Course: Mao to Now: On Chinese Marxism
Length: 6 weeks
School/platform: University of Newcastly (AU)/edX
Instructor: Roland Boer

Rather than praising or condemning, the course focuses on building a deeper understanding of this history through two interwoven elements.
The first structures the course in terms of some ‘red tourism’ to the sites important to the communist revolution in the first half of the twentieth century.
Much of the course footage was filmed on location in China, including Shaoshan, Ruijin, Yan’an and important locations in Beijing, such as Tiananmen and the Nationalities Museum (minzuyuan).
The second element of the course will take those experiences and use them to help answer some fundamental questions:
    • Is China socialist or capitalist today, or is it perhaps both at one and the same time?
    • Is there such a thing as Chinese socialist democracy, and, if so, what is it?
    • Does China have its own theory of human rights, drawn from the long Chinese tradition and Marxism?
    • If the Chinese state is a form that has not been seen before, then what is it?

I really liked the structure of this course: each week after the first covered a location important to Mao’s life, from his birthplace to the location of the first Chinese soviet to the end of the Long March to the mausoleum at Beijing. Lectures are shot at various locations in those cities, in one of the most on-site moocs I’ve taken.

However, I’m left with the feeling that this was a very one-sided picture. In fact, if the Chinese government produced a mooc on Mao, I’m guessing it would look a lot like this, and given the extended access for filming lectures, I have to wonder if there was any outside influence on content. For example, I’m not sure how it’s possible to discuss Mao’s influence on China without mentioning the Cultural Revolution. But then, I’m the first to admit I know virtually nothing about modern China. Some scenes had me wondering if there was a subtext: for example, the video scenes of National Day celebrations in Tianamen Square, while discussing the enormous crowds gathering from the early hours and the respectful and celebratory atmosphere, all featured generous phalanxes of soldiers and police. I looked through some images of typical Fourth of July celebrations in Washington, DC, but I wouldn’t draw any conclusions based on such a casual experiment.

Grading took a variety of forms: most of the points came from multiple choice midterm and final exams, but peer instruction quizzes contributed significantly as well: single questions with four options for an answer. After entering a short explanation of one’s choice, the reasoning other students used for each answer was displayed before final submission of an answer. Additionally, participation in class polls earned a small number of points. I found it interesting to have so much exposure to what others were thinking, and it’s always nice to have different forms of evaluation. On the forums, I ran into a Chinese student I’d met in an earlier ancient Chinese philosophy course. Hang around moocs enough, and you start to recognize a lot of names.

Prof. Boer refers to himself as a Christian Communist; he teaches both in Australia and in China. Overall, I’d call the course a biography, with elements of political theory, history, and philosophy. In spite of, or perhaps because of the strong point of view differing from the one I’ve been exposed to in the US, I enjoyed the material, particularly the more philosophical mentions of how Chinese Marxism blended in both Confucius and the Dao and evolved over time to form its own flavor of socialism. But I still think far too much was skimmed over, even for a basic overview course.

Medieval Spanish Manuscripts MOOC

Course: Deciphering Secrets: Unlocking the Manuscripts of Medieval Burgos (Spain)
Length: 7 weeks
School/platform: Universidad Carlos III de Madrid/edX
Instructors: Roger L. Martínez-Dávila

• Garner knowledge and assess the history of medieval Spanish intercultural coexistence in the city of Burgos and the Kingdom of Castile and Leon
• Explore the world of medieval manuscripts and texts held in the archives of the Cathedral of Burgos and the city of Burgos
• Learn the craft of medieval paleography, or reading authentic handwritten manuscripts
• Transcribe medieval manuscripts and contribute to new scholar knowledge

By now, everybody expects the Spanish Inquisition (sorry, I just had to say it).

This was a natural extension of the earlier codicology course, focusing on paleography. But at heart it’s a history course – and at that, a real history course, since it’s one of the few history moocs I’ve taken that paid proper respect to original documents and historical research.

We led off with typical exposition of major events on the Iberian peninsula during the late middle ages, particularly as they elapsed in the town of Burgos. Included were museum tours of beautiful artifacts complete with stories: an 11th century ivory chest originally crafted by Andalusian Muslims, then adapted to serve as a repository for Christian relics after the Reconquista; a case for holding balls associated with some sort of Muslim game, carved from an elephant’s trunk so large, the curve isn’t apparent, likewise appropriated during conquest; silver dishes and gold pendants found buried by the Jews of Briviesca when their homes were burned in the (dashed) hopes they could return to claim their family treasures. I kept remembering Ta-Nehisi Coates’ theory that racism is fundamentally about plunder, and hate is just a means to that end. It was a bit creepy to be taking this course while, in the US, Jewish community centers were receiving bomb threats in escalating numbers, several Jewish cemeteries were vandalized, and at least two people were murdered because they looked Muslim (turns out, they weren’t, but that’s beside the point). Even in Canada, slaughter broke out at a mosque. This is why we must know history, because we are living it, repeating it right now, and we can change that if we are willing.

