“Let a thousand MOOCs bloom”: An Interview with Peter Onuf

OnufHere at The Junto, we noted last semester’s flurry of history MOOCs with a combination of interest, excitement, and trepidation. Peter Onuf—the University of Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor, Emeritus, and the instructor of Coursera’s recent MOOC, “The Age of Jefferson”—graciously agreed to answer some of our questions about his experience. In the transcribed interview that follows, we discussed not only the process of designing and creating his MOOC, but also his thoughts about online classes and the future of higher education in general.

JUNTO:  Thanks so much for agreeing to discuss your MOOC experience with me, Peter. Let’s start with the nuts and bolts of planning “The Age of Jefferson.” In your farewell email to course participants, you noted that you had been “dubious” when first approached about teaching the course. So how did the idea for the MOOC originate? And why did you agree to do it?

ONUF:  You were right to pick up on my use of the word “dubious” in my farewell letter. That reflects the origins of the project, which came out of the Provost’s office. It was I think a response in a big sense to the coup attempt against [UVA President] Terry Sullivan.[1] And the takeaway from that—from the Visitors’ challenge to Terry’s regime—was that Virginia was way behind on new technologies and on doing things like MOOCs.

A lot of us at the university thought that wasn’t an accurate statement or judgment on various initiatives that had been taking place. Nonetheless, it seemed to Jeff Legro, who was the associate provost who recruited me, that this was an opportunity for us to wave the flag. And as Jeff put it to me, if we’re going to do a MOOC where we have some kind of comparative advantage, surely it would be on Thomas Jefferson. So you can deduce from this that from the outset there was a corporate branding impulse that was at least part of this; the University wanted to make a conspicuous statement.

Let me talk a little about my dubiousness. As for any other self-respecting academic, this seemed suspiciously like a substitution for conventional lecturing. If this was the future it was a future that we looked at with mixed feelings—that this would reinforce the emerging inequality in higher education, which mirrors that of the nation as a whole, with some institutions monopolizing the airwaves, displacing lecturers and teachers, making places like Stanford, Harvard, and MIT the centers of a new era of pedagogy. And that sounded pretty ominous, particularly given that people were being asked to create these MOOCs in their spare or extra time. And you can imagine the scenarios that would play out: “Well, we don’t need you anymore! We got you on MOOC.”

Now that’s certainly exaggerated; it suggests a fundamental bad faith at the level of administration, and I’m not willing to go that far. But I just wanted to say I had mixed feelings.

JUNTO:  So what eventually convinced you?

ONUF:  It was more out of self-defense, or you might say some sense of proprietary interest in Jefferson. The original idea was to draw together a cast of characters from across the Grounds, who could contribute to a kind of group-taught course. I was baffled about who exactly this would be. The idea of somebody else or some group or committee deciding on what to teach about Jefferson seemed really stupid to me. My feeling was I was the only person who took Jefferson full-time seriously at the university, if there’s going to be a university course on Jefferson, I have to be more than a figurehead presence. In any case I guess you could say being somewhat a megalomaniac, if I was going to be in it at all, I was going to be in it all the way.

There was a second motivation I had, and you as a graduate student would appreciate this. I saw an opportunity to leverage the MOOC production into an opportunity for one of my graduate students to do a lot of the behind-the-scenes work—to become what you might call a content producer—because nobody else but one of my students could do that. Again that sounds arrogant, but I drafted Jim Hrdlicka, who’s writing his excellent dissertation now and has been my student for some years. He is making a sizeable amount of money working on this project, and I feel really gratified about that, because at least—and I don’t want oversell this, Michael—there is the possibility that we could benefit in tangible ways from MOOC production, depending on how we leverage our bargaining power.

I’m not claiming everybody has my bargaining power. The chief leverage I had was that I didn’t have to do it—that I’m retired. So I negotiated for a respectable fee for me and decent pay for Jim, and those were the conditions.

JUNTO: What was your intended audience for “The Age of Jefferson”? How did you design the course and decide what its content would be?

ONUF:  Nobody really knew what we were doing at the beginning, and I think that’s important to underline. The first day that I was videoed for what at that point was tentatively seen as a semester-long course of twenty-five lectures, I gave three lectures on one day. I changed my necktie for each lecture to create the illusion that a day’s time was passing.

