Global MIT reparations course takes open learning to new level

“Education benefits when people with diverse backgrounds and different personal experiences are drawn into the conversation.”

That’s the premise posited for what has been described as an “audacious educational experiment” to be offered by Massachusetts Institute of Technology anthropology Professor M Amah Edoh.

Edoh will invite the participation of activists and members of the global public in an undergraduate course on the topical – and highly contentious – issue of reparations for slavery and colonisation.

The course, the full title of which is ‘21A.S01 Reparations for Slavery and Colonisation: Contemporary movements for justice’, includes a series of video guest lectures delivered by seasoned activists from around the world who are and have been pressing specific claims for justice and reparations, with one group focusing on the effects of French colonialism in Algeria, and the other on Belgian rule in the Congo, Burundi and Rwanda.

Unusually, members of the public are invited to watch the guest lecture videos at the same time that students enrolled in the course view them. Questions and comments submitted online by users will then inform offline class discussions.

The goal, according to MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) Digital Publication Specialist Peter Chipman, who takes credit for this story’s opening statement, is to make open education “a two-way street” in which “the educational resources that emerge from classroom conversations at MIT are informed by the knowledge and experiences of people beyond the institute’s walls”.

The experiment

Chipman describes Edoh’s course format as a “first” for OCW. For 20 years, MIT’s OCW has been sharing content from some of the world’s top academics on its platform, openly and freely.

When Edoh first started teaching in the MIT School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, she saw in OCW an opportunity to participate in an exceptional and pioneering model of open learning.

But she also saw it as a chance to promote her work as a social scientist in the relatively tiny field of African studies at a top American institution largely known for its scientific and technological research. That sharing of content, she says, is now evolving, adopting a more experimental approach which takes open learning to a new level.

According to Edoh, the defining feature of the new class is “bringing the world into the classroom but also opening the classroom into the world” and the fact that this matters, not just as a novel pedagogical approach but also because of its subject: reparations and reparative justice.

“We are dealing with current issues of what I consider to be of great importance globally. It’s an exciting experiment because it allows us to learn both pedagogically and content-wise,” she says.

‘Coalescence’ of social and technological

The experiment, supported by MIT OCW, was born of a ‘coalescence’ of globally significant developments that included the protests that erupted following the murder of George Floyd in the United States in May last year, protests that Edoh believes brought the issue of reparative justice to global attention and gave it a sense of urgency that had not been seen on such a scale in the recent past.

Combined with this political moment, the global shift to online platforms such as Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 opened the door to new ways of teaching and engaging people working in the field of reparations across the globe.

“Having to teach online for a year brought with it real insight into the possibilities for hybrid approaches and the affordance of bringing people from around the world together … It seems crazy now to think that we weren’t really doing it in quite the same way before,” Edoh says.

“The idea for the content of the course came out of work I was doing in the wake of those protests with a colleague at the African Futures Action Lab at MIT.

“The idea was to connect activists, researchers and folks from different arenas who were dealing with questions of colonialism and slavery and their legacy, as well as racial justice, and recognised the political opportunity to advance these claims and-or at least make them much more visible.”

Edoh saw an opportunity to connect with those activists and to use academia as a space to reflect critically on the work being done on the ground concerning an issue of widespread concern.

However, in opening up the lectures to the broader public and inviting their responses, she takes that process further, bringing more voices – even those uninformed and-or prejudiced – into the classroom to discuss an issue of increasing general concern. It’s a brave step on many levels, not least of all because of the degree of trolling such an invitation may invite.

“Yes, the challenge essentially is how to deal with different publics,” she says, emphasising the experimental nature of the project.

“There are those participants who are informed, have some background knowledge and can jump in to the discussion in a particular way; there are others who are open-minded, curious and are there to learn new things … And there are others who are trolling.”

According to Edoh, all comments are to be subjected to MIT OCW’s standard moderation criteria (screening for abusive language, harassment, irrelevance, and so on) and only those questions or comments that have a legitimate bearing on the topic – including dissenting or hostile views – will be incorporated into the offline class discussions that will take place after the guest lecture.

Taking current issues into the real world

“Why are reparations even necessary? That’s a legitimate question,” says Edoh.

But just coming to terms or defining the concept of reparations is a challenge.

“The idea of reparations is broadening. Financial reparation is often limiting. Reparative justice is often less about the money than the process. Just establishing the historical fact of what happened and qualifying those events as a crime is 80% of the work … The importance of ‘making right’ the historical record can get lost if one automatically goes to the money.”

Edoh says the idea would be to use the experiment to develop more “connective tissue” for the course which might contribute to the incorporation of more background knowledge into the course for the broader public (those who would access the course through OCW) if that was seen as necessary to inform the discussion and to help more people get more out of it.

Is all the extra effort to bring in outside voices worth it? Edoh believes so.

“I get very irritated when knowledge production simply stays with academics when the questions they are talking about are absolutely relevant to what’s happening outside. And I know there are capacity issues – academics don’t always have the time to take the extra step of linking their research to current events – but I think we should be building that approach into our teaching.

“We need to find ways that we can learn from the world outside and bring it into our classroom, but also find pipelines for contributing what we are doing to conversations that are happening outside, especially if we are in a privileged institution.

“I think it is good for the academy to be reminded of the stakes of the work that we do, that it’s not simply an intellectual exercise. The course is a form of political engagement and this offers a way for us to take part in current issues in the real world.

“We are both in the classroom and the real world at the same time.”

* To view the guest lectures from Professor Edoh’s class, visit the course’s playlist on YouTube. Questions and comments will be incorporated into the offline discussions that happen in class. After each class discussion, a summary comment on each video will be pinned so users can see how their ideas informed the conversation. The videos will be available until 9 December.