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SMALL-SCREEN SCHOLARS

As it happens, some Penn faculty members are old hands when it comes to Internet teaching. Peter Struck has been doing it for 10 years. He got his start in a broom closet on Market Street.

“My bread-and-butter course has always been this mythology class,” Struck said in the fall, shortly before his Coursera debut. “I know that course best. So I decided to try that in an online format. In the early days, it felt a little bit like doing a TV show. It felt like you were on cable access. It was just me and my TA, and we had a camera, and a person behind the camera, and we were in a broom closet at the old College of General Studies office—literally a broom closet.

“We sat next to each other, and I would talk. My TA would monitor a chat room. And we had an 800 number and people would call in—so we had a call-in section of the program, where we would chat back and forth, like a sort of Johnny Carson/Ed McMahon setup.”
As Struck remembers it, the interactive element of that first experiment—back when most Americans accessed the World Wide Web via dial-up connections—was “not all that robust.”

It got better with the next advance in webware, which coupled lectures with a stronger online-forum component. But for Struck, that also counted as a drawback.

“At first I wondered, is this really right to have students basically passing notes while I’m talking?” he recalls.

Multitasking is a euphemism for being distracted,” he continues. “So it made me think that what I was accomplishing in this online forum was hampered by the very nature of the delivery mechanism.”

Coursera and its competitors, by harnessing vastly expanded bandwidth and elements of social networking, are pushing online instruction into new territory. Lectures are typically broken into short video segments (the mythology class usually featured 10 per week) and served “on demand.” The image and sound quality is on par with Netflix, professors can use tools like greenscreens and computer animations, and the online forums are more sophisticated.

“The students ask questions, give their comments, and then they’re ‘liked’ or not by the class,” Struck explains. “And the ones that are liked most get bumped up to the top. So you wind up with an ongoing referendum on the most salient issues … It gives you this huge pool of information to draw from to see what’s working and what isn’t.”

Still, before his course launched, Struck had no real idea how crowd-sourced commenting from some 40,000 students would actually play out.

Neither did I, until I tuned into the first of what would become a series of “screenside chats” hosted by the professor and his teaching assistants. These supplemental video segments—filmed, unlike the main video lectures, while the course was in progress—were largely dedicated to discussing particularly interesting comment threads generated by the online forums.

One student had posted a comment referencing a study of Homer’s color descriptions by William Gladstone—who was more famous for his four stints as British prime minister in the 19th century. Gladstone, who studied classics at Oxford, noted in a scholarly volume that the word blue never appears in The Iliad or The Odyssey. Yet this student had come across that word in Robert Fagles’ English translation, in a description of waves at the end of Book 2.

Struck and his teaching assistants took up the query. After discussing how the ancient Greeks perceived and talked about colors—noting, for instance, their linguistic predilection for deriving color-related terms from material objects—they delved into the original Greek text.

The word Homer used at this junction is porphyreos.

“A famous dye in antiquity is linked to this term,” Struck remarked. “A purple dye—a very dark color coming from seashells connected with the Phoenicians. And this purple color, a very rich and very expensive kind of dye, is often connected with extreme wealth.”

To which one of his assistants added: “Think about all the shells that would have to be mined for just a little bit of purple dye.”

It is hard to imagine such a well-informed (if esoteric) question arising in a typical undergraduate discussion section. And this was one of countless comments, in this course and others, that seemed to demonstrate the value of gigantic class sizes—particularly when they encompass students of all ages and origins.

For Al Filreis, the Kelly Professor of English and another web-wise faculty member, channeling this dynamic was the whole point of giving Coursera a whirl.

“Is this phenomenon of the MOOC, which is really not all that different from what we’ve had before, is it different from Open CourseWare?” he asked me in January. “It seems to me that we are in danger of creating this sexy, hyped-up mode that’s not different from OCW. And if that’s the case, then why don’t we just just put it online? We don’t need a platform for it.”

He designed his Coursera course, “Modern and Contemporary American Poetry,” to answer that question.

“I wanted to test the hypothesis that these courses could actually be somewhat like humanities courses ought to be, in my opinion, which is, characterized by interaction, questions being asked and answered, and discussion rather than lecture. So ModPo was intended not to be teacher-centered teaching, but learner-centered learning.”

It was filmed in the Kelly Writers House, at a table where Filreis either led a seminar discussion with half a dozen Penn students, or delegated one of them to lead it. Filreis and those teaching assistants participated heavily in Coursera’s online forums, and hosted seven live webcasts in which they interacted with distant learners.

