Historians Respond to MOOCs

Introduction: Why MOOCs Matter

Elaine Carey, February 2014

Editor’s note: In the following pages, we reproduce edited versions of presentations from an important panel at the 2014 annual meeting. We thank the participants for their contributions and for working toward a tight deadline, and we hope readers will join in the conversation.

The AHA panel “How Should Historians Respond to MOOCS,” convened at the 2014 annual meeting, was standing room only as Jeremy Adelman, Ann Little, Jonathan Rees, and Philip Zelikow engaged in a lively conversation that captured the national debates regarding Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). With President Obama challenging every American to commit to higher education or postsecondary training, these conversations will only continue to grow as the United States tries to minimize its college attainment gaps as compared to other countries. MOOCs were initially seen as a way to bridge those gaps.

Adelman and Zelikow were among the first history professors to teach MOOCs. In his presentation, Zelikow mentioned that many professionals—computer scientists, teachers, librarians, architects, and engineers, to name a few—embrace MOOCs for ongoing education and training. More significant, he addressed the difference between MOOCs, flipped classrooms, and online education. Adelman reflected on some of the adaptations that he made as he moved from his first MOOC to his second, and how he discovered the importance of filming as he lectured to actual students, rather than in a studio by himself. His comments demonstrated that teachers of MOOCs have room to experiment with different pedagogical styles.

Many community colleges and state universities have considered giving college credit for MOOCs, and most have embraced online education to meet the growing educational demands of their students and the general public. Other institutions have recruited and hired online educators to teach students and also assist their colleagues in developing online classes or content. Increasingly, university administrators see the potential of MOOCs and online education for meeting the changing educational demands of students. But Little and Rees acknowledged that MOOCs might marginalize those very students who need face­to­face contact and mentoring. Little addressed the questions of scale and the difference between MOOCs and face­to­face classes that are frequently more demanding. Rees captured the moral implications of MOOCs regarding students’ workloads and the impact of MOOCs on the work and lives of the professorate, as a whole.

These conversations, like those about assessment, are not going to disappear. The politically fraught questions regarding access to and the cost of higher education will continue, but the effectiveness of MOOCs in meeting those challenges has not been proved.

The American Historical Association has undertaken a series of initiatives to improve history education, recognizing that the technologies and approaches of Adelman and Zelikow might be effective in the classroom. Universities and colleges are experimenting with flipped classrooms, hybrid classes, and online classes to meet students’ demands, particularly for nontraditional students who may return to college. The AHA and many other professional and teaching organizations recognize that these innovations must demonstrate the effectiveness of the teaching and learning not simply of content mastery but also of critical thinking skills, which Little and Rees both addressed. Historians and experts in the scholarship of teaching and learning are experimenting with different models to see which methods are most effective. These experiments are taking place not in corporate offices but on college and university campuses—as collaborations between historians, digital scholars, experts in teaching and learning, and computer specialists.

The AHA is conducting a number of projects that demonstrate its commitment to engaging in these debates. In the AHA’s Tuning project, online educators have demonstrated that distance education can be as rigorous and effective as face-to­face education, but as Rees argued, these are not massive interactions but classes of 20 students engaged in constant dialogue. These educators work closely with their institutions to collaborate to ensure that their online classes reflect the best practices in history teaching. The AHA has also begun to collaborate with Microsoft Research on digital projects for the classroom, as well as with the Social Science Research Council for digitally based assessment tools to measure learning.

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a letter to President Obama in December 2013. One of the key recommendations of PCAST was for university faculties to study how technology can foster better learning; it encouraged faculties “to study the subject, engage with new technologies, and create incentives for university administrations to persuade MOOC platform vendors to allow researchers access to the data generated by their courses.” These studies must be undertaken with funding to allow for independent research on the effectiveness of such classes as they attempt to meet the demands of students and their diverse learning styles and needs. We hope the following pieces will demonstrate that historians, especially those committed to teaching, should be part of the framing of these studies and the conversations that will follow.

—Elaine Carey, the AHA’s vice president, Teaching Division, chaired the panel on MOOCs at the 2014 annual meeting.