Columbia historian Eric Foner is giving his lectures to the public -- and to posterity — through a free MOOC.

Historians in the News
tags: MOOC, Eric Foner, Columbia

... “Like any theatrical production, a lecture is not forever. You perform, and it’s gone. At some point I realized that I wanted to preserve a little bit of this.”

That’s how Foner describes his decision to turn his Civil War lectures into an online course that is now available to anyone with an Internet connection, for free, on the distance-learning site edX. After thirty years at Columbia, Foner decided a couple of years ago that he would wind down his teaching and retire in 2016. And as he prepared to teach his signature course for the final time last spring, he realized that he wasn’t ready to consign his lectures to history.

“Teaching is actually what I spend more time on than writing,” says Foner, the author or editor of twenty-four books, including The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for history. “When you do it well, I think you can reach people in a very direct and powerful way.”

In the summer of 2013, Foner approached a team of Columbia multimedia specialists about the prospect of documenting his lectures. His request was simple: record them and post them online for anyone to watch. The specialists, based at the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL), had a more ambitious idea. They had recently begun working with a handful of Columbia professors to create the University’s first massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which are free Web-based courses that enroll enormous numbers of people, sometimes tens of thousands or more. MOOCs had become popular rather suddenly the year before and represented a radical experiment in higher education. Whereas online courses offered by colleges and universities previously had enrolled no more than a few hundred students at a time, thus allowing students to have personal contact with their instructors, albeit over e-mail or video-conference, MOOCs were too big for that: students in a MOOC could expect to communicate with an instructor only in chatrooms open to thousands of people and to be evaluated by computerized multiple-choice tests. Few colleges give academic credit for taking MOOCs. The upside is that huge numbers of students get access to a top-notch professor, typically from an elite university, who leads them on a semester-long intellectual journey that in many ways mirrors the experience of taking a traditional college course.

“If you can’t afford college, or if you’re simply curious what it’s like to enter an Ivy League classroom, now you can do it,” says Maurice Matiz, the director of CCNMTL. “There is a profound democratizing effect here.” ...

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