Sunday, February 24, 2013

Top 10 Things about 'A History of the World Since 1300'

I've written a few times about MOOCs, massive open online courses (here here, here, and here).  I loved the first course I took at Coursera - A History of the World Since 1300.

And here's the Top 10 things I liked:

The professor: 
Jeremy Adelman was fabulous.  He's a superb story-teller with an extraordinary command of language and history is after all a fascinating story.  I would take any course from him, just to luxuriate in his teaching style again.

The global point of view:
The course was a fantastic survey of a wide swath of history.  And it delivered on its promise of taking a world view.  Despite coming from an American university, it did not overemphasize the US story, nor betray an American point of view on subjects.  Like so many westerners, my (modest) knowledge of history centred on Europe.  This course greatly broadened my horizons.  "Europe was just a side show in WW II".  That statement startled me, but it's clearly true when you look at what happened in Asia and Russia.  That's typical of the mental readjustment I experienced.

The focus on major currents of history:
There was more emphasis on the major ebbs and flows of history, and less on particular political figures and dates.  The big theme of the course was the long term - though sometimes discontinuous - march of our world from isolated, self-sufficient villages to a interrelated, interdependent global society.  History seen through this lens has a certain inevitability.  Specific decisions in particular countries of situations caused blips in the details, but history moves inexorably forward.

The relative datelessness:
Liberation from the tyranny of dates!  The course infrequently mentioned specific dates.  This sometimes had the disadvantage of leaving me a bit at sea: was this happening in China at the same time as that development in India, or after it?  However, overall, I loved the approach of looking at broad sweeping patterns rather than specific dates.

Emphasis on Ideas:
Adelman talked a lot about ideas and their influence on history.  Sometimes we can be discouraged about how little attention is paid to big ideas.  But this course illustrated the incredible impact of ideas, sometimes suddenly but usually gradually over a long period.  We heard more about philosophers, scientists and economists than about politicians. Queen Victoria got a passing mention, but the likes of Jean Jacques Rousseau, Charles Darwin and Adam Smith were central figures.

The students:
I loved the variety among the 90,000 students in the course.  From highly educated, to those who had not had access to higher education.  Current students to retirees.  Scientists to humanists.  Soldiers to housewives.  We heard from these students in the discussion forums and the live-streamed Precepts.  I had my papers marked by students from Germany, Australia, Chile, Austria, China, US and India.  What a 'global feeling'.

The 'extras':
However, the course was greatly enriched with the Global Dialogues, mostly conversations with some of the leading lights of the Princeton History department, the discussion forums, and the precepts with students.  The textbook was excellent, although it was a lot of reading per week.

The homework:
While relatively straightforward, the homework questions, and for that matter the quizzes, were well thought out and unambiguously stated.  The essays forced me to crystallize my learning, and it was illuminating to both grade others' papers and to receive the grades myself.  The essays were generally of very high quality and good learning tools.  About 3-5% of the students wrote the essays, so I assume the ones who would produce the best essays self-selected to write them.

The technology:
I loved that the video was such high quality, that the navigation was intuitive, and that it just plain always worked.

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