Flipping the Narrative on MOOCs in the Nation’s Largest University System

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Christopher Endy is professor of history at California State University, Los Angeles, and is the author of Cold War Holidays: American Tourism in France (University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

Bridget Ford is associate professor of history at California State University, East Bay. Her book, Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland, is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press in Spring 2016.

Bridget Ford is associate professor of history at California State University, East Bay. Her book, Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland, is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press in Spring 2016.

For California State University faculty, the year 2013 might count as our “annus horribilis.” With the state budget still a victim of the Great Recession, growing numbers of anxious students crowded into decaying classrooms. On some campuses, class sizes had doubled in the three years since 2010. Faculty were exhausted from years of trying to do more with less. Then it got worse. In early 2013, university presidents and trustees for our 23-campus system extolled our supposed saviors: star professors from Stanford and the Ivy League, representing Udacity and edX, whose massive open online courses (MOOCs) would cheaply and effectively teach California’s public university students. Contracts had been inked, and rhapsodic press conferences held, declaring a new era in public higher education and a solution to the gross mismatch between the state’s financial means and the lofty ambition to give all Californians access to high-quality college degrees.

Though the most visible struggles between purveyors of MOOCs and our regular faculty played out at San Jose State University, in the Departments of Philosophy, Math, and Engineering, those of us in CSU history departments watched with keen interest. Historians still suffer from the stereotype that our intellectual gift is the ability to memorize names and dates. If one accepts that fallacy, as many well-meaning people do, what field could be more amenable to video lectures from star professors? Moreover, throughout our 23-campus system, historians teach classes that every CSU student must take to graduate. Thanks to state law and a 1961 CSU policy, no student can graduate from a Cal State institution without passing a U.S. history survey. With 460,000 students in our system, the student demand (or to some, the “market opportunity”) is immense. Even mid-sized history departments, such as those at Cal State East Bay and Cal State Los Angeles, might teach more than 2,000 students a year in their two-course U.S. history survey sequence. In 2013, with MOOCs commanding so much attention in higher education, many CSU historians had reason to worry that these mainstay courses might be contracted out. Still more dispiriting news came in spring 2013: the CSU Chancellor’s Office labeled U.S. history survey classes “high-demand and low-success bottlenecks.” This was because more than one-fifth of CSU students enrolled in the survey earned a failing grade or withdrew from the class.

A CSU Historians’ Movement

Historians like to complicate narratives, of course, and that’s what happened next. In response to the challenges of 2013, a cohort of CSU history professors started to rescript the debate. Taking stock of the considerable teaching innovation already underway in CSU history departments, they demonstrated how modest investments in faculty course redesign projects could generate effective new versions of the U.S. survey. These redesigned surveys focus on active learning, team-based projects, learning communities, and academic skill-building though scaffolded exercises. Technology plays a role too, although the focus is on using digital tools to increase the time available for face-to-face interaction. All the while, this project has preserved faculty autonomy. While this new CSU historians’ movement shares common principles, individual faculty still design and control their own classes. Rather than turn to for-profit businesses and star professors captured on streaming video, the CSU historians’ movement has shown that the answer lies in student-centered pedagogy created by the professors who best know the diverse, wonderful, but often poorly-prepared CSU student body.

The push for MOOCs rested in part on the flawed assumption that tenured faculty worked in some kind of time capsule—teaching as if it were 1913 rather than 2013 and lecturing with little to no student involvement. Even through the hard recession years, faculty development centers on CSU campuses, and especially at East Bay and Los Angeles, served as vital seedbeds encouraging innovation and experimentation in the classroom. Not surprisingly, many CSU faculty have long been innovators in student engagement pedagogy, though large U.S. history survey courses had not usually been at the center of these efforts.

