MOOCs and Historical Research

John McNeill, March 2013

At first glance one might imagine that the challenges presented by massive open online courses (MOOCs) have everything to do with teaching and nothing to do with historical research. Jeremy Adelman, writing in this same issue of Perspectives, discusses some of these challenges as he describes his experiment combining a Princeton University classroom with a global one, offered to students everywhere, via his world history MOOC. As Adelman shows, much remains to be seen about the viability of history MOOCs, but for the sake of speculative argument suppose that MOOCs are indeed the next big thing, for history as well as for other subjects. Suppose they succeed far beyond the scale of earlier dreams of distance education such as correspondence courses and public TV. What might that mean for historical research?

Here I will offer two rival visions, one grim and one cheerful. I am sure neither one will correspond closely with what eventually will come to pass (I cannot accurately predict the future even of subjects about which I am comparatively well informed). When it comes to MOOCs, my only qualifications are having read a lot of recent journalism on the subject and having taken part in meetings on my own campus intended to fashion a MOOC strategy suitable for Georgetown. None of the articles I saw or the discussions in which I took part focused on the implications of MOOCs for historians. It is very early days still in the world of MOOCs and in truth, as the novelist William Golding wrote about Hollywood, nobody knows anything. Yet.

If MOOCs send a gale of creative destruction through academia, it will affect some fields more than it will history. If the gales are confined to history, they will buffet some historians more than others. Perhaps historians working for museums, government agencies, and think tanks will find their opportunities for research unaffected. In any case, the rival visions sketched here apply only to the historians toiling in the ivory tower.

First, a dystopian vision: If history MOOCs catch on, fewer academic historians will be working at research and indeed working at all. Most historical research at present is done by academics whose primary responsibility is teaching. If successful teaching can be delivered via MOOCs, then why should thousands of colleges and universities across the land (and for that matter, around the world) employ historians to teach and to do research?

If a good MOOC on the American Revolution is available for free or for a good price, no cost-conscious dean, provost, or state legislature will want to employ a specialist in the American Revolution to teach such a course. One or two MOOC stars can generate courses that every student can take. If those MOOCs require a bit of discussion, so that students if they wish can inquire what freedom meant to Virginian slaveholders in the 1770s, the equivalent of lab assistants will be hired at affordable costs. Students can ask their questions online and expect dozens of responses from fellow students around the world, moderated, if necessary, by a MOOC assistant who knows a something about the subject.

Only those institutions whose specialist in the American Revolution is a MOOC star need employ one. The MOOC market, like televangelism and professional athletic endorsements, will be a winner-take-all market, in which a few star performers rake in almost all the business. So whoever has the most successful MOOC on the American Revolution will likely be well paid, especially if universities can make money selling MOOC tuition, certificates, or degrees—and no one else need be paid at all. This will save colleges and universities vast sums that can allow lower tuition or be shifted to football coaches or medical research. Or to paying their own MOOC stars in other fields, at institutions lucky enough to have one.

So, in this dystopian vision, instead of employing hundreds of people to teach courses in the American Revolution, of whom many also do research in that area, the higher education industry will employ only two or four MOOC stars. They might even have more time for research, although they may feel that their time is better spent refining their MOOC to stay one step ahead of the competition. In any case, the number of people researching the American Revolution, and the variety of approaches brought to the subject, will plummet.

Enlightened deans and provosts will recognize that this is unfortunate, but will console themselves with the thought that you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs, that the value of teaching large numbers of students at almost no monetary cost justifies the near disappearance of research on the American Revolution. Most will feel differently about medical or engineering research that promises to better the human condition or bring in revenue, and, recognizing that research fields come and go, will not worry for long if the American Revolution, or indeed history in general, is among those that go.

Next, a utopian vision: If history MOOCs work, far more historians will have more time for research. A boom in historical research and debate will follow. At present, most academic historians spend most of their working hours, and in many cases most of their waking hours, engaged in routine (if sometimes agreeable) tasks. They prepare lectures or discussion sections. Sometimes they give the same lecture more than once in the same day or week, and they often lead small-group discussions on the same topic several times a week. They grade student tests and papers. Much time might be saved if they instead convert their courses into MOOCs.

At first this will take even more time—some veterans of the process say preparing a MOOC takes 12 times as many hours as preparing a conventional course. But once it is done, it is done. If machine-graded multiple choice tests and peer-grading of other assignments take the place of the labor-intensive marking so many history professors do, everyone will be liberated. There will be more time for one-on-one discussions with the most motivated students, but also more time for research.

For those who don't make their own MOOCs, but rely on the products of others, they need never prepare another lecture. Or they might give their own lecture from time to time to supplement the MOOC. Either way they will have more time than ever before, even after helping their students get the most out of the MOOC. Today hundreds of historians teach the American Revolution but scarcely do any research on anything because their harried lives—chock full of class prep and grading—do not permit it. With MOOCs, their routine burdens will be lightened and their opportunity to research, write, and publish will expand in proportion. MOOCs will not only allow the very best teachers to reach hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of students around the world at almost no cost, but will free up gazillions of professor-hours that could go into research.

More researchers, more diversity of viewpoints, more time to think deeply and to take part in scholarly debates—what's not to like? Enlightened deans and provosts will recognize the enhanced vivacity of scholarly debate in history and do all they can to see that their faculty has full opportunity to get involved. Moreover, if history MOOCs work and students enjoy them, deans and provosts will need more historians around to handle the student interest and perhaps, with luck, to become MOOC stars.

In all likelihood, neither the dystopian nor the utopian vision for historians and historical research will come to pass. But something will, and it probably will change the conditions under which historical research in the academy takes place. Thus MOOCs and their implications should be of interest to all of us who either are researchers ourselves or learn from others' historical research–and that means just about every historian alive.

John McNeill is university professor and professor of history at Georgetown University and the AHA's vice president, Research Division. His most recent book is Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620–1914.