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How To Teach an Online Public Course on The History and Future of Higher Education

How To Teach an Online Public Course on The History and Future of Higher Education

I'm a finalist for teaching a Coursera MOOC next year on "The History and Future of Higher Education."  Naturally, I am doing this because I want to improve the future of higher education and add as much innovation as possible.  I'm interested in ways that an online  course with a relatively static form could become a platform for innovation.    And I will use this site as a testbed for analysis of the teaching and learning as it is happening and as a place of reflection on the process and possibilities.


Currently, behavioral economist Dan Ariely and I have been coteaching a course in which we are the students, our students work in groups to create the syllabus, the assignments, to assure that student work meets its contractual obligations, and then to interview Dan and me and edit the video and post that to our website and then they remix that content into the most exciting, interactive exercises for learning they can come up with.   In my Coursera MOOC, we'll be using the methods, examples, and materials these undergraduate students came up with as the basis for "the future" of higher education.   You can read about that course here:    This summer we will remix this course and make it more public and outward facing. 


I also want to play with the form of peer grading, turning that into an interactive learning by doing exericise, even within the confines of a MOOC.   Here's an idea I have for a writing assignment.   I'd love to hear other possible ideas.   If Coursera accepts the course, it will run next Spring.   Students in our PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge will help me to create the course so they will be learning new techniques (pro and con) from this online course experience.  


Here's how I'm thinking of structuring the writing assignments so that there is maximum real-time formative feedback for both the writer and the peer-grader.


Writing assignment


This will be a peer-graded writing assignment, beyond the multiple choice format, where learners enrolled in the course will contribute and test ideas about pedagogy that will also help others to learn and test and give feedback on how new methods work or do not work in specific situations.  The point is to turn assessment into an opportunity for a learning-sharing and co-teaching process.   

Peer grading is peer learning.  


1) Theory--begin by defining the theoretical area into which you are hoping to make an intervention, the learning area, goal, mission, content, structure, or assessment.  Focus on values and purpose and make a reference to a historical or theoretical point discussed in class.

2)  Research--what learning research can you find that supports the theory?  Supply a citation and annotate the citation.   Make a connection between this research and the theoretical point you've defined.  

3) Example--translate that research and theory into a practical improvement you could make in a classroom tomorrow.  Be as explicit as possible and propose a way of translating the big idea and research into a practical learning application that you can try and test (if you are a teacher or in a learning situation).


4) Bonus points--try it out in the classroom or informal learning situation.   Report back on what you did, how it went, what feedback you received from the learners.

5) Improve:  Using this feedback, how would you change it, improve it?

6) Conclusion:  how does this instance of pedagogical change make an impact on the system of higher education and contribute to the future of higher education?   What larger institutional issues does it contest or challenge?  What institutional changes would it facilitate or promote?

Peer Grading Instructions:  The idea is to give real-time assessment to someone’s thinking

1) Evaluate the theory for coherence, logic, innovation

2) Assess the research for bibliographic form and accurac and evaluate the annotation for usefulness and concise sharing of information

3) Make at least one suggestion that will help your co-learner extend his or her idea to a new assignment, a new way of thinking about teaching, or a new mode of learning.  

4) Comment on how this idea helps to change the future of learning

5) Bonus points:  Try out the idea in your class.   Report back on how it goes.  



If you're not sure, visit and see if it lets you take the survey again (it tracks by IP address and doesn't allow repeats). We're keeping it open until March 31 so there are a few more days for everyone to weigh in.

If you have other specific suggestions of how things can be improved, we'd love to hear them at, as Cathy mentioned.

And as we are about embark on a major redevopment of the site, there will be many more opportunities for input in the coming year.


While I have serious doubts about the Coursera software (it's a really terrible environment for interacting with large numbers of people; perhaps it will improve when they expand the profiles and allow people to friend and follow each other, as promised), I would really like for your course to be a success! This assignment sounds great, and it has some overlap with a 2-part assignment that was used in the Designing a New Learning Environment MOOC from Stanford (taught by Paul Kim).

In that course, we had a 2-part assignment about "Defining an Educational Challenge" (most people wrote up an educational challenge that was relevant to their own work environment, and since it was a very international class, the varieties of educational challenges were enormous, covering a huge range of institutions, settings, learning goals, etc.) - we then had peer feedback on the challenges themselves, evaluating the effectiveness with which people defined the challenge that they faced (and a handy little rubric for doing that, a simple square with 4 squares to fill in, very loosely defined - I forget the exact categories but basically about "what was most clear" and "what was not clear" and "more things I would like to know" and "ideas that I have in response" - something like that). We each read three or four challenges (can't remember how many were required; we could read more if we wanted) and wrote up our feedback.

THEN, in a follow-up assignment, we had to pick another person's challenge - it could be one that we read, or a challenge we had not done peer feedback for - and provide a substantive response to that challenge, which consisted of a longer and more detailed proposal for a strategy in response to that challenge.

