With a $50,000 grant from Google, four Cornell professors will transform their class into a massive open online course, or MOOC, enabling them to offer the course to countless students worldwide for free, according to the University.
The course, ‘Six Pretty Good Books: Explorations in Social Science,’ is taught by Prof. Stephen Ceci, human development, Prof. Jefferson Cowie, labor history, Prof. Jeffrey Hancock, communication and Prof. Michael Macy, sociology.
According to Macy, because of its integration of technology and emphasis on student participation, the course is already well-suited to become a MOOC.
“We already use Skype to allow students to meet with the authors of the books,” he said. “And we have developed a system for peer assessment to help students recognize their strengths and weaknesses in their ability to articulate their understanding of the books.”
Although the University has recently decided that it will join a MOOC consortium in the near future, Google will support — both financially and technologically — the MOOC version of Six Pretty Good Books, Macy said. The course will be offered online through Google’s Course Builder platform, according to a University press release.
According to Provost Kent Fuchs, after submitting a winning proposal to Google, the Cornell professors were granted the funds to enable them to rework their course into a MOOC.
“I’m really pleased that these faculty put in the effort to write a winning proposal to Google,” Fuchs said. “This is a wonderful opportunity to share the … University course with the world.”
The course is part of the University Courses initiative, a series of classes designed to teach students to think from the perspectives of multiple disciplines, according to Macy.
“The course was the original model for the University Courses [initiative] created in 2010 … which called for courses that involve team teaching across disciplines that might provide a more unified and shared educational experience for Cornell undergraduates regardless of major,” Macy said.
Emily Decicco ’16, who took the course last semester, highlighted the importance of using technology in lectures.
“The author was projected on a giant screen in front of you [on Skype] and you got to ask him or her your personal questions about the book, which is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “Sure, you could email them, but to Skype in with New York Times’ best-selling authors is unbelievable.”
According to Macy, the course is modeled after ‘Great Books’ courses offered in the humanities; however, unlike the humanities courses, the books examined in this course are contemporary.
“[The books] are highly engaging, thought-provoking, accessible, important, and written by some of the world’s most prominent and influential social scientists and science writers, including Steven Pinker, Duncan Watts, Robert Frank, Nicholas Christakis, Malcolm Gladwell and Dan Ariely,” Macy said.
Decicco said that the course’s books intrigued and entertained her.
“The books you read are books that you would choose to read in your free time,” she said. “To get an academic perspective on it — from so many different people and the actual authors — added so much to the books and made the course unlike any other.”
Decicco said that as a MOOC — with a potentially massive and diverse enrollment — the course would offer the students who enroll an enhanced academic and learning experience.
“The course would lend itself well [as a MOOC], because I think the more opinions and different types of people with different interests that you can get into discussions is huge,” Decicco said. “The books we read would really lend well to that kind of discussion.”
According to Macy, most MOOCs to date have been in technical fields such as computer science or math. Macy said that he hopes and expects to see more courses in the humanities and social sciences.
“We hope to blaze the trail for more courses to follow, both at Cornell and elsewhere, especially in the social sciences,” he said. “Google has transformed the ability of humans across the planet to find the answers to questions, and I think they see MOOCs as an important new contribution to that mission.”
In a Forbes piece published January, President David Skorton said that “by providing free access to anyone with an Internet connection, MOOCs facilitate the dissemination of knowledge to unprecedented numbers of people.”