Reworking a Course Into an Online Format: 'Sort of Like Moving'

Courtesy of Peter T. Struck

June 11, 2012

The Chronicle asked four professors teaching free online courses to describe their experiences. See the rest here.

Peter T. Struck, associate professor of classical studies, University of Pennsylvania

Course Provider: Coursera

Course Title: "Greek and Roman Mythology"


Q. Why did you sign up to teach a Massive Open Online Course?

A. It's an experiment and an interesting and challenging one. I want to see what is possible in this format. I'm skeptical and interested both at once, so I guess that means I'm intrigued. It's going to be a class size that is two orders of magnitude greater than anything I've done before.

Q. What's it like so far? Briefly describe what a typical "day" of online teaching is like.

A. Right now I'm shooting the video segments. This has already been a really useful exercise. Reworking the course into a new format is sort of like moving. You find things in the version of the course you know well and wonder, Now why did I hang onto that? And then you run into other things and are reminded of why they're so important. It's a really profitable thing to do, just for rethinking your aspirations for what you want your students to learn.

Q. What needs to happen for you to consider the course a success?

A. I think it will be pretty clear whether it's a good experience for those in the course. We will have mass, and probably pretty instantaneous, judgments from those taking the class about whether it's working. I have never been one to dismiss students' course evaluations, as though I didn't trust their judgment. They're going to be signing up and giving their hours, if not their dollars, to keep up with the work. I trust they will judge my lectures on whether I'm helping advance them in their goal of learning.

I'm used to course evaluations at Penn, but the scale of this is entirely different. They will also probably be entirely free of the varnishes that likely color the ones I get in face-to-face classes—from institutional buy-in, personal attachment, etc. These will be probably pretty unedited, and that's healthy, though I'm preparing for it to be sometimes bracing, too.

Q. Has anything surprised you about the students who signed up for your course?

A. That there are 15,000 of them! I haven't started teaching yet.

Q. Do you have any concerns going into the course—about format, implications for universities, or any other aspect of this unusual venture?

A. Sure—I have lots of concerns. The biggest one is whether I can produce in this environment the experiential engagement and personal investment that I think is the critical distinction between knowledge and wisdom, and between data transfer and education. Great education is transformative. Data transfer isn't. I know that this environment is an efficient way to add to the aggregate hard drives of human brains, but is it adequate to reshape the processor and its capabilities? I have only ever known this kind of transformation to happen in a high-touch, personal educational environment, built on give-and-take interaction. I'm not sure a static format (no matter how nuanced it is) will be very good at preparing people to know how to be wrong, for example, or figuring out what to do with their ignorance, or deciding when is the proper time to feel pity and when to feel fear.