CSU historians began to focus more on the U.S. survey in mid-2013 when Governor Jerry Brown and the State Legislature designated some $10 million in funds “to reduce the number of bottleneck courses using innovative online technologies.” The CSU Chancellor’s Office made a significant portion of this funding directly available to CSU faculty (tenure track and otherwise) to “redesign” their courses, while remaining agnostic about what kinds of technology or formats (online, hybrid, or face-to-face) might best suit our particular classes.

Two faculty teams, one at Cal State East Bay and one at Cal State Los Angeles, separately applied for and received a very modest share of these funds and embarked on a year of “course redesign with technology” for the U.S. history surveys. After a year of sustained work through 2013–2014, the two teams, each comprised of three professors, met for the first time. We realized that our missions proved strikingly similar. We shared our project with historians across the CSU and found that our project struck a chord. As a result, our U.S. survey redesigns have become the basis for a wider movement within the CSU system to rethink a course that poses a stumbling block to many students on their path to a college degree.

In just over a year, our course redesign movement has brought together thirty-one historians from fifteen CSU campuses. The past two summers, we have sequestered ourselves in hotel conference rooms for intense week-long institutes. We share teaching strategies over workshops, meals, and the occasional happy hour. With each meeting, a growing number of long-term adjunct instructors have joined our group. Adjunct involvement is crucial because they are the primary teachers of the survey at many campuses. The CSU Chancellor’s Office has helpfully covered travel costs, and they have encouraged us to disseminate our work through online “e-portfolios.”[1] But the central CSU leadership has also respected traditional faculty freedom to determine the best methods for improving student learning in the U.S. history survey. 

Gateway Courses

Our collective experience as faculty suggests that CSU students struggle in the U.S. history survey because so many lack basic skills in reading, note taking, and essay writing. Our numerous commuter students also juggle work, family, and classes and often lack peer support networks on campus. Not least, many students assume that history is irrelevant to their lives. Even our most talented professors see the drift following midterm exams, when classroom attendance dwindles. Students who fare poorly on midterms aren’t sure where to turn or how to improve, and few CSUs provide teaching assistants or separate discussions to catch failing students. As a result, the long leash of the large lecture course frays and finally breaks for nearly a quarter of our students.

Recognizing the flaws of the large lecture format, we did not see compelling evidence that technology per se offered a cure for limited reading and comprehension skills among our students. We doubted the ability of wholly online classes, even those with traditional-sized enrollment, to meet the needs of students working to build both scholarly skills and confidence in their ability to succeed in college. Moreover, some of the digital “tools” attached to textbooks seem to distract from close reading and analysis, or worse, take us back to fact-centered narratives that students must memorize. Few mass-market teaching products center on the document-based, interpretive approaches we want students to practice. Students need to develop these analytical skills early, and to practice them often, so that they can both understand historical thinking and prepare for their more advanced university work. At the CSUs, our U.S. history survey courses should be inculcating such habits, thereby serving as “gateway” classes for our students.

We thus took a somewhat old-school approach in calling for sustained, collaborative, active learning in the U.S. history survey classroom, incorporating new technology to support rather than replace face-to-face learning. In the main, these strategies borrow from team-based learning practices as well as supplemental instruction pedagogies. Studies show that these long-standing strategies improve student learning and comprehension.[2] Enhanced use of learning management systems such as Blackboard and Moodle supplement in-class work by helping identify students who do poorly on early quizzes and smaller assignments or who fail to access online materials. Simple outreach—even via digital communication—seems to have a significant effect for students who might feel anonymous or helpless in large classes. Beyond stressing better collaborative work, and better sustained active learning assignments, we have not prescribed certain technologies, preferring to leave decisions about where students read historical materials or which platforms of communication are used to individual faculty.

Particularly important for CSU students, working in teams helps build skills and mutual support through peer learning. Some of us pursue group-based teaching through multi-week games and simulations, letting students work in teams to role-play delegates at the U.S. Constitutional Convention, for instance. Other faculty divide their survey classes into semester-long learning communities and employ advanced history majors as “near-peer” facilitators. These advanced student facilitators serve in the classroom alongside the professor while the regular student teams work through guided exercises in interpreting historical sources and writing argumentative essays. In our CSU-wide project, no two surveys are exactly alike, but they share a focus on reducing lecture and increasing active learning and peer instruction.

