2 Profs, 75,000 Students + 4 Ways to Make the Humanities MOOC Work


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When Dr. Al Filreis leads a small group of students through a nuanced interpretation of Emily Dickinson’s “I dwell in possibility,” he sits with them shoulder-to-shoulder, pen in hand, prompting one after the other to tease out the meaning of Dickinson’s words.

If you’ve ever asked your students to conduct close readings, perhaps there’s nothing all that unusual about this, but for one detail.

Filreis is not only teaching the seven who sit around the small table at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia, PA, but also 32,337 others who sit at their own tables all over the world.

As one of the first to teach a humanities-based MOOC some consider Filreis a pioneer in education.

He sees it differently.

“This is not anything earth-shatteringly new for me,” says the UPenn instructor of teaching Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo, for short) on Coursera. “The pedagogy is basically the same. The only difference is the medium and because this particular medium is very robust, I am teaching many times more students.”

He’s not unlike Dr. Eric Rabkin of the University of Michigan who started teaching Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World on Coursera in July.

It was important to Rabkin that, despite the online environment and an enrollment hovering around 40,000, he stay true to the pedagogical principles that have informed his teaching for the past four decades. So, he too, devised methods for making the course seem, somehow, personal.

And if you wonder if they’ve managed to pull it off, just ask their students. Both have received lots of positive feedback, including this comment from one of Filreis’s students:

I love to share my thoughts on ModPo, my emails, etc. For me, Coursera has provided the opportunity that I wasn’t able to achieve in my life due to being on the autistic spectrum […]. ModPo has been my favorite class so far because of the amount of involvement from my professor and TAs and the enthusiastic discussion going on from folks all over the globe…”

So, if you’re considering teaching a humanities MOOC, take the following pieces of advice based on the experience of two professors and their 75,000 or so students.

4 Ways to Make the Humanities MOOC Interactive + Personal

Don’t lecture.
Filreis changed the navigation bar within his course’s home page to read ‘video discussions’ instead of ‘lectures’ and each video captures a small group discussing and interpreting one poem.

“If you wind up lecturing and then encourage students to think for themselves, there will be a contradiction there,” he says. “You can’t use the Coursera model and take a step backwards pedagogically, back to the 19th century of the great master teaching behind the podium.”

Rabkin also advises against lecturing in the traditional sense. He likened the exercise of finding a starting and stopping point for each of his videos to writing a novel and deciding how to break up the chapters. Just as people don’t read a 400-page novel straight through, they aren’t going to sit down for an 80-minute lecture.

“You have to figure out what makes a perfectly good self-contained unit,” he says. “The [videos should never be] so short that people ignore them but also never so long that people get tired.”

Keep recording.
Even though Rabkin finished recording the core videos prior to the start of the course, he uploads a new one each week. The topics for the supplementary videos come from monitoring the discussion forums for signs of confusion or great interest to decide how he might contribute something additional to the conversation.

Doing this reminds students that he’s there alongside them as they dig into Stoker’s Dracula and Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Though this is different than walking around the physical classroom watching eyes and encouraging comments and questions, he says the underlying pedagogical principle remains the same.

Get social.
Nine days after the start of class there were already 217,340 views of comments and 11,436 individual posts in the ModPo discussion forum, and that’s just the conversation inside the course.

ModPo students are also active on Twitter and Facebook and Filreis himself tweets class updates and replies to questions and comments from the @ModPoPenn account that currently has 3,929 followers.

He says this engagement is important, especially in a humanities course.

“If you’re involved in the discussion, people will respond to the problem of having open-ended, multiple-meaning work,” says Filreis, whose TAs help him monitor the forums. “Reading an Emily Dickinson poem produces many different interpretations and there is no correct answer. People are willing to tolerate that if they feel like someone is with them.”

Get students involved in the grading.
Both professors have designed peer evaluation systems for their MOOCs.

Though computer grading might be efficient and useful for teaching certain kinds of skills, like a foreign language, Rabkin says it doesn’t work for his courses. “With humanities and writing-intensive kinds of things, […] even though there are loads of wrong things you can say, there are also loads of right things you can say. So you have to develop a system that allows for that kind of flexibility and variation.”

If you’ve taught (or taken) a humanities MOOC, what do you suggest for keeping students engaged?


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