The second half of the course dealt with transcribing documents, which is where paleography came in. It’s something I’d very much like to learn; alas, I didn’t get very far, in spite of the recommended SILReST technique (Scan, Identify easy letters, Locate common words, Recognize abbreviations, etc). I have a feeling manuscript transcription is one of those things I just have to keep doing until I get the hang of it and can “see” words instead of squiggles. I’d spent several hours working on a French poem during the previous class, but didn’t get very far so I finally found someone who could help. Google Translate is useless, since abbreviations are used frequently, the spellings are often archaic, and just figuring out which letters are written is a major challenge in the first place.

The course material assures us that no Spanish is necessary for the course, but there’s no denying some familiarity is of great help. I can’t praise the other students in the course highly enough for their willingness to help and share ideas on the forums. We worked through several issues together such as: is this word vinoor como? Parrador, partador, pairador? I was quite excited to discover that the word I’d thought was “abdat” turned out to be cidbat (the “c” and “i” overly compressed), which is the medieval version of ciudad, city, emphasized by its proximity to the abbreviated form of Burgos. Yes, this is what I consider fun, you got a problem with that?

A focus of the course seemed to be on training and recruiting volunteer “citizen scholars” to help with the transcription of the documents so they can be used in historical research. History is, after all, based on documents, and the stories of the people of Burgos are to a large extent untold as town records gather dust in the archives.

That might be another reason I had such a hard time with the paleography section: in terms of content, these were some of the most boring manuscripts around. Instead of scientific or philosophical texts or literary material, these were more or less property transfer deeds: who sold what to whom under what conditions. In fact, the semantic content was never addressed at all, merely the transcription. I understand the importance of these documents: this is the gritty work of the historian, examining documentary evidence of the relationships of civic and ecclesiastical power in the town as well as the dealings between Jews and Christians. It was just very hard to get excited about it, in spite of the stirring prelude video about the forgotten lives to be uncovered:

Welcome to the Cathedral of Burgos. The Cathedral is the guardian of almost 1000 years of history. The memory of long ago lives still reside here, their hopes and worries, their friendships and enmities, their commitments and broken promises. Patiently they wait, wait to commune with us. Perhaps they walk alongside of us, here in the cloister, escorting us past guarded areas, whisking us past heavy doors, carefully guiding us past the realm of natural light, step by step, an to the home of memories: to the cathedral’s archive.
Thousands upon thousands of individuals like you, like me, carefully cocooned in leather and vellum, their lives now on paper and parchment. Their lives are the true treasure of the archive. It’s time to meet them.

I’m sorry, gentle friends; you’ll have to wait for someone else, since I’m simply not up to the task of hearing you at this time.

By coincidence, at the same time the Citizen Scholar program was unfolding, I got an email from my local library about a similar project: a set of 18th and 19th century state records are waiting for volunteers to digitize them so the information will be more readily available to historians interested in New England. Lives of the past from all over wait for us, as we will wait for historians of the future.

Future installments of this series include similar courses focusing on Toledo and Grenada.

Perry Mason Goes Global: International Law MOOC

Map of course enrollment

Map of course enrollment

Course: International Law
Length: 8 weeks
School/platform: Université catholique de Louvain/edX
Instructors: Pierre d’Argent

International law can be considered as the law of the international community, the law that governs relations between States. But it also relates to what international organizations do and, increasingly, it concerns individuals, corporations, NGO’s and other non-state actors.
…Despite their differences in size, power, culture, religion and ideologies, states rely on international law to cooperate and to coexist; they speak the language of international law and international law serves them as an important common language.
This law course will extensively rely on judgments and advisory opinions of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations (UN).
…This course will teach you what international law is, the role it plays in the world today, how it can be used. You will also gain knowledge to help you better discern legal arguments within the flow of international news and reports.

I signed up for this course out of curiosity, figured I’d drop it very quickly, but the content turned out to be far more interesting than I’d expected. There’s nothing particularly special about the presentation style – it’s lecture-reading-quiz-final with three live hangouts – and it’s not an easy course; I found it challenging. And, by the way, I spent more than the 5 – 7 hours/wk estimated in the course overview (but then, I usually do. I’m slow), more like 10 hours. But I was interested throughout.

The prerequisite recommendation states:

“No prior knowledge of international law is required. However, students should be familiar with the requirements of graduate-level courses and should preferably have already followed some law courses in order to be familiar with legal concepts and legal language.”

Most of my prior knowledge of legal concepts comes from Law & Order. My repetitive re-watching of The West Wing was probably more helpful. But I think it was all those logic and philosophy courses, sorting out text written in unfamiliar styles about mysterious il-peace-palaceconcepts, that did me the most good. And reading fiction, because putting myself in someone else’s head is good practice for everything.

