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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American journalist and author A.J. Jacobs is mostly known for putting himself through bizarre self-experiments. Jacobs spent a year living according to biblical rules and tried to become the smartest or healthiest person alive over the span of just a year. He also tried to outsource his whole life to his personal assistant in India, including marital disputes and reading bedtime stories to his children.

For his newest project the stunt journalist spent the last few months experimenting with eleven MOOCs at the same time.  He’s presenting the conclusion of his research on MOOCs in the New York Times article „Two Cheers for Web U!“.

Jacobs talks about Charles Darwin dolls, discussing economic inequality with Brazilian businessmen and a Japanese plan to assassinate movie star Charles Chaplin. The one thing he liked most about his classes, ranging from genetics over philosophy to cosmology: convenience and the option to tailor MOOCs to his learning behavior.

In keeping with the theme of higher education, Jacobs grades the MOOCs and their different aspects. The overall MOOC experience gets a B+ from Jacobs and he’s glad that he attended the courses. The advantages of MOOCS are obvious to him: They offer easy access to difficult topics and a convenient way for self-improvement and learning something new. And, to be able to take Harvard courses even if your home is in Senegal.   

What he didn’t like about the courses: The difficulty in American MOOCs to communicate with professors, who have to take care of thousands of students with just a small team. His advice: never try to become friends with the professor on Facebook.

Here at iversity, we agree that good communication between students and lecturers is one of the most important factors for a successful MOOC. Because of this, teacher-to-student communication is among the criteria for the jury of the MOOC Fellowship in evaluating the courses and awarding the fellowship.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of MOOCS and curious to make your own experiences, you can soon pre-enroll on iversity in the courses of the winners of the MOOC Fellowship. And if you’re interested in more of Jacobs work you can listen to him talk about his self-experiments on NPR.


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By Anna Meixler


Access to classroom learning is far from universal, and even those enrolled in formal educational institutions may be hungering for greater, more convenient learning opportunities. In fact, the most heavily cited reason that students take MOOCs, according to a February 2013 Coursera report on their Bioelectricity MOOC from Duke University, is to satisfy intellectual hunger. The desire to extend existing knowledge on certain topics is cited as the second most likely cause for engagement, and professional development as the third.

This academic curiosity is universal. According to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, its MOOC with only 2,000 students encompassed 109 different countries. Students represent countries with vastly different political and socioeconomic conditions, interacting with individuals internationally through MOOC discussion forums as previous generations had not. The 687 participants from the United States had the opportunity to correspond with students from Egypt, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Educational discourse may eventually bridge conflict and unite citizens between states with historically tense relationships.

These are not only university students, but also adults and working professionals representing a variety of fields, contributing unique perspectives. Many courses consist of students who hold less than a four-year degree along with students who have Bachelors degrees, and students with even more advanced degrees.

MOOCs uniquely offer students a way to explore their interests and expand their knowledge at a university level, without having to apply to or meet the requirements for attending a standard university. In this way, MOOCs provide high-quality educational experiences, without hefty price tags, rigid time commitments, or exclusive acceptance rates. They also allow students to select the learning experience most productive and best suited to their abilities and preferences, which may surprise those who think MOOCs are impersonal. Students choose MOOCs based on their levels of difficulty, and can study class material at their own paces, based on their schedules and learning needs.

This new educational frontier requires flexibility in leadership and participation. Many MOOCs are still in trial-and-error stages, necessary for their eventual success. Like in any higher-learning construct, teachers, and students must interact dynamically to fully reap the unique benefits that MOOCs offer. Professors and students are testing the waters with MOOCs, partaking in the educational experiment of the twenty-first century. In so doing, participants promote innovation in teaching and learning, enhancing global knowledge and satisfying scholarly interests.

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