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The Blotted Line | Shakespeare and MOOCs

By August 14, 2013 No Comments

MOOC BUSTERS! (Jeffrey Kahan, 8/14/2013)

We have all been hearing about MOOCS for a while now; many Shakespeare professors seem to live in absolute fear of the concept.  An evil spectral presence hovers, and we, the aging clerisy, are out of holy water.  Who ya gonna call? MOOC BUSTERS!

To learn more about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), I am enrolled in one.  My choice was a course about using video game concepts in marketing. (At the time of enrollment, I knew nothing about video games and nothing about marketing.)  The course was taught by a UPenn professor and, in virtually (no pun intended) every aspect, I was impressed by the materials and delivery.  Each class had a long video (anachronism, but you follow) with a variety of modular concepts.  I liked the multicultural aspect of the MOOC class.  It was interesting and fun to participate in online discussions with people from all over the world. 

Is Shakespeare MOOC-ready?  One big-name school, Harvard, is offering a Shakespeare MOOC, albeit, at this point, for noncredit through its Extension.  Across the pond, the British Shakespeare Association embraces (or at least states only happy thoughts concerning) the concept, and many British universities, as announced in Times Higher Education (December, 14, 2012), are offering or are about to offer MOOCs, including:

University of Birmingham
University of Bristol
Cardiff University
University of East Anglia
University of Exeter
King’s College, University of London
Lancaster University
University of Leeds
The Open University
University of Southampton
University of St Andrews
University of Warwick

It’s yet unclear which, if any, of these institutions will offer Shakespeare in MOOC form, or if the offerings will be accredited, but, clearly, we are wandering into a brave new world….

Even at my small, private and, as of this writing, MOOC-less university, MOOCs have forced me to reassess my uses of tech in the classroom. It’s not that I don’t already use tech.  Personal computers, online journals, e-quizes, powerpoint, film and sound clips, photocopies—that’s all tech.  (BTW, I stopped handing out course outlines.   I just post on Blackboard, and the students download them to their phones.)  And lest we forget, even books are tech!  True, I’m not up on every tech trend; so I don’t twitter or spend my day staring at an iPhone.  If that makes me a Luddite, then lud-y-duh.

Still, with some training, I could do it. But would it be worth doing?  Are Shakespeare Studies and MOOCs suited for each other?  That’s hard to say without attempting the form, but my knee-jerk opinion is that the content is fundamentally MOOC-proof. Shakespeare is quintessentially interactive; live theater (or even films based on scripts meant for live theater) cannot be engaged meaningfully by way of an online quiz.  Discussion boards can help, but the number of people in a MOOC makes moderation and specific, detailed commentary virtually impossible. 

Sure, if you just want to learn a bit about Shakespeare for fun, a MOOC might work, but you might get more out of just going to the theater a few times or reading the plays yourself or, better yet, reading them with a few friends.  In terms of university teaching, sitting in a room with 25 (or less!) students, entering into debates on the plays and poems, still works.

Then again, horses worked pretty well; that didn’t halt the coming of the car. Given the recent spate of entry-level digital humanities jobs and the sudden proliferation of MOOCs, the future of the profession is as self-evident as it is ruthless, vast, and gloomy.   

Or maybe not….

In many ways, my MOOC experience was not unlike the auditorium-filled survey course I took as an undergrad. I had ZERO opportunity to engage with my professor in BRITISH LITERATURE SURVEY I.  Is a MOOC so very different? 

That’s not a rhetorical question.  Your answer, I am thinking, might depend on your age, socioeconomic situation, or personality.  I’d love to hear from you!  Would you prefer taking a traditional Shakespeare course, or would an online experience with a capped and manageable number of students suit, or would a full-on MOOC work for you?  Perhaps you have already taken a Shakespeare MOOC.  Would you kindly share your thoughts?

As always, if you have something odd or unfamiliar to share or promoted, drop me, Jeffrey Kahan, a line at, subject line: The Blotted Line.

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