Even though I’m by nature a reader, the required readings were complicated and took more concentration than usual. And, by the way, whereas in a lot of humanities moocs you can skip the readings because the lectures will explain them, that isn’t the case here; the readings are crucial. While some are backed up in lectures, others aren’t, and the quizzes depend on being able to find particular legal reasonings in them. The most frequently referenced readings are provided in a 120-page PDF packet of a dozen or so documents, most predominantly the UN Charter, the Statute of the International Court of Justice, the Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts (affectionately referred to as ARSIWA), and the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. Additionally, case studies with excerpts from individual ICJ decisions were interwoven with video lectures, readings which featured a couple of pages of this kind of thing:

95. The Court first notes that resolution 1244 (1999) must be read in conjunction with the general principles set out in annexes 1 and 2 thereto, since in the resolution itself, the Security Council: “1. Decide[d] that a political solution to the Kosovo crisis shall be based on the general principles in annex 1 and as further elaborated in the principles and other required elements in annex 2.” Those general principles sought to defuse the Kosovo crisis first by ensuring an end to the violence and repression in Kosovo and by the establishment of an interim administration. A longer-term solution was also envisaged, in that resolution 1244 (1999) was to initiate

“[a] political process towards the establishment of an interim political framework agreement providing for a substantial selfgovernment for Kosovo, taking full account of the Rambouillet accords and the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the other countries of the region, and the demilitarization of the KLA…”

It’s one of those “find the words that matter” situations (and, in this case, find Annex 1 and 2, not to mention knowing what Resolution 1244(1999) was). A good portion of what I’d say I learned in the course was how to read legalese, because some words are more important than others, and it isn’t always obvious which ones they are. For example: “national troops put at the disposal of the UN” is not the same as “the UN Army.” To those sensitive to military or legal procedures, this is probably glaringly obvious, but to those of us with less sophistication, it’s tricky.

This “learning how to read” orientation was emphasized in the final lecture, after an acknowledgement that we’d only scratched the surface:

…its ambition was to teach you the essentials of international law — so that, with this knowledge about the structural concepts and rules of the international legal order, you could by yourself continue to learn more about international law and more about its sub-fields.
The only thing I tried to do through this course was to introduce you to the language and the grammar of international law. International law is a professional language of justification. In order to engage in the argumentative practice of international law, you need to be familiar with its concepts and fundamental rules, and see how they fit together as a normative system.

What I lacked most of all was a detailed understanding of some pretty major world events over the past 60 years, things I’ve heard of but I’m your average lazy provincial and hey, it’s over there somewhere and doesn’t have anything to do with me so I didn’t really have more than a general idea at best what was going on. The breakup of the Western Balkans. The Palestinian Wall. Lockerbie. Legal cases resulting from these events featured prominently, usually with a very narrow focus on one particular legal issue or UN action, but it would’ve helped if I’d had more background. Fortunately, there’s Google, and it’s just a matter of finding a reliable source.

Topics ranged from principles of international law to specific cases demonstrating those principles. Both concepts and detailed workings of treaties, the UN Security Council, the International Court of Justice, and the International Criminal Court were featured in separate weeks. It’s a lot of content. If I were to do it again, I’d pay a lot more attention to the cases, perhaps listing them separately as to what point of law they feature and what convention or charter that derives from. I’d also do a lot more outlining/memorizing of major points: what are the elements of statehood? What are the political means of dispute resolution, and what are the differences? That sort of thing.

Genuinely amusing moments: a reference to “Canadian Insurgents” in a lecture about imminent threat of force; ok, so you have to go back to 1837 to call a Canadian an insurgent, but it made me smile. I was also tickled to discover there is a Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects in force: even though the maker/launcher/owner of the space object is not at fault, it is still liable for damages (and, since the Convention went into force in the 70s, there hasn’t been a single instance of a manmade-space-object injury outside of a TC Boyle short story, as any obsessed The West Wing fan can tell you – but just in case, there’s law for that). And by the way, it’s a lot of fun to hear something in a movie or TV show and holler, “Hey, I know what reservations are! I know what the ICC is!”

In my planning post for this course, I made a crack about the “stuffy” graphic they chose to represent the course: a painting of the signing of the Versailles Treaty after WWI. I was gratified when Prof. D’Argent, in the first week’s introductory materials, acknowledged the male whiteness of the image, as well as the ambiguous result of the treaty, as WWII continued WWI within barely a generation, and we still feel the aftereffects of the reshuffling of borders made in that room. We were invited to create our own image of International Law; I chose a proportional infogram of world languages. I wonder what kind of image the words will generate four years from now, given current trends and circumstances.

The forums were very active, but I was a bit intimidated and used them sparingly; the responses I got to a couple of questions were adequate. The hangouts seemed to be mostly repeats of lecture material. Again, a lot of this impression is due to my insecurity about my level of general preparedness; YMMV. Finer distinctions and opportunities for more fluent discussion may well present to those with more experience in law or international relations.

But as I said up front, the content was incredibly interesting, discovering all the little details that go into one state complaining about another, the rules of treaty negotiation, and how law happens to begin with. I’m not sure who the intended audience is – law students? Lawyers? Policy aides? The general public? – but I was so pleased with the course, I’ve signed up for two of the subsequent modules on International Humanitarian, and Human Rights law. I’d say that constitutes a high recommendation for those interested in the topics covered – but be prepared to work.

Medieval Islamic MOOC

Course: The Legacy of Islamic Civilization
Length of course: 4 weeks
School/platform: Biblioteca Alexandria / edX
Instructors: Shereen El Kabbani, Sarah Nagaty

How would you like to know about the Muslim civilization, its valuable contributions, and its role in the revival of the Greek Classics?
This is not a course about Islam or the Islamic civilization, it is a course that is intended to give a brief overview and a basic introduction to the achievements of Muslim civilization in the fields of physics, biology, mathematics and astronomy in a concise manner. Although it starts by giving a brief introduction to the emergence of Islam, its main focus is on the contributions of Muslim scientists and philosophers to world history and culture.
The course is a foundational step for those who wish to further read about, or study, the contributions of Muslims in the diverse areas of knowledge.