As they started working on the first cut of production, it became clear that—on the one hand—it was going to take a lot of time and effort by the production team to create semester-long course. And then it wasn’t clear why we should have one—what was the point of it. We were doing an Age of Jefferson course that could be somehow adapted and used at the university, but why would we do this when, as it turns out, we hired Alan Taylor to be my successor. You say, “Muzzle Alan Taylor and watch old videos of Onuf”?! It’s ludicrous! Also as the expenses piled up, Jeff, I think, wondered whether higher administration was going to be enthusiastic about spending tons of money on this. And I should say now parenthetically I don’t know how much we spent on it. I could guess that it would be something on the order of a hundred thousand dollars, but that might be too low.

Anyways this forced some serious thinking and it had two major outcomes. One was that we decided a short course could be more useful in a variety of settings, particularly if you keep in mind that we had begun with the idea of promoting the institution in some way. So the first decision was, let’s limit the number of lectures.

Then, how could they hold together in a way in order to be useful? From the outset, the audience was not seen to be the conventional classroom undergraduate. Instead, given publicity efforts—a mass mailing to the world of Cavalier nation, and something also went out broadly under the aegis of Monticello as well—we were looking for a much more demographically varied audience. To put it simply, these were lectures that should be appealing to the so-called general audience of grown-ups, and they weren’t going to be designed primarily for undergraduates.

The second thing was: if it’s going to be a short series of lectures, what would they be about? And so my simple answer was: they’re going to be about what I’m interested in. So the course masquerades as “The Age of Jefferson,” but it’s really the culmination of lots of my thinking on Jefferson—primarily Jefferson’s thought, and to some extent Jefferson’s legacy, to some extent his career. But the center is in trying to plumb the mind of Thomas Jefferson.

I want to say if anybody had the opportunity to do something like this is, and didn’t have to do the gut-work, it’s a walk in the park! All I had to do was talk for six hours! And those lectures were all single-take. In most cases we had a live audience, and we just went with it! And of course, as you know, I never use notes. So that’s always fun, because you get a charge out of performing when you’re old enough and you’ve done it enough that it’s not anxiety-inducing. It was fun for me to do.

I know that’s outrageous to say, and if I have a parenthetical comment to offer it’s that I think the performance level among academics is abysmally low, and that more people ought to develop lecturing skills that would merit being, you know, MOOC’ed. Again, that sounds awful and arrogant, and I don’t want to alienate all my good friends out in the business, but I think the focus on performance is important, and could be a spur to achieving more effective communication within the classroom and beyond. And that would be one of my big takeaways here, is I am very fortunate to have had a long career during which I’ve learned how to perform decently, how to engage an audience. In other words, what I see here Michael is the possibility of bridging conventional publication with another kind of publication. Obviously this is a way of reaching a larger audience. Any way we can talk not just to each other, not just to captive audiences of students, but to a broader population challenges us to communicate better. If there’s one really valuable thing about our discipline, within the humanities, it is that it does not require the higher learning—you don’t have to be working at a level that will alienate, that’s beyond an intelligent general audience.

JUNTO:  Speaking of content and audience: in comparing their products to traditional, classroom-based higher ed, MOOC companies claim that their courses offer maximum reach and inclusiveness without totally sacrificing interaction. Can you tell me a bit about the interactive elements of “The Age of Jefferson”—the forums and assignments? What was the goal of those elements of the course, and did you think they were successful?

ONUF:  My expectations were very low. But I was extremely gratified by the degree of engagement that was revealed in the threads on the discussion board. It’s quite astonishing. I didn’t look at them a lot, partly because it’s embarrassing—it’s about me—and because they were talking to each other.  That was great. I had friends like Annette Gordon-Reed who anonymously enrolled in the course, and spent a lot of time checking out the discussion boards—she’s very mediating. There was the usual and predictable, a few unpleasant interventions, usually with respect to fellow participants. But bad-acting was, far as I know, very limited. I was surprised at how good the discussion was.

We had evidently two thousand people get certified—went through all the steps—which is a very healthy percentage. Of course that’s only six lectures, and the investment is not extreme, but completion rates for most of these mega-MOOCs are abysmal.

I think humanities are the biggest challenge for this kind of pedagogy. I think it’s a godsend to people in engineering and the sciences—black-board oriented disciplines, where you work out problems and students could stop the lecture or the problem-solving on the blackboard, can go over it again. Evidently, or from what people tell me, the lectures that I gave were segmented, and people would play them over again sometimes. I don’t know why. But if they like something or they didn’t quite get it, they can play it again, and that’s valuable.

