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.