I Seem to Remember that I Had a Life


The last eight months of my life have been dominated by creating and running a massively open online course (MOOC) on twentieth-century intellectual history. The course has ended, and I seem to remember that I had a life before all this started. I hope I can get back to it.

The course, one of the first humanities MOOCs, attracted 35,000 students, of whom about 8,000 actually did some of the work. That’s a common feature of MOOCs. My course was offered through EdX, a consortium started by MIT and Harvard. It’s a nonprofit committed to courses being free. So, a lot of people sign up on impulse, or just to explore.

The audience wasn’t what I had expected to encounter. Three-fourths of the students were from outside the United States. More than half already had bachelor’s degrees. Almost ten percent had PhDs or other doctoral level degrees.

The amount of work involved in putting this together was immense. I quickly learned that effectiveness in the classroom isn’t the same, at all, as effectiveness in a video format. A pause, a glance down, a look around—all those seem thoughtful in the classroom but incompetent on film. I couldn’t just lecture from PowerPoint (really, in my case, Keynote) slides or notes; I had to script everything. I didn’t realize that until filming had started. So, throughout the month of May, I stayed up writing scripts until 1 or 2 in the morning, woke up at 6 to go over the day’s scripts, got on the bus at 8, filmed from 9 to 1, and then worked on scripts for the next day. By the end of the month I was exhausted. The videos contain some stupid mistakes (like mistranslating Kampf, or mistaking Manet for Monet) as a result of performing on very little sleep.

Once filming ended, editing began. For five months, I collected images—about 5,000, overall—to be inserted into the videos. All had to be documented for copyright and permission purposes. I had a part-time undergraduate assistant to help. He was terrific. But I should have had one or two others as well. The video production team I worked with was fantastic.  I nicknamed the video editor “Little Miss Lightning” for her astounding speed and accuracy with Final Cut Pro. My student assistant worked on multiple choice quiz questions and discussion questions, which I then edited. Bottom line: producing this MOOC took months of really hard work from a team of talented people.

Actually running the MOOC was easier, though the discussion boards require and merit lots of attention, and we were plagued with software problems that inevitably accompany being one of the early courses on a new platform. Many students had little to say on the discussion boards, but, as one might expect from 35,000 people, some were terrific. Reading the top posts was like being in a very high-level seminar.

Some lessons I’ve learned from the experience:

1. Creating a MOOC is much harder than you think. Estimate the time it will take and the assistance you’ll need, and then multiply by three.

2. Starting just four months before the course is to begin doesn’t leave you enough time. Six months is a bare minimum. A year would be better.

3. Reducing a 50-minute lecture to an 8-15 minute video is possible. But it takes some time to learn how to do it.

4. MOOCs can communicate information very effectively. Performance on the quizzes after videos and readings was excellent.

5. Reducing 50 classroom minutes to a 10-minute video leaves out a lot. Some of it probably doesn’t matter. But two things probably do. (a) You can give students the bottom line, but you don’t really have time to explain how you got there. So, you can teach students what people thought, what happened, etc. But it’s much harder to teach them why they thought that, why that happened, etc. (b) You can’t explore alternative explanations, possible objections, and the like in any depth. So, the video presentations feel rather one-dimensional; the classroom experience feels many-dimensional.

6. The students are likely to be much better than you anticipate. Aim high. The video format is going to reduce the effective level of your teaching anyway. So, aim at college freshmen, as I did, and you’ll probably be producing something below the level of much of your audience.

7. Understand at the outset what you want to do with the course material, and keep good records from the beginning. We decided halfway through to produce videos that could, someday, be sold commercially, though that’s no part of the current plan. That meant identifying the images that were Creative Commons “share alike” and replacing them, which was a lot of extra work. Don’t expect Google Image search to do this for you. Specifying “able to use, share, or modify, even commercially” doesn’t screen out “share alike” images.

8. No one understands the business model underlying MOOCs. Right now MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, my university, and many others are offering MOOCs—which cost more than $100,000 each to produce—-for free, in effect as loss leaders or marketing devices. That’s worthwhile, from a marketing point of view—how much would a university pay otherwise to get a global audience to see their names beside MIT and Harvard under the heading, “Take great online courses from the world’s best universities”?—but it’s not a model that supports a full slate of course offerings. Someone is going to have to figure out how to make some money from doing this, even if it’s just enough to cover the costs of producing the course. I’m confident that it can be done, but no one sees clearly how to do it at this point.

Why am I confident, you ask? Suppose that a life of a course offered this way is five years. (Many are relatively timeless and might last much longer. But assume we want a five-year payback.) Most of the 35,000 who signed up for my course were gawkers who probably wouldn’t have registered if they had to pay even a small amount. So, let’s restrict attention to the roughly 8,000 who did some work. Over five years, that’s 40,000 people participating. The cost of my course was roughly $150,000. So, all the university would have to recover is about $4 per student to make the enterprise viable. Of course, there’s overhead and the time and effort of EdX to consider as well. But it seems likely that $10 per student would suffice. So, financial viability isn’t that far away.

9. The audience for MOOCs is global, which means that there’s great demand for courses with a global content. Mine, designed for students at my university, was too U.S.-centric. That three-fourths of my students would be from outside the United States, and thousands would be from India alone, came as a surprise to me. MOOCs should be designed with that in mind from the beginning.

10. You can assign papers, many of which will be good, and about 5-10% of which will be fantastic, better than anything you’re likely to see from an American college student. Grading hundreds or thousands of papers presents serious challenges, however. And lots of students who participate in discussions and quizzes won’t do them, so assigning papers drastically cuts your completion rate.

I decided that we would be guinea pigs, testing out a new AI grading tool. In the end I had to grade about 500 papers, and the tool graded the rest. We’re researching how it did. The concept is intriguing; the tool is a PDP system, a connectionist network that learns from the papers I grade (on a rubric I designed) and then tries to mimic me. It’s too early to evaluate the results, but initial data are encouraging.

The student reactions to the MOOC have been interesting, and much more varied than those of my in-class students. Overwhelmingly, students have been appreciative and grateful. But there are dissenting voices. I have, as you might expect, a conservative take on twentieth-century intellectual history, and some students—especially European students—find it objectionable. ‘Aghast’ is the word that some of them use to describe their reactions to my praise of Margaret Thatcher, for example. One student was a Stalinist who insisted that my lecture on Stalin was filled with anti-Soviet propaganda. How dare I allege that Stalin had people killed? In a country as large as the U.S.S.R., he pointed out, of course a lot of people die!

I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to do this course. I’m grateful that I teach where I do, and not in Europe. Finally, I’m grateful it’s over!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s