Why Isn’t the Digital Humanities Community Building Great MOOCs?

Washington CrossoverIn spite of the fact that I’m a mathematician, I’ve been fairly active in the digital humanities (DH) community for a while now. I’m interested in creative and effective uses of educational technology, and, in the humanities, that means tracking what’s happening among the DH community. Many of the examples of educational technology I include in my talks and workshops come from this community, and here at Vanderbilt I’m an active participant in the DH seminar organized by our humanities center.

I offer this to provide some context for the following question:

Why isn’t the digital humanities community producing the most amazing MOOCs around?

MOOCs are massive, open, online courses. Many members of the DH community appreciate and build projects that are massive, open, and online. Why are these DHers not leveraging this expertise to build the most interesting, most creative, and most significant MOOCs that higher education has ever seen? There’s so much energy around MOOCs in higher education today. Why not tap into that energy and show everyone what online education can really do?

Okay, I admit, these questions are mostly rhetorical. I think I know why many in the DH community are hesitant to get involved with MOOCs. The high-profile MOOCs hosted on the Coursera, EdX, and Udacity platforms are seen by many as glorified correspondence courses, not much more than a sequence of lecture videos and a few multiple-choice quizzes. That’s a very different instructional model than the one practiced by most of those in the humanities. Here’s what Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor and chair of media studies at the University of Virginia, said about this concern last summer:

“For the more pedestrian MOOCs, the simple podium lecture captured and released, the difference between a real college course and a MOOC is like the difference between playing golf and watching golf. Both can be exciting and enjoyable. Both can be boring and frustrating. But they are not the same thing.”

The idea of replacing more traditionally taught humanities courses with MOOCs is a hugely risky one. It’s too early in the life cycle of MOOCs to know if they can achieve the same kind of learning outcomes seen in on-campus and (small, closed) online courses. Digital humanists are rightly skeptical of MOOCs as substitutes for these kind of courses. Mills Kelly, whose new book Teaching History in the Digital Age looks fantastic, is such a skeptic, writing the following in a thoughtful blog post last summer about teaching online:

“We should be thinking carefully about how teaching and learning in the digital realm is different. Then, and only then, should we start creating new approaches to teaching and learning. BlackBoard and its ilk won’t help us. MOOCs won’t help us either.”

That was last summer. Just this past January, at the Modern Language Association convention in Boston, Amanda French was quoted as saying, “I don’t know a single digital humanist who likes MOOCs.” That’s significant, since Amanda coordinates THATCamps for George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media–and knows a lot of digital humanists!

I get the concerns about MOOCs replacing more traditionally taught courses, and the implications that such replacements have for the higher education financial model. But since Vanderbilt’s first two MOOCs came online last month, each with about 20,000 active student participants, it’s become clear to me that MOOCs have great potential for expanding the educational missions of colleges and universities. These students aren’t paying tuition and they aren’t earning credit, but they are interested in learning. Such students are already part of our educational missions; think of the high school students and senior adults who participate in programs on our campuses. MOOCs enable us to greatly expand this pool of non-traditional students.

If the digital humanities community were to view MOOCs as ways to expand their institutions’ educational missions, might more DHers be interested in experimenting with MOOCs?

Let’s get practical. Here’s an idea I’ve had kicking around my head for a few months. Back in 2011 the New York Public Library (NYPL) launched What’s on the Menu?, in which members of the public were invited to transcribe the thousands of restaurant menus in the NYPL’s digital collection. These menus, dating back to the 1840s, were stored as images, not text, which made them very hard for scholars to use. Transcribing the menus through optical character recognition (OCR) was problematic, since OCR couldn’t handle the many handwritten menus, nor could it identify structural elements of menus. The NYPL decided to crowdsource the menu transcription, allowing anyone with a Web browser to view and transcribe menus. As of this writing, all 16,812 of the available menus have been transcribed!

Imagine a MOOC built on such a crowdsourced transcription project, with tens of thousands of people around the world not only contributing transcriptions, but also moving together through a course in which they learn about the history of food and culture. The lecture videos and forum discussions would help participants better appreciate the significance of their transcription work, and their transcription work would, in turn, provide concrete experiences with which to make sense of the history they were learning in the course. A digital humanities MOOC designed in this way would lie at the intersection of a university’s teaching, research, and service missions.

There are at least a few people in the digital humanities community who are thinking along these lines. Writing about open, digital scholarship in the humanities, Ed Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and director of a number of influential digital humanities projects, offered this suggestion in a Chronicle piece in February:

“Online courses will be ideal environments to further this kind of scholarship. Thousands of people in a MOOC or a dozen in a small class at a liberal-arts college can collaborate as they find and share new patterns and insights. Students from many backgrounds can contribute to conversations about matters of enduring consequence.”

Will Thomas, history professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-director of the History Harvest project, has been planning something along these lines since January:

“Imagine if we reorganized our classroom experience both in large lecture courses and more intensive seminars to create less anonymity and more dynamic learning, to allow students truly to participate in a ‘community of scholars.’ We will be doing precisely this in The History Harvest course soon–at least we are in the planning stages now for a MOOC-like distributed course next year with participating classes from other colleges…”

I’ll end this post with a challenge to the digital humanities community: How can you leverage the attention (and resources) that MOOCs are receiving in higher education today to create a open, online learning experience that involves the public in meaningful, interesting scholarship?

Image: “Washington Crossover,” cta web, Flickr (CC)

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