"My kingdom for a MOOC."

“My kingdom for a MOOC!”

After four weeks I finally got the hang of MOOCing. What is the proper verb form of MOOC, anyway? MOOCering? MOOCating? I have been taking my first MOOC for the past six weeks, a course from the University of Leicester called “England in the Time of Richard III.”

Each weekly section of the course focused on a different aspect of 15th-century England, from warfare to food to literature. The sections contained a mix of articles that formed the core text, video and audio interviews of experts, and images.

My favorite part of MOOCing (or maybe MOOCling) is that I can stop and pick up whenever and wherever I want. As it is, I fell a couple weeks behind over the holidays, but caught up after a mere three days of work. I positively breezed through the sections on peasant lifestyles and Latin texts and so on.All right, so medieval literacy made my head spin. My main concern, however, has been whether a course like “England in the Time of Richard III” would be a viable alternative to a traditional college course. Without educational value, the course may well be an interesting hobby, but nothing more.

untitledI should point out that the website that facilitated the course, FutureLearn, is one of a growing number that provide distance learning in many disciplines around the world. Many schools and companies provide courses online that count toward real college degrees, and even post-graduate degrees.

This blog post is a critique of the FutureLearn course only. The closest comparison to the Richard course in my college curriculum was a class on 14th-century writer Geoffrey Chaucer, and his classic Canterbury Tales. I and my classmates slogged through Chaucer over one long, sixteen-week semester.

All that time gave us a chance to study in depth and gain a proper understanding of the material ,and the culture in which it was formed. Chaucer’s text was helpful in that the Canterbury Tales are a satire of the rigid social system in medieval England.

We were able to interpret the text in the context of the social and economic upheaval of its day. The Black Plague, the rise of the middle class, and peasant rebellions all contributed to the state of English society at the time Chaucer wrote the Tales.

The Canterbury Tales: The earliest record of the spring break road trip

The Canterbury Tales: The earliest record of the spring break road trip

Furthermore, Chaucer was the focus of the course, the common theme of our studies. Although the Richard III nominally centers on the doomed king, the online course is a mish-mash of anthropological, literary, and historical studies of the general time in which he lived.

Richard Buckley, the University of Leicester's lead archaeologist.

Richard Buckley, the University of Leicester’s lead archaeologist.

The University of Leicester’s Department of Archaeology rather attempted to squeeze in as much content into the space of six weeks as possible. As a result, each weekly section is a cursory introduction to each topic at best.

The other thing that sets the Richard course apart from traditional classes is its lack of a grading scale. Here I remember the website is in beta, and likely will add such features after its trial run, along with more detailed content from its partner schools like the University of Leicester.

As it stands, the range of content seems too wide to me, to significantly determine students’ comprehension of the material. History, literature, archaeology, and sociology all cram into six short weeks, with a five-question quiz at the end of each week. Admittedly, the quizzes grew increasingly difficult week by week.

There are three chances to answer each question. The third week’s quiz, which covered books, literacy and printing, took me several tries to answer each question. One question went like this:

Which of the following statements reflects the writing in the 15th century?

o Majuscules were the main form of script for all writing

o Minuscules were used in minor areas only

o Majuscules were used for inscriptions, with minuscules used for writing in documents

o Minuscules were used for writing, and majuscules used at the start of sentences for the first time

o Majuscules were used in all writing except court documents, which used minuscules

For the busy student with no time to cook, an early Chinese takeout menu

For the busy student with no time to cook, an early Chinese takeout menu

Now here is a question worthy of a college exam, yet it flounders in a weekly quiz that attempts to tackle such difficult content. By the way, the answer is the fourth option. And majuscules and minuscules are academic jargon for upper case and lower case letters respectively.

Overall, I have gained some insight into a part of history I never really knew through the online course. So are MOOCs the final frontier in education? I will say that as long as people want to learn, they will constantly find new ways, and refine the old ones, whether they use clay tablets or iPads.

Perhaps my grandchildren will learn their lessons from a hologram professor, or take their classes right at home on a computer. While MOOCs are an exciting development in the field of education, they are not a one-size-fits-all option. With that being said, I’m on the hunt for a copy of Shakespeare’s Richard III, which I plan to read with a wider perspective than I would have otherwise.

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