MOOCs in Humanities: too massive?

I recently tweeted about an article I heard about from The Guardian (newspaper) higher education twitter feed: @GdnHigherEd: “Could online courses be the death of the humanities?” by Aurélien Mondon and Gerhard Hoffstaedter, co-founders of Melbourne Free University. I want to discuss that article briefly, and then give some thoughts on the benefits and drawbacks of scale in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

In the article noted above, Mondon and Hoffstaedter are commenting on a previous article, “Do online courses spell the end for the traditional university?,” by Carole Cadwalladr, in The Observer. There, Cadwalladr discusses how open education, and free online courses, could have an impact on traditional university education. Why pay thousands of dollars when you can get the same content taught by the same professors for free? Of course, you don’t get degrees or credit (yet), but for those who just want to learn something, MOOCs are likely a better option than signing up for a face-to-face class that you have to pay for.

In their response to this article, Mondon and Hoffstaedter suggest that the expansion of MOOCs could spell the death of humanities, specifically.

In part, this is because if students start taking more free courses online, and fewer in traditional university formats that they have to pay for, then the humanities will likely suffer more than STEM disciplines, for example. This is in part because humanities depend on student enrolments at universities (so their faculty positions can exist and give them time and money to do research) and government grants, whereas STEM disciplines might be able to find other funding for their work, such as through industry partners.

Mondon and Hoffstaedter’s main concern is with the movement towards opening up education to free market forces:

we are … extremely wary of the consequences this potentially emancipatory project could have on knowledge as a whole if harnessed by market forces that enter it into competition with other forms of academic knowledge. If more corporations decide to support the extension of free online projects to the point where their degrees become equivalent to that of traditional universities, it could lead to the further withdrawal of state funding from education and the complete abandonment of education to laissez-faire politics.

For my purposes here, the most salient of the author’s points is that MOOCs are not terribly good (so far?) at providing “the central element of higher education learning: the development of critical abilities and the potential for students to express their own original analytical skills.”

Can MOOCs provide a good forum for developing and practicing critical thinking, speaking and writing skills? Are they just as good as face-to-face courses for that?

Of course, that’s a huge question, and to answer would require that one define precisely what one means by “critical abilities.” What I’m thinking in that regard for the purpose of this post are things like: the ability to question and criticize claims and arguments and the ability to present one’s own claims and back them up with arguments. These, I believe, are furthered by small-ish courses that allow for frequent discussion between students and professors, plenty of opportunities to practice writing arguments, and quick formative feedback by profs on students’ oral and written arguments to help improve them. Which of these can MOOCs supply well?

I decided to join a Coursera course from Duke University called “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue,” by Walter Sinott-Armstrong and Ram Neta, to get a taste of what the MOOC experience is like so as to better answer these questions. There are very few Humanities courses on Coursera, compared to other fields (is this telling?), and I figured this was one of the ones that could likely have a “critical abilities” aspect to it.

MOOCs and critical abilities: the upsides

The most obvious benefit of MOOCs in terms of developing critical abilities (in the sense discussed above) is the wide range of students from different places, different cultures, different professions, different stages of life.  Watching a discussion (on a discussion board) by such a varied group of people is very, very different than watching and listening to a face-to-face discussion in a university classroom. The views expressed, the sorts of arguments given, the way language is used, all make one realize just what a small community a university classroom is. And I don’t mean just physically small–I mean that it’s small in the sense that so many of the people in the room are very similar, for all their diversity. They have all gone through at least a similar enough sort of education to be allowed entry into that university, and they share the university culture to a great extent. When you open up discussions to the wider world, you really get much more diversity in terms of views and perspectives. And that is valuable for thinking critically, especially about one’s own entrenched views and ways of thinking.

I was impressed by the way that the discussions seemed to stay mostly on topic, which is important to learning how to engage in a critical discussion well. The boards are apparently moderated (there is a claim to that effect on the main course page), but I think what that mostly means is that disruptive or offensive posts are removed (I’ve seen quite a number of “this post has been removed” notices on the boards). Even without a professor or other facilitator chiming in to steer people “back on topic,” the discussion threads are mostly useful, interesting posts on the topic at hand. Partly this may be because users can “vote” posts up or down, so the posts with the highest votes go on top. The course facilitators also worked to create more focused discussion boards by breaking them down according to sub-parts within the lectures, associated with each exercise set. So far, (two weeks in), most people are posting on topic.

The value of having pre-recorded lectures is, among other things, that students can control the lecture in several ways. They stop the lecture if they need to and not miss anything, they can go back over something if they didn’t get it the first time, and they can watch the lectures in small segments if that’s all they have time for. In the Coursera course I’m part of, the lectures are about an hour long, but they are broken up into smaller segments of 7-10 minutes or so. Each segment has a set of exercises to do afterwards to test whether you’ve gotten the main points or not, and a separate discussion board for the segment. Students can take as long as they like on each segment by playing and replaying, or go forward past some parts if they choose. The idea of being able to stop after a few minutes and go over main points through the exercises is a good one that one could use in face-to-face courses as well, perhaps through clickers or students holding up notecard answers to T/F or multiple-choice questions. But, as noted below, unlike in a face-to-face class, the answers to such questions cannot be used by the teacher to adjust later segments of the course.

