Set to go live, Wellesley 207x and questions of scale…

In two days, Wellesley 207x – Introduction to Human Evolution, will go live. The course is the culmination of a fairly frenzied amount of work over the past three months, and I am excited to see that work actually reach an audience. With the course on the verge of that threshold though, I find myself thinking all the more about the scale of my audience. The course currently has approximately 18,000 students registered. Is that a big number or a small number?

From the “big” ledger:

  • In my 7+ years of teaching (two at the University of Michigan, five+ here at Wellesley College), I estimate that I have taught approximately 1000 students. So this class, in one semester, gives me a chance to increase my student audience by nearly a factor of 20. That seems big.
  • If I remain at Wellesley College for the remainder of my career (~30 years) and continue to teach a student load roughly equivalent to what I have so far, that would give me access to about 3,500 students. So in one semester, I might teach five times as many students as I will have the opportunity to teach in my entire career here at Wellesley College. Again, that seems big.
  • Wellesley 207x is running in conjunction with my on-campus seminar, Anthropology 207, with the two courses integrated in several ways. The ratio of students in the on-campus seminar to the on-line course is approximately 1:1275. Yet again, that seems huge.

From the “not so big” ledger:

  • I am a rabid baseball fan, with my allegiance falling with Cleveland (having grown up on both the East and West-sides of Cleveland). Cleveland has one of the worst attendance records in the league, averaging a paltry 19,252 paid attendance. In other words, more people pay to see one of the least supported baseball teams in the country, each game (and MLB teams play 81 home games!), than are registered for my course. That makes the enrollment seem small. Ubaldo Jimenez, in his 15 home starts, will have “reached” an audience vastly larger than my course.
  • My graduate alma mater, the University of Michigan, has an undergraduate enrollment of about 25,000 students. So my course will reach fewer people than the number of undergraduate students housed at just one public University in the country. Again, that seems small.
  • A 2005/2006 Pew survey of views on evolution in the United States founds that 42% of Americans think that living things on the planet have always existed in their current form. Assuming the survey is accurate and only adults (age 18+) are considered, this means that approximately 100,000,000 people in this country don’t acknowledge the reality of evolution. That number really makes my course enrollment seem small.

Regardless of whether it is big or small, 18,000 students are 18,000 students. It is a larger classroom to talk about issues of human diversity and evolution than I have ever had before, and hopefully one that will generate rich discussion. If even 1,000 students exit the course with an improved understanding of and greater interest in human evolution, I will consider it a massive success. It is also not too late to sign-up if you want to add to that number.

About Adam Van Arsdale

I am biological anthropologist with a specialization in paleoanthropology. My research focuses on the pattern of evolutionary change in humans over the past two million years, with an emphasis on the early evolution and dispersal of our genus, Homo. My work spans a number of areas including comparative anatomy, genetics and demography.
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One Response to Set to go live, Wellesley 207x and questions of scale…

  1. Skyler says:

    How is that poll result even possible? How can education fail so miserably? I ask this, but then again, as I type this parents are campaigning to stop Kansas’ new science standards, claiming we should only be teaching students about “God’s creation”, and that we’re “indoctrinating” them against a “theistic worldview”. It is scary stuff, but thankfully the tide seems to be turning (albeit slowly) in favor of reason and science. Hopefully this turn will lead to a more knowledgeable, compassionate world.

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