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Historians Respond to MOOCs: Can Teaching Be Taken “to Scale”?

Ann M. Little, February 2014

When I offered my comments on MOOCs at the AHA’s annual meeting in Washington, DC, one member of the audience suggested that those of us who are not sold either on the “disruptive” nature of MOOCs or their alleged superiority to human-­scaled courses were “reactionary.” Shockingly, I agree with him. To take a page from William F. Buckley, the role of history departments in university politics is to “[stand] athwart history, yelling Stop.”1 History is a conservative discipline. As a witty friend of mine said at the meeting, “We merely study change; we don’t recommend it.” While usually I rail against the historical profession’s conservative DNA, at times I see the uses of its fealty to tradition and especially its resistance to technologies that haven’t proved their usefulness. Confronting the challenge of MOOCs is one of those times.

History MOOCs have not proved their usefulness in educating students like mine at a large state university, many of whom are first-generation college students, and most of whom need to learn not just the facts of US History to 1865, or World History 1500 to the Present, but how to learn in college. I’ll confine my comments here to two of the big problems I see with the potential MOOCification of American universities. First, MOOCs obscure the real work of teaching in ways that undermine us all professionally. Second, MOOCs can’t teach difficult or controversial subject matter as well as professors or teachers working on a human scale. Finally, I’ll conclude by comparing a new MOOC that Coursera will debut this spring to its face­to-face counterpart to illustrate the gap between MOOCs and face-to-face teaching.

Professors at underfunded state universities like mine have assumed a defensive crouch over the past few decades. The political attacks on “tenured radicals” were clearly meant to soften us up for the budgetary attacks that have hollowed out our cores and created a casualized faculty majority. Many people in my state actually think that we work only the six, nine, or twelve hours a week we spend in front of a class. It’s bad enough when we hear this from politicians or other self-­interested commentators, but sometimes we hear it even from people who should know better, like the provost at Colorado State University-Pueblo, who rhetorically asked his faculty last summer, “In what other job can you get away with working only three days a week?” In the face of this kind of attack on our profession, we need to explain what exactly it is we do, and why this ongoing work is important.2

Because MOOCs rely heavily on recorded lectures delivered by “superprofessors,” they feed the lie that reduces teaching to lecturing, and the misapprehension that we are indifferent to our audience, caring nothing about their comprehension, confusion, or questions. Recording professors’ lectures and creating attractive promotional videos is what MOOCs have focused on, but this captures only one element of teaching. Real learning doesn’t happen only during a lecture or even necessarily in the presence of a professor. A great deal of our students’ learning (in human-­scaled classes) happens on their own time and inside their own minds as they work through the reading and writing assignments. Because my undergraduate classes usually have no more than 30 or 35 students in them, I can hold them accountable for that out­of­class work by learning their names, answering their questions during lectures and discussions, responding to their e­mails, commenting on and grading their written work, and being available during office hours and outside of class to help them.

This—not lecturing—is the real work of teaching, and unless or until MOOC vendors can figure out a way to give superprofessors superhuman endurance or to stretch time into superlong workdays whereby they might stay in contact with all of their students and hold them accountable, MOOCs won’t transform anything in higher education—at least, not in a good way. Most people can figure out how to deliver an effective lecture. But the much more challenging and time-­consuming part of our jobs involves the planning, thinking, reading, grading, commenting, consulting, supporting, and advising that we do outside of class. All of this is central to effective teaching, but it can be done only on a human scale, not a “massive” one.

A second concern I have about MOOCs is their lack of diverse subject matter. While MOOC promoters have offered an utterly reasonable critique of large introductory courses at big universities as impersonal, textbook-­driven, and regurgitory in their assessment requirements, MOOCs themselves appear to replicate all of the disadvantages of the large intro course and offer nothing innovative in return that wasn’t available in VHS or DVD versions of the “greatest courses of all time.” The demands of the MOOC—particularly its massiveness—work against introducing students to the latest, cutting-­edge research and conversations happening in our profession because MOOC professors will be asked to offer only the broadest and most inoffensive courses out of fear that courses on certain subjects—­slavery or genocide; gender and sexual minorities; nonwhite people in general—won’t sell.

