This past semester was…hectic. I could add many other adjectives with differing connotations to that sentence, but needless to say, teaching Wellesley’s first MOOC course, coupled with ordinary professional obligations, coupled with a lot of life, coupled with a few other significant personal and professional happenings, made for a busy semester. Hence my internet silence in this space.
Not surprisingly, one of the first things I wanted to write about in my return to this space is that MOOC (WellesleyX 207x – Introduction to Human Evolution). I wrote about my expectations going into the course a fair amount over the summer last year (see here), but I wanted to start by looking back at the goals I laid out for the course.
1) Dissemination of knowledge about human evolution
My biggest goal for the class was to make an open-access resource for education about human evolution. Course “certificates” were processed today and more than 1000 students successfully passed the course. The online course, 207x, is not equivalent to my on-campus Introduction to Human Evolution seminar, Anthropology 207. The latter is intended to provide students an introduction in human evolution and evolutionary theory in order to equip them to take that knowledge with them into advanced-level college courses. 207x worked off a lot of shared content, but was never meant to achieve the same ends. Yes, it was still intended to provide students with an introduction to human evolution, but with the goal of giving students an enhanced ability to critically engage with representations of human evolution in the public sphere. I feel pretty good about this goal.
In addition to the 1000-plus students who earned certificates, probably about 3x that number were active in some form by the end of the 12th and final week of the course, either watching lecture videos, reading articles, or completing assignments. By the 12th week, that represented a commitment of ~50-60 hours of work…all geared towards human evolution. A Facebook study group that popped up even prior to the launch of the course remains active even now that the course is over, with nearly 1,300 users. But the numbers only tell a small part of the story.
One student, a volunteer docent at the Smithsonian, is making downloaded copies of the course available for other docents interested in improving their knowledge on the subject in order to make them better at what they do:
In any case, it is clear to me that many of my fellow HHO Resource Docents who were unable to take your course would benefit by an enhanced understanding in many topic areas from being able to watch your video lectures and having access to the course maps and summaries and to the items on your course reading list.
One of my goals was that some of the course content might be usable in high school settings, providing students with evolutionary resources prior to college. Along that line:
Thanks for letting me reactivate ‘my inner fish’. I intend to pickup teaching biology again.
I’m a high school Biology teacher and I really enjoyed every lecture. I learned so much and can’t wait to share some of my new knowledge with my students. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to offer all of the content for FREE- wow edx and Professor Van Arsdale- great MOOC!!
2) Pedagogical Improvement
My job is to research human evolution and teach human evolution to Wellesley College students. For the investment in 207x to be worthwhile, it needs to return some value to those students. One of my goals was therefore to use 207x to create more of a flipped classroom environment for my on-campus class, transforming it from a lecture-dominated course to a more seminar-style discussion, with more in-class time dedicated to creative pedagogy.
In its first iteration, I was only partially able to achieve this goal. But even with partial success, this meant that my on-campus 207 class went from being about 80% lecture to about 50% lecture. Next time I teach it, that number will be closer to 20%, with considerable class time freed up to work directly with fossil casts, engage in facilitated but open-ended discussion, and give students more opportunity to bring their own understandings into class. My favorite day of class this past semester was “bipedality day” in which, instead of lecturing on the anatomy and functional morphology of bipedality, I relocated our classroom to the gym and had everyone walk funny. It was great!
So while I did not quite do everything I wanted in this arena (yet), I am optimistic running 207x will continue to improve my teaching of the course at Wellesley.
As an aside, the process of putting together an online course, including the organization, filming, and other production considerations, was itself a valuable experience for me. It is always good to have the opportunity to think about teaching and the different components that go into teaching in a different way.
3) Generate Interest in Evolutionary Studies
Part of my goal of engaging with a public audience was to generate more interest in human evolution and evolutionary studies. 207x offered no credit, in part, because I do not want my teaching to undercut the teaching of my colleagues at peer institutions. One of my final lines from the course was this, “I don’t want 207x to be your last course on this topic, I want it to be your first.”
It is a little difficult for me to directly assess this goal, but again, I have some hints. First, a seemingly large number of my students have enrolled in John Hawks forthcoming course, “Human Evolution: Past and Future” (offered via Coursera).
More than 5000 students with less than a college degree signed up for the course. I have not yet checked the cross-tabs to see what percentage of these students stuck with the course, but that is a large audience, many of them high school students, potentially getting ready to go off to College, hopefully with an enhanced interest in human evolution.
But even beyond these kinds of interactions, my hope is that students from 207x go out into the world as newly critical students of human evolution. To that end:
I’m taking so much away from this class. I can’t wait to go to the nearby museums and caves to not only learn more but to get involved as much as I can.
I spent the day at the American Museum of Natural History today and spent a little time in the Hall of Human Origins. We were there to see a couple of ticketed events, so I didn’t have too much time, but it was amazing to see so many of the fossils we studied in the course in person…I hope to go back soon to spend more time there. If anyone has plans to go and would like company, let me know.
Last weekend I happened to visit the Museum of Man in San Diego, where I live, and had forgotten the permanent display there called “Footsteps in Time.” There I saw reproductions of so many of the fossils shown in the course–Lucy, the Taung Child, the Black Skull, samples of Oldowan tools, and best of all, a plaster of the Laetoli steps. It was, wow, these are like old friends–I know about each of them. Then I read the recent article in the New York Times about obtaining DNA from a 300,000 year old hominid and was able to read it intelligently and could place it in the context of the complexity of our evolution that was discussed in class.
Win. Win. Win.
As a academic professionals, I think it is extremely important to be aware of the potentially corrosive aspects of making higher education passive and online. I think these fears can be dealt with responsibly, however, to generate something that produces a net benefit not only to its students, but also to the professional community associated with the study of human evolution.
Take Advantage of the Properties of a Truly Massive Classroom
My final goal was to take advantage of having a truly LARGE classroom. Evolution is all about variation. Human evolution is all about variation in humans. The variation you can sample out of a class of 20 students, even a diverse institution like Wellesley College, is limited. The diversity you can sample out of students logging in from 172 different countries?…that is much larger. And potentially a great tool for teaching evolution! Each week my students had the opportunity to answer questions about themselves. Basic, simple (and at times a bit odd) questions, but questions that represent some of the variability we express as humans in how we look, what we do, and how we interact with the world around us.
This is a goal that will really only be fully realized in the course’s second iteration. The EdX platform is still maturing, and in its present form, did not make it easy for me to quickly and easily access student response data. But I will get to those data eventually. And I think the results will be interesting…
I feel very good about the first iteration of 207x. I will be writing more about it over the coming weeks and months, but my initial response is quite positive (despite the fact that the original production of the course, on an extremely compressed timeframe, was quite stressful). There are a lot of questions higher ed institutions need to face about MOOCs, the most significant being what is the intended goal and do the costs and benefits justify that end. There are also questions for academics (e.g. how can these courses be conducted in an ethical and beneficial way to the profession as a whole?). And while I remain deeply skeptical and critical of the notion that MOOCs might “replace” traditional higher ed teaching, my view that MOOCs can generate positive value has been reinforced.