Thursday, May 30, 2013

MOOCs and the Liberal Arts

Nathan Heller's recent piece in The New Yorker about MOOCs at Harvard is fantastic. It's not as long as it could be (I rarely say that about New Yorker articles), but it at least introduces so many of the difficult questions that MOOCs raise about pedagogy, learning, and the purpose of college. One of the professors who is taking part in the Great Harvard MOOC Experiment is Gregory Nagy, retooling his Core (now GenEd) course on the ancient Greek hero. Nagy has revamped his hour lectures to much shorter ones, complete with video clips and animation. It sounds fantastic, and I remember, when I taught in the Core, how highly regarded Professor Nagy's course was. But even the most charismatic, experienced lecturer is still giving a lecture. It's been demonstrated, again and again, that students don't learn very much from lectures. Furthermore, as InsideHigherEd reports, a new study proves that students don't learn any more from a charismatic lecturer than a dud (though they think the more charismatic lecturer to be a more effective teacher). Beyond that, students apparently aren't motivated to show up for lectures. Heller quotes Harvard professor and former dean Harry Lewis as saying: 

Students, if all you're going to do is lecture at them, no longer see any reason to show up to be lectured at. 

If elite R1 institutions are the pioneers of MOOC-land, beginning to survey and map out terrain, small liberal arts colleges are mostly looking at maps of terra incognita (here be dragons). Wesleyan is one of the first SLACs to partner with Coursera; Maria Bustillos has an amazing piece in The Verge about her experience in "The Ancient Greeks," taught by Wesleyan professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak. She includes a conversation with Professor Szegedy-Maszak about the course. As with the HarvardX Greek hero MOOC, the lectures are apparently fantastic. But Bustillos is very clear that the MOOC demanded nothing of her as a student; it was one-way content coming at her. Without a way to interact meaningfully and in a sustained manner with other students and the professors, the course was like watching a really good documentary. Interestingly, the professor himself acknowledges this when considering how developing the MOOC will affect his other classes:

I'm supposed to teach the Greek history survey at Wesleyan this coming fall, and I think that what I will do is to incorporate the course lectures as part of the assignment, use them as a sort of introduction, and then I'll have more class time to engage the students in discussion of some of the interpretive problems, and issues of the sources, that otherwise I would have to skim by. Here, the class is 80 minutes twice a week; we were very strongly advised to keep the Coursera lectures between 12-20 minutes.

The classroom discussion (or "close colloquy," as the Amherst College mission statement puts it) emerges here, and in Heller's article, as centrally important to a liberal arts education. Heller writes:

I had adopted again the double consciousness of classroom students: the strange transaction of watching someone who watches back, the eagerness to emanate support. Something magical and fragile was happening here, in the room. I didn't want to be the guy to break the spell. 

As I've reflected back on the semester (and read my teaching evaluations), it seems to me that those moments of genuine shared conversation between students and faculty make an outsized impact on students. Modeling and fostering critical thinking, and showing students how rewarding and delightful it can be to have thoughtful, engaged intellectual conversations, is at the heart of what happens in the classroom. For example, one of the things I do as a teacher is draw attention to students' substitution of "I feel" when what they mean is "I think." This can be a difficult habit for them to break, but it gets us all thinking and talking about rhetorical strategies, the importance of vocabulary, and the many ways to approach a question or interpretation. I've heard, again and again, that this is one of the things that my students find thought-provoking and productive for their own conceptions of themselves as thinking (rather than feeling) beings. Likewise, the combination of reading, screening, discussion, and role-playing in my Medievalisms course got the students excited to learn from each other and also intellectually agile enough to make fascinating connections to all kinds of material. The final papers were imaginative, thoughtful, and analytical about everything from video games to "Kingdom of Heaven" to the potato.

Perhaps what MOOCs can do for the liberal arts curriculum is free us from the tyranny of content. If we can all accept that lectures are an imperfect way for students to learn (to learn either facts or skills), and that content itself is not as centrally important as it once was, then we might turn our attention in the classroom away from lecture and back toward close colloquy. 

*This whole post doesn't even get into the many fantastic articles and blog posts on the issues of market forces, labor, and economic motives for MOOCs. So I shall just say that you should all read Aaron Bady on market forces and MOOCs, Susan Amussen and Allyson Poska over at Historiann  on who benefits the most from MOOCs, and Kathleen Lowrey on the implications of MOOCs on labor practices and the pedagogical assumptions that MOOCs rest on.

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