Historians Respond to MOOCs: History a la MOOC, Version 2.0

Jeremy Adelman, February 2014

Last year I taught one of the world’s first history MOOCs to over 93,000 students globally and another 60 students at Princeton, and shared some early thoughts of that inaugural experience in Perspectives on History (March 2013). I have just completed a second go-­round, this time with 62,000 students outside and 50 inside Princeton. What have I learned going from version 1.0 to 2.0?

Planet MOOC has changed dramatically since my first excursion in early 2013. Once underpopulated, it now looks like the São Paulo skyline. On the Coursera platform, there are many, many more courses on offer, with an immense range of often­overlapping, many­branded courses—from learning how to play guitar to mathematical biostatistics. Remember: when I rolled out the first history course, there were only four university partners. There are now 108 partners and almost 600 courses. There is a tendency to study (if you can use that word) extensively, not intensively.

This has changed the learning ecology because students online are less engaged in the active learning components than they once were when there were fewer courses. The online forum discussions, where Russians spoke with Brazilians, Americans with Indians, were once a vibrant and exciting component, but they’ve lost their energy. Whereas I once feared the forums would be Babelian, with many different voices talking past each other, my fear now is silence. Version 2.0 was, as far as student interactivity is concerned, a shadow of version 1.0.

Second general impression: the vast majority of these courses now offer certificates of completion or accomplishment. When we rolled out version 1.0, Princeton’s decision not to offer any certificate was not unusual. Now it is. This means that students now respond to the incentive of an official recognition; not giving any official nod elicits less loyalty to the course. This may account for the decline in online interactivity; why engage if you’re not getting a certificate? Institutions like Princeton that opted out of the certificate business may have to rethink. This means dealing with branding, certification, and accreditation. I am not sure that one can any longer plausibly offer a course without having to contend with these issues. Once upon a time, I did. Times have already changed.

In one illuminating way, I did change the course from last year. The dominant motivation for this world history MOOC was to bring the world into the history of itself—­for Princeton students to engage in conversations with peers around the world and discover that the same episode or process can mean different things to different people. Last year, there was zero connection between Princeton students and those in the rest of the world, though both sides watched lectures in lockstep and had assignments that ran in parallel. My lesson: I failed to require that Princeton students produce content for the site to actively engage students from the rest of the world, and be assessed accordingly.

Over the summer I worked with a couple of graduate students to assemble primary document materials on which Princeton students would generate weekly blogs. No more essays. No more weekly discussions led by an instructor. Instead, the exercises focused on case studies and collaborative weekly blog entries curated by the students themselves. These eventually included video posts.

The idea was to evolve from flipping the classroom to flipping the course. The whole course unfolded within a space engineered to maximize reception and promote interactivity, both at Princeton and within the MOOC.

The experiment was mixed. The roles became inverted. Last year Princeton students shied away from the world, while Coursera students plunged into it. In version 2.0, the Princeton students were actively posting materials, visuals, text, hyperlinks to sources, and long (sometimes very long) blog entries. But Coursera students practically boycotted the blog sites. So the Princeton students had a blast and learned more history than they ever did from my traditional teaching methods. It was also a lot more fun to teach this way. But I doubt that more than 10 of the 62,000 Coursera students were even aware of the experiment—despite my exhortations to visit and comment on the Princeton student blogs.

What’s going on? Here are two hunches. The platform is designed to maximize scale and reception, not collaborative learning. Coursera students default into passive learning practices of watching lectures because there is not much space for them to team up in projects. Sure, they write fortnightly papers and read if they want to. The point is this: the online course replicates older conventions of teaching focused on the role of the lecturer, with textbooks and readings as backup.

Going digital is an opportunity to up­end that structure, and this is a basic cultural shift. Some of the assumptions about online courses have to focus less on the overrated “superprofessor” who is teaching and more on the student who is learning. This means imagining the digital space as one that allows students to interact with each other beyond the venerable “discussion section” script. Online students will have to shed their expectations about the sources of their learning, not just as a vertical transmission from the professor to the student, but also as a partnership between students themselves.

Personally, I found it challenging to translate this insight onto a digital platform that made the weekly lectures the dominant component of the course—possibly more prominent than “live” teaching. Version 3.0 will therefore focus on ways in which Princeton and online learners can team up to produce materials for everyone else in the course. This will be another stage in the experiment in global learning.

—Jeremy Adelman is the Walter Samuel III Professor of Spanish Civilization and Culture and director of the Council for International Teaching and Research at Princeton University. His most recent book is Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman.

Adelman’s reflections on his MOOC were not delivered at the annual meeting session due to travel delays. We are glad to present them here.