Can 50 face-to-face courses, one massive open online course and more than 50,000 students working together change higher education? That’s what Duke University professor Cathy N. Davidson hopes, even as she embraces the technological issues of guiding an effort the size of a small city.
The initiative, called “The History and Future of Higher Education ,” is being coordinated by Davidson, co-founder of the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory, or HASTAC. The sprawling collaborative includes dozens of universities across the world, international conferences, webinars, an open online discussion forum and -- of course -- a MOOC .
“[I]n the next 50 years, we can reinvent education for the world we live in now rather than the one we’ve inherited,” Davidson said. “I don’t think we teach for that world, so much of the class is designed to explain to people how these systems that we’ve inherited as natural were developed.”
The MOOC will track the origins of what has become accepted features of higher education, from majors and graduate programs to grades and multiple choice tests, and evaluate new forms of teaching and learning. At the same time, students in affiliated face-to-face courses in disciplines as different as African and African-American studies, gender and sexuality studies, and film studies will contribute to a centralized wiki. The end result could be a massive collection of ideas on how to change higher education.
Davidson is known for questioning the standard operation procedures of higher education. Four years ago, for example, she announced she would grade her students solely based on the number of assignments they completed . She later called the experiment a success , saying "It would take a lot to get me back to a conventional form of grading ever again."
Registration for the MOOC opened about two weeks ago, and more than 1,150 students have already signed up. The MOOC starts Jan. 27, and Davidson said she has been told to expect as many as 50,000 students.
Davidson will make the course’s six hourlong segments, containing lectures, interviews and interactive content, available through Coursera. The choice of course provider is no coincidence: Duke is among the many institutions that have partnered with Coursera .
“Coursera is Duke’s platform, and I teach at Duke. It’s that simple,” Davidson said. While she admitted she is not in love with the platform, Davidson said she will attempt to make it as flexible as possible.
Even though she has been critical of MOOCs, Davidson dismissed being labeled as a skeptic. In one moment, she can describe the notion of MOOCs magically solving the challenges facing higher education as “snake oil salesmanship, not good business logic. Or good educational philosophy.” In the next, she scorns her colleagues  for gloating over the failure of experiments intended to lower the cost of and increase access to higher education.
“I'm skeptical about the financial fantasy that technology, including technology coming from the for-profit corporate world where returns to shareholders are more important than outcomes to learners, will ‘solve’ the problem of the high cost of higher education,” she wrote in an email.
Although the first day of class is still months away, Davidson said some of her preconceptions about MOOCs have already changed. “On the production end, totally. On the content end, not at all. And on the consumption end, it’s too soon to tell,” she said.
She expanded on the topic in an email. “The workload is incredible,” she wrote. “I stopped filling out the forms from Coursera asking how many hours a week the course was taking because it topped at 20 and it's ridiculous to think we're only spending 20 hours a week on the course. This has been going on since late May, I believe.”
She added, “It's all going brilliantly but, yes, it's going to be an avalanche of activity once the Coursera course opens Jan. 27.” The team still has “hundreds of hours ahead of us” before the MOOC is finished, she said.
The MOOC will coincide with about 50 face-to-face courses and events around the world: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology will supply a course titled “Biocapitalism in the Knowledge Economy”; the Coimbra Group, an association of 40 European universities, will participate with a video seminar series on “eLearning and eTechnology Taskforce”; and the University of Texas at Austin will offer a course on “Race, Culture, Migration and the Digital.”
Davidson will teach one of three co-located courses in collaboration with professors from the University of California at Santa Barbara and Stanford University, and students in each section will meet for weekly video conferences. Davidson’s students will be required to keep up with the video lectures in the MOOC, but she said the other courses are free to do what they want with the content.
“The method of this course is also the content we will be discussing, that you will be commenting upon in your blogs and that we’ll all seek to improve,” a draft syllabus of Davidson’s face-to-face course reads . “In some ways this is a ‘meta MOOC’: we’ll see if a MOOC can be turned into an open-learning collaborative peer-grading extravaganza.”
Stephen Brier and Matthew K. Gold, faculty members at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, will tie their Digital Praxis Seminar  to the larger HASTAC effort.
“What we’re trying to do is to grab incoming doctoral and master’s students the moment they step in the building and show them a panoply of ways in which they can explore digital methods and tools in their work,” said Gold, who is examining how the content from the rest of the initiative will fit into the seminar. “What I’m hoping for is a kind of cross-fertilization of communication among our courses.”
Brier and Gold’s students and those in the other courses will be able share their findings through a tool being developed by HASTAC. That’s as specific as Davidson could get, as she said the tool is nowhere near completion.
In fact, Davidson conceded her “incredible experiment with connectivity” may face the same issues that have plagued Healthcare.gov or the Common Application .
“I am humble enough to know that if they messed up, probably we have potential to mess up too,” she said. “This is a big pain in the neck... I’ve learned so much. I don’t want to sound like a whiner, because I’m having a blast.”