Sunday, March 17, 2013

Jeremy Adelman's MOOC

Jeremy Adelman explains why he decided to teach his Princeton world history course as a MOOC:
Two principal motivations shaped my interest in teaching a MOOC. The first was to challenge my Princeton students to consider how the rest of the world thinks about the world. An important feature of this survey is to invite students to understand that the very same process—in this case the different stages or forms of what we call globalization—can mean different things to different peoples and different regions. What better way to see how this works than to engage people from around the world in debates over the very lectures that Princeton students ingest?
The second goal was to "flip the classroom"—to prerecord my lectures (24 in all) so that I could focus pedagogical energies on interactive components of the course. Students could thereby watch the lectures at any time during the week at their convenience, in the library, in a café, in the shower. But I also set fixed weekly times for precepts—discussions of preselected readings—and "Global Dialogues," in which a guest would join me in a conversation with students. I served breakfast at 8:30 in the hallway outside the classroom; afterwards, we'd all go in and talk for 45 minutes about China and the world (with Benjamin Elman), Gandhi and Indian history (with Gyan Prakash), the Mediterranean (with Molly Greene and Anthony Grafton), Britain and the world (with Linda Colley), and so forth.
If I'm not much mistaken here, what he is saying is that, contrary to the vision of MOOC triumphalists, he did not see this as a way to provide outsiders with Princeton-quality education, but rather to enhance the quality of education for his Princeton charges, with the broadening of an aspect of the Princeton experience being a side benefit.

Seen in this light, the MOOC isn't so much about revolutionizing higher education, but about enhancing existing classroom experiences.  In my own job interviews, I used to say that technology could have a positive impact on education by reducing distances between the classroom and the world, as implied by Adelman's first point.  On Adelman's second point, he emphasizes "flipping the classroom."  As someone who has had most of my educational and teaching experience at various selectivity levels of liberal arts college and now at a public comprehensive university that has as its selling point small classes even at the gen ed level, I find that whole discussion amusing, since much of the college teaching I've been exposed to has been already "flipped."

In 2011, we all heard about the book Academically Adrift, which made waves for its findings that lots of students were not learning anything in college.  I did not read it myself, but those who looked into its actual data and wrote about it usually mentioned that the non-learning was concentrated in the first two years of higher education and among students whose classes involved large lectures and multiple choice tests.  Put that way, the findings did not surprise me.  I was also cynical about improvement, as lowering class sizes to turn those large lecture courses into "flipped" classrooms was not going to happen.

What Adelman's experience raises, however, is the point that such MOOCs could allow a re-allocation of faculty time.  The nightmarish case some have warned of is when there is a concentration of MOOCs into one or two per possible subject, which institutions then decide to accept as a sort of distance ed offering while using adjunct staffing for grading and discussions.  If, however, we are also able to decouple student seat time from faculty presence time, such that watching a lecture delivered as a podcast even by the professor of the course counts the same as if students had sat in a lecture hall with it, then we could consider deploying faculty to cultivate higher-impact learning experiences such as class discussions.  (I was once a teaching assistant for a course at the University of Wisconsin along these lines, though of course it was the teaching assistants there who ran the discussions while the professor just supervised.)

I'm brainstorming a bit here, and I should note I definitely have concerns about how MOOC fit the current higher education zeitgeist, in which plenty of powerful people look at the bad higher education outcomes and ask not how to improve them, but simply accept that they are low and ask how to therefore make education cheaper.  This, however, need not be the case.  A traditional college education will survive.  If you look at things actually being successfully built into higher education, such as study abroad and undergraduate research, then you see things that MOOCs can't do.  What matters, however, is whether we will simply deepen the divisions between those who have high-impact learning experiences and those don't, or whether we will leverage technology to make higher education better for everyone.



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