The Washington Post

Reporter tries a University of Virginia MOOC

Alas, I busted my deadline. As I write this, my assignment was due 13 hours ago.

In this case, I was not late in filing a story for The Washington Post. Rather, I failed the other day to complete by 11:59 p.m. a weekly quiz for an online course I am taking called “The Modern World: Global History since 1760.”

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.

Sometimes I work faster by speeding the lectures to 1.25 times the normal pace or even 1.5 times. (Note: This useful speed-up button doesn’t show up on some browsers.) It is also possible to read transcripts of the lectures.

Do I have to do more than watch the lectures? No. Should I? Maybe. I paid CourseSmart $26.48 for a six-month rental of an electronic version of a textbook Zelikow strongly recommends called “Patterns of World History: Since 1750.” I’ve glanced at it a couple times, via an app on my iPad, and hope to read it more. But demands of work, family and other interests induce me to cut corners.

The quizzes are tricky, but not too tough. Twenty questions, multiple choice, once a week. I don't give them too much effort. I make a fair number of educated guesses. It is essential to have watched the lectures because the questions delve into a high degree of factual detail. I don’t want to be a spoiler for those who might take these quizzes in weeks to come. Suffice it to say that you might lose a point, or a fraction of a point, if you can’t recall the particulars of manufacture and commerce in one part of the world, or of military confrontations in another.

It’s nice to get instant feedback. You only get once chance to submit a quiz for a score. But the score comes back right away. If I average at least 65 percent I’ll get a statement of accomplishment. If I average 85 percent or better I’ll pass with a “distinguished” notation. Under the course rules, I can submit quizzes after the deadline. For each day late, my score gets docked 5 percent.

There are zero stakes here other than my own ego. But most of us are fascinated by quiz scores, right? So I’ll confess that I do take note of each fraction of a point that I miss. On Jan. 29, for example, I got 18.55 points on the Week 3 quiz out of a possible 20, stumbling on a couple questions about the Napoleonic era.

The students are inspiring. I’m one of 47,000 who signed up for this course. Through Zelikow, I posted a query on a discussion board asking students to e-mail me about their experiences. I’ll write another item on that soon. But I thank and salute the many who replied to the query. Among them: Konstantin from Kiev, Ukraine; Anne from Vienna via England; Sandra from Germany; Pamela from Brazil; and Richard from Mansfield, Pa. How and why adults pursue lifelong education is an important topic that we education writers too often ignore. Clearly the appetite for learning is huge. One wonders whether colleges and universities, especially those with public funding, should do far more to sate it.

The professor matters. I’m not really trying to butter up Zelikow. My grade in this course will be totally objective. And of course there are plenty of great books and classes on modern world history available elsewhere.

But it is striking that without paying a dime in tuition, I can study global history from an eminent professor at a world-class university who has been a player himself in the upper levels of U.S. government. Zelikow was on the National Security Council staff of President George H.W. Bush; he is on President Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board; he served on the same board under President George W. Bush; he was executive director of the 9/11 Commission; and, in brief, he did some other important stuff.

All of that comes to mind when you’re watching his lectures. Zelikow projects an air of authority and ease with the material, like he’s telling you about the modern world not just as a detached scholar but as an active participant in its affairs.

Example from his first lecture in Week 6: “We’re going to start with a little talk about the age of imperialism. I wish I could promise you that this is going to involve great tales of derring-do and heroic action. Unfortunately, it probably will not be quite that interesting. In fact, parts of this whole story are really pretty dreadful.”

Now, I’d better take that quiz.

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