Taking My First Massive Open Online Course in June

Harvard edXOver the past five years many universities and colleges around the world have been grappling with the possibilities and pitfalls of offering Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). These MOOCs are offered to anyone in the world who wants to take them, free of charge, and thinkers like the New York TimesThomas Friedman fawn over their potential to bring high-quality educational opportunites from institutions like Harvard and M.I.T. to millions of people. According to Friedman, MOOCs bring home the harsh reality that “we have to get beyond the current system of information and delivery — the professorial ‘sage on the stage’ and students taking notes, followed by a superficial assessment, to one in which students are asked and empowered to master more basic material online at their own pace, and the classroom becomes a place where the application of that knowledge can be honed through lab experiments and discussions with the professor.”

But not everyone is a fan of MOOCs. One of the more vocal critics of MOOCs is Colorado State University – Pueblo history professor Jonathan Rees, who has written articles against MOOCs in Slate, the American Association of University Professors, and his own website More or Less Bunk. Rees argues that MOOCs are harmful to students who rely primarily on pre-taped lectures and multiple-choice questions for the bulk of their educational experience and professors at community colleges and small colleges/universities who could potentially find themselves out of a job as budget-cutting administrators turn to the big elite universities to provide educational content to their students through these online courses. Rees asks, “How do you teach tens of thousands of people anything at once? You don’t. What you can do over the Internet this way is deliver information, but that’s not education. Education, as any real teacher will tell you, involves more than just transmitting facts. It means teaching students what to do with those facts, as well as the skills they need to go out and learn new information themselves.”

I also analyzed the debates surrounding MOOCs in an essay on this blog last year.

I have a little more time on my hands now that I’ve graduated from IUPUI with my master’s degree in history, therefore I’ve decided that the best way to learn more about MOOCs is to take one as a student. I signed up today to take a material culture course called “Tangible Things: Discovering History Through Artworks, Artifacts, Scientific Specimens, and the Stuff Around You,” which is being offered by “edX,” Harvard University’s MOOC program. The class is being co-taught by four professors, including Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, whose 1990 publication A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 won a Pulitzer Prize for history. We’ll be starting on Monday, June 2 and going for five weeks. I’ll be working towards earning an edX “Honor Code Certificate” that will be delivered to me via email in pdf format if I can manage my time well and the entire course. I have little idea what the purpose of earning a certificate will do for me personally or professionally, but I suppose it can help me tell a good story at some point in the future.

The “Tangible Things” course description includes the following:

People make history through the things they gather, create, collect, exhibit, exchange, throw away, or ignore. Over four centuries, Harvard University has amassed an astonishing array of tangible things—books and manuscripts, art works, scientific specimens, ethnographic artifacts, and historical relics of all sorts . . . By learning how and why such things got here, you will discover how material objects have shaped academic disciplines and reinforced or challenged boundaries between people. While this course will not draw on all of these items, it will highlight several to give students a sense of the power of learning through tangible things.

In the first section we will consider how a statue, a fish, and a gingham gown have contributed to Harvard’s history, and you will learn the importance of stopping to look at the things around you.

In the next section we will explore some of the ways people have brought things together into purposeful collections to preserve memory, promote commerce, and define culture.

Finally, we will consider ways of rearranging objects to create new ways of thinking about nature, time, and ordinary work.

Along the way you will discover new ways of looking at, organizing, and interpreting tangible things in your own environment.

The course sounds interesting and a lot of fun. It may even help in a professional capacity since there are historical artifacts at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site that I’ll be interpreting for visitors when I start working there next month. Equally significant in my choice to take this course is the chance to learn about the process by which the course is taught and the educational content delivered to me as an online student. Will there be room for thoughtful online discussion? Will I get a chance to contact these professors? Will there be any assignments or assessments that measure my intellectual growth during the class, and if so, how will these measurements be carried out?

These are important questions to ask, especially from a student’s standpoint. I’ve been following the MOOC conversation for more than a year now and too often the discussion is dominated by businesspeople interested in making a profit through the ed-tech industry and academic professors who seem to take perspectives that range from the optimism of Friedman to the pessimism of Rees. The views of businesspeople and professors–regardless of who you tend to agree with more–are definitely relevant in shaping how we view MOOCs, but I believe there needs to be more students who take MOOCs writing about their experiences in these classes. How might MOOCs benefit or hurt a student trying to develop marketable skills? Does a certificate of completion really do anything significant for a student from a professional standpoint? To what extent are MOOCs helping students better understand educational content as opposed to a traditional classroom lecture hall style of teaching? I’ll be thinking about these questions as I work my way through the course materials. I will admit that I am skeptical of MOOCs and definitely lean towards Rees’ pessimism, but my perspective may change after taking the course.

Have you ever taken a MOOC? What were your experiences like?


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