While I’m on that subject, I’ll just add I thought Jim Hrdlicka, who was my front-man, did a wonderful job of finding places to break up the lectures, highlighting major themes, introducing them. And I could never do this myself, because I hate PowerPoint. I don’t want to know where I’m going before I start. But of course Jim imposed this order retrospectively, and he did cut a little bit out. About two minutes were taken out of the first lecture, and I think that’s the most, because they were obsessing on it, and Jim went over and over—he said he reached the point that he just saw my face and he felt nauseous. Which was not the sort of thing to have happen to your graduate student! But we laughed about it.

JUNTO: So your comments about student engagement were pretty sunny—markedly different in tone from your story of the origins of this thing. Did the experience succeed in minimizing your concerns? Are you as dubious now as you were when you began?

ONUF: On a mega-level, I am, Michael, and I’ll tell you why, and it’s because of those things I said at the beginning. That is, it’s a rush to new pedagogy before we’ve figured out what exactly is best to be done. My prescription—or what I’d like to see—is lots of people giving short series. I don’t want to abolish the classroom. The classroom has to be a site for interaction, face-to-face, real presence. I think that’s important. But I think every respectable college in the country—and there are hundreds of them—has superb faculty people. The overall quality of people in our business has never been better. And I think everybody out there, as they develop their expertise and they have something to say, they should say it! But does it have to take the form of a twenty-five lecture semester course? No! I think that’s probably a waste of time.

I’ll give you my model—it will sound so retrograde to you, you’ll reject it out of hand. But I’m thinking of the Oxbridge model of seminars and tutorials with lectures as optional, as directed toward overall preparation for exams—not for continuous assessment in courses. And I think people should give public lectures. They don’t have to do it all the time. But it should be an integral part of their scholarly, pedagogical production. I’d like to see us merging the two. Let’s hear about the book you’re working on! Let’s have some good lectures on the theme that you’re developing.

Now one of the critiques of the MOOC is, I’ve talked about inequality, cribbing the big names and the old people who’ve been around a long time. Well, if we paid more attention to pedagogy at the graduate-education level, if young people were trained to lecture well, and get their ideas across effectively, then I’d love to see junior people doing this—and I’d love to see it right now, because a lot of them are superb. Teach ‘em how to talk, and let ‘em go in front of a camera.

I think we need to explore the capacity of the MOOC—and I’m a great advocate of mini MOOCs and many MOOCs—let a thousand MOOCs bloom, let it be part of the repertoire of any serious teacher-scholar.

But let’s not make believe that having a bunch of lectures in the can is the sovereign solution to all of our problems in higher education today. My solution, having lots of seminar-tutorial contact, is very expensive, it’s labor-intensive. But let’s get serious. If we really believe in what higher education can yield, let’s invest in the best possible higher education.

So the bean counters are not going to like me. They’re not going to care about me, they’re just going to ignore me, so it doesn’t matter one way or the other. But I am very sensitive to the concerns of my colleagues about this threat of displacement, the work regime of having to develop this on the fly as overtime—it does remind us why people organized into unions and why they went on strike. I hope this is not a scenario that predicts the future. But there’s a lot of anxiety in our business, and one of the ways it hits me most directly—and I’m glad that I’m retired now—is in worrying about the prospects of my excellent graduate students, because what’s happening is that the number of opportunities is shrinking before us.

JUNTO:  The problems of the academic labor market obviously extend far beyond the role of MOOCs. But simply on the level of MOOCs, what’s the political process we have to go through, or the strategy we have to adopt, in order to make MOOCs a productive part of this set of problems? What should we, as faculty members and future faculty members, be doing to ensure that MOOCs become a productive and beneficial part of the world of higher ed, rather than a needlessly destructive part of it?

ONUF:  Well, two things. One: we have got to call the bluff of the administration. If they think there’s some great advantage in this new pedagogy, then they should be prepared to pay for it. So that seems simple, but I think a lot of people, for various reasons, have been complicit in the onset of this new regime, because they’re concerned about job security. Who knows why people make MOOCs. I mean, I told you why made it. I did it to make some money, for myself and one of my best students. And it turned out to be good fun. So I’d like to see administration pony up the bucks, and make it clear to faculty that what we’re doing is augmenting, experimenting, transforming, and we’re looking for improvements over the classical lecture-room model that dates back to the stupid Scottish Enlightenment.

