I don’t know the historian Steve Mintz, but I do know he’s a pioneer in putting all kinds of historical resources online. This means he was doing what we now call the Digital Humanities (to which I have some aspirations) long before it was cool. Today in IHE, he describes his newest project:
This summer, I am designing a U.S. history survey course for online delivery at scale – maintaining chronological sweep while eschewing lectures and emphasizing active learning.
He lost me at “scale.” It’s a shame because if you read that whole blog post you’ll see there’s a lot of things there that I want to do online myself. Unfortunately, the problems that I have with scale here is so massive, I think they’re insurmountable. Let me explain why I think they should be non-starters for you too.
In the interests of space, rather than rehash the numerous parts of Mintz’s essay that I agree with I’m going to concentrate on where he lost me. Here it is all in one paragraph:
One of my goals is to demonstrate that a writing-intensive course built around active learning can be scaled. But successfully implementing such a course won’t be easy. Even when the writing prompts are highly specific and the length of responses is limited, it will be difficult to provide students with the kind of prompt feedback they expect. There are ways to address this challenge, but many inflict a cost. I can cut back on feedback, reduce the number of modules, or substitute multiple choice questions for written responses. I can also include some ungraded assignments, use some form of peer grading, or experiment with auto-grading.
So what’s he gonna do? Mintz doesn’t say. I think there’s a reason he doesn’t say – all those solutions stink.
Cutting back on feedback means that students will not get the kind of writing instruction they deserve. Yes, it’s a requirement for grading at scale, but the problem is that Mintz would be letting the scale engine drive the pedagogy train. To maintain the integrity of the course would require doing it the other way around.
Reducing the number of modules would mean less actual history instruction. This is certainly a feasible solution, but it also lacks integrity. The funny thing about online instruction is that when you say a course is online all those accreditation-related concerns about seat time just go flying out the window. Self-paced? No problem. While I think it’s unwise to build an online course that resembles whatever your face-to-face course once was, an online course with less material is less likely to achieve whatever the professor’s goals happen to be. That’s a sacrifice that’s not worth making.
Multiple choice tests? That would set back history education about fifty years. I wrote this about multiple choice tests in the history MOOC context way back in 2013:
If we judged the success of a history MOOC on the basis of multiple choice questions based upon the content of superprofessor lectures, then I bet MOOC students would learn a ton. However, no history professor in their right mind would ever define a successful history education this way. I define history education not as the accumulation of facts, but as promoting critical thinking, improving reading and writing skills and as a process of intellectual socialization based upon close interaction between a student, their peers and the professor. None of these things can be measured in numbers.
A regular online history class at scale is actually worse than a MOOC in some ways because it’s designed to replace the labor of living, breathing faculty members. It’s a job killer by definition.
This is precisely why whatever good Mintz manages to eek out of this experiment will be far overshadowed by the bad. Yes, I’m talking about the academic equivalent of featherbedding – maintaining jobs that could be rendered obsolete so that people can be employed fill them. However (and this is a BIG however, so don’t anyone dare quote this paragraph outside its full context), unlike with typesetters during the 1962-63 New York newspaper strike, the people in question here do the job much better than the technology that management wanted to use to replace them. Mintz’s laudable, unachievable-at-scale aspirations here actually demonstrate why scale hurts the quality of an online history class almost by definition.
The problem that all of us faculty face – whether we teach online or not – is that at least some people with the power to set curricula won’t care. That explains why faculty keeping control of the technology that might be used to replace them is so important.