Publication Date

March 11, 2013

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

Is this the “year of the MOOC,” as a New York Times reporter put it? Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have been one of the most hotly debated technologies in higher education, having attracted supporters with a nearly evangelical fervor and detractors with visions of catastrophe. The South by Southwest education conference (SXSWedu), which just wrapped up, was “A MOOC Love Fest,” according to Information Week, as they quoted one MOOC exec who said, “Absolutely, there’s been too much hype—and what a good idea! If you and your colleagues have to hype something, what better to hype than education? For the first time, you’re going to make the teacher a rock star.”

Too much hype? Here’s Thomas Friedman in the Times: “Lord knows there’s a lot of bad news in the world today to get you down, but there is one big thing happening that leaves me incredibly hopeful about the future, and that is the budding revolution in global online higher education.” If MOOCs can keep Friedman on the sunny side of life, what can’t they do?

We invite readers to take a step back from the hype and consider Jeremy Adelman’s article in the March Perspectives, “History à la MOOC,” which relates his own experience teaching a world history MOOC at Princeton. Adelman wades in with eyes open and, despite his excitement about the potential of this platform, he is forthright about the places where his experiment came up short. We further recommend John McNeill’s Perspectives column, MOOCs and Historical Research, on two MOOC-driven futures—one utopian and one dystopian. Also on our reading list is Jonathan Rees’s reaction to Adelman’s article on his blog, More or Less Bunk.

The issues raised by these courses go right to the heart of what it means to teach in an information age, and deserve more discussion. We hope to see more submissions to Perspectives on MOOCs and related topics, and plan to publish more on this subject in coming months.

One intriguing aspect of Adelman’s article is the effort to create an international dialog about history. By interacting with far-flung students in the MOOC, the “traditional” students at Princeton could gain insights into how the rest of the world views world history. We’ve been seeing more articles from teachers along these lines in the last year, including one by Mart A. Stewart in the March issue (now ungated and available to all) on teaching transnational history in America and Vietnam. In November of last year, we published an article by Eman Vovsi describing how he experimented with linking his Baltic history class to one in Estonia via Skype.

Very much on the minds of all these teachers is how their students “now breathe an air that circles the globe,” to borrow a line from Stewart’s article. It’s become evident to many teachers that their students are best prepared for post-graduation lives and careers when they have knowledge of the world and practice in working with its citizens, and these teachers are finding innovative ways to make history matter in this new environment.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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