That people will hold onto the idea that a lecture is some kind of sacred thing—that it’s the essence of our teaching and learning experience—that’s got to be nonsense! I mean, it’s not! And so we have to get over that. I’d like to see universities offer proper incentives to persuade faculty that they’re not being complicit in the decline, fall, and extinction of higher education as we know it.

On the other side, I think it’s important for faculty to embrace the possibilities of the MOOC. I won’t repeat myself in arguing that part of a buy-in is a commitment to better pedagogy. And I think performance values should not be dismissed as if they were not serious, that we’re above that kind of nonsense. But anyway, I think the traditional lecture mode deserves to be on the way out. I think we should do our best to identify what is good about giving lectures, why we should do it, and deploy lectures in the future in a way that supports our pedagogical goals.

So a buy-in from faculty. And then a serious commitment to sell what we do. In the humanities, it’s the larger argument for the humanities. I don’t think we should be defensive about it; we have something to offer; let’s offer it in the best possible way.


[1] Interviewer’s note: if you’ve forgotten about the administrative fracas at UVA—it was two years ago already!—here’s one take on the story.

22 responses

  1. Professor Onuf sounds a bit mixed on his view of MOOCs, expressing concern that it could crowd out the class room, eliminate teaching jobs, create inequality, etc. but at the same time recognizing that what it’s really doing is replacing a low value aspect of higher education – the lecture.

    As someone who took Professor Onuf’s MOOC, I can definitely say that he’s made a positive contribution to our understanding of Jefferson by allowing many thousands of people who will never be able to visit Charlottesville let alone take courses there to hear the views of a man who has spent his lifetime thinking about Jefferson on some of the key questions of Jefferson’s life, such as how we reconcile the words in his Declaration with his ownership of slavery and the central role religion played in his world view (something I knew nothing about even having read a recent biography and was fascinated to learn).

    Let’s recognize MOOCs for what they are – an efficient way to transmit information from an expert to many thousands of people. Does this replace his courses on Jefferson? Of course not. But for those taking MOOCs it’s not either/or. It’s MOOC or nothing.

    I appreciate concerns about how MOOCs might be abused by universities. But as I’ve said before if all an academic brings to the classroom is the transmission of the material in her lectures, she doesn’t belong there. A few bad professors who merely lecture and do not foster classroom discussion, supervise writing, and interact in other ways with students might lose their jobs. The rest, however, have nothing to fear. They should in fact welcome the removal of the burden of delivering the same wrote lecture year after year so students can arrive in class fully prepared to discuss the lecture’s contents.

    Like the technology of the machine age, MOOCs are here to stay, and the faculties that have voted not to participate are the 21st century’s luddites. A good professor will take advantage of the technologies unavailable to her predecessors and use them to teach her students more than previously possible.

    • “The faculties that have voted not to participate are the 21st century’s luddites.” That’s a pretty sweeping and reductive dismissal of a wide range of perspectives.

      • To clarify, I really mean those who do so because they condemn the concept – of course there are many who won’t / can’t participate for legitimate reasons. I should have been clearer. I wish every professor could offer their own MOOC to overcome the many barriers we have to differing perspectives.

    • MOOCs are here to stay? I for one do not see MOOCs as being capable of delivering college credit education as of yet. Until they do that, MOOCs will only be a medium of information exchange that falls for short of what is required in an actual college course.

      One of the main problems these MOOCs face is the utter lack of student/teacher interaction. I spoke more on this on Mark Cheatum’s blog http://jacksonianamerica.com/2014/07/01/peter-onuf-on-moocs/#comments in depth.

      MOOCs may be here to stay, but they are not going to replace college credit courses.

      • “MOOCs may be here to stay, but they are not going to replace college credit courses.”

        I largely agree, but you should know that more and more colleges are actually using them on campus as part of their curriculum. They certainly fall short of what most colleges offer, no doubt, but the conclusion isn’t that they’re going away as a result. There’s a lot of room for improvement, and the fact that MOOCs aren’t a silver bullet doesn’t mean they won’t play an important role in dealing with the many challenges faced by students and colleges in providing affordable educations for more and more students.

        • I don’t know of a single college that is using MOOCs for college credit. I know a lot would love to, but no MOOC that I know of has been given the green light for college credit. They can serve as a portal for information transfer, but they do not serve as a conduit for student learning. There is a significant difference there.