When I took Duke’s neuroscience mooc The Brain and Space, I was introduced to Ibn al-Haytham (aka Alhazen) via his reversal of Plato’s extramission theory of vision to intromission. In several math courses, I’ve heard about Al-Khwarizmi and his mathematical system of “restoration” (al-jabr) that became algebra. The palace of Alhambra in Spain makes regular appearances on Jeopardy!, and if you’ve redecorated your kitchen in the past couple of decades, you might have used Spanish tilework without realizing the glazing techniques and artistic styles were developed and perfected during the Islamic rule of Spain. We’ve all heard of Marco Polo, but Ibn Battuta travelled from Morocco to the Middle East to India and China and also wrote about his journeys.

Considering the breadth of these accomplishments, I was very happy to see a course that covered the medieval contributions of the Islamic empire to us all. Unfortunately, there’s only so much a four-week course can cover, and this turned out to be more surface-level than the materials I’d already encountered. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad course; it means it’s a survey course.

I got quite a lot out of the first week, which described the growth of the medieval Islamic empire in a more structured way than I’d previously seen. This was quite helpful, seeing it in “chunks” instead of by this ruler or that country. But I’m afraid the rest of it turned into a list: this guy wrote that book, that guy did astronomy and math, here’s where they set up a translation institute and over there’s the library. The section that worked best for me was the one I knew the least about: architecture.

I think the take-home there is: if you need a survey-level course, this could work quite nicely, but if you’re looking for something more in-depth to add to a basic understanding of the contributions of Islamic scholars of the medieval period, either prepare to use the course as a scaffold for your own explorations, or pursue another avenue.

Big History MOOC

Course: Big History: Connecting Knowledge
School/platform: Macquarie University (Coursera)
Instructors: David Christian, David Baker

We currently face unprecedented challenges on a global scale. These problems do not neatly fall into disciplines. They are complicated, complex, and connected. Join us on this epic journey of 13.8 billion years starting at the Big Bang and travelling through time all the way to the future. Discover the connections in our world, the power of collective learning, how our universe and our world has evolved from incredible simplicity to ever-increasing complexity.

Thirteen billion years in six weeks. Now that’s what I call a survey course.

I suspect this course is intended for high schoolers, maybe college freshmen, since the University offers a unique scholarship opportunity for those who complete the Verified version of this MOOC. I’m not too sure of the details – if they’re talking about one course, about a specific program, or how many students they accept this way – but it’s an interesting approach.

bh cosmoThe course is built around their “Big History” concept of using both scientific and historical research methods to create a modern cross-cultural origin story for all humans (which is a hard sell to those who are perfectly happy with their own cultural origin stories, thank you very much) via the use of nine Thresholds such as the beginning of the universe, the formation of stars, the appearance of life on earth, the evolution of humans, and the modern era. The course defines these thresholds by four criteria: increase in complexity, the “Goldilocks” conditions that were necessary for them to happen, the changes in energy flows, and the emergence of something new, be it a universe, life on earth, or the use of fossil fuels.

The first week was a detailed explanation of this process, including a little epistemology via the introduction of a four-pronged “claim tester” – intuition, evidence, logic, and authority – to evaluate how we decide what to believe. Lots of rubrics in use here, which may be why it took all of the first week to explain them all. The rest of the course proceeded chronologically. Weeks 2 and 3 were primarily science: (cosmology, evolution), the fourth and fifth week began with archaeology and turned into history, and the last week speculated about the future. The idea wasn’t to understand any of these individual topics in detail, but to look at the transitions between the thresholds and the overall path.

As a supplement to the course videos, lead professor David Baker wrote up a set of scripts for the Green brothers’ Crash Course series on Youtube; this is available to anyone. Each week also included a timeline and glossary, and in most cases, optional articles on relevant topics. A multiple-choice quiz ends every week (unlimited attempts are allowed, though only three tries can occur in any 8-hour period) and a peer-assessment essay, graded almost entirely by completion rather than content, is required at the end of the course.

I signed up for this course because one of my mooc buddies (hi, Richard) mentioned he was taking it. To be fair, he also warned me he’d dropped it once before because it contained insufficient detail, but he’s got more science knowledge than I do so I figured I’d give it a shot. I was disappointed by the absence of detail on any individual topic, and there wasn’t any real investigation of how history and science often interact, with one sometimes impeding, sometimes enhancing, the other. I did, however, very much like an article on critical thinking from Week 1, and during the cosmology section, I did some poking around to find more detailed information and discovered something called Planck’s length which I’m quite taken with. You can get something out of anything if you put some effort into it.

I think the course is probably of far more interest to someone with limited academic experience beyond high school, or perhaps someone who wants a gentle return to academics after a hiatus. The overview approach might also make a good prelude to some of the more detailed courses like Origins, Cal Tech’s Solar System Astronomy, or UVA’s The Modern World (now available in two parts), or for that matter, any of the earth science, astronomy, or history courses floating around on various mooc platforms.

