Forget about Hobby Lobby or the U.S. loss to Belgium in the World Cup. It looks like recently retired University of Virginia historian Peter Onuf has reopened the MOOC debate.
Here is the background:
Yesterday morning Michael Blaakman of The Junto published a post titled “‘Let a thousand MOOCs bloom’: An Interview with Peter Onuf.” Onuf recently completed a MOOC (“massive open online course”) for the online education company Coursera and the University of Virginia titled “The Age of Jefferson.” In the interview Onuf discusses his “dubious” feelings about teaching a MOOC, how his decision to teach the course was based on his “proprietary interest in Jefferson,” the struggle of translating the humanities to the MOOC format, and the need to teach graduate students to be better lecturers. In the end, Onuf encourages historians to embrace the MOOC.
It was only a few hours after the Onuf interview appeared that historians began to hit the blogosphere with reactions to it. First up was Mark Cheatham, the author of Jacksonian America blog. Cheathem offers several important critiques of the MOOC. I encourage you to read his entire post. It is filled with links that will get you up to speed on the way academic historians have been thinking about MOOCS over the past couple of years. Here is a taste:
That brings me to the second point about Onuf’s post. He alludes to the threat that MOOCs pose to future professors, including his own grad students. The reality is, MOOCs, as they are conceived by venture capitalists and administrators, are meant to be taught, not by junior faculty who have great performance skills, but by the faculty [Jonathan Rees] calls “superprofessors….”
Paul M. says
I agree with many of Cheathem's points, but I can't shake the feeling that at least part of his critique suffers from the confusion of what is best for (future) college professors and the general well-being of higher education. It's the kind of reasoning that you get whenever a new technology or mode of production disrupts an established industry. You get that sense especially strongly in this paragraph: “Add to those circumstances the very real threat to future academic employment posed by MOOCs as currently conceived, and it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to see them as anything other than a threat to higher education.”
Jimmy Dick says
I took this MOOC. While Peter Onuf's lectures were good, they were not close to being what he would deliver in one semester. This was not a course worth college credit nor could it be. The things we do as history teachers were not in this course. Also, the forums had no feedback from the staff.
Many of the people taking the course had MAs or doctorates. Those people do not require the same amount of supervision and instructor time that an undergrad requires. The bottom line is that this was just not a college level class.
If we use MOOCs to share information and to supplement class lectures I think they can work, but for replacing actual college courses they just fail. We already have problems with students being able to take online courses. The MOOCs are more difficult due to the complete lack of instructor supervision. The idea of saving money with these courses falls short when you realize that you would have to hire TAs to work with the students. Otherwise, the failure rate is going to be ridiculous.
Also, I work with the principles of teaching and learning. MOOCs do not use those principles. Community college students for the most part need supervision and assistance, especially when it comes to history because many of them struggled with the course in high school. Students need instructor interaction and MOOCs just do not provide it.
John Fea says
Great thoughts, Jimmy. I was unaware that these MOOCs were taken by so many folks with graduate degrees. They almost serve more as a kind of continuing education for teachers (like a Gilder-Lehrman seminar or a Teaching American History grant) than they do an actual college course.