Humanities

I am often asked: “So, how are you different?” For a long time, I didn’t find that question easy to answer. There are, of course, many online learning platforms out there, each offering different courses. But from the outside it is difficult to tell them apart. So my answer would usually evolve into a short briefing on the education technology market, which, to be honest, few people care to hear. Today, my response to that question is simple: “We focus on what we call greyscale learning.”

This means that our effective instructional design places a strong emphasis on topics where there is no simple right or wrong answer. Learning on iversity is not about reproducing the “correct” response. It’s not about 0 or 1, yes or no. It’s about the many shades of grey in between. It’s about the “I would do it like this, because…” and “I would do it like that, because…”. Our courses are designed to create an open and explorative social learning environment. A safe space for people to come together in order to negotiate truth, stating not just their position, but also the facts and arguments that let them arrive at a particular conclusion.

Greyscale learning: The spectrum of learning features many shades of grey

What does this mean in practice? Our courses go beyond teaching you the basics. We want you to learn more than what you need to learn in order to be able to answer multiple-choice questions (although you may well encounter them as part of a course). Greyscale learning makes you look at an issue from multiple perspectives. It makes you realise that there is not just one correct solution. There may be an almost infinite number of solutions. And whether or not something is “correct” very often depends on the context. It’s about collectively contemplating the true meaning of “doing the right things, right.”

What Professional Learning Can Learn From the Humanities

To people who studied humanities or certain social sciences, all of this will not only seem familiar, but in fact appears to be the essence of teaching and learning in higher education. Now, I would like to argue (and have done so before in a publication on the university in the 21st century) that this approach to learning applies not only to theoretical learning in the humanities. I am convinced that it also lies at the core of eminently practical professional learning. Take programming education as an example. To many people, this seems about as far removed as can be imagined from the discursive uncertainty of a seminar in the humanities. But, beyond the basics, the two have more in common than one may think.

Greyscale Learning: Reality Comes in Many Shades of Grey

Of course, it is important to learn basic syntax. And as far as this is concerned, there clearly are answers that are either right or wrong. But as you move into architecture or usability, the picture becomes a lot more blurry. Do you want to optimise for security, ease of use, or speed? Different priorities lead to different setups, which will yield different results. As soon as you face trade-offs between different priorities, an optimal solution will often not exist. People will argue about the ideal solution. They will argue one way or another, citing certain specifics of the case or problem to solve. Suddenly, context matters, and it becomes clear that there will not be one correct answer, but many alternative solutions – each with its own merits and shortcomings.

What this example illustrates is that even for a discipline that is quintessentially all about 1s and 0s, unambiguous clarity soon yields to messy complexity as we move from theoretical basics to practical application. This is not just one odd case. It is true of all domains of knowledge.

Ultimately succeeding in business is not about solving theoretical exercises, but about finding workable solutions to complex practical problems. Therefore, I believe that greyscale learning – which does not stop at the former, but focuses on the latter –  is the future of professional education.

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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

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Though MOOCs are offered in a wide range of disciplines, satisfying curious intellectuals and skill-seekers, most online courses exist in science, math, and technology. But organisations like iversity and institutions like Wesleyan University (the first liberal arts institution to launch MOOCs) are producing courses in the humanities as well. iversity spoke to Professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, Wesleyan’s first Distinguished Teaching Fellow, Jane A. Seney Professor of Greek and Professor of Classical Studies, whose MOOC “The Ancient Greeks” ran this fall and spring.

iversity: What was your personal approach to teaching a MOOC, and how might it differ from those instructing in science or math?

Szegedy-Maszak: With courses like organic chemistry or subatomic physics, what one needs to teach may be clear. But in a humanities course, there is greater flexibility in selecting topics, determining their depth, and assigning readings.

“I worked to allow for complexity, ambiguity, and ignorance”

Professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak

(Courtesy of Olivia Drake)

I received advice for my course from Professor Peter T. Struck, Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, who taught a successful 10-week MOOC on Classic Mythology. He said he wished his course was shorter; I therefore made mine 7 weeks long. I did so for two reasons. The first constricted the effort involved in making the MOOC, which was hundreds of hours of prep. I also shortened my course to retain student interest. There is a downward slope in engagement from the first to last weeks of courses.

I gave 6 lectures per week, which cover the earliest Greek civilization to the death of Socrates. Deciding on these topics was, in some ways, arbitrary. I chose to teach a survey-style class. The Archaic Age, for example, receives scholarly attention. I could’ve done a course on just that period, or concentrated entirely on the Athenians. But I thought it’d be more useful to give students a broader historical perspective and introduce the sense of a wider Greek world. I taught what students are likely looking for, working in allusions to today’s research, because Greek history keeps changing. I wanted to suggest to my audience that I wasn’t teaching your grandfather’s Greek history class.

The origins of Greece: golden “Mask of Agamemnon”. Bronze Age.

National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Courtesy PD

iversity: Your MOOC assigns no papers, grades, or final assessment. How do you keep students engaged and focused? Is passion alone enough, and is it specific to humanities courses?

Szegedy-Maszak: For most students, Greek history is a subject they’re interested in and wanted to learn more about. I assign blunt, evaluative weekly questions to ensure they stay on track. These quizzes enable people who want them to get statements of accomplishment. Some students requested a tougher final examination, and a statement of accomplishment with distinction for those who do well on it. When the course is offered again on September 2, I may include a final to up the ante.

iversity: In your lectures, you don’t read from a script, as many MOOC instructors do.

Szegedy-Maszak: That’s similar to how I teach my classes at Wesleyan. I’ve been teaching this material for a long time, and know it well. I instead make a list of key topics to cover during each lecture. My MOOC doesn’t use textbook readings, also like my Wesleyan courses. All readings are primary sources in translation. The value of this particular subject [Greek history] lies in hearing the voices of long ago. It gives students a sense of what we, modern historians, deal with when reconstructing past narratives.

An unavoidable factor in teaching online is the amount of compression required, hitting only the subject’s high points. A friend said to “leave a lot out to get it all in,” my operating principle. My lectures at Wesleyan are 80 minutes, and these were from 12-20. Though I left a lot out, I felt a responsibility to the material and students not to dumb it down. I worked to allow for complexity, ambiguity, and ignorance, as there’s a lot we still don’t know about Greek history.  

Bust of Socrates. His death concludes the MOOC.

Rome, Vatican Museum

Courtesy of Wilson Delgado

Interview for iversity by Anna Meixler

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