China MOOC

Course: China (Part 1): Political and Intellectual Foundations: From the Sage Kings to Confucius and the Legalists
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructors: Peter K. Bol, William C. Kirby

Part 1 includes an overview of China, historically, geographically, and culturally, starting with the origins and legitimation of what we come to know as China and includes an exploration of the integral thinkers (Confucius, Laozi etc.) of the early period.

I’ve been following a lot of outspoken critics of math education in the US, but I have this dubious reassurance for them: schools do just as lousy a job with history (not to mention literature). Ask any 17-year-old what history is, and she’ll almost invariably say something about names and dates, wars, battles, kings, presidents. At least, that’s what I said when I was 17. I hated history in high school, and it wasn’t until a chance encounter in a college elective that I discovered history is about choices and decisions and cultural norms and societal pressures, about fears and hopes and pain and desire. History isn’t about what happened, it’s about why it happened, and the evidence and reasoning that supports such a claim.

Courses like this, understand the difference. I highly recommend this to anyone who wants to know a little more about China, or who wants to get over the trauma of high school history.

This was only the first of a series of 10 courses, available for the next year. While they can be taken in any order and can be taken individually, I started at the beginning mostly because I know virtually nothing about Chinese history. I was going to wait until the end of this 10-course series to write up a summary; after all, how can I summarize something when I’ve only experienced one-tenth of it? But the first tenth was so good, and the second tenth seems to be rolling along on the same track, that I decided to jump the gun and do the summary now so that anyone so inspired would have plenty of time to complete the whole series – or any part of it, if that’s how you want to do it – by the final due date of June 2017. Although the preview info lists the courses as 5 weeks in length, the first segment took me a little less than 3 weeks, but I only had one other course going at the time.

I’ve noticed that I tend to like moocs that use a variety of different approaches to covering course material. This course uses conversations about concepts, readings both of ancient texts and scholarly analytical works, conversations about artifacts, “office hours” discussions of forum comments and student questions, and formal auditorium lectures as well as the standard to-camera lectures. Assignments include short-answer analysis of philosophical readings and guessing at archaeological implications, peer-assessed short essays, and standard multiple-choice questions. Fun stuff includes creative interpretations of “The Dynasty Song” (the twelve dynasties, sung to the tune of “Frère Jacques”) and diagrams of Cosmic Resonance theory. It’s a lot more fun than memorizing names and dates, and oh by the way: when the names and dates are part of the context of a memorable story, they’re a lot easier to remember.

And just to underline that: at the start of the second installment, there’s some speculation about some of the possible reasons the Qin dynasty failed so quickly. One of the reasons mentioned was the emperor’s obsession with obtaining a drug of immortality on a fabled Island of the Fairies, draining resources. Something clicked, and I remembered a story I’d read in One Story that fictionalized an historical search by an ancient Chinese sailor. A moment of searching brought up Jake Wolff’s “The History of Living Forever” which I’d read and blogged nearly four years ago. I hadn’t remembered the details, wasn’t even sure it was based on the same history (it is), but I remembered enough to find out. That’s what a story can do, that memorizing lists of names and dates can’t touch.

Archaeology, religion and philosophy, political struggle, geographical realities that impact upon human choices: it’s an excellent course that ties it all together using different modes of engagement. Highly recommended.

Civilized MOOC

“Greek fire”, 7th C

Course: Western Civilization: Ancient and Medieval Europe
School: Arizona State University via edX
Instructors: Dr. Ian Frederick Moulton et al

[W]e will explore European civilization from its beginnings in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to the voyages of Christopher Columbus. We will study politics, warfare, trade, religion, art, culture, and daily life, as well as the legacy of ancient and medieval civilizations to the modern world.

Remember those “Eight countries in 10 days” European tours that were so popular in the 60s? This course reminded me a lot of those: a whirlwind trip through the famous historic and cultural landmarks of 4000 years in 7 weeks. It’s part of Arizona State University’s Global Freshman Academy, where students can, if exam proctoring conditions are met and a (signficant) fee paid, earn ASU credit upon passing (whether or not that credit will transfer to other schools is uncertain). And as a seven-week Freshman course covering upwards of 4000 years of civilization, it’s pretty good.

Mesopotamia and Egypt were dispatched in the first week, Greece in the second, Rome in the third. Then, an interesting twist: a week on Israel and the Jewish People; this caused some consternation as a lecture recounting the basic plot of Genesis and Exodus served as an introduction, rather than showing up in the Religion or Cultural section. This was defended by the view that a culture’s beliefs are the best way of understanding the people, which is a good point, but I still wonder if the lecture should have made more clear the distinction between factually supported history and cultural belief. Byzantium got itself a week, and the Middle Ages in Western Europe was split up over two weeks.

