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Making a MOOC of Greek History

Andrew Szegedy-Maszak

Distance learning has undergone an enormous change with the advent of MOOC’s – Massive Open Online Courses – that are offered by consortia of colleges and universities, such as Coursera, EdX, and Udacity.  I was asked to give such a course on Greek History for Coursera, and I will discuss the process of putting the course together, from formulating the initial outline to recording the lectures to launching the class and responding to its students.

            The first step was to decide on the chronological parameters. Coursera classes vary in length between 6 and 14 weeks. Given the amount of preparatory work that would be necessary, I decided to make mine a 7-week class, with 6 new lectures per week. One additional constraint was that Coursera strongly recommends that each lecture last between 10 and 20 minutes – a realistic, if slightly dispiriting, acknowledgment of the average online attention span.

            I decided to do a basic introduction, spanning the period between the Minoan Bronze Age and the death of Socrates. It seemed clear to me that the headlong chronological progression had to have frequent pauses to consider specific interpretive issues, such as “the Athenian Revolution” or the status of women and slaves, along with cultural phenomena like drama, and a few exceptional personalities. The outline fell into place fairly easily, but the actual preparation took vastly more time than I had anticipated. Because so much of our understanding of ancient history depends on art and archaeology, I wanted to show a lot of visual material. Unfortunately, however, the commercial aspects of the Coursera venture meant that the usual “free use for educational purposes” did not apply to many of the images I found online. I had to search for pictures that were in the public domain or otherwise unencumbered by copyright restrictions. Assembling the images took several hours for each lecture.

            I always kept in mind the crucial intellectual challenge of compressing what would have been an hour-long lecture into a much shorter presentation. I felt an obligation to do so without over-simplifying the subject. Consistent with my usual practice, therefore, virtually all the reading assignments are from original sources in translation. (As with the images, it took considerable time to find suitable versions online.) In addition there is a 20-question, multiple-choice quiz at the end of every week.

            The actual recording went smoothly. We kept it simple, with just myself standing next to a large screen that showed the PowerPoints I had composed. I did not read from a script but relied instead on home-made cue-cards, on which I had jotted the main points I wanted to cover. I was trying to keep the atmosphere as natural as possible under distinctly artificial circumstances. We generally completed two or three lectures per recording session.

            The major difference between this teaching experience and any I’ve had before has been the sheer scale of the enterprise: my Coursera class has an enrollment of more than 30 thousand students. It is also a genuinely global constituency, whose members live in Peru and Pakistan and almost all points in between. I have been astonished and impressed by the level of engagement the students have displayed. They have organized themselves into discussion groups, variously defined by factors such as age (e.g., “under 20” or “over 50” study groups), location or nationality (e.g., “Grupo de Estudo – Brasil”), or subject matter (e.g., “Evans at Knossos”). In their electronic conversations they maintain a lively exchange of ideas. By the time of the APA I will have a much more complete sense of how the course was received, but at present it seems to me that such instruction has the potential to become a valuable resource for North American Classicists.

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