Alexander the MOOC Lifts Off

17,000 students.

March 3, 2014

Alexander the MOOC is up - and flying.

Lift-off took place on the morning of Tuesday February 4th. By then more than 17,000 had registered to take History 229X “Was Alexander Great?” Our numbers have actually grown over the past month and we now have about 17,500 people from over 130 countries, ages 12 to 86, taking our EdX/WellesleyX course. 

Perhaps somewhat predictably, our class includes 203 students from Greece. But we also have 82 students from Brazil, 32 students from Sudan, 26 from Pakistan, 8 from Iran, 8 from Viet Nam, 4 from Kazakhstan, 2 from Congo, and 1 from Mongolia. Alexander would be pleased.

More impressive than the numbers and where they come from though was the immediate engagement and academic credentials of those taking the course. Nearly 3400 students already have filled out (all or parts of) our survey about historical leadership and attitudes toward Alexander.

The survey has yielded some amazing information. More than 37% of those who signed up to take History 229X hold Masters’ degrees or Doctorates. Almost 40% already have a B.A. or a B.S. These statistics indicate that Alexander the MOOC really is a kind of global, graduate history seminar.

Perhaps even more revealing is the fact that 96% of those who filled out our survey said that that they were taking the course for reasons of intellectual curiosity. We were delighted that others also said that they had signed up to receive a certificate or for other reasons.

But we were truly surprised that so many of our registered students simply wanted to learn more about Alexander and leadership. Who says the liberal arts are dead?

It was also really interesting that our students selected intelligence (17%), the ability to persuade others (13%), and vision (11%) as the three most important characteristics of an effective leader in our survey, and that 64% of them thought that leadership was both genetic and could be taught.

It will be fascinating to see whether the students vote for the same characteristics at the end of the course and still believe that leadership is both in the DNA but can also be learned. I can’t wait to see the results. By taking part in these surveys the students are making a contribution to the study of Alexander and leadership generally. (For more of our results see the attached surveys.)

Perhaps even more remarkably, as we had hoped for, almost from the first day of the course, students have taken ownership of Alexander the MOOC. Each week after we post our lecture videos, forum discussion questions, exercises, and weekly exams, we receive hundreds of thoughtful, learned, and insightful posts from the students.

To cite just one example, in response to a forum discussion question about how Alexander helped his soldiers to deal with the stress of combat by listening to their stories after a battle, one student, who commanded a unit during the Iraq war, posted a response in which he talked about how he had helped the men under his command to cope with the trauma and stress of living through IED attacks by sitting down and talking things over with them.

Where else but in a MOOC global seminar are students (and professors) able to draw upon so many and such varied experiences to help us understand the past and its relationship to the present?

Our students also have been making contributions to the course glossary, bibliography, and image archive.

As you might recall from my previous posting, we designed Alexander the MOOC to give students opportunities to help create and even run the course itself, and to use the medium itself as a research tool. Although these are still relatively early days in the flight of Alexander the MOOC, there are encouraging signs that our experiment in the creation of a MOOC that is both a learning and research experience has taken off and is gaining altitude.

Later on in the course we will be embarking upon an unprecedented group writing exercise that will truly push the online teaching and research envelope. Can 17,500 people from all over the world write a historical source critique together that is worthy of scholarly publication?

We’ll soon find out.

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


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