Saturday, April 20, 2013

Is the Programming Historian 2 a MOOC?

'Evil Robot' by Jennifer Morrow (cc-by)
A few months ago I was asked if the Programming Historian 2 is a MOOC. For the uninitiated, a MOOC is a Massive OpenOnline Course. They’ve been popping up online for the past couple of years, principally at major American universities like MIT and Stanford, claiming to be able to teach thousands or even hundreds of thousands of students at the same time – for free. They’ve so far had mixed results but it seems most people in academia have an opinion on them – either, meh it’s a fad, damn we gotta get one of those at our school, or the robots have come for our jobs! Defend! Defend!

I can’t speak for the other editors of the Programming Historian 2 (PH2). But I can say: No. I don’t think the PH2 is a MOOC.  If you havn’t found us yet, the PH2 is an open access series of tutorials designed to let humanities researchers get their toes wet with computer programming. The lessons involve learning simple programming tasks that are immediately useful to ordinary working humanists. That might be automatically downloading historical recordsfrom the Internet, or analyzing a collection of sources with topic modeling. All of the lessons are online – like a MOOC – and there is no teacher in the room with you – like a MOOC.

So why no MOOC? For me, what sets a MOOC apart from a classroom-based course is a belief that the tutor-tutee relationship can be depersonalized and made redundant. MOOCs replace this relationship with a series of steps. If you learn the steps in the right order and engage actively with the material you learn what you need to know and who needs teacher?

I don’t think that’s what we’re about. Instead, some of the most exciting feedback we’ve got at the PH2 has been from academics who have used the PH2 as a teaching tool in their classroom. Either they’ve assigned lessons for their students to work through, they’ve challenged students to write lessons of their own, or they’ve used the PH2 to teach themselves a skill that they can then pass along to their students.

That’s not to say you can’t use the PH2 to teach yourself some programming if you havn’t got a teacher. It’s to say the PH2 is not the evil robot looking to take your job away. It’s the friendly robot looking to give your teaching toolkit a few more options, and maybe a new skill or two with which to impress your friends and colleagues. Not unlike a book. And Books havn’t put literature professors out of a job, but they have made English lit courses more interesting.


Unknown said...

PH2 is better than most MOOCs, in that I can go and dip into whenever I want. I dislike the Coursera model that attempts to emulate f-to-f courses by imposing a rigid time structure. I want my tutorials when I want them, and I don't care about no stinking badges.

E. N. Sanders said...

I didn't know about Programmming Historian, but I will definitely jump into it. This is precisely why I think we should start hacking the MOOCs, especially Coursera, using a subversive approach.

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