I signed up for this free class, from University of Virginia Professor Philip Zelikow, to help my reporting for a story on how Zelikow is using online lectures not only to teach masses of adult learners from around the world but also to improve how he teaches U-Va. students in person.
This massive open online course, known as a MOOC, happens to be offered via the Web site Coursera. That MOOC platform and others, such as edX and Udacity, have emerged recently and drawn huge worldwide interest.
So what is it like to take a MOOC?
This is actually my fifth. Previously, I signed up for Coursera classes in biostatistics from Johns Hopkins University (which I never attempted because the math was way over my head), modern and contemporary American poetry from the University of Pennsylvania (which I merely gave a glance while reporting a story) and genetics and evolution from Duke University (ditto). On edX, I signed up for a class in circuits and electronics from a professor named Anant Agarwal at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I didn’t do any of that work, either, but it did help me understand what Agarwal, who is president of edX, and his colleagues are up to.
“The Modern World,” a 14-week class, sounded fun and accessible for a generalist/journalist. So I’m giving it a go. Here are some impressions:
●The material is absorbing. I’m a history buff, but I know way too little about parts of the world that aren’t the United States or Europe. This course, as advertised, gives a global perspective. One lecture I watched recently touched on the failure of Napoleon III to build a lasting outpost of the French empire in Mexico in the mid-19th century; battles in Polynesia between the British and the native Maori for control of what is now New Zealand; the ability of the Kingdom of Siam (with a nod to the musical “The King and I”) to maintain independence even as its rulers adapted to Western influences; a major Indian mutiny against British colonial rule in the 1850s; and bloody civil wars in China, Japan and the United States during this epoch. (Fascinating: A 19th-century image of Japanese Emperor Meiji in Western-style haircut and medal-bedecked uniform.) Zelikow weaves an analytical thread through all of these disparate events that ties them together.
●The work requires discipline but is not too demanding. You have to watch the lectures, and it’s good to watch them in sequence because one idea builds on another. The pioneering naturalist Charles Darwin is introduced in week four in a 17-minute lecture on scientific and technological innovations of the early 19th century. He pops up again in week five in a 15-minute lecture on the zenith of liberalism, as Zelikow traces the broad cultural influence of Darwin’s theory of evolution. I watch on my laptop at home, my iPad in a coffee shop, and sometimes my desktop at work. Week five’s lectures totaled a bit more than 123 minutes.