MOOC Pre-History

What NYU's "Sunrise Semester" can teach us today.

June 4, 2013

The following is a guest post written by Randy Riddle, Academic Technology Consultant at Duke's Center for Instructional Technology.

On May 19, 1962, the New York Times, in a feature article, congratulated a housewife and mother of two for completing a Bachelor of Science of Arts degree from New York University.  That might not seem significant, but Mrs. Cora Gay Carr earned 54 of the 128 credits required for her degree not in an NYU classroom, but by watching television.

Carr was one of thousands of students between 1957 and 1982 that earned college credit by watching "Sunrise Semester", an early morning television program that was a cooperative effort by NYU and CBS television.

The series ran Monday through Saturday and offered NYU courses for credit to tv viewers.  One course would have lectures on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and another would have lectures running Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.  Two courses were offered each semester.  Rutgers started running courses on the series in 1962 during the summer when it was dubbed "Summer Semester".

According to NYU's website, in 1957, 177 students paid $25 per credit hour to take the first course by television and over 120,000 just watched the lectures for no credit.  At its height, NYU estimated that the series was seen by nearly two million viewers.

NYU's effort is nearly forgotten today except for some Baby Boomers that might have caught a glimpse of the lectures at 6:00 am on their local station just before "Captain Kangaroo".  But "Sunrise Semester" can be seen as a kind of primitive form of a massive online open course (MOOC) - a series of programmed lectures with supplementary materials taught by top educators that can be viewed for free or, with exams and a fee, taken for college credit.

Like today's MOOC lectures, "Sunrise Semester" was a simple affair - a faculty member lecturing at a podium or desk, sometimes using a chalkboard or a slide deck and film clips to illustrate the lecture.  (This http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_Q-Mw6qH9k is one of the few surviving episodes of the series, a kinescope of a lecture on comparative literature dating from the late 50s or early 60s.)

The NY Times even noted that in-person discussion sessions for the courses were held on campus where Cora Carr could interact with other "tv students" taking the classes.  Were there formal or informal "social networking" groups that popped up around the country for "Sunrise Semester" viewers?

In an appreciation of the series when it came to an end in the early 1980s, a victim of CBS's desire to compete with overnight news programming from the other networks and cable, Harold Levine, chairman of one of Madison Avenue's leading advertising firms, quoted Thomas J. Brophy, who oversaw "Sunrise Semester" at NYU on who viewed the lectures.  "There's a disproportionate number of doctors, lawyers and businessmen.  They're specialized professionals trying to make up cultural deficiencies.  There are a lot of retired people - teachers, lawyers, engineers - who are maintaining their intellectual life.  There are a lot of women, intelligent housewives who regret not having had more education."

One blogger, commenting in 2006 on university lectures on Google Video, recalled watching course on Human Biology on  "Sunrise Semester" as a child.  "…By Middle School, when we were officially learning human sexuality for the first time, I realized I still remembered it. It was like a refresher course, as opposed to learning it all for the first time."

For anyone following MOOCs, doesn't this sound familiar?

Considering how well known NYU's experiment in mass open education was at the time, it's surprising that instructional technologists are looking back at that pioneering effort with more interest.  A cursory search of newspaper articles echo many of the same discussions we're having today about MOOCs - the democratization of education, the perils and pitfalls partnerships between public universities and private industry, and what "tv classes" would mean for the brick and mortar university.

In the archives at NYU and Rutgers and scattered through journal articles, there's probably a wealth of information about "Sunrise Semester" that could inform our discussions about MOOCs -  the numbers of students paying to take the courses for credit, the viewership and motivations of "non-credit" students, what materials were offered to accompany the courses, how testing worked, how the production values of the series evolved over time and if there was "social networking" that happened with students viewing the series in different parts of the country.  A researcher might even find attempts to compare student learning among those taking the course in person or via television broadcast.

Are MOOCs really so "new"?  Or are they a continuum of the same ideas educators have been exploring for decades, improved with an updated means of dissemination?

Before entering the field of instructional technology two decades ago, my background and interests were in media history.  As instructional technologists, we tend to think of developments in using technologies in teaching as something that didn't exist before the Internet.  However, it's something that's been going on since the development of radio and sound motion pictures in the 1920s.

For everyone who talks about iPods in the classroom, I think of the decades of using phonograph records and recordable audio tape with students.  When I hear about institutions experimenting with virtual reality and simulations, I recall military training systems used for gunners on World War II airplanes, a technology that morphed into the popular Cinerama movies of the 1950s.  Discussing the use of iPads and apps in the classroom, I remember the 1980s analogue equivalent of an organizational tool with "apps" - the Trapper Keeper.

Perhaps instructional technologists could benefit from the perspectives offered by our collective past.  Universities have been through these technology driven changes before.  What can the experiences of twenty, thirty or even a hundred years ago tell us about where we're headed in the future?

"Sunrise Semester" left the air in 1982 with only 47 students taking the courses for credit, the series only running on a handful of CBS's 200 stations.  But, during the twenty five years it was on the air, it granted college credit to thousands of "tv students" and exposed millions to world-class university lectures.

And what happened to Mrs. Cora Gay Carr?  In 1962, when she earned her BA from NYU with help from "Sunrise Semester", she hoped to go to graduate school and become a teacher.  If my research on Google is correct, she eventually earned a Master's in English and became a producer of Broadway and off-Broadway plays - an impressive outcome for a mother of two getting up in the early morning to watch tv.

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Joshua Kim

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