Each unit included subchapters on the elements listed above: politics and war, trade, religion, culture, etc. I was impressed that primary sources – in translation and edited, of course – were included for most subchapters, works like the legend of Gilgamesh, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Genesis, Cicero, Pope Urban’s call to the First Crusade, and Boccaccio’s Decameron. I was a bit amused that the first canto of the Inferno from Dante’s Divine Comedy was included under the heading of “Daily Life”; I would’ve expected to see it in religion, culture, or even politics (since he wrote it as an exile and included numerous mentions of Guelphs and Ghibellines) but they defended that choice by invoking the stories of Paulo and Francesca and other Florentine contemporaries.

Each week included a quiz and a set of “flashcards” via Cerego. I’ve seen Cerego used in other courses; it’s quite an interesting idea, and great where memorization of many elements is important (I found it invaluable when learning amino acids, though I let it slide and have forgotten them all). Here, the only requirement was to get to Level 1, which is more or less useless.

Discussion questions were posted each week. I’ve rather soured on discussion questions, since they tend to generate more or less identical responses parroting the lectures from most students. I think discussion questions could do other things (as they did in the Egypt course, for that matter), such as invite speculative inquiry on how something might happen prior to lectures, but that isn’t how they’re typically used.

Students taking the credited course were required to take some of the exams under proctored conditions (the rest of us just proceeded as usual). I can’t even deal with the requirements of verification, let alone instructions like “no one may enter or leave the room” or “no radio or tv or voices can be present.” I heard there were some technical issues early on, but I didn’t pay much attention; those counting on earning credit should be more diligent as to contingency plans.

In addition to the quizzes, Cerego, and two exams, a Design Project accounted for 5% to the total score for the course. The assignment was extremely vague – do something, a paper, video, podcast, music, magazine article – to demonstrate understanding of some objective of the course. Grading was by self-assessment. This is the second time I’ve run into a “do something” project with a low bar for passing, and while I appreciate the opportunity for creativity and self-direction, I’m dubious about the value of self-assessment on such a loosely defined project. A few students shared their efforts, as we were encouraged to do, and these showed some interesting creativity: a “newly discovered” Platonic dialog, a series of letters between fictional citizens of Rome, a blog post researching Hadrian’s Wall.

As a freshman level survey course, I think this was successful; in fact, extra points for including primary documents, and for looking beyond battles, kings, and dates. It wasn’t what I was hoping for, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value for what it is.

MOOC like an Egyptian

Course: Ancient Egypt: A history in six objects
School: University of Manchester (UK) via Coursera
Instructors: Drs. Joyce Tyldesley, Glenn Godenho, Campbell Price

As its name indicates, the course is a history of ancient Egypt based on six objects housed in the collections of the Manchester Museum, in the north-west of England. These objects, which range in date from the Predynastic Period to the Greco-Roman Period, have been carefully chosen to illustrate some of the most important stages of Egyptian culture. By looking in detail at these wonderful artefacts, and uncovering the fascinating stories that they tell us, we will develop an understanding of this remarkable ancient civilisation.

[Addendum: it appears this course is not in the current Coursera catalog; it may be awaiting conversion to the new platform, or it may have been discontinued)

I confess: I have no interest in pyramids. Kind of puts a damper on any study of Ancient Egypt. But I was intrigued by the approach used by this course: six objects that tell the story of Egypt. Of course, it wasn’t quite that cut-and-dried, but it did make for an interesting structure.

The class was run by the Manchester Museum, so each week contained a couple of videos of archaeologists and Egyptologists talking about several objects, from bowls used for funerary rites to statues to tomb paintings to tools. Because Ancient Egypt was so long ago – four thousand years – most of the materials come from burial chambers, and since most of those were looted in antiquity, we’re lucky to have anything at all. In spite of that, we saw a wide variety of materials and heard a great deal about Ancient Egypt beyond pyramids. Fun fact: animals were mummified, too. Ibises. Crocodiles.

What I liked most about the course was the variety of learning activities. Now, I hate the phrase “learning activity”, it always sounds like second grade, but it happens to be descriptive here. Weekly activities included very short readings on historical chronology, fact sheets on the objects of discussion, and period-specific maps. There were a couple of video lectures loaded with photographic documentation of the subject under discussion, and, most interestingly, two or three videos of pairs of Manchester Museum academic experts hanging out in a cluttered museum storeroom, conversationally discussing various objects connected with the period – tools, art, pottery, coffins, a crocodile mummy.

Each week concluded with a quiz and an”activity” (shudder), generally a scavenger hunt through museum websites to find objects that interested us personally, which we would share on the discussion forums. This turned out to be a lot of fun: I found a statue of the goddess Bast (famous to fans of The West Wing), some tiny pieces made from hippopotamus ivory, and an adorable 5000-year-old bowl on two feet.

The peer-assessed final project was likewise creative in nature: shadow the course by putting together a set of six objects to represent Ancient Egypt, either as a whole or of some individual period, in some way. We were invited to be creative, given license to use slide shows or videos instead of essays. The assignments I saw were all essays, but I hope some people had fun with it; I would imagine, if a student were more familiar with museums and had access to good Egyptology collection, a video might have been a lot of fun.

The material for all weeks was released at the beginning of the course, though it did proceed on a schedule. I kept with the schedule this time, partly because I was taking so many other courses, and partly because I wanted to take a different approach; usually I skip ahead, but I stayed with the group this time. It worked out fine; for me, it’s a matter of schedule.

