Blog Post

Married to the MOOC (Part 1)

(Note:   This is the first, slightly amended part of  a  paper I gave in the “Literature and Digital Pedagogies” session at the MLA (Modern Language Association) conference in Boston in January 2013.  The abstracts and overall description of the session can be found here.  Further installments will be added soon on my blog,

In the Fall of 2011, my husband Sebastian Thrun, then a professor of Computer Science at Stanford and a Google Fellow working on self-driving cars and Google Glass, decided to take his Artificial Intelligence class online.  Little did he know what sort of an avalanche he would kick loose, resulting in what the New York Times sensationally dubbed “The Year of the MOOC.” Sebastian sent a single email to a professional organization announcing that his colleague Peter Norvig and he would offer the AI class on the internet in parallel with Sebastian’s Stanford class, with the same materials, deadlines, and expectations but open to anyone, anywhere in the world, for free.  The virtual students were given the chance to  measure themselves against the Stanford students.  They would have to pass the same quizzes and exams.  They would receive not official credit, but a certificate of completion from Sebastian and Peter, two well-known experts in the field of AI.

Within just a few days, thousands of students signed upthe New York Times picked up the story and enrollment soared; within a few weeks, 160,000 students had signed up from all over the world: all ages, backgrounds, nationalities.

So all of a sudden, without much warning, I found myself married to the MOOC.

Sebastian and Peter recorded most of their lectures and quizzes at night in our basement, when our then four-year-old son was asleep upstairs.  The recording equipment included an ingenious low-tech set-up of an ordinary household camera mounted on a tower of wooden building blocks borrowed from our son’s play room.  But history was in the making: “AI class”  officially became the largest class ever taught up to that point, with students participating from almost every single country in the world.

Enter the frenzied press coverage of the past year.  It was hard to keep up with the headlines, interviews, stories, and op-eds.  There were weeks when Sebastian seemed to be interviewed almost simultaneously by WIRED, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the HuffPost, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and various bloggers.  Not a month seemed to go by without some national media announcement of a new venture capital investment or a new non-profit in higher education: MITx, Udacity (the company my husband co-founded with David Stavesn adn Mike Sokolsky), edX, Coursera, Udemy, Codecademy; the list goes on.  And of course, the original inspiration behind many of these—definitely behind Udacity—has been the success of Khan Academy in K-12 education, as summarized Sal Khan’s original TED talk (which has over 2 million hits on youtube by now).

All the media hype around MOOCs—the idea that they are a dangerous disruption to the higher education ideals in this country, that universities as we know them will be going down the drain, that the for-profit model sells out all true intellectual value–tends to drone out the really exciting, difficult, and important issues we should all be talking about.  These include students’ rights, equal access to higher education, new and smarter forms of digital pedagogy, global connectedness, the role of the humanities in all this, and also, of course, increasingly, academic labor issues, which are not to be underestimated.  As someone who has lived different career roles as graduate student, Assistant Professor, and Lecturer in the embattled Humanities (which come with their own darling doomsday scenarios), I am very supportive of faculty rights discussions, especially concerning adjunct labor.  But the students, our primary care and concern, the reason why we went into teaching in the first place, have yet to enter the conversations about MOOCs in full force, to speak themselves, to speak with us, to be heard, not be addressed as  mere numbers or recipient addenda to our conversations about money, scale, tactical problem-solving.

A quick word about MOOCs, since that word gets thrown around so much these days.  Udacity, Coursera, edX and so forth have dominated the talk about MOOCs this year, but most people still don’t know or acknowledge that MOOCs are actually not new.  The term was coined by Dave Cormier at University of Prince Edward Island in Canada in 2008, and the concept emerged out of the open educational resources movement and the connectivist movement.  George Siemens and Stephen Downes, also Canadians, first applied the term to a connectivist MOOC—or cMOOC (George Siemens’s coinage)- they taught in 2008; they based their work, in turn, on David Wiley’s work on openness and Alec Couros’ early open (2007-2010) courses at the University of Regina.  Bonnie Stewart, also of University of Prince Edward Island, has blogged eloquently about the mainstream media’s early erasure of that history and the main differences between the two pedagogical approaches, and she was gracious enough to share some of her insights with me in an email conversation.

To lay out the differences briefly, one might say that in cMOOCs, the network of participants largely generates the contents of the class or project in distributed fashion, that is on a common course platform as well as in a myriad of other digital venues, in real time, together.  By comparison, the courses that run on Udacity, EdX, Coursera, Udemy, etc., and which are now commonly called xMOOCs by people who know and care about this history, are comparatively closer to the traditional teacher-centric model of teaching, where predetermined content gets delivered through a specifically developed platform, or more often a taping of the physical classroom or prof’s office, and you see and hear talking heads (one or more).  Commonly now, you may also see a hand writing or drawing on a tablet with accompanying voiceover, as if a personal tutor is sitting next to you, explaining something one on one.  In the better xMOOCs, the lectures are short and stopped often for interactive quizzes, where you are prompted to practice and demonstrate what you have learned before the lecture moves on.  Lectures are rewindable and usually, you can try more than once and until you get it right: teaching to mastery, instead of instantly penalizing for errors and failure.

