A New Scale: Teaching History in a Massive, Open, Online Environment
Since their meteoric rise less than two years ago, massive open online courses (MOOCs) have become a central and controversial focus of teaching and learning in higher education. But while MOOC platforms such as Coursera, EdX, Udacity, and FutureLearn have offered thousands of courses over the past eighteen months, only a handful have come from the discipline of history. Our small team at the University of Pennsylvania recently joined that group with the release of our History of the Slave South. In this presentation we hope to shift the conversation from the hype of MOOCs and delve into the practice of teaching in a massive, open, and online environment. By focusing on teaching in this novel space, we want to open a dialogue about the unique challenges MOOCs in the humanities and social sciences pose and the potential MOOCs may hold for renewing interest in the practice of history.
Our course is led by Stephanie McCurry, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of History, and supported by Roberto Saba, a Ph.D. student in the Department of History, and Benjamin Wiggins, Penn’s Associate Director of Online Learning. Offered free of charge on the Coursera platform, the ten-week course opened in January of 2014 with over 15,000 students enrolled. The production of the course took nearly a year to complete and the finished product includes twenty video lecture series populated with hundreds of images, dozens of in-video quizzes, a highly structured discussion board, ten required discussion questions, five required essay assignments, and four required peer reflections.
At its core, the lecture-discussion-assignment-assessment structure of our course approximates the structure of teaching and learning in brick-and-mortar classrooms. However, the scale and distance of and incentives for our student body necessitate a reworking of each aspect of instruction. In our practicum, Stephanie will discuss how she crafted the lectures to address a diverse, global audience and visually engage her students. Roberto will discuss his work on structuring discussions and moderating tens of thousands of posts on the contentious topic of slavery. And Benjamin will discuss the difficulty of assessment and the course’s move away from MOOCs’ typical pseudo-expert peer grading system and move toward a learner-centered peer “reflection” process. The team will also comment on the course’s assignment design, which uses task-based learning to teach the topic of slavery through core activities of historical practice—the construction of data sets and analysis of quantitative information, the close textual reading of primary documents, and the assessment of memorializations of the past, among other skills.
Within the first week of the course, our MOOC opened a global conversation about the history of slavery with students sharing how the Trans-Atlantic slave trade impacted their region of the world. It showed us that massive, open learning could do things online that were difficult if not impossible in a traditional classroom. We now want to bring the conversation back to the history community to cut through the MOOC hype and work through the promise and pitfalls of MOOC teaching.