In July of last year San Jose State University (SJSU) announced that it was suspending its use of MOOCs (massive open online courses) for credit because of unsatisfactory completion rates. This high profile failure—the agreement between Udacity and SJSU had been announced at a press conference in January 2013 that included California governor Jerry Brown—seemed to confirm fears about the use of MOOCs. Prior to this failure, MOOCs had been heralded by some as the answer to the rising costs of postsecondary education, and reviled by others as a threat to all they valued about teaching and learning. MOOCs became a convenient container for a variety of anxieties about the future of higher education.
Much of this hype has subsided, which makes this a good moment to review some of the ways in which historians have used and responded to MOOCs. The annual meeting panel, “How Should Historians Respond to MOOCs?” chaired by Elaine Carey, AHA vice president, Teaching Division, did just that. A collection of five pieces from panel participants in the February issue of Perspectives presents a broad range of views and some impassioned writing about the benefits and pitfalls.
Compared to other disciplines, historians have been slow to get involved in the teaching of MOOCs. Two who have—Philip Zelikow and Jeremy Adelman—both offer insights into the possibilities offered by creating and delivering courses to large-scale audiences via the web. Zelikow writes passionately about his personal satisfaction that the course “touched people’s lives” all over the world. More importantly, he writes, developing the online version of his world history course enabled him to rethink the classroom experience for his students at the University of Virginia. Both Zelikow and Adelman taught their courses in conjunction with more traditional versions, and the blending of MOOCs with the classroom experience was part of the pedagogical experiment in which they were engaged.
Ann Little and Jonathan Rees offer more cautious responses, and both focus on what is lost when classes are not taught in person and when huge class sizes mean that personal attention is impossible. As Rees points out, history is not a discipline that lends itself easily to MOOCification—“MOOCs require sacrifices in the name of efficiency and financial expediency that no credit-awarding university should tolerate.” For Little, MOOCs pose a threat to teaching “the latest, cutting-edge research and conversations happening in our profession.”
What becomes very apparent in reading this collection is that MOOCs encompass a broad range of practices. Courses using the technologies provided in platforms like Coursera and Udacity have a variety of purposes and aims, are taught in a range of formats, and have educational outcomes as various as the thousands of students who engage with them.
But whatever the future of MOOCs, it is incumbent upon us to remember that there are many other pedagogical innovations that the web allows. MOOCs are not the only (or even the most exciting) use of the technology. The web offers historians a vast array of tools and resources to enhance teaching and engage students. Like any technology, we need to understand its virtues and dangers and to ensure it is used to the benefit of our students.