this good for free much longer.
MOOCs are perfect for those who think that history is nothing more than memorizing names and dates, and chemistry is simply memorizing the Periodic Table–in other words, for college administrators.

27 01 2013
Biting off more than we can chew. | Academe Blog

[…] not tempted to join them. I’m also tempted by the other World History Course that I’m signed up for now, the Science of Gastronomy (whenever that comes around again), English Composition (because I have […]

13 02 2013
Biting off more than we can chew -

[…] mean I’m not tempted to join them. I’m also tempted by the other World History Course that I’m signed up for now, the Science of Gastronomy (whenever that comes around again), English Composition (because […]

11 05 2013
That Was The Week That Was | The Pietist Schoolman

[…] perspectives on that course… Here’s a profile from the Washington Post, Rees’ own experience with Zelikow’s course, and A.J. Jacobs’ report card on that and other […]

17 07 2013
What We’re Reading: January 17, 2013 | American Historical Association

[…] So I Signed up for Another MOOC… Another open critic of the MOOC movement is Jonathan Rees, who has signed up for another MOOC hosted the University of Virginia, and will undoubtedly chronicle the experience once again. […]

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