One size does not fit all.

31 01 2013

Yesterday, I had a strange thought. “I wonder if Udacity has any history courses,” I said to myself. Perhaps I’m blind, but I couldn’t even find any English courses in their current catalog, let alone history MOOCs. Similarly, edX has “The Ancient Greek Hero” in its catalog, but that’s actually a literature course. When you get right down to it, the number of history MOOCs out there at the moment is incredibly small.

There’s an obvious reason for that. To borrow a word from Aaron Bady again, history is one of those subjects that’s hard to MOOCify, at least at the college level. While teaching history certainly requires the transfer of a lot of information, that is hardly the sole objective of any course that’s being taught right. Successful history students need to learn how to read, think and communicate their thoughts, and a massive open online format is not conducive for picking up any of those skills. Jeremy Adelman bypassed this problem by emphasizing the enormous benefits of teaching world history through conducting a global dialogue, but that doesn’t mean his course was/is an adequate substitute for the one he teaches at Princeton.

My guess is that Jeremy would not object to that last assessment. A different Canadian, however, thinks otherwise:

Any subject where students need to absorb fact-based material – that is, where there is a right or wrong answer – should be taught using computer-based learning. Instead of being the “sage on the stage,” teachers should be the co-pilot for students as they explore and collaborate online to acquire knowledge. Without changing the model of pedagogy, the physical campus will not survive.

That’s so wrong-headed, at least with respect to history, that I have no idea where to start. However, for all I know, that might be true for computer programming or finance or even “The Ancient Greek Hero.” Here’s the thing, though: Too many MOOC enthusiasts seem willing to assume that any discipline can be successfully MOOCified. Perhaps the reason there aren’t that many history MOOCs out there now is that most history professors know better. Who wants to be a superprofessor if you have to unlearn all the pedagogy you practice on campus every day?

Despite that problem, some of my colleagues in this profession will inevitably take the bait anyways, perhaps because of the numerous incentives that their enthusiastic administrators will offer them. Maybe MOOC providers aren’t trying to cram history MOOCs down the rest of our throats, but I’m terrified that many university presidents and provosts will. And I’ll bet you anything that by the time they’re ready to act, Udacity will be more than happy to assist them.



9 responses

31 01 2013

The thing is, history at the college level isn’t about facts. It’s about why people think stuff happened, how they find, evaluate, and interpret evidence to make an argument. And then there’s the more complicated work of thinking about relationships between all sorts of evidence and arguments and conclusions.

Folks who think it’s some sort of TV show “just the facts, ma’am” aren’t recognizing the real work of college.

31 01 2013

Jeremy Adelman is Canadian? I thought I knew all of us down here. On my campus, I haven’t heard of any interest in MOOCs among historians. A classicist has done one. Copyright (of images) was a big challenge for that course, and, aside from any principled or pedagogical reasons, is a deterrent for art historians.

31 01 2013
Audrey Watters (@audreywatters)

Udacity plans to focus solely on engineering and CS content (for now at least). I recently asked the startup’s co-founder David Stavens about what exactly a complete Udacity CS “degree” will or should contain.

As someone who works with a lot of technical folks (and admittedly someone who believes in a “liberal arts education”), I’d argue that history, philosophy, art/design and OMG writing are all incredibly important for programmers to study — not just Javascript or HTML5 or Python. They don’t do enough of it as it stands. They don’t learn to collaborate, manage projects, etc etc. (Will MOOCs teach these? Certainly not in their current format.)

What happens to CS when it decides that it wants to be more about skills training and as such abandons the liberal arts? (I think Steve Jobs gets invoked a lot here with his comments about Apple existing at the intersection of the liberal arts and technology). I guess we can shrug and say “Oh well, it’s not my discipline or department” (and perhaps focus instead on what Coursera is up to — its plans to MOOCify more of the curriculum). But I think we need to address this larger move towards viewing the university as all about skills and job training.

31 01 2013
Jonathan Rees


Because it’s not my department, what you describe has been outside my field of vision. I do, however, care very much.

31 01 2013
Audrey Watters (@audreywatters)

I realize now that I re-read my comment that I sounded like I was shaking my finger sternly at you — you, you, history professor, you. That wasn’t my intention. I think you’ve been pretty vocal about your argument that “we’re all in this together.”

But I do think it’s going to be increasingly important, particularly for those whose disciplines don’t fall under the STEM umbrella, to articulate the importance of the liberal arts (and more specifically, as this is my background, the humanities).

31 01 2013
Scott Johnson

I wonder if (based on my experience only) because we have made school of so little that is identifiably important to most people that the very word “education” associates with something of no particular use? A hard and unnecessarily complex way to get anything done? Based on straight desk time spent in school, some part of the liberal arts must have rubbed off on me but it’s very, very difficult to explain without sounding like I’m making it all up.

Where I work the college president seems convinced that for learning, one perfect explanation exists and anything else is “duplication” or redundancy. Such constraints on the spectrum of potential interpretations of what it means to preside over a college is of course reductive, unappreciative of nuance and beyond discussion. To me, this suggests an appreciation of value in difference when it approaches the personal. So why is it so hard to make liberal arts a personal value that everyone could understand?

3 02 2013
This Week In My Classes: Information and Education » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism

[…] it’s what we train for, it’s what we stand for, and it looks like it’s also what we’re going to have to fight for, as the pressure mounts for ways to automate, commodify, and depersonalize our classrooms. […]

3 02 2013
This Week In My Classes: Information and Education |

[…] it’s what we train for, it’s what we stand for, and it looks like it’s also what we’re going to have to fight for, as the pressure mounts for ways to automate, commodify, and depersonalize our classrooms. […]

4 02 2013
“It was the MOOCs! They done it!” « More or Less Bunk

[…] The death of the traditional university can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy if students get directed online in more subtle ways. I’m still hoping Audrey Watters will write about this at her own blog, but until that happens I’ll just have to play off her comments here: […]

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