This is not to say that the traditional lecture has met its demise: students still can learn from a well-told story that draws attention to big ideas. Short lectures can also provide context required for an active-learning exercise. But students desperately need the smaller conversations too, with their peers and with faculty, to draw meaningful conclusions and to practice the interpretive skills required on exams and writing assignments. They need structured space to bring all the disparate elements of the survey course together: primary and secondary source readings, lectures, and discussions among them. Left to their own devices (machines and otherwise), our students struggle to pull materials into a coherent whole. Smaller face-to-face conversations make such complex intellectual work feasible in the lower-division U.S. survey course.

A Renewed Purpose

As we adapt the digital revolution in higher education to our U.S. history survey courses, we have enjoyed freedom to choose what works best for our field, and we have been able to build upon our existing strengths as teachers. This last point is worth emphasizing, for as we have carefully sorted through all of the digital innovations from publishers and “edtech” companies, we recommitted ourselves to our original legislative mandate from 1961, which is to “ensure that students acquire knowledge and skills that will help them to comprehend the workings of American democracy and of the society in which they live to enable them to contribute to that society as responsible and constructive citizens.” While this might sound like standard civics boilerplate, our official mandate has a breath-taking scope and relevance.

Thinking about this problem, we arrived at one sharp conclusion: We feel more strongly than ever that the U.S. history survey course should not become an exclusively online course. If our purpose is to teach “responsible and constructive” citizenship, this ideally happens in the face-to-face classroom. CSU classrooms represent some of the most diverse college classrooms in the nation, and perhaps in the history of higher education. In our classrooms, students recognize and negotiate that diversity. In the way that we have designed our coursework, students construct knowledge of the past and visions of the future together. Our students also directly reflect the porous and historically constructed nature of citizenship itself. Negotiating knowledge and truth in the face-to-face U.S. history classroom becomes the very essence of citizenship. It would seem a profound loss to transform this class into an exclusively digital format, where thumbnail images and asynchronous message boards fail to convey the nuance of identity and the range of human difference and beauty.

Our U.S. history survey classes demand revivification now. They demand more creativity than ever before, indeed, to compete with the lures of technology. Our lower-division classrooms must be vibrant, social places—and the vibrancy should not come from the professor alone. We just don’t exist in that kind of world anymore. Moreover, if our classes continue to pose a stumbling block to students on their path to graduation, our departments may pay a steep price. For students as well as for our broader public constituencies, we have to demonstrate our field’s great value in teaching the very skills colleges want to inculcate: analysis, creativity, and communication.

Preliminary data on our redesigned survey courses is encouraging. We can report a halving of the student failure rate in our courses. More assessment will be necessary, but these strategies seem to pull a good many failing students back from the brink. So far, getting much below a five-percent failure rate for large classes seems impossible, but that is well below our original twenty- to twenty-five percent rate.

As a final note, the California State University system and its large student body—close to half a million strong—may be the true canary-in-the-coal-mine for public higher education, far more than our illustrious sister institution, the University of California. With more than four times the number of students than the UC system, we confer the vast majority of college degrees in the state. If the U.S. history survey courses go by the wayside, so too do our departments. As a profession, we would produce less scholarship, hire fewer new Ph.D.s, and train fewer B.A. and M.A. students. Our academic community would shrink considerably. That eventuality seems far-fetched in this moment, but only because we are working so hard to make our U.S. history survey courses vital to our universities and to democracy in California.

[1] For e-portfolios, see:

Cal State East Bay model

Cal State Los Angeles model

[2] For a useful overview of scholarship, see Elizabeth F. Barkley, Clare Howell Major, and K. Patrica Cross, Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014).

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