And yes, we were in Week 2 or 3 when the US discovered a leading Presidential candidate believes the pyramids were not burial tombs but storage buildings for grain designed by the Hebrew Joseph. Presidential candidates believe all sorts of batshit stuff, but this was one of the batshittiest, made more batshit by the fact that the candidate is, in fact, a (now retired) brain surgeon of great renown. Too bad he didn’t take this course, or he would’ve seen there wasn’t a lot of room in the pyramids, Joseph was way too late for the first pyramids, the unlooted pyramids have coffins and funerary objects in them, and the looted pyramids have the same funereal art and markings on the walls.

I found the course informative and enjoyable. If you’re looking for heavy-duty history or the technical aspects of archaeology, you might be disappointed, but I can recommend it if you’re just interested in knowing more about ancient Egypt.

Revolutionary MOOC (the French Revolution, that is)

Pierre-Antoine Demachy: 'Celebration of Unity,  Destroying the emblems of monarchy,'  Place de la Concorde, 10 August 1793

Pierre-Antoine Demachy: ‘Celebration of Unity, Destroying the emblems of monarchy,’ Place de la Concorde, 10 August 1793

Course: The French Revolution
School: University of Melbourne, Australia; through Coursera (free).
Instructor: Peter McPhee

The French Revolution continues to fascinate us, to inspire us, at times to horrify us. Never before had the people of a large and populous country sought to remake their society on the basis of the principles of liberty and equality. The drama, success and tragedy of their project has attracted students to it for more than two centuries. Its importance and fascination for us are undiminished as we try to understand revolutions in our own times.

This subject examines the history of the French Revolution from its origins to 1799.

[Addendum: This course has been converted to the new Coursera platform; content may have changed, and the experience is likely to be different]

I’ve always been confused by the French Revolution: the good guys and the bad guys keep changing. I now understand it a little better, and I understand my confusion a lot better: the good guys and the bad guys do, indeed, keep changing. It’s what happens when a good idea goes very, very wrong.

The first thing I noticed about the course was the high degree of organization. Not only were weeks set up with a page listing the videos, readings, and assignments, but a Study Guide and Facebook Group was all prepared; later, when peer-assessed writing assignments came due, a “How to Write an Academic Paper” video was released. Because MOOCs are, true to the acronym, open, some students have advanced degrees, while others have had little, or poor-quality, formal schooling. It’s always nice to see a course where the staff is aware of that, and provides options.

The material was typical for a history course: a look at what led up to the Revolution, the key players, the sides, the social, political, and economic forces, and, in one case, an interesting look into historical research techniques: rather than rely on “People were reading Enlightenment literature”, lists of books in libraries, and records from legal encounters with dealers in contraband materials, were examined to see what books different categories of people actually possessed or showed interest in possessing. It’s a little like looking at Amazon’s sales records, instead of publishing figures. Which, of course, is routine marketing today, but I was interested in the notion of methodology. By the way, in 500 private libraries, only one copy of Rousseau’s Social Contract was found; in the records of contraband book manufacturers selling cheap knock-offs, Diderot’s Encyclopedie was far more common – but satirical porn ridiculing Louis XVI was everywhere.

The only grades given for the course were through peer assessment of two written papers; this isn’t unheard of for a humanities course, though it’s not common. It raised some anxiety for the first paper,but less for the second; I don’t know if the worriers dropped out, or if most people were satisfied with their grades and trusted the system. For the record, I felt like I was given a higher grade than I deserved on the first paper (the second paper was graded exactly what I would have given it myself). But it’s always luck of the draw. I overgraded the papers I assessed; I always do, spending my evaluation time on concrete suggestions and/or specific props rather than deciding between one number and another on multiple axes.

The forums were very active, with lots of targeted discussion on questions suggested by the lectures and reading materials. Each week, we were to answer one discussion question, and post it in the forums; I rarely did, since adding a 62nd post saying the same thing as 24 of the preceding posts didn’t seem beneficial to anyone, but some good commentary arose.

It was a good course; I do wish there had been more emphasis on source material. It’s listed as eight weeks, but the last two were entirely given over to the peer evaluation phase; this struck me as a little much, but it was structured to allow an initial evaluation, followed by the release of an “instructor’s suggested response” and potential re-evaluation. Again, some students may never have written a college paper, even a MOOC college paper, before, so I suppose this is supportive, if a bit much. Then again, it was quite nice to have a break.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t particularly inspired by the course, but that’s me; everyone has different tastes and interests (and differing amounts of time to devote to a class). I learned what I hoped to learn, and others were very happy overall, so I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the subject matter. Inspiration is as inspiration does.

Constitutional Law (MOOC)

The first public printing of the U.S. Constitution

The first public printing of the U.S. Constitution

(Addendum: This course has been converted to Coursera’s new platform. It’s been divided into two parts; other content may have changed and the experience will be quite different from that described here.)

Ever hear a voice that’s really familiar, but you just can’t place it? That happened to me last March. I was in the hall (not within eyeshot of the TV) dusting and sweeping to the sounds of the Melissa Harris-Perry show one Sunday morning, when I heard this familiar but unidentifiable voice.Turns out it was Akhil Reed Amar, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale Law School – and the instructor of the Constitutional Law course I’d started back in January. No wonder his voice sounded familiar; I’d been listening to it for a couple of hours a week.