          • I know several colleges that use the MOOC technology on line, although they’re not exactly the same product that is available to the public. You’d have to offer SOMETHING other than what EdX does to charge $ for it if they’re giving it away.

            I’m not sure how “student learning” isn’t related to “information transfer.” Lecturing to a classroom that could simply watch the lecture and come to class prepared to discuss the material and do a “deeper dive” is a broken model.

            • Student learning requires facilitation. Information transfer does not mean student learning occurs. Lecturing is still very useful, but has limits like all pedagogical models. Telling students to watch a lecture and come to class prepared to discuss it doesn’t work either. MOOCs do not use a discussion that is worth the name. Lecturing, videos, readings, textbooks, images, and any other teaching tool requires interaction and feedback. There is none of that with a MOOC. The information transfer often fails to occur. When that happens, the student learning does not happen.
              We keep coming back to the same problem over and over with MOOCs. They want to be cost effective and cut out labor (teacher). They fail because they don’t have the teacher interaction.

  2. Pingback: Peter Onuf on MOOCs |

  3. Excellent interview, thank you for conducting it! After completing the course a few months ago, I’ve been wondering for a while now how many other people finished the course. It would be interesting to know how the 2,000 who finished it out of the 17,000 who registered compares to other MOOCs taught by Jeremy Adelman, Philip Zelikow, and Stephanie McCurrie.

    Anyway, Dr. Onuf’s comments were very insightful and taking his course changed my opinion on the potential of MOOCs too. They can be very useful in many ways to the public, to the university itself, and the lecturer too. The course was excellent and thanks are due to Dr. Onuf, Jim, and the rest of the team for a very interesting and engaging course.

  4. Mark, I would have to think a benefit. Who gets locked out of elite university education? Note that Penn Mooc on slavery in the old south for an example of how people can learn about these issues even thought they’re no longer (or were never) at university.

  5. I think when talking about “MOOCs” we need to be clear about whether we are talking about the external learner-aimed MOOCs like “Age of Jefferson” and credit-earning MOOCs intended to replace classroom-based courses. It seems to me that the benefits and detriments are different for both types of MOOCs and conflating them may only serve to obscure the benefits and detriments specific to each.

    • Agreed (see comment below about these distinctions). I might even say that instead of non-credit earning history enthusiasts learning about Jefferson from, say, Bill O’Reilly (to take an extreme example), it would be highly preferable for them to be exposed to the work of someone like Onuf who they might otherwise not have the opportunity to read if they were looking for a book on Jefferson at Barnes and Noble.

      But credit earners using MOOCs – even those led by Onuf – seems problematic.

  6. Could some of us who have been involved with perfecting the transcripts for Founding Fathers Early Access, even though we don’t have official historian credentials, possibly also offer MOOCs though this venue on aspects of the documents we have taken a special interest in?

  7. Pingback: “And we can act like we come from out of this world and leave the real one far behind.” | More or Less Bunk

  8. Pingback: Mr. Jefferson’s MOOC. | Ari Kelman

  9. Pingback: The Week in Early American History « The Junto

  10. As someone who has not done a MOOC, how do the online discussions work? If there are 2,000 people going through this MOOC, are there TAs to moderate discussions, ask questions, etc? If not, how does the discussion component of a MOOC became anything more than an online comment section? If it’s for college credit, who determines if all these thousands of people should receive that credit?

    MOOCs seem like they’d be great for all sorts of people who are interested in history, but not seriously studying history, usually because they have busy lives with work and family and other responsibilities. They kind of people interested enough to buy from the history section at Barnes and Noble but who aren’t necessarily familiar with the academic historiography of Jeffersonian America. But to give the people engaged in any specialized study – the ones who may one day be creating the new knowledge about Jeffersonian America – the opportunity to rack up credit via MOOCs seems fairly disastrous.

    • Different courses operate differently, but sometimes the professor or a TA will post specific questions in discussion board threads. Others will be generated by students. Other courses make use of technologies such as Google Hangouts for those who are able to participate in real time.

      MOOCs are what you make of them. They are neither going to replace the traditional collegiate experience over night.

      But the fact that they are still around and proliferating (more in areas such as computers and tech than the humanities) should tell us that the traditional college experience, which is leaving students debt ridden and often jobless/underemployed, is troubled and needs to be rethought to a greater degree than acknowledged.


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