Singing the Praises of Short MOOCs

Well the professor for Coursera’s Fall and Rise of Jerusalem threw a peer-review essay project at us at the end of the course.  And while it’s nice to have to do some writing after a fairly long creative assignment drought, it does mean that it will take another few days to finish the class I was planning to review in this week’s newsletter – so you still have a week to sign up over there to the right if you want to catch that review in next’s Monday edition of Degree of Freedom News.

But even before the class is 100% complete, I’d like to use it as a jumping off point to talk about the upside of a trend I may have come off as criticizing in previous articles: the increasing appearance of short (6-8 week) courses as opposed to longer MOOCs that attempt to more fully replicate the experience of taking a full-semester college class.

As a commenter to this piece recently pointed out, short courses are becoming the norm for several international MOOC providers, and institutional partners participating in MOOC projects delivered via Coursera and edX seem to be gravitating towards more 6-8 week courses (with some notable exceptions, such as the year+ long ChinaX).   His hypothesis regarding this phenom is that shorter courses tend to attract and hold onto more students, given that they demand less commitment than a 12-14 week (never mind fifteen month) MOOC offering.

I would support his argument, especially since many of the short courses I’ve taken have also been less demanding in terms of reading and work requirements.  In fact, as I’ve been reflecting on the MOOC movement as a whole as part of my senior thesis, it’s become apparent that we’re seeing the creation of a tiered system for MOOCs with one tier dedicated to creating massive courses that are meant as alternative methods for delivering a full-scale college class (some successful, some not) with another tier dedicated to a different goal.

And what might that goal be?

Well here I get to what I’ve really enjoyed about the briefer classes I’ve taken as part of this Degree of Freedom project.  For whether we’re talking about Wesleyan’s Property and Liability course (6 weeks), U London’s English Common Law (also 6 weeks) or UMT’s Mathematical Philosophy (8 weeks), these shorter classes seem to have a highly focused mission: to introduce students to a key argument or major domain of knowledge with the hope that this will inspire them to learn more about the subject.

Actually, Property and Liability was a bit different in that it focused on an important concept (the intersection of economics, law and philosophy) and used the briefer MOOC format to deliver an extremely efficient presentation of a set of concepts the professor has dedicated his life to teaching.  And this passion shown though in every lecture (even with the professor’s wry delivery style), showcasing how a MOOC can become a platform for sharing discoveries that can transform both learning and lives.

Two short courses I’m taking right now are doing a similarly masterful job in using the teaching of a seemingly narrow academic topic to give students the chance to reflect on bigger issues.  For instance, the Jerusalem class I mentioned at the beginning of this piece is actually talking about how new archeological and historical sources and methods have contributed to a revision of one of the key stories underpinning Western civilization: the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE and its aftermath.   And by the end of the course, I not only became familiar with a part of history I only knew in fragments, but also came to understand how story, history and science both define and lead us to question who we are (one of the major themes of modern philosophy as it turns out).

And speaking of philosophy, a course that has had an even bigger impact on my thinking beyond the classroom is Coursera’s eight-week Soren Kierkegaard: Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity taught by Professor Jon Stewart (a different one) from the University of Copenhagen.  Before taking the course, my only opinion of the 19th century Danish philosopher was that he was a bit of a weirdo whose fixation on making Christianity relevant had very little to say to me as a non-weirdo (supposedly) and non-Christian.

But Professor Stewart has made it a point to begin and end each week’s lecture series with an insightful analysis of how Kierkegaard’s theories of alienation and irony still speak to us in our modern era which, like prosperous Copenhagen during Denmark’s Golden Age, has created material comfort but spiritual emptiness.  In fact today’s world, in which snark and indifference greet discussion of every important issue, seems all the more in need of thinkers ready to confront our assumptions about ourselves such as Kierkegaard and his inspirational Knight of Irony: Socrates.

I recently read a book about the effectiveness of the lecture which posited that lectures, while good for information transfer, don’t really accomplish other educational missions (such as inspiring critical thought) particularly well.  But the author qualified his assertion (based on statistical analysis of things like survey data) to point out that even if his description of what lectures can and cannot do is true in general, this still leaves room for those inspiring teachers whose lectures have had a major impact on our lives.  And, fortunately for us all, it seems as though it is just this type of professor that gravitates towards teaching the massives.


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