Blog Post

How Can We Include the Humanities in Free, Open Online Courseware?

Not all open courseware is truly open.  Not all open courseware is good.  Some of it really does replicate the most boring and least effective (in terms of learning metrics) aspects of college teaching--the lecture class--in an even more boring format, the computer screen.  The one advantage, though, is you can at least watch at your convenience, while you are sorting files or jogging and you can put on the mute button if the prof is just too, too boring.   And some of the tests are so banal that all they do is record your retention, at test time, of the most basic content.  They don't inspire learning, motivate it, challenge it, force you to apply it, or do any of the things that turn "content" into "knowledge," and "subject matter" into true, engaged learning that you can manipuate, apply, revise, transform.   Some of it is also grossly exploitative of profs and students too, pretending to deliver "openness" but really delivering "on the cheap" education and labor.   So there are lots of potential downsides . . .


But . . . some online learning does all of the great things and supports all the great values implied above.  And at the same time it makes that engaged, community-based experiential, challenging learning available to anyone in the world, not the .01% who can afford elite colleges.  That potential is amazing and exciting. . . and often leaves out the humanities and interpretive social sciences, the subjects that are about engaging critically with material, thinking through unspoken assumptions, learning how to read the landscape below the surface of a text or a culture, and really grappling with major issues, including political and controversial ones.   These are necessary life skills and necessary workplace skills, as we know from virtually every workplace survey that shows "communication skills" and "interpersonal relationships" and "understanding of context" and "cultural skills" are very, very high on everyone's list of what makes a great colleague.  


The human sciences are dedicated to those modes of deep reading and persuasive communicating of interpretation and point of view.  But can they really be taught  on line?


We don't know.  But one thing I am hoping that the students in our new PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge do is try to figure this out.   I'm hoping to work with a small group of students in the Lab toward seeing if we can take a Symposium on Everyday Racism and Everyday Homophobia that we are hosting at Duke on November 8, and turn it into some kind of open courseware.  It will involve learning communities, hopefully as extended and full and rich and diverse as we can make them.  It will involve making not just thinking, doing not just reading.   It will involve interactive online features and also chat and peer grading and some kind of "certifying," if we can figure it all out.  And we will learn a ton even if we cannot, simply by explore the possibilities and thinking through the deep humanistic "why" questions of all of this.


Here's the url for the Symposium:


If you have a class that would be interested in being part of this experiment, or if you would be, let us know in the Comments section below.  Keep in mind the prospect for failure is high and we're building that in as part of the learning experience.   We'd love to open this up in some way.  What way?  We don't know yet.  That's what we have to figure out.  But let us know if you have examples for us to follow or are game enough to try to make them. 





Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, a 9000+ network committed to new modes of collaboration, research, learning, and institutional change.  Along with a steering committee of scholars across many fields, Davidson has been directing HASTAC's operations since 2006, when moved to Duke University, where she also co-directs the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge.   She is author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.   NOTE:  The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, [NYSI cover]



I ran across this site which cross-references 471 OTHER SITES of free books, and, while often quite odd books and even more often old, off copyright, etc., there's plenty there with which to create a "foundation" for humanities, particularly if you can link into NetFlix or any of several other online video sources. And the task for your class/Symposium is "to create it," not to perfect it.

My advice is to create a prototype, and ask others to create better - more "relevant" or more "applicable" - actual curriculum, using online sources (primarily), since there are plenty of books and films. Many short films online raise sometimes difficult issues of gay or racist nuance. You might check Billy's Dad, for one example. It's on about 200 websites as a free download, on six or more open cable networks, and was the opener for Sundance in 2004, but it still provoked firing credible staff and, I'm sure, a wave of gossip and backlash, even in progressive circles. The question of what, precisely, is provocative, and how to manage such provocations still eludes most high schools and colleges, and raises critical humanities issues.



Great suggetions.