I spoke with Andy directly in order to learn exactly how a brilliant lecturer and MOOC participant feels about the future of online learning. I first asked him how he felt about the possibility of undergraduate degrees being awarded, eventually, online, given the current limitations of MOOCs.
Andy Szegedy-Maszak: I remain pretty skeptical about getting a full degree online. The main difference between MOOCs and residential learning isn’t even the writing, but more the interaction and the exchange between the faculty member and the students.
Now, Coursera’s platform makes it fairly easy for the instructor to check in on the fora and add a post or a comment. But that’s very different, as you know, from being in group of people where you are interacting and engaging and encouraging them to link up with one another and to link up their insights. But who knows? I mean, maybe down the line, as technologies evolve we will be able to get to that.
Maria Bustillos: I enjoyed your lectures so much and thought they would be just the greatest launch pad, if you wanted to learn about Greek literature and history as a hobby. But I did not feel that anything was demanded of me as a student. For instance, it’s not at all necessary for me to do the reading: I could just watch your lecture, do the quiz, and get a perfect score, more or less.
AS: Well that was the idea. Again, that is something very different from the way I could do it with an in-person course, where I would spend a lot more time actually talking about the reading. I have described this — and this may come back to haunt me — but I’ve described this course as kind of a highlights reel, you know like on a sports show?
MB: You’re so expert, though, and you’re able to transmit that… It’s more like a book, I kind of thought, where everything that’s coming at me is so first-rate, made with such care, but basically it is a one-way street; something to take in.
AS: I’m supposed to teach the Greek history survey at Wesleyan this coming fall, and I think that what I will do is to incorporate the course lectures as part of the assignment, use them as a sort of introduction, and then I’ll have more class time to engage the students in discussion of some of the interpretive problems, and issues of the sources, that otherwise I would have to skim by. Here, the class is 80 minutes twice a week; we were very strongly advised to keep the Coursera lectures between 12-20 minutes. This isn’t adhered to by all the Coursera folks by any means, but I really felt that I had to distill the main points of the Wesleyan lectures, and in some ways intellectually that was the most interesting challenge.
MB: Right now this is an experiment, a pilot. What is Wesleyan’s goal for this thing, given that it’s not for credit? Your institution has got their star dudes spending a lot of time developing these courses.
AS: Well, we are going to continue. This is a very big topic around here. Five courses have been offered, including one by our president, Michael Roth, who is doing this course on “The Modern and the Postmodern,” which has also gotten a very positive response. There was a course in economics, another in psych statistics, another in film, and this summer my friend and colleague, Scott Plaus, who is also a social psychologist, is doing a social psych course — the course launches sometimes in June or July — and the enrollment is already bumping up just under 100,000.
And then we are going to have, I think, three or four new courses from colleagues next year. So we’re moving forward at a steady pace.
As to the question, what is Wesleyan getting out of this? There are a number of answers; for one thing, it was a real boost, an honor, to be the first liberal arts college to be asked to join this consortium of what were otherwise Research 1 universities. That Wesleyan was recognized, along with Stanford, Princeton, Michigan, and Columbia was great. It was also a way of making Wesleyan known to people elsewhere in the world who might have heard of Harvard or Princeton or Yale, but wouldn’t have heard of a small liberal arts college in Connecticut.
So to be in at the beginning of what may well be a revolutionary change in higher education? It was great to be asked. Those of us who have done these courses can now give our successors a sort of clearer idea of how much time and institutional support it’s going to take.
MB: It was obviously a massive amount of work to put this together. How long did it take?
AS: Oh, hundreds of hours.
MB: I bet. Did you have a lot of help?
AS: Yes, some valuable help from undergraduates.
MB: In California we have a lot of wariness, because of the business of San Jose State offering actual credits through Udacity. Can you comment on that?
AS: I honestly don’t know. I’m not dodging… well, I am dodging, but it’s out of genuine uncertainty. That is to say, I worry about cash-strapped public universities, and now I’m not talking about the flagship ones, like Berkeley or UCLA, but the Cal State system: Are they going to start using MOOCs instead of hiring flesh-and-blood faculty to be in a real classroom with flesh-and-blood students? That I would find deeply regrettable.
I think of these courses as a kind of enhancement; a way of enriching the educational experience.
MB: How is this educational revolution going to take place, exactly? If the class is not asking anything of me yet, as a learner — how you get from Point A to Point B is completely opaque to me.
AS: One of the revolutionary aspects is just making this material accessible to a genuinely worldwide audience. You know, that’s huge. It’s no longer just for the folks who can get to one of the universities here or abroad; folks who bring just an interest in a topic and a passion for it can now get at least some sense of how it’s being approached within the academy. This is starting to sound like a thumping cliché, but I would hope that people would just keep maybe thinking about this, reading more, taking another course… That’s one of the revolutionary potentials of this medium, is that anyone with an internet connection and a basic command of English can have access to this kind of material.
MB: If you’re a grown-up and you don’t need to learn how to do research, understand something of logic and have basic rhetorical skill, you can study and learn by yourself. But those aren’t skills that kids have. The main thing that undergraduate profs are giving college students, as Aaron Bady once said, is that they are modeling a kind of intellectual engagement, and the space in which to practice it. I don’t think this is something you can get any other way.
AS: It’s different from the full-scale engagement that one can, to use your absolutely correct term, model for the students in a classroom.
I do this stuff because even after all these years I find it fascinating, and I love the way interpretations change.