MOOCs and the History Classroom

One of my favorite bloggers, Jonathan Rees, has been hammering the MOOC (massive open online course) that he enrolled in. Led by Princeton University history professor Jeremy Adelman, the MOOC is offered by Coursera, one of the leading companies pushing for free courses that are open to anyone. Rees is an outspoken critic of online education generally, and whether or not you agree with everything he says about the online delivery of education, you should read his blog to remain up-to-date on trends.

There are a lot of issues Rees raises regarding MOOCs, but I was surprised by how crassly capitalistic a company offering a “free” course could be. Referring to the textbook, which was not required, Rees wrote,

But here’s the really interesting thing that I didn’t realize until I decided to actually buy the book: Adelman is one of the co-authors. I have no special knowledge of the man’s contract, but it stands to reason that if even a small percentage of the approximately 70,000 students who’ve signed up for this course actually buy the textbook (particularly if they pay the $85 that Amazon wants for a hard copy), he and his co-authors are going to make a pretty penny from this thing.

Rees has also emphasized the structural problems of MOOCs, which include a lack of substantive feedback, academic dishonesty (in a free course, nonetheless!), and an emphasis on peer review and multiple-choice exams as appropriate ways to assess “higher order critical thinking.”

Financial and political pressures to adopt new technology may win out, but if they do, then students (and faculty) have lost something unique. As AHA president Patricia Limerick noted recently:

MOOCs mock nearly everything I have loved about the professor’s privilege of being in the company of young people as they launch into life. Is there a way, in a MOOC, to offer encouragement at precisely the right time and to watch as a young person, once awash in self-doubt, comes to a lasting recognition of her talents? Maybe I am hanging out in the wrong circles (or visiting the wrong sites), but I have not yet heard a young person declare, “The MOOC I have been logging into has changed my life and given me courage and faith in myself.”

I couldn’t agree more. Engaging students face-to-face, responding to their body language and facial expressions, and adapting a discussion or lecture on the fly is a crucial part of what I do as a professor. Sitting down with a student and talking about academic or life issues and encouraging them is a crucial part of what I do as an advisor and mentor. Helping student work through the process of research and interpretation of evidence is a crucial part of what I do as an historian. I am 100% confident that I could not follow through on those responsibilities anywhere near as effectively in a MOOC.

For more on MOOCs, read pieces by Alan Jacobs and Alisha Azevedo.


5 Replies to “MOOCs and the History Classroom”

  1. I’d agree that it’s useful to nuance the picture a bit. At the moment the clearest divide is between tightly structured broadcast-test-accredit courses run by coursera and udacity – the xMOOCs – and the connectivist courses – with more loosely constructed, discussion-community-knowledge creation – the cMOOCs.

    Both traditional universities and the xMOOCs deliver a lot of their value by offering credentials.

    And I think that this may prevent them from transforming the undergraduate experience unless the social contract of the university changes.

    If university continues to be seen as an individual’s investment in their future earnings through the acquisition of a credential, it may be that xMOOCs can’t transform learning much in this space. They could shake up scale and delivery – particularly of introductory courses – but won’t change the fundamental parameters. This is because it’s hard to reconcile learning and credentialling.

    If an institution exists both to encourage intellectual development, and to give an intellectual stamp of approval to its students (signifying their practical usefulness as thinkers), then the individual learner can be caught trying to serve two masters. Do you strive for learning as an abstract ideal, or as a practical, concrete seal of approval that you can show an employer?

    In the university and xMOOC model, in many ways the desired credential owns your learning. It shapes its priorities and direction and marks off all other areas as impractical and effectively a waste of precious effort.

    It does make sense to limit and scaffold the learning if the point is to engender certain competencies – eg basic programming – but this does limit the organic creation of self-directed and self-motivated learners. Real learning must be entirely owned by the learner, otherwise it stops when the credential is received. The climax of credential-focused learning – the act of graduating – may also be its funeral.

