Keeping the “human” in humanities MOOCs

Michigan State University’s new MOOC will teach students to think critically about learning how to write.

How do you connect 100,000 students all around the world with subject matter usually taught to a couple hundred students in a lecture hall?

It’s a challenge many instructors face when creating a massive open online course (MOOC), even for concrete subjects like math and science. But the challenge may be most prominent when teaching that more elusive and abstract academic discipline called the humanities.

Michigan State University, which has three other MOOCs under its belt, will launch its first humanities course on June 30. The free, non-credit course will be taught by MSU professors Julie Lindquist and Jeff Grabill and will teach participants how to improve their writing skills.

“Our primary motivation for starting this MOOC was to learn something about what it means to learn writing,” said Lindquist, who is the director of first-year writing at MSU. “When you go about your business teaching writers, it’s easy to take for granted what the students need from you, what they can do for each other, how the writing process works for students. This could shake us loose from our assumptions.”

Grabill and Lindquist aren’t the only professors turning to MOOCs to find a fresh way of teaching people how to write. Karen Head at the Georgia Institute of Technology began teaching a first year composition course in late May, and in January, Grabill convened a webinar of professors who are planning their own writing MOOCs for this summer and fall.

Like MOOCs in general, however, the jury is still out as to how effective they can really be.

See Page 2 for how the professors plan on organizing the course. 

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