Give the people what they want.

18 01 2013

Apparently, 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 similarities and differences between his and Jeremy Adelman’s. Before I begin though, let me repeat, this will not be a regular feature of this blog. I managed to watch the first week’s lectures because there’s always a little extra time during your first week of classes before the grading and such starts. This will not happen again soon as I have lots and lots of other work to do besides watching videos.


The most obvious difference between these history MOOCs is that the production values on this one are absolutely first rate. I’m sorry if you’re still reading this blog Jeremy, but his MOOC makes yours look like public access television. I’m not just talking to the absence of conversations with Valeria, or the fact that I can actually read the maps. I’m talking about almost everything.

Ironically, there’s no studio involved here. Zelikow is filmed in what I presume is his office, in front of a shelf of hardbound leather books (maybe State Department reports?). While this sounds cheap, it’s not as so much else is going on. For example, Zelikow makes much greater use of pictures than Jeremy did. So do the producers. There are Ken Burns shots over the pictures. There’s cuts of Zelikow from one angle to another. There’s also a lot more PowerPoint style text than Jeremy ever used, including that fade-in feature that only an experienced PowerPointer can master.

With respect to the content, this course begins later than Jeremy’s did – 1760. With less time to cover, Zelikow used his first segment to introduce history as a concept (which is kind of ironic since MOOC students will only be graded on how well they remember specific factual information). I also thought it was very interesting that he cited other historians like David Landes and Angus Madison in his first set of lectures. I might be wrong, but I don’t remember Jeremy doing that even once.

Perhaps the greatest difference between the two MOOCs is what has to be the enormous amount of work that went into this one. For example, because each picture was used by permission, the huge range of copyright clearances that had to be necessary to create each presentation was obvious for all to see. On one level, the comparison is unfair because Zelikow had much more time to prepare his course than Jeremy did. My guess, however, is that the difference has less to do with the respective superprofessors and more to do with their respective employers.

Jeremy’s MOOC materials were all copyrighted by Jeremy Adelman. Here the emblem of the University of Virginia flashes at the beginning of each segment and the copyright at the end is by the “Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia.” My hunch is that UVa dumped more manpower and money into the production of this MOOC than Princeton did for Jeremy’s because they expect to get much more out of it in the long run. I’m not sure whether that should be gratifying or terrifying, but that’s a question that’s worth a whole post by itself so I won’t handle it here.


I guess this is where I’m supposed to give Zelikow’s MOOC a thumbs up or a thumbs down. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to become the Roger Ebert of history MOOCs no matter how much the people want it. Besides my other obligations, I’ve taken something that Bob Samuels wrote the other day very much to heart:

During a break, a TV reporter pulled me aside and asked me to talk about why I hate online education. I said I do not hate it, but I believe that it will increase costs and possibly lower the quality of our “better classes.” I also added that this whole discussion about online education allows the UC to avoid talking about the real cost drivers in the system.

[emphasis added]

In other words, I’d rather write more about the political economy of MOOCs going forward instead of spilling pools more digital ink on the mechanics of the system. In the meantime, I will not fault any superprofessor for trying to create the best MOOC they can teach. Instead, I’ll try to refocus the conversation in this space on much more important broader issues.



One response

19 01 2013
Music for Deckchairs

Hi J

I agree with you, it’s the political economy of this that should concern us, not the intellectual merits or personality-driven appeal of one MOOC over another. We really need to be careful not to turn ourselves into a kangaroo court of peer assessors for our colleagues, even if we don’t know them, even if their sudden luminary status seems to make them fair game. It doesn’t.

But we should certainly be vigilantly pointing out that if this is a landgrab, some institutions will be able to invest much more capital in extracting wealth from their initial stake than others. That seems to be where we are at the moment, and the international markets who are supposed to generate all the profit are certainly no strangers to this kind of cultural exploitation. So the real challenge is to preserve global and regional diversity of the overall educational ecosystem.

The thing is, I’m not sure we’re yet seeing the fully achieved global political economy of massification, unbundling, disruption, whatever. We don’t really know what we’re doing, but we’re doing it really fast.


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