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Alexander the MOOC
January 20, 2014 - 9:02pm

2013 was undoubtedly the year of the MOOC.

My year of the MOOC however was way back in 1999. In that year the Global Education Network (GEN) in New York City chose my Wellesley College history course about Alexander the Great to be their first online course.

I subsequently spent many weeks high up in Carnegie Towers on West 57st Street in mid-town Manhattan filming lecture modules, designing inter-active battle sequences, and writing computer-graded exams. It was a fantastic experience.

The finished course was a kind of online space shuttle, built to carry students from around the globe up into the educational stratosphere.

Unfortunately, however, not many people were prepared to come along for the ride. PBS and some community colleges picked up our course. But most colleges and universities were not ready to climb onboard. Faculty led the resistance. Some could not figure out how to operate the course platform. But many simply refused to concede that anyone could learn anything from an online course.

By contrast, now, wherever you go for news about education, there are stories about MOOCS. On TV and radio programs, in journals and newspapers, and in faculty lounges people (including yours truly) are talking about Massive Open Online Courses.

Today millions of students are taking online courses, and there is a race on to produce hundreds more MOOCs. What changed over the last decade, leading to wider interest in, and acceptance of, such courses? I would point to three factors.

First, use of the internet as an educational tool by faculty has increased greatly, especially outside of scientific fields. Faculty in the social sciences and the humanities, especially younger faculty, are now far more comfortable using online media to teach with today than they were in 1999. Moreover, the technology itself has improved dramatically since 1999. Everything works faster and better than it did a decade or so ago.

Second, there is far greater willingness to talk about the educational value of online courses. In 1999 almost no faculty members at my own college were willing to admit that students could learn anything online.

Today we are arguing, not about whether students can learn from online courses, but what exactly they learn, and how it compares to what students learn in brick and mortar classrooms.

Third, the economic situation has changed. The cost of higher education has sky-rocketed since the late 1990s and virtually everyone is trying to find ways to do more with less. Some believe that MOOCs may help colleges and universities to contain costs. That is debatable, but the market (i.e., students and parents) will have its say here too.

There obviously are unresolved questions about MOOCs. I personally have argued since the late 1990s that it is a mistake to think of the internet portal only as a potential teaching medium. Rather, what the fast-evolving medium now makes possible is something new, and altogether transformative, a teaching AND research medium simultaneously.

That hypothesis is something we are about to test anyway, as I get set to launch the beta version of my Alexander course online, Hist229X “Was Alexander Great: The Life, Leadership, and Legacies of History’s Greatest Warrior” for EdX on 4 February of 2014. The course includes some of the standard fare of most online courses, including lecture modules, interactive exercises, discussion fora, and computer graded exams.

But the course also features surveys of attitudes toward Alexander and leadership, bibliographic and image research sites, and innovative mass writing exercises. The mass writing exercises have the potential to make original contributions to scholarship.

These features of Hist229X have been designed to demonstrate to the world how a MOOC might make it possible for students not only to take history, but also to make it (with their teacher) at the same time. After the crash of the alpha version of Alexander the MOOC, exploring that possibility was the main reason why I volunteered to climb into the captain’s seat of Hist229X.

This time around almost 14,000 students have booked seats on our shuttle, and I hope that you too will interested in tracking our lift-off and flight. I’ll be posting a few more blogs here reporting on how the new and improved version of Alexander the MOOC is going.

In the ancient world Alexander himself was known as a risk-taker and a boundary-breaker; I think he would have approved of our mission.

Guy MacLean Rogers is Kemper Professor of Classics and History at Wellesley College

 

 

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