I really enjoyed this process - for me, this pair of assignments was actually the best part of the class. So, I thought I would mention it here in case you want to expand on your idea and make it more of a two-parter also. In the peer feedback you propose, people will be giving a brief response about extending/improving the idea ... but a really cool SEPARATE writing assignment could be something like a "combo project" where you choose a pedagogical intervention that someone in class wrote about and then you extend it - either by combining it with an idea of your own, applying it to a different setting, extending it with a new kind of technology, etc. - writing that up more in detail than in a typical peer feedback assignment.

The Venture Lab software used for the DNLE course was able to support this type of assignment because very participant had a course journal/blog (sadly, not true at Coursera), and by default our assignments were auto-published to our blogs, which then gave a great platform for extended interaction, above and beyond the peer feedback (in the Coursera course I did, a truly dreadful experience BTW, all the peer feedback was anonymous, so no ongoing conversations were even possible if people had wanted to pursue that). So I am not sure you could even make a sustained, engage, two-part assignment work in Coursera. But I wanted to at least mention the possibility.

As someone dismayed by the awful Coursera software, I really hope that you can make a positive difference in helping them to improve it!


No, not about the history of assessment but the notion did send me a-Googling. Besides, there is a history of higher education should include something about the history of assessment. Work that into assessment orientation. I'd blog about it, reflecting on my personal understanding and experience of assessment... and its limitations.

Less than comprehensive or in depth but a start,

Include global perspectives in history. Although higher education is more global and interconnected than ever, even many academics are less than well informed. 



Hi Vanessa and Laura, Yes, testing the software is one of my intentions.  Also, I despise critique without participation.   So before I can say whether I think a MOOC is the savior or the devil (or, like most things, in between), I want to actually do one and see what I can learn frm the form, by pushing the form, or by giving up and in to a form that is not resilient enough for real teaching but which, from our input, may be more so in the future.  So win-win on all sides.


I've done quite a lot of research on the history and future of assessment and that will be a big part of the class, including using the class I'm teaching this term as the "textbook" for the Coursera "future" part of the course.  This year's course is Surprise Endings  #DukeSurprise @dukesurprise @surprise endings) where my students set the syllabus, evaluate one another, think about real time formative evaluation, and then turn the content into a public online course.     Here's our course site:    (very clunky---all the blogs are by date, in the "schedule" section):


And a slightly less clunky public remix:


And at the end, we'll redo it all, with tons of student interactive content (including downloadable apps and experiments), that the students are working on to rethink what online learning might look like.  That redo is the subject of our PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge next year (next gen teacher and researcher training) and the Phd Lab Scholars will be helping with my Coursera course that uses the undergrad remix (including badges) as part of the "future" portion.   So we're all learning from the learning.  It should be fun!  Join us!


I'm delighted to hear that ~ I've been following, observing the model since 2010 when I ended up in a connectivist mooc, more or less by accident. Now, I get thoroughly annoyed with all the judging coming down from people who have never participated in even one, let alone one of each (c & x). So far, my call would definitely be 'in between.' Better for some things than other. Part of what I hope to do is explain the model to panicked colleagues rushing to judgment. Some times though, I just want to say, 'shut up until you do at least of each" but try not to.

Join? LOL. I already did, albeit late and mostly to follow. 

Laura should share her G+ post (rant) detailing observations on structural and navigation problems with the Coursera platform. 


I share that annoyance, Vanessa. Thanks so much for that comment.  I don't understand critique based on assumptions (i.e. critique outward, not inward).   But by disposition I hesitate to criticize before I've really explored and tried things out for myself.  It's not always efficient but it's always interesting.


  Back in the day when I was writing on how industrialization transformed the work and business of literacy in the 18th c I wanted to understand how the profession of printing was altered by mechanization.  The generalizations around just didn't make human, physical labor-economic sense.  So I myself personally, physically worked every extant working printing press in America to understand more about speed, using machine-made papers and inks, production costs and time, apprenticeship, and so forth.   It was a little extreme, I admit, but fun and allowed me to make generalizations based on more than just assumptions about time and work.  I also found books in attics of libraries, uncatalogued, terrible scrappy pirated books and searched for marginalia, to understand how a first generation of mass readers gained literacy.   Again, obsessive but important and it turned out to have produced a book that has, weirdly enough, lasted decades and still hasn't been superseded.


Now I'm trying to understand this topic for the Web and again I took a several year detour to actually learn the mechanids and the economics of technology from inside.  Part of this is now teaching a class that my students are turning into a MOOC and then next year using some of that course core content and ALL of its methodology to teach a Coursera course on The History and Future of Higher Education so I can do more than pontificate.   I'm also hoping I might push the form itself a little and see what its affordances might be if this kind of teaching is informed not by fear or by utopianism or by egotistical popularity contests but by really understanding pedagogy and seeing how much of the online possibilities can be brought to bear on true learning. 


On Twitter just now, I asked what people would like me to try to do with this online course and I'm going to tip in some of the responses I'm getting:



How do students learn what they need to be peer graders? This is one aspect of MOOC credit that concerns me generally.



one of the weaknesses of many other MOOC courses is that they are heavily US-centric, will yours be international in scope?