Most xMOOCs to date remain STEM-oriented, and specific skills or problem-solving strategies and knowledge are taught and assessed for correctness.  This approach is clearly a problem for the humanities though: in our kind of teaching, there are usually no “correct” answers; most often we aim to open up more questions than definitively answering one. There are prearranged quizzes and exams with real deadlines; this is often where a lot of participants fall off the bandwagon (attrition is a problem—under 10% of most sign-ups currently actually finish a course).  For a sense of community, there is some form of monitored and curated peer interaction, usually in discussion fora in which TAs and teachers are active together with participants answering questions. Sometimes, there are real-world study groups or meet-ups, often organized by the students themselves. Most recently, Udacity has also started taking their cameras into the real world and sometimes other countries, to illustrate and motivate mathematical, statistical, or other science problems in the real world, with real-world applications and everyday materials—and sometimes these have even included our son’s Legos, which mysteriously went missing one morning …

But as this illustrates and most of you probably know, MOOCs are still the domain of science and technology, with very few forays into the humanities, such as Al Filreis’s enjoyable Modern Poetry MOOC out of UPenn through Coursera, which I also took (but did not finish).

So back to our dinner table at home.  There are some of immediately obvious critiques and the pitfalls with this pedagogy from the literary and cultural humanities perspective:  the current MOOC tools and methods are still rather primitive and at least in the humanities, just don’t cut it yet. Assessment is a big obstacle right now: not only do multiple choice quizzes and 300-word uncurated peer-graded essays with primitive rubrics not cut it, they also don’t even capture what is possible and desirable to do digitally in the humanities, and they do not assess the interactive and multimedia work that goes on in blogs, on social media, in tools like Omeka or collaborative presentations or crowd-sourced annotated bibliographies, for instance.  And the MOOC technology doesn’t give us many tools to do what we do best, discuss and crowdsource interpretations of texts—and maybe those can’t even be scaled.  But much more importantly, for me, current MOOCs with their rigid structure and format of not allow traditional humanists to play with innovative forms of reading and writing digitally—both receptively and productively—that would really allow us to exploit the uniqueness of the digital media environment.  The challenges not just for digital technology, but also for digital pedagogy, are huge and daunting, and just starting to be explored.

All this MOOC talk got me, a traditionally trained humanities teacher with a PhD in English and a passion for teaching literature and feminist and queer studies seminars, very excited and intrigued.

So what could this mean for the traditional humanities teacher, someone like me—not someone trained in the Digital Humanities or even very versed in sophisticated online tools?   This past Fall, I set myself a challenge: I was going to figure out, in some small way, how digital pedagogy could work in the messy, real world, in a traditional humanities seminar, and I wasn’t going to be daunted or discouraged by the mega-MOOC or the fact that I’ve never taken a DH class in my life.  If the humanities are going to have a voice in this tidal wave of transformation, we better figure out some better, smarter ways to harness technology to our own ends—not someone else’s, and to get creative and bold, and hands on.  Of course, the Digital Humanities as a field is over 20 years old at this point and has developed a whole array of important areas and methods of study and teaching, but not too many have really infiltrated our traditional seminar format and the way most literature classes are taught.  But we need to think through creative opportunities and challenges of digital pedagogies fortraditional literature and language teaching as well, which is still the bulk of English and language departments’ courses, to explore the benefits and challenges of a hybrid format (a traditional classroom with some online components), and perhaps then also increasingly in MOOCs.

So this past Fall at Stanford, I decided to take my own traditional humanities seminar in Comparative Literature and French, “Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents,” partially online, to learn by doing.  I am a traditional humanities teacher (not a techie kind of person by any means), and really new to the whole digital pedagogy idea.  I didn’t even know how to use WordPress before I started (and now here I am blogging on it like a pro).  I wanted to practically try out, experience on the ground and step by step, not just plan and speculate, how an ordinary, traditionally trained humanities teacher like myself can use digital components and social media (Twitter, Facebook, maybe Tumblr and Storify, nothing overly complex) to teach ordinary, traditionally taught humanities students right here, right now.  The technology in this course needs to support and enhance the contents, not the other way around: no gimmicks for gimmicks’ sake.

What I wanted to do with my Stanford class was to really think about new ways of doing things digitally that would enhance what we already do well and value highly as our three pillars: close reading, critical thinking, critical writing.  I could not solve all three at once, so I started with the first, close reading, and just told myself I wanted to explore digital tools and design exercises with students that would harness the ways we can read, write, think, show and tell differently online: with sound and images, collaboratively or individually, in a playful creative or a scholarly analytical style, with variety, with simple tools, and open to new things.  I talked about my experiences and hopes at the beginning of that class in a recorded workshop at Duke University recently, kindly hosted by Professors Cathy Davidson and David Bell, the wonderful folks of HASTAC, the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge, and the John Hope Franklin Center for the Humanities.

You can look at our class blog at your own leisure–there’s a lot of material there, and it’s a shared space to which both the students and I have contributed, and I also have some of meta teaching reflections on this blog, right here.  In my next post (or one of my next posts), I will take you through three examples of group close reading exercises I did with that class, that represent the kind of work and play I’d love to do more of.

And another class I’m teaching right now, Introduction to Comparative Queer Literary Studies, also at Stanford and flying solo without a whole tech team or a VC-funded company behind me, is now live online as well and will grow exponentially in the next few weeks.  In that particular class–because of the subject matter and particular potential vulnerabilities of the students taking it (LGBTQ and straight)–I am facing a whole other set of challenges around ensuring students’ privacy and personal comfort zones while enabling our collective contribution to public knowledge about queer literature and theory: an important balancing act between utmost pedagogical care and the pitfalls of doing public intellectual (and for some, perhaps emotional) work.  I believe ours may be the first LGBTQ-themed college or university class that consciously reaches out to the public.  It is important work, and it’s a privilege and an honor to do it.  I’ll try to do a good job.  Students, too, I know.

I will be blogging more about the ongoing challenges and excitements of taking the traditional humanities online and getting ourselves involved in the conversations around MOOCs.  Stay tuned.

All of this is a work in progress, just like any good marriage.

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