The downsides

The point about scale, above, also has a downside that is obvious: the thousands upon thousands of people in these courses makes discussion nearly impossible to keep up with. It feels unwieldy. I can scroll for a very long time just to get through the comments on one post in order to get down to the next post. And repeat. I honestly don’t know how others can keep up with some of these discussion topics when there are so many comments. By the time I could add something myself I would have to have read for at least an hour to catch up and feel like I have something new to contribute. Even then, I couldn’t possibly digest that much information. I guess the best thing is to pick and choose topics, and get in early before the list of comments grows so long that you can’t contribute anymore. Everyone can have a say in a MOOC, unlike in large class of students in a traditional context, but that very capacity means others simply can’t keep up with all the comments, even on a single topic. I feel like I’ll never be caught up enough to participate well, which is off-putting, and quite different from my experience discussing in smaller groups.

In addition, I find there is something quite useful about being able to have a synchronous give-and-take discussion that just doesn’t work the same way in asynchronous discussion boards. Misunderstandings can be cleared up quickly, people are often more willing to share tentative thoughts when they’re not written down, and you can communicate a lot through body language as well as words. In addition, there is something important about everyone being in the same space, physical and mental (more or less) at the same time, discussing the same things. I think discussions can be more productive when numerous people are in the “zone” together (for lack of a better term), as they can feed off of each other and new ideas can be developed. I don’t have data to support this, but it just feels very different when discussing in an asynchronous environment, in which one can’t get a response to one’s ideas right away, when one is in the moment and focusing on that topic. By the time someone responds to one’s post, one may have moved on to other thoughts and no longer be thinking deeply about that topic.

Coursera provides “google hangouts” for the purpose of providing in-person discussions, which allows up to 10 people to chat together through webcams. I haven’t tried this yet, because I’m not taking the course seriously enough to contribute much of use to those who are! But some have complained on the forums that others in the hangouts are rude, ignore them, or are otherwise providing a bad experience for other users. The problem, of course, is that there is no moderator to ensure people are welcomed, to make sure no one is dominating the conversation too much, and to ensure the participants treat each other with respect. Others report good experiences with the hangouts, so it’s not all bad, of course; but it just takes one bad experience to make someone wary of ever trying such a thing again (and one report of a bad experience to make many, many other students wary of ever trying it in the first place).

There is clearly no room for something like just in time teaching,” where you tailor what happens during class to what students need or want–what they are struggling with at the moment, what they are most interested in, etc. Students in this Coursera course can’t email the professors to ask questions (can you imagine trying to answer tens of thousands of emails?), so they have to ask questions, get clarifications, etc., from their fellow students. This may work just fine (it seems to, for this course, for the most part), but the lectures and homework/quizzes can’t change as a result of what students need more or less of. It’s already done beforehand (as it needs to be, since it’s so much work to put a course like this together). One thing students can do, of course, is to just pick and choose which parts of the course they want to work on and skip others; but that won’t help if what they want is to look at other kinds of topics or issues. Granted, this can’t always be done on a grand scale with face-to-face courses, either, since large changes are difficult there as well; but one can prepare for certain sub-parts of it differently for the next week, or ask students to research and discuss different topics for a later class, etc. This can be useful for students’ critical abilities in that they are able to become more deeply engaged in and connected with the course, and will be more likely to participate in its various aspects thereby. All of this is true for regular online teaching, though, not just MOOCs.

Update, Dec. 12:

I just read a blog post explaining how one professor in a Coursera course does respond to students’ ongoing needs and desires in the course, by uploading new videos each week. So it’s possible to do something like “just in time teaching” with Moocs.

Another important downside is that such large courses really are most conducive to assessments that focus on right-or-wrong answers, such as true/talse questions and multiple-choice questions. That is what the “Think Again” course uses for exercises and quizzes. I’m not sure what else one could do, really. How could you ask students to create their own written arguments and essays and have these marked by a professor or TA with helpful feedback, when you have over 80,000 students (as this course does)? The facilitators of this course do ask students to create arguments on a particular topic, and then other students are asked to evaluate and discuss those on the forums. That’s going pretty well, I think–crowdsourcing can, indeed, get you some helpful feedback. But you probably wouldn’t be able to write a whole essay of 2-3 pages or more and get very many others to give detailed feedback on it. If you got a few to do it, the feedback might not be very helpful (providing useful feedback is a difficult art!) and you wouldn’t get the “upvote” or “downvote” system working to select the best feedback with only a few people reading papers carefully.

