The New Educational Start Ups and the Humanities

As you might imagine, I’ve had a number of people approach me about these new fancy looking Silicon Valley educational initiatives such as Coursera and Udacity which are based on the generally really wonderful idea of making excellent online education available to interested, hungry minds around the world.  Since I am a huge, huge fan of accessibility, part of me says “Yay!”  In perusing the message and discussion fora following news reports such as this one from the New York Times, I see the old chestnuts being wheeled out about the fears of online education taking over the world, concerns about the efficacy of online learning in general, and of course the fears of my face to face colleagues that edubots will soon dominate the world of education, destroying their craft and decimating learning communities and bricks and mortar education. Let me take a moment to unpack a number of things about these new enterprises which I think are great, and also to examine what I think are some of the flaws, especially as these enterprises relate to Humanities education.

Most of these initiatives, as I understand it, developed out of the hard sciences and engineering.  The aim of the scholars and professors involved is to find a way to impart valuable, high level skills to people who need them all over the world, which I think is just wonderful. Since we know online learning works (yes, we really do), we can find ways to impart certain skill sets to people in an online setting, with assessments and peer evaluations which will genuinely determine if they have learned them, with a minimum of instructor intervention.  This type of educational setting works really well in teaching very concrete, measurable skills.  A program runs, or it doesn’t.  A mathematical application is right or it isn’t. The switch goes on, or it doesn’t.  And you know, employers today in tech and engineering don’t care how you learn your skills, they just want to know you have them and can demonstrate them.  Especially for people in developing and underserved areas this approach is great!!  If we can get this content and good, solid assessments loaded onto mobile devices just think of the opportunities this might give people!

But not all subjects will work well in this format, and what these start ups don’t want to do is to fall back on old style pedagogies that we know are outdated and don’t even work well in a classroom setting, much less an online one.  With all due respect to my brilliant lecturing friends out there, the long style lecture doesn’t work for adults, not without interactivity, which is why awesome lectures and dynamic classroom environments go really well together.  Online, this is even more of a non starter.  Think about why TED talks are generally short format.  That’s about how long an adult can reasonably stand to get yapped at by a talking head, especially delivering high level conceptual information.  So, getting awesome profs working for prestigious institutions to upload video lectures is not a really great educational strategy if we are talking about retention and assessment.  If we aren’t talking about these things, then what are we saying about the genuine value of Humanities education?  Are we relegating the Humanities to “cool trivia you will enjoy learning about as an adult?”  “Watch our content because it’s better than the Discovery Channel?” “Watch an MIT lecture and feel smart enough to have attended MIT!”

I’ll say it again:  I think that the Humanities are important and useful, and these new educational startups need to value them and develop pedagogical strategies which will reflect their relevance.  And now I offer my own rant against the creeping edubots:  Humanities are about nurturing different sorts of skill sets which require communities, interactions and guidance.   Yes, I use many, wonderful, online assessments and learning objects in my courses that students enjoy completing.  They are great for getting students to drill facts, and when done in a low risk environment they are very effective. They are also great for self paced learning and learning on mobile devices!  But when it comes to critical thinking, assessment of source materials, getting students to consider how they derive their value systems and the effects their values have on others and on society, that’s where I come in.  I’ve noted that some of these Humanities courses offered by these educational startups are relying solely on peer review on the discussion boards and on essay assignments.  Of course they don’t want to really pay the professor for her or his skill in grading or delivering feedback, so they just compensate for the initial content.  But my courses are more than their design and content–they are about me and the interaction I have with the students.  Yes, peer feedback is a great online pedagogy, and we know the value of the outcomes there, but frankly, my students are just not qualified to grade their classmates’ essays or discussion posts.  They might be able to say if they think an essay is cool, but that’s not the same thing.  Yes, I’m an online professor, but I’m a real person, engaging with my students 7 days a week on tough topics like diversity, globalization, the environment, politics, gender and how we find our way in this complicated world while trying to respect and be kind to each other.  I assure you, people need help with this stuff.

The need for quality Humanities education is getting greater, not smaller.  I think Humanities professionals are starting to get it together to articulate at the university level exactly what it is we do, and why we impart valuable skills that can measurably affect the bottom line at an individual and corporate level.  These statements are now working their way into learning outcomes that demonstrate the very real impact of the Humanities on how people live, make decisions, and do business.  I would like to see educational startups take these notions into account when developing their Humanities offerings. Develop pedagogies which show the relevance and applications of a Humanities education, don’t diminish what we can really offer the world.

2 Responses to “The New Educational Start Ups and the Humanities”

  1. Tom Johnson Says:

    I’d be curious to know, as a jobless PhD, how you might see the exchange between the subject specialist (the PhD) and the online course designer. When we complete advanced degrees, those degrees do not deal with new movements of pedagogy, as much as graduate programs might try to instill that prior to degree completion. I learned what I learned in a lecture and seminar format, all very focused on an interactive model. I now see that without online curriculum design experience, this is useless. I encourage your comments.

  2. Amy Says:

    Tom, this is a great question. Honestly, I think many PhDs who are essentially being trained as subject matter experts (SMEs) don’t get sufficient pedagogical training of any variety. I was lucky enough to get quite a bit as I was starting my career in online teaching many years ago, but I fear that this sort of training is going by the wayside as online teaching becomes more common. You really can’t teach well online without knowing the pedagogies behind it, including theories of interactivity, luckily there are ways to pick this up.

    Ideally, SMEs will work with instructional designers on a team to build a good course with learning objects and media. Although I am pretty handy with setting up a course from scratch, I always benefit from having access to and working with designers. Ultimately, though, I see online learning as a teaching specialty which requires extra training and techie skill sets.

    If you are interested in other careers in this field, you can consider working with publishers and course designers in non-academic environments providing course content. There may be interesting opportunities depending on your specialization. Hope this answers your question.

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Online Educational Specialist