To Notice and to Learn

Observations on ideas, human mind, and the world around us

A Heartfelt Note from a Humanities MOOC Professor

Amid the storm of controversy surrounding how MOOCs (massively open online courses, see a prior post here) will disrupt/enhance/destroy higher education, is a more basic question people ask is how suitable MOOCs are for teaching the humanities.

It is true that most MOOCs have focused on science & technology subject areas, as many of the innovators are from the computer science department.  Also, these subjects are fairly amenable to one-way information dissemination, multiple-choice quizzes, and automated exam scoring.  But MOOCs are quickly branching into the humanities.  How well are they working?  Perhaps it is too soon to say, but here is a recent heartfelt course announcement by Professor Arnold Weinstein of Brown University, who is teaching a Coursera course on “The Fiction of Relationship” (Coursera link), posted nearly halfway through the course:

What continues to amaze me is the gathering richness of the threads: they constitute an ongoing narrative of sorts, whereby the stories being discussed provoke moments of self-awareness, leading to surprising insights about life: one’s own, others’…above all, I’m struck by the supple give-and-take that is on display, by the mix of civility and concern and outright empathy that comes through, as people reach deep into their own lives while chewing on these books, and then expressing their views. I want also to note the generosity of these exchanges: whether it is a matter of bringing Kafka’s German into consonance with several English versions, or whether it is a question of contrasting one’s earlier, more facile, readings of these same materials with the deeper and often darker and more foreboding interpretations gleaned this week and weeks past: in all these instances I see a form of teaching-and-learning—of listening and responding—that differs sharply from the classroom life I’m accustomed to, in that it draws on the experiences of older and more ‘tested’ readers, and it then ‘threads’ those perceptions into an ongoing ‘tapestry’ of sorts, as you respond to one another. This is, at its best, intellectual exchange of a high order, but I’d close on another note entirely: it is moving, in every sense of that term: emotional, kinetic, temporal, digital.

A poetic observation from an esteemed scholar of English literature.  I knew about Professor Weinstein from his audio lectures from The Teaching Company (link), which I used to listen to via books on tape.  I’m truly glad he is experimenting with the innovation of the MOOC, allowing this content to be exposed to thousands of people for free in a class format (with peer discussions, short essays, etc.).  I myself am enrolled in this course, but am not actively participating due to time constraints–I just pick and choose a few lectures to watch when I have time.

I don’t know how many participants enrolled in this MOOC are students, but I suspect they are a small minority (Prof. Weinstein himself references an over-50 group).  Thus, beyond the very important discussions surrounding MOOCs & higher education, I see something undeniably beautiful here:  the chance for lifelong learning, for adults to engage, deeply and voluntarily, in a high quality learning experience that was not (as easily) available to them before.

Lifelong learning is a bouquet of flowers that we must gather and arrange ourselves, and MOOCs are the stem of new type of flower, on which beautiful new petals might blossom.

Categories: Innovations in Learning

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4 replies

  1. I’m so with you here. I don’t know where we got this idea that all of our learning should stop at 18, or 22, or 28 (depending on our degree aspirations). I took up learning Japanese at around 33 or so? French at 37. Film editing at 40.
    When I was teaching in grad school, there were always a small number of the Princeton Township elders who would sit in on my classes. Students grumbled good-naturedly about them always taking the best seats up front, but mostly they thought it was funny. No one took it seriously that someone in their 60s or 70s could be interested in learning more about biochemistry or immunology. How sad.

  2. I agree, we should never stop learning something new in an intensive manner. Scientists used to say that we only lose neurons as we age, but recently neuroscience has found that the brain remodels itself much more than previously thought (plasticity) and that new neurons do get generated. Plus, we are learning much more about nutrition & exercise, and so not only are we living longer (80-90 on average in some countries), we are cognitively fit longer, making our youth-based educational paradigm even more obsolete…


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