I’d decided to take the course quite a while ago. With the Constitution starring in so many rants, I thought it’d be a good idea to get a better grasp of the details. That’s exactly what happened; it was a thoroughly successful course.

The first six of twelve weeks was based on Amar’s book, The Constitution: A Biography, and covered the text of the Constitution itself. It’s a surprisingly short document – about 7,800 words, roughly equivalent to a full-sized short story – considering that it’s the foundation of American government. Each article, each section, each amendment, has a story: proponents, opponents, and reasons the text turned out the way it did. History is so much more interesting when you see it in action, rather than when you parse it out into names and dates.

The second half of the course was spent on material covered by another of Amar’s books, America’s Unwritten Constitution (uh oh, a strict-constructionist kitten just died). His take on the “unwritten constitution” is a bit more structured than you might think. It includes documents in the American consciousness (the Federalist Papers, the Northwest Ordinance, the Gettysburg address, the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech) which, though written centuries apart, form a self-referential network and reflect core American values. But it also includes the precedents that the Constitution grew from, such as certain tenets in English common law, and the day-to-day customs of Americans – “life as lived,” as Amar puts it. It’s an interesting approach, and he provides good evidence for this point of view, as well as examples of how this has affected interpretation of a document written in an age when people, and news, travelled only as fast as the swiftest horse they could find.

The instruction material was primarily videotaped lectures, with weekly “bonus material” in various forms, often some kind of Q&A with Yale law students (which I didn’t use as much as I could have). Yes, this was one of those “professor tapes the lectures and tosses the keys to grad students who really run the class” things. Sometimes it works, and here, it worked. I found it both educational and enjoyable, as I have two other “I’m a high-powered professor and I don’t have time to read message boards or coddle anyone” courses. I’m not sure why; maybe my own interest in the content, or my highly subjective likes and dislikes; maybe high-powered professors are high-powered for a reason; maybe just their depth of knowledge of the topics, and their undisguisable love of the subject, is enough.

Each lecture started, as does each chapter of his book, with a picture, some of which are featured here. Sometimes the connection was obvious (Benjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die” political cartoon from 1754) and sometimes not (come on, how many Supreme Court justices from days gone by do you recognize?). I found this a wonderful approach; my guesses about the significance of the pictures was in the back of my mind through the lectures, then Prof. Amar explained his choice at the end. Who would’ve guessed so much could be gleaned from what seemed like routine painting?

The three multiple-choice quizzes closely followed the material presented in the lectures; no surprises there. What I most enjoyed was writing the three assigned essays. We were offered three options for each; some clearly were looking for regurgitations of lecture material (which isn’t always a bad thing, especially if you have to research it to make sure you’ve got it right), and some allowed more independent thought (“Suppose you had to defend the right to wear a hat—how would you do it? What kind of arguments would you make?” or, “‘All that we need in the Constitution is right there in the text.’ Attack or defend this statement with at least three distinct arguments, using specific examples to illustrate your points”). I myself used an essay to disagree with Prof. Amar’s disapproval of the Exclusionary Rule. In peer assessment (it’s the only feasible way to grade thousands of essays in a free class, and a clear rubric is provided) I got called out for “tongue-in-cheek”-iness – guilty as charged, but hey, if you’re gonna tell a Yale Law professor who’s been cited in Supreme Court decisions, that he’s wrong, when your legal education consists of twenty years’ experience watching Law & Order, you can’t take yourself too seriously. I learned a lot about the Exclusionary Rule, though. I still disagree with him; I’m probably missing some subtlety.

This was where the message boards would’ve come in handy. Every thread – every post – contained references to multiple legal cases, decisions, precedents. There seemed to be an inordinate number of law experts taking the course; either that, or highly skilled fakers, which may be overlapping sets. I found it overwhelming, so I didn’t use the boards much. But that’s the nice thing about MOOCs – it’s all still there, if I want to go back and take another look at it.

Speaking of message boards… in any course where politics (or literature, or religion, or pretty much anything people hold near and dear yet is open to opinion) is involved, you’re going to get some passionate people expressing themselves. Always interesting.

And in any course where peer assessment is required… well, you know. The availability of a “signature track” seemed to exacerbate this hysteria about peer assessment. I hate signature track. To be honest, I’m still not sure exactly what it is – “Signature Track allows you to securely link your coursework to your identity using webcam photos and typing pattern recognition” sounds downright scary to me – or what kind of benefit it provides (“And it doesn’t even necessarily mean that you didn’t cheat. All it does is make people marginally more likely to believe you when you tell them you got an A-minus”), but from what I can see, it conveys a sense of entitlement upon those who have forked over the $60 (or $30 or $100). They’re indignant that a professor or grad student hasn’t graded their essay, and there’s no way to convince them that for that to happen, you have to get into Yale Law – and find a way to pay a lot more than $60. As I see it, signature track just perpetuates the two-tier system ingrained in education, health care, law, politics. Still, I understand that Coursera must make money, or die.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep taking as many courses as I can. If they’re all as good as this one, I’ll be very happy.