Monday, September 10, 2012

History of the World Since 1300

In a previous post I described signing up for a course at Coursera and why I think MOOCs (massive open online course) are going to revolutionize education.  The first lectures will be posted next Sunday and today I received a message from Professor Adelman about how the course will be organized and what will be expected of me - and 70,000 other students!!!  If I want to take this seriously, it's going to be lots of work.

Here's what is on offer and what's expected of me:


  •  There are two 1-hour lectures a week.  These will be posted on Sunday night.  Each lecture will be available until the end of the course.  The lectures will be interpolated with quizzes that test assimilation of facts and also demand analysis.
  • There was an earlier statement that there would be a progress metric - I'm assuming there will be an automated way of ascertaining if I actually watched the lectures and answered these quizzes.
  • The text Worlds Together, Worlds Apart has 11 chapters, and one chapter will be assigned each week, with one chapter spanning two weeks.  I've been sporadically reading this book for a couple of weeks now, and have completed a 'prequel' chapter and am most of the way through the first chapter.  Time to step up the pace.
  • When I was shopping for the text in August, there was no e-book version, the hardcover cost $120 in Canada, $80+ in the US and there was a loose leaf version for $60+ in the US.  I opted for the loose leaf version, based on cost and the convenience of carrying around a smaller weight. Today, the book was ranked #203 on Amazon in the US and the text is out of stock in Canada.  We can certainly see one motivation for Adelman to do this course, as he's a co-author of the book.
  • It's a long time since I read a text book.  This doesn't look anything like a text I might have had 'back in the day'.  Glossy pages, oodles of maps, text boxes of interesting excerpts from letters and diaries of the period, guiding questions for chapters and sections.  It feels a bit spoon-fed compared to my educational past, but very nice indeed.
  • There will be assignments every two weeks, six in all.  Students will have a choice of three different essay questions on which to write a 650-word essay.
  • For a good essay, you must have strong evidence, a compelling argument and clear exposition.  Each student will be asked to evaluate five essays, assigning a score of 1 to 3 on each of evidence, argument and exposition.  When I heard there were assignments, I assumed we'd have to mark each others'.  There's a nice guideline to writing and evaluating essays.  I like the simplicity of the evaluation approach.  There's also a field for putting in comments.  I expect to learn a lot from reading other students' essays, as well as their feedback on mine.
Global Dialogues
  • Each week there will be a live discussion between Princeton on-campus students and visiting professors.  Adelman will choose from questions submitted by on-line students to pose during the dialogue.  The discussions will be recorded and made available on the site.
Discussion Forums
  • Students are invited to join in discussion forums.  Up-votes for the most useful posts will help students sift through the vast material.  Already, there are lots of posts there.  The first one I read provided links to the BBC radio series on the history of the world through 100 objects from the British Museum.  I hope they're all as relevant as that one.  Adelman responded to that one, so I expect we'll see him from time to time on the discussion forums.
  • The site has an introductory video by Adelman, describing roughly what I've described above (and what's available in writing on the site).  I was happy to see him self-identify as a Canadian right off the top.  (Readers of this blog will know I'm Canadian myself).  The video was gorgeous high definition and the sound was perfect.  Really impressive.
  • Hosting a course like this with so many students - did I mention 70,000 were registered? - is challenging.  There were a couple of moments today when I noticed the site was unavailable, and I suppose there will be a few more glitches before all is said and done. (added note:  there was a message from Coursera today saying that their domain name server Godaddy was down for a few hours yesterday but that Coursera had just switched to Amazon for domain name services and were now back up.  It would be fascinating to know just which off-the-shelf services Coursera is using to lick the technology challenge.)  But the experience so far is marvellous: nice organization, good navigation, intuitive and clear, and high quality.  It's great that such a great shared platform will be shared, not only by the students in this course, but the many other courses being offered.
I'm excited about the start of the course next week, and also filled with a bit of trepidation.  I'll keep posting on the subject.

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