MOOCs in the Humanities

Most MOOC courses, iversity’s included, are quantitative. But humanities departments are adapting curricula to online platforms, a less intuitive medium for teaching subjective material. 

We look to the thirty-three thousand-student Coursera class “Modern & Contemporary American Poetry”, as a successful example. Its assignments are similar to those in a traditional university, with students close-reading texts then analyzing them. Students then post feedback to essays uploaded on forums. Since students don’t know one another, they comment purely on essay content, a benefit of teaching humanities online. 

However, distinctive challenges arise. When students so vastly different from one another critique each other’s work, meaning may be lost in translation and across culture gaps. Afghan students can now not only access high-quality education, but also provide feedback for Canadian and American students. But geography may hinder these reviews, gaps that, in our ever-globalizing world, may eventually narrow. Peer-to-peer review certainly has its shortcomings, but is a more natural way to assess humanities students than multiple-choice testing. Such testing, typical of MOOC courses, does not lend itself well to the subjective matter and creative interpretations inherent in humanities courses.

The Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania. By Bruce Andersen, via Wikimedia CommonsThough students in “Modern & Contemporary American Poetry” cannot sip tea and converse at the University of Pennsylvania Kelly Writer’s House, they can study under its founder, Al Filreis, an opportunity once afforded to only a privileged few. Filreis made this MOOC not technically perfect but evocative of a certain culture, featuring a tour of the Kelly Writer’s House on a personal camcorder. He sheds the standard MOOC lecture model, opting for live webcasting and discussions, replicating the informal group conversations had at Penn. As MOOCs take root, professors enliven their courses and adapt them to different teaching styles, expanding humanities offerings. iversity will offer many MOOCs that don’t fit the typical quantitative model – keep an eye out for our Design 101 and Future of Storytelling MOOCs.

by Anna Meixler