Today’s New York Times ran an enthusiastic story on the use of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) by Stanford. In addition to Stanford, both Berkeley and the University of Michigan are also currently offering MOOCs through Coursera. A step further than most of the free online content provided through iTunes U and other venues, MOOCs are geared specifically to online students. Courses occur over a set period of time, complete with readings, lectures, and tests, and forums are provided for student interaction and even for limited Q&As with instructors. Undoubtedly, MOOCs highlight the democratizing potential of the digitization of higher education. But their presence also raises two important questions:
(1) Do MOOCs mark a significant departure from earlier free higher educational content available online?
(2) Where—if anywhere—would the humanities figure in this wide world of MOOCs?
Curious to see the interface, I enrolled in “Model Thinking,” a course provided by the University of Michigan. While it is doubtless too early for me to fully address the nature of this online classroom, my first impression involves pleasant surprise at the level of organization and navigability (there’s a clear integration of syllabus, lecture videos, course readings, and tests) and an immediate association with that bastion of autodidacticism, Khan Academy. Of course, “Model Thinking” can offer both institutional validity and a higher-education focus, two aspects where Sal Khan’s labor of love falls short. However, the association does suggest that MOOCs may be less “classroom-like” than they initially appear; I have difficulty imagining the experience of navigating through an archived version of the course being substantively different from “taking” the course during the window of its actual offering. After all, with literally tens of thousands of students, how much “classroom feeling”—between student and instructor and between student and student—can you actually replicate?
While losing some of the “classroom feeling” may not be a great sacrifice for science and engineering courses that often already operate with huge class sizes, it would pose a greater problem to the humanities where, for lack of a better term, the “human” in humanities education matters in a much more integral way. Perhaps because of this problem, the majority of MOOCs offered are in science and engineering (with a heavy, and unsurprising, emphasis on computer science).
Still, the idea is intriguing: is there a way to democratize humanities education? Or do the simple facts of how humanities pedagogy functions—through discussion and essay writing—force it to operate largely within institutional confines that necessarily exclude a large percentage of potential students? To return to the Khan Academy example, the site’s recent alliance with SmartHistory, an online Art History textbook combined with short videotaped conversations about important works of art, wisely avoids the quiz-framework that dominates the rest of the site. The move seems to indicate that the creators of SmartHistory recognize that computer-gradable quizzes are a really crappy way of demonstrating meaningful knowledge of the humanities beyond simple factual knowledge.
It would seem, then, that the only way that humanities education could be meaningfully delivered to thousands (or tens of thousands of people) would be through the use of hundreds if not thousands of instructors. The logistical issues of organizing such a collaboration aside, would there even be enough (already underpaid) humanities faculty and grad students willing to volunteer their time to responding to papers written by students with whom they have no direct connection?