These are also the kinds of courses that are the most difficult to teach, even on a face-­to-­face scale, because of the various political views and life experiences of our students. As someone who teaches courses on women’s history, gender, and the history of sexuality, I have serious doubts about how much breadth and complexity MOOC history courses can offer. In my classes, which feature some of the most shocking, depressing, and unsettling subject matter in my department’s curriculum, students frequently need to talk about (or at least hear other students talk about) the reading material I’ve assigned. A number of the readings—especially those having to do with sexual assault or sexual identity issues—bring up complex and difficult feelings in my students, and typically many of them need to talk about this with me or with the class. In order for these issues to be engaged intellectually, there must be a level of trust and good faith between the professor and her students, and ideally, among the students themselves. MOOC superprofessors don’t know their audience, and MOOC subscribers experience their superprofessors merely as flickering images on their computer monitors or mobile devices.

Would MOOC students actually read articles or books that focused on the victims of warfare, disease, or rape if they were assigned? Would the students be angry that the reading material didn’t merely reflect the point of view of the generals or victors in the contest for continental or global domination? Would they just skip any readings that offer anything but the reassuring Whig narrative of progress, liberty, and justice for all? Or would the professors of these courses never consider assigning readings deemed too challenging or painful? If a MOOC in women’s history or the history of sexuality were offered, would the material polarize the students, turning online discussions into typical Internet shout­fests featuring the Deluded Sinners versus the Intolerant Bigots, or the Feminazis versus the Mansplainers?

Stephanie McCurry’s History of the Slave South, offered this semester through Coursera, would appear to challenge my contention that MOOCs can offer only blandly traditional courses. According to the course website, there are no required peer­reviewed assessments or group projects, and no specific information about how any other assessment might be offered or how students might be held accountable in order to get their free certificate of completion. The course requires no secondary source readings, assigning only primary sources in the public domain and available free of charge online. Participation in online discussions is required, but it’s unclear how those are structured and who might be monitoring them.3 I am curious to see how those discussions go: how will the students handle the shocking, sexualized violence and virulent racism that structured all Anglo­American slave societies? Will the students be capable of carrying on vigorous debates about the historical material, or will the challenging nature of some of the readings—if any students actually do the readings—and some of McCurry’s lectures polarize the class and shut down any meaningful exchanges?

McCurry’s MOOC appears to be fairly rigorous, for a MOOC, but it pales in comparison to the righteously challenging syllabus for her face-­to-­face History 170 course, The American South: Rise and Fall of the Slave South, 1609–1865. In the spring of 2013, McCurry required her students to read six books (including two monographs and four book-­length primary sources or source collections) and a substantial number of shorter primary and secondary sources. McCurry’s students at Penn must attend and participate in weekly recitation sections, and submit midterm and final exams and an 8- to 10-page paper.4 Even in a large lecture course (and with the assistance of an army of TAs), I don’t think there’s any question that the face­to­face course at Penn is a more rigorous and therefore a much more effective class than the Coursera version. That’s because real education takes real commitment, real skin in the game, from both the professor and her students. And that includes time, money, books, and assignments that get real feedback and advice from the professor (or at least her TAs).

This is not a knock on McCurry or anyone else involved in producing MOOCs. It’s merely a statement that MOOCs are in no way comparable to the face­to­face, human-­scaled courses we not­so­super professors teach every semester. Those of us who teach at nonelite institutions and who work with students who need our support and guidance must consider this as we contemplate the role of MOOCs in our profession.

—Ann M. Little is associate professor of history at Colorado State University; she blogs at Historiann.com.

Notes

1.William F. Buckley Jr., “Our Mission Statement” (November 19, 1955), accessed January 7, 2014, .

2. Jonathan Rees, More or Less Bunk (blog; December 26, 2013), accessed December 30, 2013.

3. History of the Slave South (course description), accessed 12/30/13.

4. Regional and Topical Surveys: HIST 170: The American South: Rise and Fall of the Slave South, 1609–­1865 (course description), accessed 12/30/13.