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My modern experience teaching a MOOC

My Coursera course, “The Modern and the Postmodern”, might have been labelled “course least likely to become a MOOC”. In many ways, it is an old-fashioned ‘great books’ course, although I prefer to call it a ‘good-enough books’ course, and in the 20 years I've been teaching it, it has always relied heavily on student interaction in the classroom.

This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.

We've always started in the late 18th century, usually with Kant and Rousseau, and then wound our way through 200 years of mostly European intellectual history – Karl Marx, Gustave Flaubert and Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th century, Sigmund Freud, Virginia Woolf and Michel Foucault in the 20th. In recent years we've finished up with the philosophers Kwame Anthony Appiah, Judith Butler and Slavoj Zizek.

We are interested in what happens when the modern search for the ‘really real’ is replaced by the postmodern embrace of intensity and difference. We explore how modernist artists and writers have looked for a foundation that will ground their ideas and formal experimentation, while postmodernists have given up the search for a firm base.

Last summer my institution, Wesleyan University, where I am president, became the first liberal arts college to join Coursera. I'd been discussing online education with the faculty, students and board members, and I had a notion that we should start our own programme.

But after reading about Coursera's success in attracting large numbers of students to courses taught by talented professors at strong universities, it seemed to me that we should become a partner.

The Coursera folks wanted to know which classes we would offer, but at that point summer was half over, and I wasn't certain who among my colleagues would want to participate. I knew I could volunteer myself for starters, and so that's what I did. Eventually, professors from six different departments agreed to join me in offering courses.

An unlikely candidate

If "The Modern and the Postmodern" is an unlikely candidate for a MOOC, I was an equally unlikely candidate to teach one.

As a university president, I don't have as much time to devote to teaching as I would like, and taking on this additional assignment, with all its unknown variables, seemed to many in the administration as overly ambitious. Actually, some told me it was crazy.

In addition, I was no fan of the massive online classes I'd checked out. It seemed clear to me that whatever learning happened online via lectures, quizzes and peer-graded essays was very different from what I'd experienced in residential colleges.

I was intrigued, though, by the prospect of sharing my class with a large, international group of people who wanted to study. And I wondered if the experience would change the way I thought about teaching and learning. I certainly wasn't looking for ways to replace the campus experience, but I was open to expanding the framework within which to think about it.

Given the thousands of students who register for MOOCs, it is impossible for professors to give detailed feedback on individual assignments. How would students learn via recorded lectures, and how would I know what they were learning if they were grading each other?

Would there really be a ‘massive’ number of students who wanted to take a humanities class focused on literature, history and philosophy? Would I be able to teach effectively without the instant feedback I receive from students when I am talking with them in a classroom?

And how would teaching in the online format affect the way I teach on campus and the way Wesleyan prepares the coming generations of students?

I was surprised that almost 30,000 people enrolled in the course, but I also found the number intimidating. I was used to facing a room full of eager faces, and we usually came to enjoy one another's company as we studied together. Thirty thousand strangers I couldn't even see just scared me.

My ‘lectures’ in the campus classroom are almost totally improvised – I talk about a number of quotations from the assigned reading and respond to questions. I say dumb things all too often in the classroom, but we always find ways to move on. In an online class, some silly joke I make about Freud could go viral and become my epitaph.

The MOOC and its students

On our first day in early February, the website for "The Modern and the Postmodern" was eerily quiet. Finally, our tech-support person discovered that we had neglected to click something akin to a ‘Go Live’ button. We did that while I was driving my daughter home from high school.

When I checked the site after dinner, I was astonished at the level of activity. Study groups were forming based on language and geography. There were Spanish and Portuguese groups, study units forming in Bulgaria and Russia, Boston and India.

The geographic diversity was just the start of it. Some members of the class decided to begin a discussion board for older students, and many retired teachers joined in. Three couples were following the class together – all six had PhDs – and decided to write me questions about my definitions of the modern.

A postal carrier from the Midwest wondered why Rousseau and Marx "used so many words", while a graduate student in The Netherlands provided fabulous lists of secondary sources.

There were high school students who dreamed of college, older folks who came home from work and wanted to discuss poetry, and people from all over the world who just had a deep desire to continue to learn.

Many people have written about the extraordinarily high attrition rates in MOOCs. At Wesleyan we expect (almost) all of our students to complete their coursework on time, while most MOOCs have attrition rates of more than 90%.

But saying someone ‘failed to complete’ a free open online class is like saying someone ‘failed to complete’ The New Yorker in the week she received it. Most don't sign up for the class or the magazine for purposes of ‘completion’.

Half of those who enrol often don't even actively begin the class, while others will learn with the course rather than seek to finish it for purposes of a grade and certificate (although some do want that).

MOOCS don’t need to replicate the classroom

There are many access points for increasing one's understanding of the world and its history. Students use MOOCs differently than they use the classroom, and we should pay attention to that rather than think the online world fails to replicate a ‘really real’ classroom.

When I teach my course on campus next year, I want to give my undergraduates the benefits of what I've learned from the online version. This will be more than just using recorded lectures as homework. It will be integrating perspectives on things great thinkers have said – and things I've said – from an amazing range of people from across the globe.

The discussion forum for "The Modern and the Postmodern" has many threads. Some comment on the teaching (happily, they are very enthusiastic about the lectures), others on the grading (more than a few complaints about the peer evaluations), and still others offer lots of complementary material to add to our study – from songs to scholarly articles to cartoons.

One Courserian wrote about how much he enjoyed the class because it was a respite from taking care of his disabled parent. That sparked a conversation with several others in similar situations. Others talked of missing the excitement of being at a university, while still more talked about never having had that opportunity.

At Wesleyan we embrace the label ‘Diversity University’. My MOOC, which is nearly over, has impressed upon me aspects of difference and inclusion I don't often encounter on campus.

One discussion thread asked why Courserians feel the need to keep studying. A student from Singapore wrote about our class "igniting the fire for learning", while a Swiss graduate student enrolled with his mum so that they could discuss the material together. She's dropped out, but he says that he finds the camaraderie online to be a reminder of why he went to a university in the first place. Somehow, the graduate seminars he takes in Zurich don't live up to his expectations.

A student in south India says that decades after having completed formal schooling, "learning makes me feel alive". And a student who doesn't say where she's from simply writes: "Baudelaire has captured me. I love the living and the feeling and the participating in life's beauty and ugliness. I have taken to carrying Paris Spleen around town with me as I walk and bike."

Turns out the ‘massive’ part of these open courses is the least interesting thing about them. My students don't feel like a mass. It's the differences among them, and how they bridge those differences through social networks, that energise their MOOC experience and mine.

* Michael S Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent book is Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on living with the past. Columbia University Press, 2011.
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