In the first one, Filreis issued a spontaneous and impassioned defense of “over-reading,” an activity whose indispensability to decoding modern poetry may explain why so many people avoid poems.

“When I go and buy a car,” he began, abruptly adding that he only buys used ones, “I go and I ask a lot of questions. And the salesperson never says to me, ‘I think you’re over-reading the situation.’ No, I am kicking those tires! I am looking under that hood! I am not going to drive that car away without over-reading! And no one thinks I’m over-reading. I’m a consumer!

“When I fell in love with my wife-to-be,” he continued, “I over-read the situation. I really did. I didn’t skim the surface. I didn’t say, ‘Well this is not something I should interpret very carefully, I’m just going to go with my feelings.’ No! That’s not a good idea!

“And I want to put poetry up there with used cars and marriage. I want poetry to be that important. I want you to take it seriously! I want you to over-read it!”

For the next two months, people did—hitting the online discussion boards to the tune of almost 100,000 posts and nearly one million page views, numbers that continued to climb even after the class had ended. For Filreis, the experience served as proof of concept—at least the concept that a professor willing to do “twice” the work of a traditional class in a MOOC’s first iteration, and “exactly the same” amount in subsequent ones, can accomplish a lot.

“The MOOC has the chance to be a community of learners who work with each other, and create a sense that they’re doing it together,” he says. “That’s the revolution—but it hasn’t been utilized. Partly because the people who really pushed the MOOCs in the first place are from STEM disciplines [science, technology, engineering, and math], particularly engineering, where you can write a quiz that appropriately tests comprehension and ability.”

The mythology and poetry classes featured computer-graded quizzes—Filreis calls his “silly”—but also peer-graded essays. I actually found the latter element to be surprisingly valuable, since the process of grading five other students’ work forced me to master the material to a greater degree than if I’d only had to write my own. It also seemed to produce pretty reliable evaluations. After the course, I asked Struck to grade one of my peer’s papers and (unbeknown to him) one of my own. He scored the first almost exactly as I had, and reckoned that my paper merited an A-minus, which was more or less what my Coursera peers thought.

“There is a set of assumptions that haven’t been explored,” Filreis adds. “One is that that the pedagogy is lecture. That’s wrong! And the assumption also is that to teach a MOOC you have to give up contact with students. That’s wrong, too. Then there’s an assumption that these are automated—you put it in the can and push the start button and the course will teach itself. That’s wrong also.”

While I was taking Greek and Roman Mythology, Rochelle Rabin C’74 was taking “Listening to World Music” from Penn music professor Carol Muller. She experienced the power of crowd-scale participation again and again.

“When we studied Tuvan throat music, one of the issues was that while the Soviet Union ruled over Tuva, the Tuvans had to suppress their indigenous customs,” she recalls. “There was a guy in the class who had grown up in that area, who was able to post about what it was like living there under the Soviet Union!”

“The fact that people from all around the world were part of the class,” she adds, “was as much a part of the learning process as anything that the professor brought in.”

My experience was different, perhaps because I spent less time surfing the class comment boards. Partly that was because it was challenging enough for a working parent of small children just to get through the lectures—even at 1.25x speed, where I eventually found my groove. But it also seemed that for every commenter who enriched Struck’s lecture about the cult of Apollo with a Thucydides citation, there were two more just casting around for fellow “neo-Pagan/Wiccans.” I preferred to rely on Struck’s ability to curate a more reliably enlightening discussion in his screenside chats.

That seems to have been an invigorating challenge for Struck. “Conversations in [traditional] class tend to be more targeted,” he says. “They tend to be funneled down avenues down which a lecturer and my TAs steer it. Which gives it a chance to go a little deeper, but it’s not as creative on the students’ part.

“The discussion on the forums was much more multivalent,” he adds. “I mean, there were hundreds of interesting threads to follow from people who were engaging with the material … The creativity of a huge crowd-sourced group was apparent—their ability to come up with new ideas, and vote them up or down.

“When I started off,” Struck concludes, “I had a mixture of excitement at the newness of it all, and a little bit of skepticism as to whether it would be at all possible in a forum like this to do the things I really care about. And that skepticism, that’s melting away. There’s enough that’s proving for me that, for those who follow along with the course, we can get a lot of substantive things done in this format.”

That’s a matter of some consequence, because Greek and Roman Mythology is now being offered for college credit—only not by Penn.

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