    I think that the credential system also holds learning back by focusing on competitive examination. This hinders communal learning, and actively sets people against the learning of their peers. I’ve always found this quite uncomfortable.

    I’ve been very impressed by the connectivist model of learning. To my mind, the big transformations that connectivism offers are:

    1) I own my learning. The experience is entirely voluntary and self-directed.
    2) I learn in a network and see my learning not just as what I can absorb but as what I can contribute and create. I care about the learning of my network, and feel a sort of collective responsibility, interest and excitement in their learning. This growing feeling is something that I haven’t really experienced before.

    Can connectivist MOOCs have assessment and credentials (eg badges)? Or would this be bound up with compulsion, gain and formalism?

    Having said all this about credentials, I think that one of the big challenges that MOOCs present to current models is that they can help people acquire new skills, independent of credentials.
    Do I need a degree to show that I can program if I build up a portfolio or show my competence at interview?

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. You obviously love learning, and I think is one of the benefits of a MOOC is that those who are invested in learning about a topic can have access to a different type of education.

  2. Interesting thoughts. I know where you are coming from, I felt much the same about MOOCs several months ago. Then on a whim I stumbled across the Hybrid Pedagogy blog ( and enrolled in a MOOC about MOOCs (MOOCMOOC) that they taught. We explored some but not all of these issues. While I still feel uneasy about MOOCs and agree their not ideal, I do think they can be done better than the Coursea/Princeton one. They’re several styles the traditional X-MOOC model (which is what the model that Coursea appears to be using) and then more interactive and collaborative connectivist-MOOCs. I guess for me, the interesting thing is the pedagogical questions and practices that MOOCs raise and force us to explore. I agree that the role of students and teachers changes, but I’m not yet convinced this is always a bad thing. I also think if we take them seriously and put a lot of effort into planning them and their accompanying activities they can offer a rich experience and collaborative community not unlike the on-ground classroom (using things like Google docs, hangouts, twitter, etc.). Of course, this requires more instructors/TAs so you’re point about time commitment is perfectly valid. One last thing, I’m still a doctoral student, so I haven’t had my own class yet… maybe this blurs my view of reality, but I think there are some real lessons we can learn from MOOCs and online education.

    1. It sounds like some of our differences are from our perspectives. I teach at an SLAC with classes of no more than 35 in survey sections and usually no more than 10-12 in upper-division courses. A MOOC makes no sense for our students and threatens what makes us distinctive: the personal mentoring of faculty and the opportunity for undergraduate students to engage in discussions.

      If I taught at my alma mater, I’m guessing that things would be different. Its survey sections are 200+, so scaling that to 200,000 wouldn’t be that different in terms of presentation, grading, etc. except there would need to be more graders (human or electronic) and a technological infrastructure to support the MOOC.

      I would be interested to hear the benefits of MOOCs for history courses. I haven’t come across any experiences that spoke to benefits beyond reaching larger numbers of people.

      1. I agree with you on pretty much every point. I went to a school of 900 student for undergrad (basically the same as you describe) and felt like that was the best experience. The thing about MOOCs for me is I don’t see them as a replacement to college. I view them more as a sort of public history, continuing education kind of deal. I think most people approach them this way, at least currently. I know some people think they might expand more and threaten to change and compete with traditional higher-ed… but I’m not sure we’re there yet. I could be wrong. But the very definition of a MOOC relies on this idea of openness. What openness means to different people and institutions could change, and we definitely need to monitor that.
        So my interest in MOOCs and my willingness to play around with them and their ideas relates more to my interest of reaching a broader audience and implementing digital tools to how I teach and present history to the public. With the rise of digital culture, I think these methods are also increasingly important to small face to face classes. I know some professors (at very small schools) who use Facebook and twitter instead of things like email and Blackboard for discussions and posting documents, etc. At my alma mater specifically many students just aren’t interested in email anymore. So taking the ideas of a MOOC and dissecting them for utility and compatibility with all types of classes is worthwhile.

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