A MOOC Confession

Peter Onuf on BikeI have a confession to make: I have been watching MOOCs. I feel guilty about it, honestly, I do—not so much about the fact that I have been watching them, but more about the fact that I have also been enjoying them.

My first encounter with online courses came last year during orals prep, when I discovered that two of my examiners’ most popular classes were posted online through Open Yale courses, a platform that simply videotapes an entire lecture course and posts the lectures online. I’d play them in the background as I was doing dishes or ironing or eating lunch. It proved really helpful, in terms of both reviewing content in a rote sort of way and thinking across the books and fields.

A proper MOOC, though—a Massive Online Open Course—is a different beast altogether. For those who remain unfamiliar with them: MOOC content nowadays is purposely crafted for online consumption; most lectures are not fifty-minute segments, but rather isolate ideas into YouTube-sized chunks ranging from two to twenty minutes. The videos attempt some real documentary-style cinematography, interweaving images and lecture outlines and often filming on location beyond a lecture hall. They’re accompanied by readings, discussion boards, peer-evaluated essay assignments, Q&A sessions with professors or TAs, and any number of other constantly proliferating bonus features. Courses on iTunes U, such as the Open Yale lectures, just exist on the interwebs for you to drop in on whenever you like. But one registers for a MOOC. If iTunes U content has a sort of benign “continuing education” feel to it, then MOOCs set their sights at creatively destroying much of higher ed as we know it. MOOC producers seem unapologetic about the fact that, as one of my friends recently put it, they want to “replace professors with videos of professors.”

So I signed up for a few MOOCs not only because I had had a good experience with other online educational content in the past, but also because I wanted to know what we’ll be up against in the coming decades. This was opposition research.

The first course I began, Akhil Reed Amar’s “Constitutional Law,” was a bit of a disappointment. The course begins with Amar’s take on the “biography” of the Constitution, and then transitions in the second half to focus on America’s “unwritten” Constitution. Amar designed the course for a wide audience, from students to teachers to “journalists . . . and political activists.” “I hope even experts in constitutional law might learn something new in this course,” he notes in the introductory segment. Unfortunately the lectures were just too basic and redundant for me to stick with them. Although Amar touches on both slavery and on gender, his overriding tone is exceptionalist. Even the traditional political history on display lacks nuance. One of the multiple-choice questions that popped up in the middle of an early lecture, presumably intended to ensure that I was paying attention, asked: “Where does the Bill of Rights come from?” The possible answers: (a) George Washington, (b) the Federalists, (c) the Preamble process, (d) the Anti-Federalists. Which to pick?! In a seminar setting, one could make a compelling case for three of those options.[1]

The next two courses I’ve dabbled in have been much better, and my main purpose in today’s post is really just to make sure that you’re aware of them before they go dormant. (Though presumably they’ll both run again in the not-too-distant future.)

Peter Onuf’s class on “The Age of Jefferson” features his signature style of witty, complex, and imaginative intellectual history. The course is arranged thematically, touching on the Declaration along with Jefferson’s views on slavery, religion, and education, among other topics. The clips of reenactors at Monticello—including images of enslaved African-Americans working on Mulberry Row and nostalgic scenes of a pensive and always obliquely shot Jefferson—are a bit kitschy. But the varied filming locations and Onuf’s guest interlocutors work well. If you’re interested, though, act fast! This offering of the course will be taken offline tomorrow (April 15).

The third class I’ve started watching is Edward E. Baptist and Louis Hyman’s “American Capitalism: A History.” The course’s narrative begins with mercantile capitalism in the colonial era, and progresses through industrial, corporate, and global capitalism, keeping eyes on both the histories of labor and business all the while. It’s a good précis in general for the new history of capitalism. Baptist and Hyman work very well together, and they are excellent at distilling massive concepts into the bite-sized clips that their platform, edX, seems keen to present.

Next on my to-MOOC list? Stephanie McCurry’s course, “The History of the Slave South.”

I plan to write more analytically about one or more of these courses in the coming months, perhaps in the form of a review or (gasp!) a student evaluation, since much of the blogosphere’s discussion of MOOCs—and the MOOC producers’ own hype—has been rather disembodied from the actual experience of taking one of these things. But for the moment, I’ll offer a quick preliminary thought: The very reasons I’ve been enjoying the MOOCs are also the reasons I do not fear them (in their present form) as competition. MOOCs claim to be more interactive than traditional lecture courses, but in reality the bulk of what they offer is passive learning. They do not demand one’s full attention; I’ve been able to fit them, like the Open Yale lectures, into the interstices of my daily schedule. There’s none of the shared, sustained, critical engagement with primary and secondary texts that inevitably produces the best moments of a history class. Each of these courses has discussion forums, where posts range from intelligent to less-than-thoughtful—but nobody is forced to confront a contrary opinion any more than they would be while posting on the comment section of their favorite online rag.

Do I feel a bit more informed after watching these MOOCs? Do they effectively present historical arguments and narratives? Sure. Were they fun? Absolutely. Do I feel changed by them? Or do I think I would have felt changed—would have been forced to develop new analytical skills and coaxed out of my own cozy frame of reference—if I had more consistently engaged with some of the features beyond the video lectures? No.