Update Dec. 12:

Of course, one could try to devise a peer marking/feedback system where engaging in peer marking is required for the course. Then you might be able to get the “upvote/downvote” system working with small groups of peer markers. Still, marking and providing feedback on essays is so complicated and difficult to do well that students are likely to get very different feedback from different peers. And then perhaps the “upvote/downvote” system would not judge well between them, given the small group involved. 

Here’s another thing I hadn’t thought of re: peer marking when I first wrote this blog post, but should have: a post from Inside Higher Ed talks about language differences and peer marking.

Implications for humanities

I think there’s still a lot to be valued in face-to-face teaching and learning, and those who recognize points like the ones above won’t give that sort of experience up. The problem is that sometimes those “softer” skills, like the ability to read, discuss, and write critically, may not be recognized as valuable. The idea that learning means memorizing content and passing quizzes and exams where you just demonstrate your knowledge about that content is widespread, and doesn’t really reflect a lot of what many of us hope to teach in disciplines like philosophy. I hope my students are able to come out of my classes with better abilities to analyze and criticize arguments, to discuss arguments with others in a respectful way that helps improve everyone’s thinking, and to be able to write arguments more clearly and strongly. The concepts behind argumentation can be taught, as is being done in this Coursera course, but the practice of it and feedback on that practice are harder to do well in a MOOC, I think. And if those aren’t recognized as valuable, then people may, indeed, think MOOCs can replace face-to-face courses with results that are just as good.

Maybe they could someday, but at this point I’m thinking … not yet.

Your thoughts

Still, I’ve probably missed quite a bit that is useful or problematic about MOOCs and critical abilities. What have I missed? What emerging or new technologies could help MOOCs addressed some of the issues I’ve raised?




  1. Hi Christina,
    I’m enjoying your blog. I am thinking about some of the same issues that you write about here. For instance, I’m teaching a course using contract grading (the Elbow version) at the University of Alberta. I’m also interested in teaching writing online so I’ve been doing some research on the options. You might want to have a look at Koller’s TED talk on Coursera — she throws up some data about the efficacy of peer grading:

    I have also been exploring this software for peer grading:


    1. Hi Nancy: Thanks for the suggestions! I will take a look at the TED talk (I’m woefully behind in watching TED talks on the topics I’m interested in, and appreciate the link so I don’t have to go try to find a talk on that!) for sure. I and some colleagues have asked for grant money to evaluate different software for peer feedback and grading, and I appreciate the link to the CPR site. That software is not on our list yet of ones to look at, but it will be now!

  2. I just watched Daphne Koller’s TED talk on Coursera, and I should add a couple of things to my thoughts on the basis of that.

    1. She notes that there is a high degree of personalization available through the MOOC platform, that you might not get in face-to-face teaching. For example, during the videos, one can stop every few minutes and ask students to fill in an answer to a question, and get personalized feedback on their answer (machine-generated, of course), with a link to an explanation. Then they can go on to the next part of the video. As Koller notes:

    “This is a kind of simple question that I as an instructor might ask in class, but when I ask that kind of a question in class, 80 percent of the students are still scribbling the last thing I said, 15 percent are zoned out on Facebook, and then there’s the smarty pants in the front row who blurts out the answer before anyone else has had a chance to think about it, and I as the instructor am terribly gratified that somebody actually knew the answer. And so the lecture moves on before, really, most of the students have even noticed that a question had been asked. Here, every single student has to engage with the material.”

    Good point. In a lecture room, when we ask questions, most students can just sit back and let someone else answer.

    2. She also points to peer grading as a way to deal with writing assignments, and quotes a study from Saddler and Good (2006) (one I haven’t seen yet, so I’m glad for the citation!) that shows a close relationship between student peer marks and teacher marks. Koller notes that this study was done in a small class, but it shows that peer marks can be valid. There are numerous other studies in the SoTL literature that show the same thing.

    I have two thoughts on this:
    (a) Personally, I’m less concerned about peer marking than about peer feedback, as the feedback is most important in letting people know their strengths and weaknesses. I’m more curious, then, about the quality of peer feedback than peer marks. But perhaps that’s just my own personal focus.

    (b) Results of studies that show the validity of marks in small classes, where the students all share a certain degree of experience in what counts as quality in writing, given that they were admitted to the college or university and (for upper-level courses) may have taken other courses in writing), may not be applicable to the MOOC experience, with people who have various backgrounds and experiences with writing.

    That said, there is an interesting possibility for MOOCs to change ideas of what counts as “quality” in writing, given the various backgrounds of people in those courses, which could be a good thing.

    Overall, I am quite intrigued by the MOOC movement, and I agree that the availability of learning to thousands of people for free is an excellent thing. I’m just a little worried about some of the things we try to do in humanities, or at least philosophy in particular, and how to reproduce that on a massive scale. I’m still wondering how that’s possible!

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