Can MOOCs and the humanities coexist?

A debate is currently brewing about whether or not the humanities are in decline and what, if anything, can and should be done about it.

humanities-moocs-coexistThe main concern is that at many of the nation’s top universities, humanities enrollments are going down in favor of more job-focused tracks like science and math, and even some public schools are seeing their humanities programs cut due to a lack of students.

Whether they think there is a problem or not, many educators agree that if the humanities are losing out, it is because these subjects are simply not as closely linked to economic success as, say, engineering.

This is unfortunate because many of the top skills employers are looking for, like critical thinking and problem solving, are exactly the kinds of skills humanities courses endeavor to teach.

The link between coursework and job skills isn’t absent; it’s just more difficult to see.

What can be done to spur more interest in the humanities? How can students be convinced that the humanities are still relevant in today’s world?

One answer might be MOOCs. Humanities courses make up a large portion of MOOC offerings, and the number of students who enroll in these courses is second only to the number who enroll in computer science courses.

Opinions vary concerning the effectiveness of MOOCs in the humanities. Ian Bogost, a well-known MOOC critic outlines many problems associated with the courses in his contribution to the LA Review of Books’ series “MOOCs and the future of the humanities.”

On the other hand, many professors have found that MOOCs work extremely well in the humanities, even for courses that are primarily discussion based. For example, Al Filreis, who teaches a MOOC on “Modern and Contemporary Poetry” reported that many students find the online course even more personal than courses they took in college.

Jeremy Adelman, a Princeton professor who teaches the MOOC “A History of the World since 1300,” noted in a presentation to the American Council of Learned Societies that he believes there is a great global potential for humanities MOOCs.

A lot of MOOC innovation and development is actually taking place in humanities courses. For example, many humanities MOOCs, like the University of Edinburgh’s “Elearning and Digital Cultures,” experiment with social media to facilitate conversations among students around the world.

Humanities is also where methods for peer assessment and machine grading are actively being tested, revised, and tested again. These methods are by no means perfect, but as edX VP for External Affairs Howard Lurie stated in the same panel as Edelman, MOOCs are still very much in their early days, so it is too soon to draw too many conclusions about them.

MOOCs could boost humanities in a number of ways. First, they can draw massive attention to the subjects (more than 33,000 students enrolled in Filreis’s poetry course).

They can also help students see the relevance of studying humanities.

For example, in the video linked above, Edelman discusses the experience of having members of the Syrian resistance take his course looking for information about how nations rebuild following civil war.

MOOCs could also provide an alternative way to access courses, which would perhaps lure students from STEM disciplines who don’t feel they have room in their regular class schedules.

Much attention has been paid to the potential for MOOCs in areas like computer programming, where human interaction isn’t crucial and machine grading works pretty well.

In contrast, the discussion of MOOCs in humanities courses has focused more on the negative, like problems with peer assessment.

But if the humanities really are in crisis, it is time to start acknowledging the positive potential of MOOCs—they don’t provide a complete solution to the problem, but they can give schools another tool for their toolbox.

David Blake is the CEO of Degreed, whose mission is to “jailbreak the degree” and a contributor to and Huffington Post Education. Previously, he helped launch New Charter University and was a founding member of Zinch. David was also selected as a Stanford d.School EdTech Entrepreneur sponsored by the New Schools Venture Fund and Teach for America. This article first appeared on

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