MOOCs face challenges in teaching humanities

June 4, 2013, 11:58 p.m.

Even as massive open online courses (MOOCs) continue to assume an increasingly prominent role in education, regularly enrolling thousands of students from around the world in classes taught by professors from dozens of universities, their rapid growth has sparked a backlash focused on the potential loss of diversity and interaction in education.

In one such instance, the San Jose State University Department of Philosophy wrote an open letter in April to Harvard professor Michael Sandel, explaining their refusal to offer his edX course, Justice, as a part of their curriculum.

“The thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary—something out of a dystopian novel,” the letter read. “Departments across the country possess unique specialization and character, and should stay that way…Diversity in schools of thought and plurality of points of view are at the heart of liberal education.”

That same month, the faculty of Amherst College voted against joining edX, a nonprofit founded by Harvard and MIT that has since merged with Stanford’s Class2Go platform, saying that doing so would run counter to its mission to be a “purposefully small residential community.”

Conflict in the humanities

The debate over MOOCs has been particularly contentious within the humanities, where classes are typically taught in smaller groups or seminars.

Humanities courses are among the least represented on both Coursera, a Stanford-developed online learning platform, and edX. While seeking to rectify that underrepresentation, administrators have also grappled with whether subjects like philosophy—which are largely open to interpretation, including in the grading process, and dependent on methods such as the Socratic dialogues—are suitable to become MOOCs.

Richard Saller, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, suggested that there are certain qualities of the humanities that are better suited to an intimate classroom setting than to a massive online format.

“The humanities have to deal with ambiguity [and] with multiple answers,” Saller said. “The humanities, I think, benefit hugely from the exchange of different points of view [and] different arguments.”

In an effort to raise the visibility of the humanities among Stanford’s online course offerings, Saller and Senior Associate Dean for the Humanities and Arts Debra Satz approached five top faculty members last year with the intent of encouraging experimentation in an online format.

Four of the five—including Professor of English Eavan Boland and Professor of Classics Ian Morris—expressed enthusiasm for the idea. Some have committed to developing MOOCs over the next few years, while others have expressed interest in putting materials or lectures online but not necessarily going so far as to use a platform such as Coursera.

“I think there will be experiments,” Satz said. “What will fully come of this for the humanities, I think we don’t fully know.”

Saller plans to take a MOOC himself this summer—Social Psychology—to see what the experience is really like.

“I guess my hunch is that the kinds of platforms that are available now can provide a forum for exchange among students with different ideas,” Saller said. “But I doubt that that will come anywhere near the quality that we have in our introductory seminars.”

 Losing the personal touch

The one professor who was not interested in the proposition, Professor of Art History Alexander Nemerov, reiterated his opposition to offering his courses online.

“I think that part of the beauty of [giving a lecture] is how ephemeral it is,” he said. “I feel that the lecture is there for the people who are in the class. That is to say that it’s based on a face-to-face interaction between people all in one room. I don’t know how I feel about taking out the personal quality of it.”

Nemerov admitted that he was not certain whether there would always be a firm place for the brick-and-mortar classroom because “the momentum for this kind of thing seems so relentless.” He maintained, however, that he didn’t anticipate his own feelings changing.

“I know that I’ll continue to believe in the importance of public lectures, public speaking, the classroom experience,” he said. “It would be a sad day for me if it were all sort of farmed out and just made into online, on-demand education. It would seem that something very human would have been lost in that.”

Gavin Jones, chair of the English Department, said he is excited about the ways in which online education can supplement the work that faculty members are already doing.  The English Department recently hired a new academic technology specialist whose role, according to Jones, is to help faculty explore online education.

“I think it’s very easy for people to see the humanities as either against [online education] or skeptical of it, and I think you need some healthy skepticism” Jones said. “I don’t think all of it is good. But it’s a question of recognizing what is good about it and using that to improve the educational resources and the pedagogical mission that already exist.”

Daphne Koller Ph.D. ’94 and Andrew Ng, professors of computer science and Coursera’s co-founders, said that courses in the humanities and social sciences—in which the material is more open to interpretation—have proven more complicated to translate into an online format, especially when it came to the assessment and grading of the students.

“I think if you use computer-based grading, clearly you need to restrict the dimensions to things that more or less have a right answer or several right answers,” Koller said.

Nevertheless, she added that some of the most popular classes on Coursera have been humanities courses, including a philosophy class from Duke University, entitled Think Again: How to Reason and Argue, which is the single most popular course offered by the company.

“I think that humanities classes can be taught incredibly effectively online,” Koller said.

Both Ng and Koller said that new technology has made it progressively easier to simulate the classroom experience online. One new development is the introduction of peer grading, in which each assignment is graded by five different students using a rubric supplied by the professor.

According to Ng, research has shown that the grades students give each other are generally in line with the grades a professor would give. The qualitative feedback, however, is the more variable factor.

“Realistically, I have to admit that that feedback is not as insightful as is [the feedback of] a highly skilled professor,” Ng said. “On the flip side, it’s also useful to get five different perspectives.”

Satz said that she is open to the idea of peer grading but remains cautious of its limits.

“I think that writing is one of the most important skills that people learn in the humanities, and, in my experience, it tends to happen by people going line by line over essays and giving detailed feedback,” she said. “And that’s unlikely to happen in a course that has 150,000 students.”

She added that while peer grading may be a solution to this problem, it is necessarily an imperfect one.

“I think there’s some benefit to peer grading, but it’s different than having your work read by an expert,” she said, noting that in her own classes she brings years of experience to the grading process.

Coursera also offers students the opportunity to participate in online discussion forums, which Ng said are an attempt to mimic as closely as possible the experience of the intimate classroom discussion fundamental to many humanities courses. Ng described the forums as very successful so far but also limited.

“I think there are certain seminar classes where an instructor walks around a room, very discussion-based courses—I think we’re still figuring out the technology of how to offer that,” Ng said. “An online discussion forum is different. It is definitely different…I think we still have a long way to go, frankly, to simulate more of the average classroom discussion.”

Retaining valuable aspects

Satz said that she sees immense value in online education platforms such as Coursera, especially in their potential to lower the cost of higher education.

“To the extent that some online education helps bring the cost curve down and make education more affordable, that’s a good thing,” she said. “And if you can do it without sacrificing quality, or, where you need it, debate and diversity, that’s also a good thing.”

Satz added that she recognized the concerns raised by the San Jose State philosophy faculty, citing the risk of valuable parts of the learning experience being lost in online dissemination.

“One of the most important things is to not just deliver information [to students] but to teach them how to reason,” Satz said. “And if we don’t teach our students how to make knowledge, not just how to consume knowledge, then we’re not doing what higher education is supposed to do.”

Saller also emphasized the importance of offering students a range of perspectives.

“Diversity of ideas, like genetic diversity, I think is a good thing in certain subjects,” Saller said. “In Beginning Algebra, that’s probably not what you want, but in most humanities subjects, I think that is what you want, whether it’s literary interpretation or philosophy or historical interpretation.”

“I think we need to be cautious about overstating what this form of knowledge transfer can deliver,” Satz added.

Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Larry Diamond ’73 M.A. ’78 Ph.D. ’80 currently teaches a Coursera course entitled Democratic Development, which he said he has found rewarding and worth repeating. Nevertheless, he claimed that there will always be parts of the undergraduate experience that cannot be replaced by online learning.

“[Online education] is going to change higher education, and great universities are going have to adapt,” he said. “[But] we want to be sure we don’t lose what’s precious and irreplaceable about the undergraduate educational experience by becoming too infatuated with technology.”

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