  1. I'll start w Diderot, then Humboldtian uni, then JHU and research uni in US but will ask students to supply info on 20-21st C


  2. Sadly much of automated, standardized 20th c higher edu began in US and spread outward. Even more standardized elsewhere.



    Sadly much of automated, standardized 20th c higher edu began in US and spread outward. Even more standardized elsewhere.


    thats true!! I'm thinking more of the alternative options that are emerging to challenge those..


    Reply to
    Image will appear as a link

    1. Absolutely. This is an experiment for me, doing a Coursera to see how much form can be pushed.


    2. You've given me great idea: run simultaneous open HASTAC forum on same topic, interactive, invite int'l open participation!




I have taken and complete severa of Coursea's MOOC's and others. I was even in the first CCK08 -  but I am a life-long learner. Several MOOC's have tried the peer assesments and they have not done well. Please look at those online. I think professors from these elite universiites  are forgetting is that these are not your typcial students - and certainly not a typcial Duke student. There can be 12 year olds, or 85 years olds in your class. Some may have much education like me, but there are many who have very little. I saw 12-14 year olds learning algegra from each other because they did not know enough for the class. Others like me, just ignore the math...  and do not do that part of the assignments. After all, I am not intereseted in getting credit. I just want to learn. I have a graduate degree in which not only am I still paying for, I cannot find a job in. 

And there are people from all over the world, so you have issues with langauge and perception. I tried one writing assignment.  One of the peer graders love it and one hated it. I have no idea who they are and if they even understood what I writing about. Or if they even read it - they could of just put the same text into each of the peoples grades.  I have use peer grading in a Masters of Education class - but most of my students were experienced teachers and all within couple of decades in thier age. Plus they had gone to college and gotten a degree. Even with that, there were personality issues, and students complaining about their graders. 

Most of these students have never done a peer review. Even with rubrics you need to make sure everyone understands what a rubric is and how to grade. But, there are holes in rubrics and there will be at least one student find it. At lease when it is a small contained group, the instructor can defuse this and settle it by reading the material. You cannot do this with so many students. 

Right now, the discussion boards are not great. I rarely even look at them. Do not get me wrong. I think these classes are great.. and they are shaking up the way we teach and the way we learn which is badly needed. Even with these MOOC's it seems too many professors are just recording their lecture. I just stopped taking a class (from Duke) that did just that. I do not want to watch "talking head".  A few are using some interactive graphics and in-video assessment. This is much better.  

I do also believe learning is social so I hope someday we figure out a way acheive that better in these MOOCs. I love them and will continue to take them. Everyone deseraves a free education if they want it. 


I share the frustration, Linda.  In fact, it frustrates and amuses me that anyone would think you could just say "peer assessment" and assume it would work.  Same with "collaboration" and "working in groups."   These are difficult human skills on every level and I would not dream of just asking my students (even if they are brilliant hardworking students) to know how to do this without discussing values, purpose, summative v formative assessment forms, histories and cultures of assessment, methods for successful collaboration and all the other components necessary to these extremely complex human interactions.   Udacity now has one-on-one human tutoring if someone is getting in trouble online.  


My students in my student-created MOOC are working on badging systems for excellent peer-to-peer mentoring with great mentors mentoring other would-be mentors and so forth.   I


hope to try something along these lines if I teach a Coursera course but, no, I don't have faith in "peers" doing it well.   The divorce rate and the history of war would both be different if we all knew innately how to give one another constructive feedback towards a same goal!


Solve peer assessment, maybe infinite scalability too.... then tackle war and divorce...

For design and assessment issues, really involving the students is a major step that I seen moocs talking about more than taking. Mentoring is another, not for assessment or collaboration but not unrelated either.

Indefinite scalability is not realistic but where are the tipping points and what are early red flags? Labor is the other concern that really worries academics. Their concerns are real but denial is not much of a coping and adjustment strategy.

 I'm looking forward to it all... time to move comments to most recent post... and divert more of my scattered attention to the surprise course (I registered to follow but must have forgotten to snag a feed)


Keith Devlin from Mathematical Thinking MOOC, version 2 talk.


... whether or not the course is going to be developed and what dates it will be given? Thanks and good luck!

→ this is such an annoying (but highly interesting) website. I would not mind if it got a major redesign. Also the comments.


If you would like to fill out a usability study, go to the feedback form and let us know and we'll send it to you.  We really need user feedback as we are embarking on a major design.  Since we have 11,000 members, an extremely complex Drupal and Drupal Commons open site (there are over 100 private groups and classes using the site with privacy settings for their group), and charge no dues to be a member, we can't expect miracles but we have lots of ideas about how to make it better, many from our users.  We'd love your insights and help.   Thanks!


I'm meeting with a Coursera consultant this week so we're closer.  I hope to offer it next spring.  


hi Cathy, thanks for replying. I sort of remember that I gave feedback a while ago. Hope that was used :)