Thursday, June 13, 2013
My Summer MOOC: Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets
I was delighted to learn that Dr. Sue Alcock would be offering a short MOOC this summer on Coursera's platform. Dr. Alcock, a renowned classical archaeologist and gifted teacher, directs the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown. The course, "Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets" is well-suited to the MOOC mode. Archaeologists have long been experts at public outreach, in part because their work is expensive to fund and very frequently depends on private donations. As well, because they work on material culture, on stuff, their work is of far more general interest than, say, analyses of Vergilian metrics. It is also a good course to run in the summer, when the teaching team is at work on their sites scattered around the world. Besides introducing takers to some of the basic concepts of archaeological study, it is sure to inspire wanderlust!
The course is well-designed, not least because it doesn't even try to be a college-level course. It does very well what it is trying to do: provide outreach to the general community; inform the public about some of the major issues at play in cultural preservation; raise awareness about (and, perhaps, funds for) Pompeii--an amazing site that the Italian government is letting fall into ruin; and give users a sense of what academic archaeology is all about and perhaps encourage them to take a real class at some point. This course reminds me very much of the free lecture series that my department does from time to time for (mostly) retired adults. It is meant to generate interest and provide an intellectually satisfying experience. It is not meant to be a credit-bearing course even if it is full of interesting content.
As an aside, I wonder if part of the frustration and confusion about outreach efforts like "Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets" is the fact that they are presented like actual, credit-bearing courses: there is a syllabus; assignments are due on particular days; there are quizzes; there is a professor lecturing on content. Users are called students. Certainly, some MOOCs really are designed to replace a credit-bearing course, particularly in math and CS. In the humanities, however, they are generally not intended to do so. Dr. Alcock's course certainly isn't--it's a shell of a course she taught for credit on the Brown campus and lacks much of the serious content and assessment that her for-credit course surely had. That's not to say that the MOOC version is bad--in fact, it's a fantastic introduction to archaeology and the ethics of cultural preservation; and a great way to raise public awareness about the need to preserve such sites at a time when so many are being destroyed in North Africa and the Middle East.
So, some great things about this MOOC: first, it is not especially lecture based. Each unit does have about 30 minutes of lecture from Dr. Alcock, but it is not the centerpiece of the unit. The unit also involves demonstrations from Dr. Alcock, informal in tone and held in her very messy office. There are conversations with various young faculty/postdocs about their own projects; and, finally, short slideshows about selected topics done by the teaching team. This last feature, "Peoples, Places, Things" is my favorite and is something I am going to steal and integrate into my own hybrid (and, eventually, online) class. The integration of different voices, different faces, is a big plus for the course (and, interestingly, is a tactic used by one of the few women chosen to use the Coursera platform). I also liked that there are options for each assignment, ranging from writing an essay to interviewing friends and family to a more hands-on exercise. Many people won't take the time to do these assignments, but they are well-conceived and a fantastic way to get users to engage (and another thing I am going to use to inspire my ongoing development of such activities in my own class).
There is amazing content in the course and it models some effective ways to teach material culture to undergraduates. It lays out the major questions that any Intro to Archaeology course ought to include. At the same time, the mode--a MOOC--means that it is a struggle to support the kind of engaged student to student interaction as well as instructor to student interaction that really pushes individual students to engage with the big questions on their own terms, with push back from content experts. There is a discussion board and it has some interesting threads on it. Overall, though, the board is used primarily for procedural questions. It's a challenge to get students to discuss in a face to face classroom. That challenge is magnified many times over on a discussion board--especially a discussion board for thousands of students from a wide range of backgrounds. Dr. Alcock opts for an informal tone that works for her. She comes off as smart, goofy, and accessible. Yet, ultimately, she's not accessible. I can't knock on her office door and have a conversations with her because she's in Petra, working on her research--as she informed me in a recent email.
All to say, this course is a wonderfully conceived way of using the Coursera platform to accomplish a range of important and useful objectives--none of which were to offer a course that replaced a credit-bearing course. The motivated student will have a great time learning about archaeology and engaging in the various activities conceived by Dr. Alcock and her teaching team. They might even have some productive discussions with others in the discussion forum. At the same time, it is important to reiterate the point that this is not a college-level course on ancient archaeology. Rather, it's a kind of teaser that, ideally, will encourage students to take such a course at campuses around them. It might also encourage the general public to understand why archaeology matters and be more inclined to support the funding of preservation and research projects.