In the end, I’m less frightened for the future of face-to-face learning than I was before I spent time with a few MOOCs. In their current form, MOOCs largely miss the point of humanistic education. There’s a difference, of course, between the dissemination of information, something MOOCs can helpfully facilitate, and actual education, which is not so easily scalable. But the utopian pronouncements of Silicon Valley’s self-styled educational revolutionaries utterly obliterate this contrast. We who treasure face-to-face humanities learning need to devote more energy to proving and publicizing the significance of that distinction.[2] We need to hone and assert an ideology of the offline classroom, if we want MOOCs to become a productive part of the world of higher education, rather than a needlessly destructive part of it.


[1] I can’t remember whether or not I opted in to those multiple-choice questions. If I did, I can’t imagine what I was thinking. They were awfully annoying.

[2] For the promoters’ pronouncements, and for an example of the failure of face-to-face education’s proponents to successfully elucidate this distinction, listen to the recent Intelligence Squared U.S. debate over the proposition: “More clicks, fewer bricks: the lecture hall is obsolete.”

9 responses

  1. I enjoyed Peter Onuf’s lectures in the Age of Jefferson course. I do not think it was worthy of college credit by any means as the quizzes and tests were ridiculously easy and there was no real effort involved in the course. As with any MOOC the forums needed some guidance. Until they solve that issue MOOCs will never be equated with real college credits.

    On the good side, just being able to sit for some of Onuf’s lectures is worth the time. This is a major advantage that MOOCs have. There is potential here with these lectures. However, they do not take the place of my online classroom that I spend so much time in with my students. The interaction between student and teacher is critical. The MOOCs do not offer that interaction. Many online classrooms do not offer it (which is really due to the teacher not interacting in a meaningful way), but some online instructors do take the extra steps to make their classroom more than just a textbook driven recital. This MOOC showed why that interaction is so important to the learning process.

  2. I concur with Michael’s conclusion because the classroom/seminar environment is the place where the study of history transcends to relevant status. As an older, returning student—from the 70’s era high school and college timeframe—I would not have survived my “prep” year before entering a graduate program without access to various types of online courses. Dramatic changes in historical scholarship as well as critical thinking concepts are introduced in these online environments, along with the linguistic jumping jacks required to play at the graduate level. However, nothing beats a spirited discussion between multiple generations in a classroom facilitated by a well-versed professor to shed light on the value of history as a discipline.

    I am disappointed to have missed Prof. Onuf’s class. Encore, please!

  3. It’s sad that MOOCs are controversial.

    As Michael correctly notes they’re very useful for information dissemination. Less so for other aspects of classroom learning. Pretending, of course, that even classroom experiences are always conducive to deep understanding is no good either. Think about those 200 person, 100 level classes with the big name professor you can’t get near. You might as well be taking a MOOC (and saving $3k in the process).

    Properly utilized MOOCs will allow good professors to use classroom time for lecturing about more advanced topics while assigning “the basics” for students to watch on their own, or for a more interactive dynamic learning environment.

    Anyone who feels threatened by MOOCs is simply acknowledging how little they have to offer in the classroom.

  4. Regarding the comment above:

    “MOOC producers seem unapologetic about the fact that, as one of my friends recently put it, they want to “replace professors with videos of professors.”

    Perhaps, the only professors who need worry are those with more modest communication skills and slender imaginations. I doubt Prof. Onuf has lost much sleep on either score as evidenced by the response to his presentations in the “Age of Jefferson.” Cheers..

  5. Dear Michael,

    Have you signed up for the McCurry class yet? I think it may be closing in the next few weeks. I think it’d be great to do a comparison of the Onuf lecture on slavery with McCurry’s lecture on Jefferson. I wasn’t able to sign up for her class too (not enough time) but from the “trailer” for her she states point blank that no one did more than Jefferson to help perpetuate slavery in the South. A write up on MOOcs, perhaps not on both as a whole but just on how they deal with TJ and slavery, would be fascinating.

    For those interested in more on MOOCs and history, the AHA magazine “Perspectives” has a summary of a panel that was held at the AHA conference in January of this year:

    Also, you can watch the panel itself here:

  6. “nobody is forced to confront a contrary opinion any more than they would be while posting on the comment section of their favorite online rag.”

    Having taken three of the courses mentioned, as well as others, I would rephrase this: “Nobody is forced to make an argument or to be confronted with a counterargument.”

    Most of the courses encourage or even require posting on the course forum but all postings are accepted almost without question. Seldom is anyone called upon to defend a thesis or even to flesh out an opinion with a few facts from the course. Profs. Baptist and Hyman have made the most effort of all the courses I’ve taken but, given the size of the enrollment, this can only be minimal.

    On the plus side, there’s very little trolling and I’ve yet to see a flame war break out simply because there are fewer responses to posts that on your “favorite online rag.” The best the poster of a thoughtful argument can expect is a +1 vote.

    The forum technology could be re-structured so that small group back-and-forth discussions were more encouraged but that would also increase the likelihood of flame wars. Eventually live human monitoring would be required and that would defeat the overall purpose of reducing labor costs.

    Still, I am not complaining. I live in Massachusetts where public access to courses, lectures and book talks from members of the academy is unsurpassed in the world. And yet I do not have access to the level of scholarly instruction these MOOCs provide.

    I do believe that the MOOC business model is fundamentally flawed and these courses will not be produced nor offered for free much longer. So I take as many as I can now while administrations are still willing to fund these grand experiments.

  7. Pingback: “Let a thousand MOOCs bloom”: An Interview with Peter Onuf « The Junto

  8. Pingback: The First Year of Founders Online: An Interview with Kathleen Williams « The Junto


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