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Catalyzing Community: Reflections on Digital Learning in the Humanities

"Throw Open the Doors" on the Humanities with MOOCs

On Friday October 16th, Dartmouth hosted faculty and instructors from several institutions teaching MOOCs (massive open online courses) in humanities disciplines. These teachers and scholars were joined by members of the Dartmouth community to discuss the particular challenges and opportunities related teaching a humanities course on a massive scale.

Learn more about the event and view recorded sessions here.

Participants were invited to consider the following questions:

  1. What does it mean to teach arts and Humanities disciplines for a global audience?
  2. How and why might we scale up learning opportunities up in the Arts and Humanities?
  3. How have instructors adapted new digital learning strategies for the Humanities residential classroom?
panel speakers
Steve Swayne (Dartmouth), Emily Silk (Harvard), Adrienne Raphel (Harvard) , & Jed Dobson (Dartmouth)

The dedicated faculty who spoke about their experiences provided much groundwork for continued conversation.  There were some answers, some new questions, and a wealth of "teacher talk". And as good teachers know, the best conversations come from questions. Jed Dobson (Dartmouth) convened the presenters from a range of disciplines within the Humanities and provided context and opportunity for a fabulous discussion.

As someone entirely new to the Humanities, it was my pleasure to learn from these amazing folks.  I'd like to share with you six big questions that were raised for me throughout the day.

  1. Why are schools even offering MOOCs in the Humanities?

    Benjamin Wiggins (Penn) reminded us that there is still a wealth of misconceptions about degrees in the Humanities, and this general feeling may have also translated to MOOCs. However, as Jennifer Brice (Colgate) pointed out, opening the doors to these courses invites participation into a conversation that may otherwise have felt out of reach for some.

  2. What does it mean to spark a lasting conversation?
    Panelists Jennifer Brice (Colgate) and Benjamin Wiggins (Penn)

    One shared goal of all presenters, regardless of their topic, is to enable MOOC participants to engage in rigorous, ongoing conversations. All spoke in detail about how difficult this can be in the MOOC environment because of the asynchronous discussion boards, start/end dates, and various other factors.  Adam Nemeroff (Dartmouth) is experimenting with the role that badges can play in uniting community members around a shared passion for a topic with specific strategies. Benjamin Wiggins discussed how series of courses can assist with this goal by offering multiple points of engagement, on a specific learning pathway. However, as Ben pointed out, there is still much room for exploration in this area.

  3. What is the role of objects in Humanities courses?

    Primary resources, art, poetry, photographs, and even the presence of an author in a MOOC all offer students the opportunity to engage at the source with an "object" that can promote exactly the type of rigorous dialog we hope for in online (and really, all) education. Additionally, the global audience of open education courses affords us the widest possible range of perspective around these objects. For example, how does a student in India engage around a poem written in the US during the Civil War? How does the meaning change for students from different backgrounds? Can we as MOOC developers foster respect across cultures for different communities of interpretation?  For multiple groups in dissent?  Can we acknowledge differences and fold them into discussion? Steve Swayne (Dartmouth) shared the techniques he is using to teach students how to listen in his MOOC, Introduction to Italian Opera, and how these carefully designed strategies rely on the intersection of the music, the student, and their understanding of the information.

  4. What tools should we use?

    As pointed out by many in the field (such as this piece by Will Oremus on Adaptive Learning) the technology of online education has not necessarily caught up with the learning goals of many different course types. That said, there are a wealth of tools available, and the evaluation of these options can be difficult at the beginning of a process when we've not yet learned how the massive audience with engage with the content. Emily Silk and Adrienne Raphel (Harvard) discussed the evolution of an annotation tool built specifically for a MOOC Poetry in America, led by Professor Elisa New, that allows students to create annotations, ask questions, and learn from the models created by the course teaching staff. This is significantly different from a discussion board because it shifts the attention to the poem (see above) itself.

  5. How can a MOOC unmask the process of a particular discipline?

    Ask any humanist about the process of their work and you are sure to get a well articulated response detailing the unique cycle of thought required for each discipline. Each presenter at Catalyzing Community described how they have organized MOOCs to give students room to move within this process. Jennifer Brice offered a friendly point of entry by labeling the process of creative writing as "messy", which in and of itself can be a great way to engage. Don Pease (Dartmouth) outlined a process that involves first the receipt of the material, followed by the time to contest, deliberate, converse and reflect upon it before reinvigorating it with new thought. Steve Swayne discussed how the process of identifying, applying theory, refining, then contextualizing the music in his course promotes advancement through the material. Adrienne Raphel and Emily Silk aimed for a more rapid thought cycle - take a stand, make an argument; repeat. Making these processes explicit and using a MOOC as a vehicle for students to share the journey with such diverse peers truly does throw open the doors of the field.

  6. How can we balance the learning goals with the affective domain goals?
    Panelist Donald Pease (Dartmouth)

    We want MOOC participants to feel good about their experiences with a particular humanities discipline. But the shared community that grows in a MOOC comes from a certain degree of academic rigor. By providing students with the opportunity to challenge themselves and succeed, a MOOC can help build a feeling of competence for students, which in turn builds intrinsic motivation to delve deeper into the discipline.   But how can we best do this?  Panelists at Catalyzing Community suggested: rapid feedback assignments, guided peer discussion, and the opportunity to propose ideas before engaging in content that will then support or refute the students' previous conclusions.

We'd like to thank all of the presenters and attendees at Catalyzing Community 2015, and look forward to many continued conversations!

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