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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Some students are extroverts, happiest as the centers of classroom attention and leaders in vocal debates. They are the academic equivalents of Brian May, lead guitarist of the glam-rock band Queen. After thirty years on tour, he not only looked like Sir Isaac Newton, but also completed a PhD in astrophysics titled “Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud” at the Imperial College in London.

Large, crowded lectures intimidate many students.
Photo: Sk Education Consulting Group

But not every student enjoys performing publicly. Some dislike large lectures with hundreds of other students, or feel uncomfortable in small seminar discussions.

Traditional courses are therefore not best for everyone. Shy students are overlooked in large lectures, where they passively absorb lessons without discussing content with others. Lectures are intimidating; many are hesitant to address professors in front of hundreds of peers. Many lectures have small group meetings, where students are either more comfortable participating, or feel exposed and are thus reticent.

MOOCs offer an environment that may engage introverts. Online anonymity can make students comfortable expressing themselves in forums. They may contact established professors online, whereas approaching them in person is daunting. Participating in course conversations online may give students confidence to contribute in traditional classrooms and work environments.

Though MOOCs integrate peer-to-peer editing, student feedback, and discussion forums, they create communities different from those in classroom courses. Students may organize meet-ups, but predominantly converse online. They can contact professors, but many MOOCs have organized feedback systems. Many MOOCs integrate social media comprehensively, like Professor Dr. Spannagel’s and Dr. Gieding’s “ Mathe-MOOC: Mathematisch denken” (Math MOOC: Mathematical Thinking). He has created his own blog, as well as Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter sites for his iversity MOOC.

According to Duke University studies, introverts need time to observe before participating. With MOOCs, students work at their own paces, reading forums before jumping in themselves. Competitive learning environments adversely affect shy students, rendering MOOCs a productive space, where students don’t compete for grades or teacher attention. MOOCs do not force student participation. Students could continue to passively learn, but their silence in forums wouldn’t necessarily go unnoticed, as it would in a standard lecture. Online platforms allow for student monitoring, which instructors can use to find and encourage quieter participants.

Hesitant participants exist in every learning environment. MOOCs, however, level the playing field between extroverts and introverts, allowing all to comment when they choose to in a comfortable online platform. MOOCs do not have the intimidating facets of a large lecture or small, intimate seminar, wherein students can be passive observers or may be forced to speak up before they feel ready to do so. The online platform is, in many ways, conducive to teaching shy students. The experiences introverts have in MOOCs may revolutionize how they engage in every area of their lives. Confidence developed in online classes has the potential to help shy students better engage socially and professionally, channeling some of Brian May’s boldness.

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